Me and the Automobile (Part 5 of 5)

Back to the Academy

My first trip in the car was to visit my mother at Copeland Oaks senior center in Sebring, Ohio. The first sign that something was amiss was that the car became almost uncontrollable in even the lightest snow. The second was that the 700-mile round trip ground half the tread off one of the front tires, part of a new high-performance set. The alignment shop couldn’t do a thing with it—because, as it turned out, the car had been in a serious accident which had all but severed the principal structural member of the chassis on the driver’s side, and bent the front cross-member on which the engine and front wheel assemblies were mounted. I got the structural member from BMW in Munich and found the cross-member in a U.S. junkyard. The reconstituted car was a wonder. It didn’t seem to run just right until it got up to about 95 mph—and that attracted patrolmen even on what had appeared to be empty highways. I collected more speeding tickets with that car than with all the others combined—all of them while planning calls with colleagues en route to Caterpillar, Growmark, Archer Daniels Midland and other Central Illinois clients or prospects of First Chicago.


When I proposed to the lawyer that we share the cost of the reconstruction—which I thought generous—he claimed to know nothing of the defect. When I wondered how that could be, he fell back on his Black’s law Latin and asked me whether I knew the meaning of caveat emptor. I left his office in silence, realizing that, once again, I had been diddled—and wondering whether I could ever diddle as brazenly, and how I would live with the memory if I did. I had been noticing at about that time that many of the folk I met in the commercial world were much more intently focused on their own particular “business” (as was the lawyer) than was I upon mine. I had been moving toward the conclusion that this was because they assumed that they were in charge of their lives; I knew that fortuna and a karma that I suspected as both fleeting and fragile were in charge of mine. God had not yet reentered the picture, although hints of his second coming (to me) were beginning to show up. In any case, I have ever thereafter really enjoyed bad-lawyer jokes.


The BMW was the first car whose mechanical care and maintenance I relinquished almost entirely to the manufacturer. (I set the valve-stem clearances occasionally, but that was it.) It was also the car that entered me among those of modest means who got round from place to place in really good but necessarily used cars. I left it to Ellie as part of the divorce settlement. I’m not sure she ever drove it; it served, rather, as the first permanent occupant of the parking space we bought when we moved from Gambier to Chicago. Before the BMW, it had become a putative guest space, first come, first served.


The Big Beamer’s successor—a Ford Taurus SHO—was the first brand new car I ever had the use of. I chose it as my “company car” when I signed on in 1988 as Treasurer of Tonka Corporation. It caught my eye at the Chicago Car Show of 1987. It was driven by a dangerously powerful Yamaha V-6 through a manual transmission and was fully skirted about two inches lower than the long-suffering standard Taurus. I encountered several valet  operations during my Tonka employment that were mystified by the functional separation of clutch and transmission—and a couple that were utterly fascinated by the car. Ford recalled the SHO  a little after its first birthday to replace its 6-inch clutch disc with a 7-inch one that was able without “slipping” to handle the Yamaha’s torque.


Even while I continued in Tonka’s employment and the SHO remained in my care,  I indulged a desire that had been rising in me ever since the rehabilitation of the BMW 700, viz., to own the BMW coupe of the day, the 635csi. The Minnetonka dealership to whom I gave the assignment found on the third try a European version of the model, red with white upholstery and about 20k miles.  I thus acquired the greatest ride of my life—on wet or dry pavement clear of snow or ice. Otherwise, its rear-wheel drive and perfect front-rear weight balance turned it into an ice skate with a mind of its own. On one occasion, I was within 5 miles of a visit to my mother at Copeland Oaks in Sebring, Ohio when the coupe took it upon itself to execute a couple of figure eights on a fortunately empty uphill gradient of a highway and slid sedately into the median valley between the four lanes. A pickup truck with four-wheel drive threw me a rope and dragged me along the valley until his momentum and my speed-enabled traction allowed me to ascend onto the berm. I gave the driver the only $20 bill I had. When he noticed how profoundly embarrassed I was, he accepted it cheerfully and went on up the road looking for other victims of the weather. (A profiteering Publican—for whom I was very grateful!)


And so I went off into the most extensive unemployment hiatus of my life, almost 18 months, with two great cars—the SHO and the 635CSI. I had very little use of either as conveyances. But the BMW was a great touring car, and I had the time to have a good look at the Driftless region of southeastern Minnesota, southwestern Wisconsin and northern Iowa; at the Kettle Moraine in northcentral Wisconsin; at the bird sanctuaries of Aldo Leopold’s Sand County; at Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. (Of course, my sharpest memories of these ventures were of the actual touring—of passing a dozen vehicles at one fell swoop on a two-lane road in northeastern Wisconsin (and doing it at a sedate 95 mph), or spinning smoothly up and down through three or four gears on a twisty ascending road. It wasn’t about getting out into the countryside; it was all about driving out into the countryside. The scenery was the road itself, not what I could see from it.


I favored the BMW for these outings. And the SHO overcame its redundancy about half way through the year-and-a-half between finishing up with Tonka and starting up with Pacific Lutheran University: Daughter Kelly came into need of a “new” car, and the Ford met the need—and then some!


The 635 went into the moving van with the rest of my stuff to Tacoma and PLU in February of 1993. It would have been a great drive, but I didn’t have time for it. As I expected, the car’s marque and spectacular finish gave rise to considerable speculation in Tacoma concerning its owner. I considered putting it in storage and driving something drab and inexpensive instead but decided to establish my identity in the university by means of my actions in helping Loren Anderson reverse its falling fortunes. The initial array of these entailed relieving several senior administrators of their positions, cancelling or postponing projects, and transferring authority for significant spending even for budgeted items from departments to me. We thus escaped in the last half of the Fiscal Year 1983 about half the deficit guaranteed for that year by the University’s budgetary obfuscation of its straightened circumstance in wildly wishful enrollment projections. We used these immediate savings to convince the rating agencies that we were on the mend, and traced enough of them to voluntary efforts in the departments and divisions to make the financial resurgence of the university a communal rather than a leadership project. Only a couple faculty sang the old, familiar refrain of administrative dehumanization of the academy that was being accomplished by the “invasion” of corporate “suits” practicing profit-hungry capitalism. I tried my best—not at all helped by my possession of the 635—to  convince these reactionaries of the wisdom of Peter Drucker’s remark that “profit is the cost of doing business in the future”!


