“The Battleship of Maine” is a sweetly elegiac memoir of a father, a family genealogy, an homage to old American folk music, and a glimpse of a forgotten upstate New York universe. Jordan Smith is a fine poet and an old friend (see a selection of his poems published earlier on these pages) also a musician and a story writer. He teaches at Union College in Schenectady, has won fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Ingram Merrill Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts, and has published six books of poetry including An Apology for Loving the Old Hymns (Princeton University Press) and Lucky Seven (Wesleyan University Press). His newest book, just out, is The Light in the Film (University of Tampa Press). It’s wonderful to have him back.
Author photo credit/copyright to Charlotte Lehman (firstname.lastname@example.org)
I was driving on the New York Thruway from Rochester to Schenectady, and I was listening on the iPod to a compilation by The New Lost City Ramblers, which may already tell you more than you want to know about me. The song was “The Battleship of Maine,” about the Spanish American War, originally recorded by Red Patterson’s Piedmont Log Rollers, and it reminded me, for the first time in years, that my great-uncle Harry St. John had been a doctor in the army during that war. He had lived on South Avenue in Rochester, a few blocks from Highland Hospital, where I had just been arranging hospice care for my father, about to be discharged with what would surely become respiratory failure, although no one knew when. My father was ninety-three. Great-uncle Harry had also lived into his nineties. I hadn’t managed to spot his house on my drives to and from the hospital, but I remembered the oak floors and frames around the doors, the window seat, the hair-drier chairs in the back room he rented to a beauty salon, a chest of toys. Best of all, I remember that he and my great-aunt gave me the run of the place, although I was only seven or so, talked to me as if I were an intelligent and responsible person, and always gave me books for my birthday. I couldn’t have loved them more. And I remember, or think I do, seeing his uniform, a cap and a dress sword and maybe a jacket. I wasn’t old enough to know the questions I should have asked.
I’ve traveled—hitching, in my college years; driving cars, from a ’68 Rambler American to a Prius—across western and central New York over and over, on the Thruway, on Route 31 (“Pray for Me, I Drive Route 31” was a bumper-sticker I spotted on a truck once), or the pretty roads, farther south, that make up New York Routes 5 and 20. Whatever road I’ve been on, it has always seemed more like a journey through history than like driving to a destination. There were the yellow and blue historical markers that the state put up, and where my father would sometimes stop for a quick lesson in what had happened here. There were old locks from the Erie Canal, the decorated mansions of the solid nineteenth century and the equally distinctive plain houses of the canal towns, there were parking lots where battlefields had been and a tree at the site of a massacre. Though my father was the only son of an only son, there were branches and side-branches of his family all through the Catskills, where they had worked on the New York Ontario and Western Railroad (the “Old and Weary,” known for poor maintenance, sloppy management, and train crashes, some featuring my ancestors), taught school, farmed, joined the DAR, ran a country store, played the mandolin. I didn’t have much of this in narrative form, only in brief anecdotes, so recalling it was like looking at the box of nineteenth-century photographs in the cellar and wishing someone had thought to write the names on the backs.
The next song on the cd was “We’ve Got Franklin D. Roosevelt Back Again.” My father would have approved of its anti-prohibition sentiment, but he never, to put it mildly, approved of Roosevelt, and I learned better than to speak highly of the New Deal in his presence. My politics came from what we’ve come to call in my family “the big red history book,” a pictorial history of America with cartoons by Nast, maps and woodcuts, Hearst’s front page announcing the explosion of the Maine, photographs of the American invasion of the Philippines, Teddy Roosevelt’s big stick, FDR at Yalta. It also had, I realized when I reread it later and when the ideological work had already been irredeemably done, a distinctly leftist, or at least liberal Democratic cast, and reading it set me at variance with my father, probably for good. My mother had bought the book, but I think it pleased her because a family friend had once met the author (or was it his father?), and because it was printed on the thin, going-to-yellow paper of the years after the world war. I am not sure what her politics were, exactly. Like my father, she always voted Republican, but she entirely repudiated the prejudices that were part of his heritage. Over his strong objections, she worked as a volunteer at the Baden Street Settlement House in the Joseph Avenue neighborhood. Once the home of her German family, and then Jewish, it had become the heart of the African-American community, and it would explode, like similar neighborhoods in other cities in the long hot summer of 1964, events that fired my father’s racial anxieties. She took me there once, along with an older boy, to play trumpet duets for her preschoolers, and she enrolled me for music lessons in the Hochstein School a few blocks away. When my father drove me there on Saturday mornings his tension was palpable.
It would not be fair to talk about my father’s reactions to the black faces on the sidewalks and in the newspapers without saying how much of this was due to his upbringing and how much to the combination of anxiety and depression that sent him to the state hospital on Elmwood Avenue, that cost him his job as a test engineer working on sophisticated vacuum coating devices, and that left him nearly immobilized for much of the next decade when he wasn’t working on grounds crews or as a high school janitor. When effective antidepressants became available, and when he got out of the guilt-driven therapy of the Freudians and into the care of a doctor who knew how to help him, he calmed down about many things, race and politics included, and he came to realize that the time when such attitudes had seemed normal was long gone. But he didn’t ever mellow about Roosevelt, and I never understood why. My father’s family was not wealthy, and they never stood to lose anything from the New Deal. They weren’t likely to benefit from repeal of the estate tax or to suffer from regulation of the banks. They were charitable and sympathetic to those in need; my great-grandfather, a trainmaster on the O&W, insisted that his wife feed any tramp who stopped by their back door, and he was known for generosity to the men who worked for him. But, on a tour of Roosevelt’s home at Hyde Park, I found a clue. One of the last stops was the servants’ quarters. I recognized the furniture there immediately. Dark brown stained wood cabinets, with drawers and little doors, and marble tops, it was the furniture from my parents’ spare bedroom. What my family had used and saved and savored, the Roosevelts had cast aside or bought as second-rate in the first place. The Roosevelts were patroons, as far as my father was concerned, and they had assumed authority as some kind of family right. That they might wish to appear benevolent in their use of it meant nothing. He had no objection to the wealth of others, but he had no tolerance for noblesse oblige. Its moral imperatives were too close to taxation without representation; its protestations of concern and understanding too close to condescension.
The mp3 player had shuffled to an anthology of classic American folk tunes from the Smithsonian, and the song was called “Policeman.” Shoot your dice and roll ‘em in the sand, says the singer, who earlier had bragged of getting the drop on a cop with his .44, I ain’t going to work for no damn man. My father worked most of his life for one damn man or another, and he took pride in doing his work right whether he was an engineer or a janitor, but I don’t think it was in his nature to have any master but himself, or to feel himself measured by any standard other than his own. When he retired, when his depression had receded, and when it no longer mattered what he had been, but only what he had done or would do, he was able to be free of almost everything except his affections.
History was one of these, especially the history of the Hudson Valley or of railroads. Before reading became too difficult, he was working his way through a biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt. If anything, he preferred a scoundrel. Though he liked what Charles Ives could do with a hymn tune and always loved Sousa, he didn’t share my taste for old-time country, and I don’t think he’d have much enjoyed hearing “Battleship of Maine,” unless I told him that it made me remember Great-uncle Harry and our visits to South Avenue. I wish, before they started him on the morphine, that I’d asked if he remembered the dress sword and cap, or if that was my memory making it up. Either way, it would have pleased him that I cared to remember this, when there was a good deal worse to recall between us.
School kids learn now that there was nothing glorious about the Spanish American War, a trumped-up colonial power grab with a first-rate publicity machine, that led to appalling cruelties in the Philippines, and from which we’ve apparently learned nothing. That’s history, the gift that keeps on giving. So why am I so pleased to have visited, all of seven years old, in the parlor of a tall, thin, white-haired man, a doctor and a soldier, in wire-rimmed glasses who paid me the almost frightening compliment of looking at me with the kind of intelligent appraisal, frank and welcoming and discerning, that, now that I think of it, seems as rare as a just war. I didn’t know anything about how or why he fought. I didn’t know anything about how hard my father, sitting beside we, would have to struggle to find himself changed in a world whose authorities he had every reason to distrust. I didn’t know that I’d grow up by way of books, and my mother’s absolute refusal to discriminate between those who might benefit from her kindness, and my father’s purgatory, to remember the awe I felt, without understanding, in the presence of history, suffering, and healing.
— Jordan Smith
Jordan Smith‘s sixth full-length collection, The Light in the Film, recently appeared from the University of Tampa Press. His story, “A Morning,” will be in the forthcoming issue of Big Fiction. He lives in eastern New York and teaches at Union College.