Meanwhile, the 635 attracted dozens of admiring remarks and purchase offers in gas stations or at stop lights. I worried that its red color and reputation as a fast and great-cornering car would mislead my new colleagues into thinking me brash, arrogant, or rich. In fact, those with whom I worked most closely admired the car without transferring much of their approval of it to me. I had to win their embrace by the reformed manner and improving accomplishments of my work—which given the obvious connections between PLU’s financial circumstance and the deleterious practices of my predecessors was easily demonstrated. The whole experience opened me quite effectively to the blandishments of Vocation as a strategy for right living, an introduction which grew immediately out of President Anderson’s entrusting to me the drafting of the rationale of his Strategic Planning initiative.


Four and a half years after arriving at PLU, I turned in the 635 as well as Anne’s middle-aged Buick on a three-year old Mercedes E-class. Anne had always wanted just such a car. She claimed to prize it as “safe”—as I had prized the 635 as eminently “driveable”!  It was hard for her to admit that the Mercedes proclaimed her ascent from homemaking and childbearing to Certified Public Accountant—the profession she obtained after the collapse of her marriage to finance the raising and education of her children. The opportunity to trade in the BMW as well as the Buick for the Mercedes came with Augsburg College’s offer to me of its presidency in Minneapolis in August, 1997.


Although the Mercedes was much better in the snow than the BMW, the rear-wheel drive they shared made neither one good for Minnesota winters. But we took advantage of the moment to get Anne what she had long wanted with little hope of getting—in part because I could get an Audi A6 Quattro as my College Car when we actually reached Minneapolis.  Over the course of my presidency, I leased two such cars, each for three-year terms,  interrupted by a similar arrangement for a front-wheel drive S80 Volvo (the largest and most comfortable of the three cars, despite its lesser traction: great seats, large cabin, plenty of supercharged pep). But I “heard” Audi’s 4-wheel drive “calling” me yet more persuasively. (I have entertained friends on several occasions with the possibly-mythological report—on principle, I have never “researched” it—that the German name of the original owner of the company manufacturing the Audi meant “to hear”. Eventually, he sold the company and agreed, in exchange, to leave off participating in the market in his own name. Hence, he resumed his calling by naming the new venture in Latin! (German, to say nothing of Latin, lends itself to this sort of thing. Consider Martin Luther’s colleague and sometime friend Phillip, making his way from Schwartzerd to the Greek Melanchthon as he moved from Heidelberg to join Luther at Wittenberg.  So far as I know, the names of no other autos have ever been as attentive to the characteristics of the autos themselves. “Jaguar” is close!


The Volvo sedans were not regularly fitted with either standard transmissions or all or four-wheel drive when my time at Augsburg was up in 2006. I therefore turned the 2003 automatic A6 Quattro back to the dealership and went looking—and actually found—a 2003 A6 with a six-speed manual transmission. It was silver into the bargain—as though it may have needed no more dress than the naked metal of which it was composed.



In the 13 years since I left Augsburg, the  “new” Audi has carried Anne and me to the Norwegian colleges and universities in the Upper Midwest in (the largely frustrated) search for a sustained program of student and faculty exchange with Norway that would have made both of us more cosmopolitan;  to the members of the Minnesota Private College Council to drum up (a satisfying modicum of)  support for the first Liberal Arts, English Language, Church-related small college in 21st Century China;  to Tacoma, Washington, to serve a one-year appointment as Interim Dean of  the (somewhat roguish) Pacific Lutheran University School of Business; to the principal tour destinations on the Kitsap and Olympic Peninsulas to demonstrate the (really seductive) charms of the Pacific Northwest to the  candidates  for a  “permanent” successor  dean of the School of Business (who might  bring the School a little closer to the University’s heel); to potential investors in a (never-to-see-the light of day) senior center on a decommissioned golf course on the campus of Pacific Lutheran University; back to St. Paul for a two-year stint as (the modestly successful but embattled) Interim Chief Financial Officer of Luther Seminary, the  largest of 8  seminaries of the ELCA which had fallen into  a financial quagmire caused by the decline of church attendance (and church leadership) in the U.S.; back out to the Pacific Northwest for the grand sail of the 1953 Loki-class Sparkman and Stephens  yawl, Irolita, (that I had bought in 2009) to Desolation Sound in the Inside Passage to Alaska, and back, finally, to  Minnesota, first to St. Paul and then to Red Wing for what we hoped would be (but wasn’t) permanent retired residence on the Mississippi.


At about midway in what is now the car’s sixteen-year road life, it became more expensive to keep it running in good order than its market value could cover. It was at that point, and on the verge of spending several thousands on a clutch and a couple other vital operating components,  that I adopted for myself as well as the car a new philosophy: I was going to keep both of us going long enough to be declared antiques—entities from an earlier era that could not fairly be held accountable for the sins of the current one (but which drew praise for weathering advancing age gracefully).  Some days—while singing an anthem strongly and on key, or after writing a good paragraph—this has seemed a wise and fulfilling philosophy. On other days—when avoiding more active friends to indulge the need of a nap, a stint in the Hot Tub, or a session with Aristotle, Luther or Hannah Arendt—I only wish I could shake off the guilt of my stopping out!


In either case, I get to run my errands in a beautiful, smooth-running, stick shift from another era, indeed (dare I say it?), from a better world—made better by expanding the coverage of the lessons of the 4-H Tractor Service and Maintenance seminar (principally that understanding the design of a thing enables the repair of it), and noticing and celebrating the presence of friends in the disguise of those bearing jumper cables in their travel kits.

Me and the Automobile (Part 4 of 5)

From the Professoriate to the Corporation

Driven by this peculiar form of the reputational demon, I found and acquired a two-year old 164E, Volvo’s first luxury sedan. It answered perfectly to the purpose. She, too, was blue, but with a powerful six-cylinder, fuel-injected, dual exhaust, engine; a four-speed “short stick” manual transmission with electric overdrive, and the first leather-upholstered saloon cabin of my acquaintance. I immediately lowered the new car slightly, added stiffer struts and shock absorbers, wider alloy wheels and “high performance” Pirelli tires (attractive as much for the brand name as for their quality).  Again, I was the envy of those at the college who knew anything at all about exotic cars and accessories,  and of and for Volvos in particular.


But I acquired the 164E to declare independence of my colleagues, not to win their admiration. I was trying, unsuccessfully, to mute the sneaking conviction that my falling enrollments were my fault, not that of the College’s marketing and enrollment strategies. I certainly felt that  I was beginning to lose the nascent and unnamed competition with those with whom I joined the college. For all of us—and, we suspected, for the administration and for students—this competition was measured in enrollments and other less leading indicators of popularity. (My efforts to overcome my sense of inadequacy were not yet successful enough to immunize me from this terrible tyranny.) And so I began seeking the kind of study opportunities that abound in academe—ones that convene in warm, exotic places; that give you a chance to show off with a paper or “keynote” speech; that are funded by one’s employer because they provide “professional development”. In short, ones that would carry me out of (rather than around in) Gambier for a Summer, a semester or a year.


My first strike was a National Endowment for the Humanities summer seminar at the University of Georgia on the Idea of Privacy in the Western Tradition. (One could still openly study Judeo-Christianity and even the “dead white males” who contributed to it—although such preoccupations had already become faintly suspicious.) But it was exciting to find in the universities libraries in Athens, GA, in Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, affirmation that child-bearing in what Tocqueville called “the European monarchy” was a public or civil, not a private, matter. After all, it distributed legal responsibility for the environment (via Riparian Rights and the Prevailing Lights Doctrine, for example) and of property management in general. Mere reference to such observations is currently inadmissible by either the friends or the foes of abortion!


This initial strike led to the mother lode—Directorship of the 1980-81 Newberry Library Program in the Humanities in Chicago, on the Idea of Privacy in the Western Tradition. The resulting encounter with Chicago was so fascinating that I landed what I interpreted as “trial” employment  as a “credit trainee” at the  First National Bank of Chicago in the Summer of 1981. It went well enough that I journeyed to Gambier the following Fall to decide  in the familiar surroundings of the College and its Department of Political Science which path I would take into the future. The answer was left entirely up to me. I chose banking. Its appeal lay entirely in its being the path less taken!


The 164E bore me through the NEH Seminar at the University of Georgia and on into Chicago for the Newberry Library program with smooth power and fine balance. It was a wonderful, perhaps even a great, car. It bore its wide stance, stiffened suspension, and powerful purr with aplomb over West Virginia’s twisting, switch-back roads and through the  Gaps in which had arisen the extraordinary figure of Doc Watson and the sophisticated furniture industry of North Carolina. The car stumbled only once; during a weekend trip from Georgia to Charlestown, SC,  she sprang a fuel leak as I entered the town of Aiken, South Carolina. One of the injectors had failed. The 164E’s mechanical formulae and ratios were directed by an on-board computer, thus releasing me from maintaining the supply of replacement parts required by its predecessor (and from even the pretense of being the car’s mechanic). Nevertheless, I got an injector from a Volvo shop before the fuel-tank emptied or the car caught fire, and installed it in 110 degree temperatures in an asphalt parking lot in Aiken. By the time I finished the job, I was standing 4” deep in the asphalt. After I extracted both feet and shoes from the pavement, I finished the trip to Charleston and back to Athens, trouble free. High point of the trip? Touring The Battery by horse-drawn buggy at a slow saunter. No car can do it as well.


The 164E’s tank-like construction (it presaged the square, blunt form of the 240 series, without the squareness and bluntness) saved the life of son Sam and a couple of his friends. They were attacked by a pickup truck in the grip of road rage as they set out for home from a concert in Kent, Ohio—the host city of  Kent State University. The truck rode up over the rear bumper and crumpled the bodywork and upper structural members of the chassis forward to the cushions of the back seat—at which point the principal structure of the car blocked the A-frames and steering assembly of the truck from making any further progress in peeling the body work off the car. Although the truck and perhaps even its occupants may not have been entirely injury-free, they left the scene with greater alacrity than could Sam and his entourage. Nevertheless, before the night was out (and after several ‘phone calls to select a convenient (i.e., patrol-free) route home and to determine that the transmission and brakes could still be operated, at least minimally) the mangled Volvo turned up in Gambier. Its passengers struck me as “chastened”. I still don’t know what precipitated the incident—and wouldn’t have been at all surprised to learn that a part of it had been an America First attitude among callow midwestern pickup truck users in the “town” who despised its “gown” for precipitating the governor’s much earlier invitation of the National Guard. In any case, I didn’t report the incident and found a back-yard body worker who did a fine job restoring the car.


Hence, the 164E lived on, only to meet its doom at the hands of son Sam two years later. He was home from his Freshman year at Dartmouth, and helping us get what we needed from Gambier to Chicago’s Gold Coast for the year at the Newberry Library.  The incident that “totaled” the 164E  was a collision precipitated by a Yellow Jacket hornet that entered the cabin through an open window on a hot August day and harassed either Sam or the girl whom he had “recruited” to help with the work. Again, no one was seriously hurt, but two automobiles—one an extraordinary driving machine, indeed—were presumably retired forever from the nation’s highways.

A car that I asked Sam to lease the very next day, to finish the moving errands he’d started, met very nearly the same fate in very nearly the same way. A bee (perhaps yesterday’s Yellow Jacket wishing to repeat the experience?) tortured the same recruit, I was told—thus distracting the same driver with a similar consequence. I reported the cash I paid for the damage to the rental-car agency as an “insurance loss”. The IRS saw it, instead, as a “gift” to Sam to cover his responsibility for the injury to the rental. That pretty completely drained me—of morale as well as cash—and Sam and I agreed that running the Newberry’s Book Store on furlough from Dartmouth in 1980-81 (an opportunity generously offered us by the Library’s directors) would be good preparation for his taking fuller advantage of his matriculation. He did a nice job of it, as all of us noticed, and graduated in good standing a year after those with whom he entered as a Freshman.

Although Ellie and I were by then separated, I drove her and her mother up to Hanover from Chicago for the Commencement. I was car-less at the time, and the three of us floated down I-90 in a rented Lincoln Town Car. It was so wide that I expected to hear scrapping sounds as we made our way through turnpike toll booths. It was so long that I was able to escape overhearing the conversation between Ellie and her mother—into which I was not in any case invited.

One sign that the bookish part of Dartmouth never really got Sam’s attention was that the College refused to give him his  diploma until his book-store debt (most of it for skiing equipment, with the use of which he broke a leg) had been settled.  I refused to pay it off–until his grandmother proposed to do it, instead. (Most other of my cash “gifts” to Sam were to cover ministrations to those for whom he cared but to whom he had no moral or legal obligation. I admire his character on this point, suspect that he got part of it from me, and wish that both of us could better afford it.

When I stayed in Chicago at the end of the Newberry year, instead of returning to my Kenyon professoriate, I went without a car of my own for three years. I didn’t really need one. I was living inside the Chicago Loop very near my employer, the First National Bank of Chicago. Renting to visit my mother in Ohio was convenient, although it restricted me to conventional, uninteresting machines. (Trains and sometimes planes kept me in touch with my college-enrolled children.) And then, when my new career began showing promise, I re-entered –and was again thrown back from—the luxury car market. This time it was a five-year-old BMW 700. It was big, powerful, quiet, smelled “new” and seemed flawless in both appearance and performance. The purchase seemed one among friends; the car had been offered exclusively within the Bank by one of First Chicago’s in-house lawyers.

Me and the Automobile (Part 3 of 5)

From the Public to the Private; from Journalism to Political Science

It took three days and two sleepless nights each week to write, publish and distribute (illegally on campus, by the way!) The Spokesman. Within 8 issues, I utterly exhausted my financial and physical capacities. Eleanor Omoto, whom I had met during my reportage of Ohio State’s student government, agreed to become my wife—just in time to save me from what I’m sure would have otherwise been a total breakdown.  She carried me through the spiraling burnout of The Spokesman, and we fled together the smoking ruins of what I had meant to be my finest hour. We started a family and went to Hawaii to give this new life, and a second (third?) effort to combine success—this time—with self-acceptance,  rather than primarily the acceptance of my peers.  It worked!


Ellie had been born on Pu’unene Sugar Plantation on Maui, down in the “waist” of the island between Haleakala and Wailuku Heights. Her Nisei parents escaped the plantation well before Pearl Harbor for employment in the Maui County public schools. They sent Ellie to the mainland for a college education that most immigrant families in Hawaii were sure would be superior to any available in the islands. Our marriage and flight to Hawaii allowed me to escape in the reverse direction a  censure more painful than my father’s when the tractor wouldn’t start—that of my fellow ideologues. Many of them had declared the launch of The Spokesman “premature” and its editor/publisher “naïve”. Both observations were true, but they came as burning criticism from those who had conspired with me to undertake such “precipitate actions” as founding The Spokesman—actions of the sort that all of us agreed was the only way to break America out of its “stultifying conservatism”. Their criticism made the magazine even more exclusively mine, and I imagined that its collapse amounted to my own political and intellectual—even my personal—demise.


To overcome the pain—to “put it behind me”, so to speak—I enrolled in the Department of Political Science at the University of Hawaii soon after my arrival in Honolulu.  On the strength of my familiarity with cars (and with the help of friends of Ellie’s family), I got a job at a gas station and used it in part to fix up a derelict car that got me to my classes and job, and Ellie to and from the maternity ward for the births of the two Hawaii-born of our three children.


In both my initial encounter with it,  and in its resuscitated form, the car and I shared a great number of similarities.  It was a 1948 Plymouth 4-door sedan which had been left (abandoned?), along with its papers, six-years earlier by its abruptly emigrating owner. I found it reposing unused, unwashed and unwanted against the curb in a quiet residential neighborhood near Punahou School. The émigré’s designee as the car’s keeper (disposer?) offered me its title and exclusive use if I could get the car running and off his hands by qualifying it for current (1960) license tags. The night job I had just landed at a Waikiki 24-hour service station was fortuitous; the midnight shift was a good time—in that life it was really the only time—to read my political science assignments, study Chinese, work on the Plymouth, and bring both of us back to and into life.


When it was ready to take to the road, the car demonstrated a deficiency which I had under-estimated: It made too much of its own passage. It sent a potpourri of smoky crankcase and exhaust emissions into the driving compartment, especially on long-uphill pulls. My mother-in-law was rightly convinced that these emissions were unhealthy for Baby Sam and embarrassing for her. Noticing that the obnoxious fumes persisted, she came to suspect, I think, that as a mechanically-inclined “haole” male, I had a taste for them. .


In fact,  the defect was too expensive to fix. It was exacerbated by Chrysler Corp’s fluid-drive, which would lift the Plymouth inch-by-inch the two city blocks from the floor of the Manoa Valley to our diminutive apartment (an illegal 3rd unit in a duplex) more or less straight up the “Ewa” face of Mount Tantalus only under full throttle. (On Oahu, the town of Ewa marked one of the four compass points. Its opposite was “Diamond Head”, and Mauka and Makai—“mountains” and “sea”, respectively–were the others. I was never able to replace this Oahu Compass with the unerring sense of the four cardinal directions that I had carefully cultivated to win the regard of my mentors on the farm.


We were as lucky in finding and renting our apartment as in having a car that could reach it. From a certain point on the final approach to it, we had a  fragmentary view of Waikiki Beach, about three miles down the Manoa Valley in the general direction of Diamond Head. A middle-aged couple lived next door who  convened a Hawaiian hootenanny every Saturday night, always including at least a dozen ukuleles, 20 or 30 wonderful voices and an extraordinary repertoire of native music. (With Ellie’s help and inspired by the hootenannies,  I learned in those days to strum chords in basic keys on a Martin ukulele that was part of her dowry, and began to sing songs to the children—mostly from my own youth but in a couple of cases from what she remembered or what we learned from the hootenannies of the native  repertoire.) Our immediate neighbors in the duplex had a Dachshund who lactated whenever her family baby-sat the infant Sam. Another neighbor monitored the Pineapple crop for the state Department of Agriculture—and provided us with a steady supply of the most extraordinary specimens of the fruit. The back yard contained a Liche, a Coconut and a Guava tree, and a hedgerow of Mountain Apple trees lined the driveway. What with the Papayas, Bananas, and Passion Fruit brought over from Maui by Ellie’s folks on visits to their hapa-haole grandchildren, half of our diet was thus supplied free of charge—except for the gratuitous child-rearing advice that came to us with every shipment from Maui.


The apartment consisted of a bedroom, a bathroom, and a kitchen. The floor was Asphalt. Because there was no sink in the kitchen, we washed ourselves, our children and our dishes in the bathtub. It was affordable—and  we got permission to add a living room at our expense and without an increase in rent. (I and a couple of student friends mixed concrete in a wheelbarrow, using one of those big garden hoes with two big holes in the blade. We raised the floor of the area where we had once parked the Plymouth 4 inches (to keep out the daily drizzle known as Hawaiian Sunshine), and closed in the space with Jalousie windows. The new room doubled the size of the apartment and became the family bedroom, living room and study center.


Just after the Plymouth brought Ellie home with No. 2 child, daughter Kelly, in March, 1963, I replaced it with a second exotic (succeeding the much-missed Metropolitan)—a 1957 Volkswagen. It came from a fellow graduate student who was returning for employment to the mainland. It had a very small rear window, a “trunk” in the front and a 35 HP motor in the rear end, and could rise to the apartment in second gear without threatening its occupants with asphyxiation. The engine was air cooled, could be “timed” with the dome light (which was known in the family as the doom light, following the preferred pronunciation of an  East Springfield neighbor), and was great fun to drive. It was the right car for a life of modest ambition, of good discipline and efficient conduct, and of financial and professional sustainability.


Back to the Mainland

In fact, the Volkswagen became so much a part of the family that we shipped it to Seattle when we moved there for the University of Washington’s Ph.D. program in Political Science and Chinese Studies. Ellie cruised up to Vancouver  on a P&O Orient Liner with the 750 lbs. of our worldly goods, and I brought Sam and Kelly on Pan Am. We moved into Married Graduate Student Housing, a complex of 2 and 4-unit townhomes that had been built during the war to house the officer-families of a Naval Air Station on Lake Washington. (The base later became Seattle’s Magnuson Park; the housing continues to serve as it did in 1964.)


About a week after we arrived, we introduced Sam and Kelly to their first snowfall. We woke them at 3 a.m., dressed them in several layers of their Hawaiian duds, and let them slide screaming joyfully down the front yard into the parking lot on the first and perhaps only Seattle snowfall of that winter.


A couple of years into our Seattle residency, while stubbing out a cigarette in the dashboard ashtray, I slid the Bug into the rear of an Alfa Romeo in a rush-hour rainstorm—my first and so far only at-fault driving accident. The Volkswagen managed to bind the Alfa’s  emergency brake cable, thus blocking 5 o’clock traffic completely at a busy intersection—an embarrassment large enough to warrant (I thought) my committing the Beetle to the forceful removal of the Alfa to the road’s edge—at considerable additional cost to the VW’s front end. As was my habit even then, as the proud owner of old but still-working things, I saw to it that the damage was undiscoverable even to the closest inspection.


The perfected Bug often purveyed three of us students of modern China and the Soviet Union up to Vancouver, B.C. to rummage through its relatively uncensored book shops. On one of those occasions, and with the front end “boot” brazenly filled with Stalin’s collected works, we “confessed” at the border that we had, indeed, acquired while in Canada  two or three volumes of Mao’s writings—probably the most widely published and reprinted writings in human history.  The American border patrol officer, foregoing an investigation of the “boot”, asked whether we meant “books or Communistic literatures!” Despite our perfectly polite replies, Mao’s essays were confiscated and held at the border for the 90 days it took me to acquire from the State Department a narrowly construed, one-time import license for “communistic literatures”.


The VW carried Ellie, me and the two children up to Mount Ranier three or four times for hikes. I can still smell that clear, cool mountain air and see those long slopes and spectacular views from above the tree line. Once, we joined a caravan of budding political scientists on a three day tour of the principal attractions of the Olympic Peninsula—the Naval Station at Bremerton, the town of Port Angeles, the Hoh Rain Forest, Cape Flattery, the Pacific Coast, Lake Quinault. The trips to Mt. Rainier from Seattle required ascent of the Cascades. The VW’s 35 hp couldn’t muster itself and its four passengers up Snoqualmie Pass any better than in second gear at a top speed of 35 mph. Hence, we drove all the way up on the berm, with the kids begging the passing trucks for an air-horn toot or two. The experience taught me the automotive virtues of both power and traction.


Our life in Hawaii and Seattle was a blessed compound of beginnings—of family, of a new American statehood, of learning informed by (rather than informing) worldly experience, of learned beer-hall repartee cut off just as it began by high-decibel Rock-‘n-Roll, of friendships growing in the preparational hopefulness of student poverty. The right conveyance for us through all that was a carefully-maintained middle-aged model of The People’s Car.


The First Great Car

But I needed something bigger and, I’m sorry to confess, more enviable to convey us to my first teaching appointment—as Instructor in the Department of Political Science at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio beginning in the Fall of 1967. And the wish was granted far beyond my expectations. From the ’57 VW, I ascended all in one leap to a current year Volvo 122S, the station-wagon form of the Amazon series that marked the company’s signature effort to set the standard of automotive reliability and design authenticity for the new generation of the 1960’s. In fact, the car’s mechanical excellence and unpretentious appearance brought us to the new job in better dress, I then thought, than the job warranted. I arrived thinking (quite wrongly, as it turned out) that the education proffered by private, especially church-related, colleges (like Kenyon) ranked far below that offered by public universities (like the University of Washington, Hawaii or Ohio State) in pedagogy, curricular depth, and interest in and knowledge of the world and its ways. For the first time in my life, I wondered (very briefly!) whether the superiority of the car to the appointment meant that I had finally escaped my father’s censure, as well as the loss of The Spokesman and the several embarrassments of my early days in post-secondary education. For a slightly longer period, I took all of this as a sign that Kenyon was just the beginning of a career that was bound to rise steeply, moving as smoothly as did the Volvo at the behest of its beautiful mechanics.


The best feature of the Volvo was its engine. Known as the B18D, its four pistons were bolted to a five-main-bearing crankshaft (resulting in smoothness unheard of in ordinary passenger cars of the day). The cylinders were aspirated by intake and exhaust valves operated by an overhead camshaft and—wonder of wonders—fueled by two SU HS6 carburetors! I quickly acquired a vacuum meter and never started out on a trip of even modest length during its 12-year life without first tuning and coordinating those SUs.


The Volvo not only purveyed us and our worldly goods to Gambier; it actually introduced us to the town, and the town to us. When my sister-in-law and I agreed on the price of this magnificent car—she had little need of it, having just had a difficult delivery of her son and second child; our negotiations occurred in her hospital room—I called the People’s Bank of Gambier, and wondered how, as a prospective employee of Kenyon, I’d go about applying for a car loan. Bill Smith, the manager, asked me how much I’d need to purchase the car; where to wire the money; to call if I got stuck while making the trip, and to stop in after arriving for coffee and to arrange a repayment plan.  I thus recognized Bill as a Midwesterner of the sort I’d known as a kid. He owned a couple of harness horses and raced them at the county fairs in central Ohio. He drove them as he lent money—generously and with a quiet care for their health and welfare. I’m sure he was never charged with “cutting off” another horse while on the track—and would have disqualified himself in the event of even an accidental infraction. I  liked him, and especially my portrait of him, much more than the Eastern academics I eventually discovered among Kenyon’s faculty.


For 15 years, the Volvo (meaning  “I run!”) bore us through the trials of driver-training—self-administered for Ellie, when it was discovered that I lacked even the minimum patience for the job; for Sam (which was punctuated by a couple of mildly-damaging encounters with ditches along trooper-free gravel roads); for Kelly, obtained from her brother in between squabbles with him. Kate learned to drive in her ‘20’s, but acquired a fascination with good machinery from our ministrations to the 122S which continues to bind her to Volvo and the short-throw “stick shift” transmissions in its sport models.


The Volvo bore the five of us back to California for visits to Hawaii four times. One of these was “straight through”—with Ellie driving while I slept and vice versa. The children complained of every trip that the time between rest stops was far too extensive and that the space in the cabin for sleeping and playing was much too restricted by the spare parts inventory with which I insisted on traveling.  That expansive inventory assuaged the fear I had long ago felt of the tractors before the 4-H maintenance and repair program. With that inventory stowed in every nook and cranny of the Volvo on the verge of any driving trip of any length, I resembled the knight in Alice in Wonderland—so armed for battle that he couldn’t stay on his horse long enough to get to the battle field.


A liability of my high-anxiety trip-making was that I wondered what was likely to break next—would it be the jury-rigged tensioning arrangement on the fan belt, or the worn knuckle in the drive shaft?—and listened so intently for the answer that I really wasn’t available during the trip for either parenting or husbanding. I found the car’s  whisperings, mutterings and happy hums much more fascinating, unfortunately, than equivalent sounds from Ellie and the children. (Indeed, I have missed a good amount of my life by being constantly in a state of high anxiety! I caught the disease from my mother, who had a worse case than mine.)

Of the several trips to and from Los Angeles, the most interesting one mechanically was a return through the Mojave Desert to The Grand Canyon and across Interstate 80 to the Ohio Turnpike. An hour after hitting the road, an odd sound welled up from under the hood each time I decelerated—like a handful of marbles shaken in an empty  three-pound Maxwell House coffee tin.  My manuals led me to surmise that the fiber timing wheel had become warped enough to allow the valves to make light (thankfully!) contact with the pistons. The repair was beyond reach en route; it required a particular wheel puller as well as a new timing wheel and an installation that required perfect understanding of the firing order of the four cylinders. My anxiety levelled out at “super stress”,  and I drove 2200 miles at an average of 50 miles an hour, using the brakes rather than the transmission for all deceleration. The repair took me and Sam an entire week after we got home. Nothing ever matched the sense of satisfaction that we both felt when the engine started up and ran smoothly.


The whole experience—the loose marbles rattling in a coffee tin from LA to Gambier; the careful coordination of the distributor drive gear and timing wheel; the terrifying similarity of appearance between the warped and the pristine timing wheel—revealed what the jumper cables incident did, viz., that the old fear of the tractors had become a lack of confidence in other of my abilities. The entirely unreasonable hoarding of tools and spare parts didn’t really address this fear. Only the embrace of the friend bearing jumper cables could do that.


After the first service of the Volvo in Ohio—in Mansfield, about an hour north of Gambier—I (with the eventual help of son Sam) maintained the car and made all necessary and discretionary repairs and modifications. It never again found itself in the hands of a professional mechanic, not even after 150,000 miles and in its tenth year when we rebuilt the engine from a “junked” 122 and substituted it for the original. Thereafter, she took to the road with renewed vigor but with a good number of cosmetic blemishes on her chrome and paintwork.


This mechanical self-sufficiency was adapted to the Volvo from the tractors to overcome a new challenge: the bullying that Kenyon’s privileged students and faculty seemed to practice upon emigres to their privileged Eastern culture. Their presumptuousness and airs of superiority produced in me the equivalent of the weakness and inadequacy I felt with my father before enrollment in the Tractor Maintenance and Repair Class. And the self-sufficiency  supplied me at Kenyon, as it had earlier on the farm, with an island of control-through-understanding from which I could launch the pilot ships that were to find my of my quest for vocation, originally as farmer and son, and now as professor and inquirer (a form of studentship that required a neologism to distinguish it from the generic enrollment of high schools, colleges and universities)


But just as I put the latter pair of these firmly on course, I was beset with new doubt concerning my mastery of them; just as I accepted as both accurate and warranted my emergent reputation as a “deep thinker”, a “tough and respected teacher” from whom the most promising students were told by their mentors “to take at least one class”—I was suddenly beset with a new case of self-doubt. It was marked (dare I say “caused”?) by declining enrollments in my upper division discretionary courses and a palpable reduction in the joy I had come to feel in teaching them. I secretly suspected this as personal failure, but I explained it publicly as Kenyon’s fault—its weak recruiting strength; the anti-intellectualism of the soft-drug culture that had flourished on campus after Vietnam; the grade inflation that had escalated when faculty teaching skill came to be measured by the admission to their students to the most prestigious graduate and professional schools.


I decided that I needed to “get ahead” of my colleagues to quell the rising sense of personal failure. I concluded, in some obscure corner of my consciousness, that a “new” car would help, one as unique and admirable as the 122S had been 10 years earlier.

Me and the Automobile (Part 2 of 5)

From Rustic Christianity to Humanism

Between high school graduation in 1956 and the early 1970’s, when I wakened to the need of my teen-aged children for religious education, I went to church about 20 times—when home for holidays and once for the baptism of each child.  And I made those visits in four distinct cars, each matched to the particular phases of a 15-year saga in which I searched among my peers—ultimately without finding—for a perfectly comfortable home and refuge. The first phase was as a pioneering farm environmentalist in the ’36 Ford sedan. The second was as an activist journalist adjourning the ‘50’s and inaugurating the ‘60’s in a ’57 Metropolitan. The third was as the father of an interracial family in an abandoned  ’47 Dodge. The fourth was a transition from academic expert on China to the first encounter with an exciting confusion that I have come to call “the Dialogue of Reason and Faith” in a  ’57 Volkswagen, a  ’67 Volvo P220 and a 1972 Volvo 164E.  This final phase marked my emergence from the fruitless effort to reconcile ambition with acceptance by my peers by way of a transition into a new form of  independence paradoxically entailing elements of sociality.


From time to time as I drove through those four stages, I both mourned the loss of my original dream of professional life—to emulate my maternal grandfather (whom I resemble physically more than any other member of the family) and become a Methodist pastor—and gratified to discover in the academic world that I was adopting instead certain equivalents of the abandoned theological dream—the classroom lectern seemed a surrogate pulpit; my best lectures amounted, I thought, to homilies, and my best essays to devotions. My life which had seemed fractured was beginning, especially in Stage 4,  to acquire signs of wholeness.


To get back to the phases: I got rid of the Ford and left off all interest in the farm when I discovered, out of the blue,  that I had a talent for journalism.  As I went scavenging among the ideologies that littered the campus for perspectives that could be pasted together into a Weltanschauung with which I might head off what was looking more and more like a second collegiate crisis, I took—and shined!—in a class associated with The Lantern, Ohio State’s student newspaper. Almost immediately, I was made Chief Political Reporter and invited to publish a weekly column on the editorial page.


To mark this momentous occasion, I sold the Ford to a hotrodder who lived, as did I, in the residential compound built under the Ohio State Football Stadium—and invested the proceeds in the best-looking and best-engineered car of my college and early graduate-school days: a Nash Metropolitan. The Metropolitan was a diminutive, brightly two-toned (yellow and cream), English-built car. Its scintillating appearance matched the stardom obtained by the swelling frequency of my “Vern Frame” by-lines. And it seemed fitting that I, at 6’3”, should have such a small car. (And I was marginally conscious in acquiring the little car of taking my first environmentally-sensitive step toward a lighter Carbon footprint!) The Metropolitan was driven by a Morris 4 cylinder engine mounted cross-wise in front, thereby creating just enough room for a driver and one passenger. It was the Metropolitan’s tight design, size, distinctive appearance, and remarkable performance and efficiency that prejudiced me irretrievably in favor of European machines—and thus helped set me up for the as-yet undiscovered seminal scenes of the Renaissance, the Battle of the Books and ultimately the Reformation. This European bias explains even to this day my entirely unreasonable criticism of Japanese and Korean cars. The case against these was that they all too closely resembled what I saw as America’s boat-like cars.


But my life didn’t long deserve the Metropolitan. I was so thrilled by the praise I received from my readers that I missed the fact that it was for my opinions, not for my writing or thinking. Within a year of my quick rise to stardom, the advisors to the Lantern relieved me of both my reportorial and editorial assignments on the ground that I had become dogmatic, i.e., ideological. They were right.


At the time, however, I interpreted the censure as  a conservative conspiracy to weaken the kind of liberalism I was promoting in The Lantern—and I entered forthwith the second of the four phases. I sold the Metropolitan and invested the proceeds and every other liquid asset I could lay hands on in founding The Spokesman, a small 8-page weekly tabloid commenting (pontificating?) on the issues and events of the day—U.S.  policy toward Batista’s Cuba and, eventually, Guevara’s and Castro’s; the legitimacy of the Monroe Doctrine; the recalcitrance of the Ohio State administration in the face of student protest, etc., etc.

Me and the Automobile (Part 1 of 5)


On an icy day in the Winter of ’18, a friend with whom I had taken lunch insisted on walking me back to my car. We made it without incident, only to discover that I had drained the battery by leaving the lights on. I was immediately overwhelmed with the same sense of inadequacy and personal failure I felt in childhood and adolescence when I couldn’t complete my father’s directives because I couldn’t start a tractor or properly activate some machine critical for the assigned task. This was much more than embarrassment for leaving the lights on; it was a crushing, immobilizing sense of being utterly alone and helpless. But the friend started me up with “jumper cables” that were a regular part of his travel kit. With enormous gratitude, I said my goodbyes, and we set off in our separate directions.


The incident revealed a simple truth:  I feel as alone and afraid in my dotage as I did in my youth. And yet something has changed. For one thing, I’m not as immobilized by the fear as I once was. How and when did that change?  And is it possible that by digging into this a little deeper, even at this late date, I could overcome both the fear and the fiction (as the dead battery incident proves them to be) that have been inspiring it?


Guided by the fresh illumination shed by this incident, I’ll do my best to answer the two questions just above by charting the course of my life thus far by the cars I’ve owned. “Knowing” cars was important, indeed, to American boys my age—but I think knowledge of their “makes” and models was especially important to me; it put me on a par with the peers of whom I was otherwise afraid, and it gave me a competence superior to that of  father).


The Early Days

Most of my father’s disappointment in the adolescent and teenage me (and my own consequent sense of inadequacy) had to do with tractors—with the relative certainty that I couldn’t get them started, keep them going, or drive them through required tasks up and down the slick slopes of Appalachia without getting stuck or jack-knifing.


Of the three machines that took over the pulling and hauling jobs on the farm after the war from Dad’s beloved Percherons, one (a John Deere “B”) was started by spinning an external flywheel.   Another, understood as “mine”  (a battered Allis Chalmers with which I was to get the milk, which we shipped in five and ten-gallon cans, out to the end of the lane each day for pick up by the “milk truck” that took them to the creamery) was started with a crank inserted into the front of the engine. Only the “new” Co-op, purchased on credit from the Farm Bureau, had a battery (6 volt) and an electric starter. None of them ever started for me on the first try—nor, in the Winter months,  on the tenth!


I regarded the tractors as one with 1500-lb cows, 100-lb wire-tied bales of hay, 10-gallon cans of milk, and my father—when he was furious with fresh disappointment in me.  Except for him,  each of the large, heavy, uncontrollable entities on the farm seemed entirely careless of my or the farm’s welfare. Sometimes, they even went on the attack—the tractors, by back-firing when I still had hold of the crank or flywheel,  or running into a rock or frozen clod and suddenly steering straight into a snowbank or a slough. My father wished me well, but I suspect largely in the hope that my performance as his son would vindicate his own fatherhood and even, ultimately, his manhood. His particular “attacks” were said to repeat treatment to which he had been subjected by his father (after whom he and my mother named me). The “attacks” came as assignments to me, made in full view of his peers, of tasks patently beyond my strength.  Perhaps my incapacity to accomplish them confirmed an inadequacy that he had been told lay in himself. His mistreatment of me in these cases may very well have been an attempted catharsis that, unfortunately, yielded neither relief nor instruction. To this day, I wish we would have been given the time and wisdom to have figured each other out. Each of us had a deep interest in the other—amounting, I now think, to love—but we were kept from honest inquiry, he by his insecurities; I by my fear of his disappointment in me and of my own inadequacy.  In any case, he, the animals, the tractors and the impossible tasks constituted the chaotic forces to which my youth was subjected and which I constantly sought to domesticate.


It was my mother who mapped me out a route to this mastery.  She loved her husband,  cared for him as his nurse (to manage an anger that she knew or suspected was rooted in an extensive pre-marital bout with alcoholism), and protected herself and me (from him and from the exotic discomforts of life in Appalachia) by cultivating friendships with wives, mothers and colleagues who admired her Eastern sophistication and were gratified by her open-handed need of them. As a Methodist pastor’s urbane daughter, she undertook her protective befriending in the conviction that God loves all of us—including her frequently fearsome husband.


I believed (hoped?) that it was so—and developed a complicated liturgy to support this simple Faith.  If in cutting hay I made it around the field without breaking a knife or jamming the cutting bar, I repeated the pattern of prayer and song, both at the top of mylungs, that I had performed on that first circumnavigation. Another successful round, and I dared to think that Jesus did love me—but for just how long, or for how many more circuits? I’m sure my mother’s own Faith was more sophisticated and very strong, but she gave me confidence that God is Providential despite occasional evidence to the contrary, and that saw me through my youth, my long and continuing effort to satisfy my father, and the vicissitudes of an academic career immersed in and largely expected to comply with the Secular Humanism of the Enlightenment.


But what really began to grant me some semblance of control over my father and the other farm forces with which he seemed allied was a week-long Tractor Maintenance and Repair Program offered by the Jefferson County 4-H. Silently acknowledging what I was just beginning to realize (that my father knew no more about the internal workings of the tractors than I did), he signed me up for the course and then drove me the 30-miles there and back each day. (At age 11, I had been “stopped” on an Ohio highway by a State Trooper while running an errand in the farm Jeep, and neither my father nor I wanted to go through that again.)


I learned to clear vapor locks, clean and “gap” spark plugs, began to grasp the basic principles of ignition and carburetion, and even got a peek at clutch and brake assemblies. I graduated from that program as the budding master of the machines that had bullied and shamed me for years—and with a new and insistent sense of responsibility for their mechanical welfare and general appearance. This sense of responsibility was literally proprietary. It grew from the primary teaching of the 4-H program: Know how a thing works and you can keep it from breaking—and fix it if it does. (Later, I encountered a higher version of this principle which turned out to be applicable to the Liberal as well as the Mechanical Arts: Know the intention in the design of a literary work or of a device and you can teach the argument and explain the mechanism.) These and other insights of the 4-H program helped shape my eventual academic perspectives, making me, for example, critical of the basic Social Science axiom that people and institutions constitute “systems” (of inputs, outputs and feedback) just as mechanisms do. Despite a large quantum of  academic  uncertainty about what the human condition is and whether it is truly unique, I have never been convinced that the material and human worlds can be illuminated by a single methodology. But  most of my graduate-school teachers, being social-scientifically inclined,  thought they could.


From its beginning in the Tractor Maintenance and Repair Program, this notion that big things and powerful forces could be understood and thereby tamed pointed at an even deeper and more providential possibility, viz., the coexistence of  another world—not the one of Jesus riding Shotgun with me during the harvest, or of  my mother’s protective love, but one as yet inarticulate and un-named whose imminence somehow explained the lovely possibility of the others. Only later, after I had excused Jesus from any role in any imaginable personal existence, did I notice that I had made myself bereft thereby. Thus began the search for a reconciliation of all three providential co-existences—of a constantly accompanying Jesus, of my mother’s protective love, and of worlds purified by the exclusion of materialism or history (indeed of something resembling the Joy by which C.S. Lewis was frequently surprised). Taken altogether, this sense of life as multi-dimensional and yet comprehensible led me willy-nilly to the academy, to the classroom, the library—and to the need of friendship.


Still, I remained a callow youth inhabiting the no-man’s land between adolescence and Young Adulthood when, in my 15th year, my father died of heart failure at age  47. Within a year, Mom moved the family off the farm and into town. In that great transition, I relied heavily on the rudimentary sense of personal power that was rooted in my new-found ability to fix things,  It helped me deal with the fact that Mom’s prudent removal of us from farm to village effectively took me out of a world in which I was just beginning to feel fully at home and  moved me into a noisy, congested refugee camp. And there I sought two kinds of relief. One aimed at a kind of escape in the form of the kind of employment available to the itinerant—organizing a dance band and playing gigs; submitting an occasional article to various magazines as a free-lance journalist;  being an important part, ironically,  of a political cabal; studying something in an exotic college. The other aimed at a thorough inclusion in the urbane world as a “professional”—working as a byline journalist for a famous newspaper; publishing my own magazine, and—yes!—professing political science and the specialized knowledge of an exotic part of the world.


From Farm to City

Guided by this epidemic-sized confusion, I set out after high-school graduation on both the itinerant employment and professional ambition tracks simultaneously—a strategy portending slow progress at best, and utter catastrophe sooner or later. I was sustained in this confusion through its long tenure by my swelling mechanical husbandry. Now lacking a fleet of tractors and farm implements for which to care,  I turned to automobiles. All the way through high school, college, graduate school, and well into the first years of the professoriate, I ministered to the ordinary automobiles of the day that were owned or operated by neighbors and friends—diagnosing their illnesses, starting them, tuning them up, and repairing them, and winning thereby a passable quantum of the standing for which I yearned. Most of the machines on which I practiced in those days were still rear-wheel driven, and none were as yet computerized—although some required metric tools.


My specialty became clutch and drive-shaft replacement. I must have lain under two dozen cars along curbs in Amsterdam, Ohio, on the Ohio State campus in Columbus, and in Honolulu, removing transmissions, bell housings, pressure plates and sometimes fly wheels—and putting them all back together in alignment and (most of the time) with nothing left over. Twice, I let the car of the moment down off jacks only to discover that I’d left out the new clutch! Fortunately, such mistakes were so egregious that I never even started excusing them; I simply apologized for them and went back to work to correct them.


The mechanical know-how on which I then relied went far beyond but was nonetheless an extension of the familiarity common among us adolescent boys to know at a glance the make, year and model of all American brands, many  English brands, the prestigious German brands, (Mercedes,  Porsche, Audi), even  the almost never seen  Italian marques, and (in Hawaii) the Japanese brands.  This instantaneous recognition, especially of the model year, depended on observational powers that our teachers of grammar and mathematics  never suspected we had. And these powers extended to other especially interesting features of the automotive world.  Even before we could drive, we knew the location and jurisdiction represented by any patrol car within a mile radius of our position.


This extra-sensory awareness of the proximity of policemen was, for me,  an instinctive effort to protect the critical collateral value of the automobile—a private, personal, portable space.  Having my own car gave me a standby means of escape from the conventional  competitive world (in which I often embarrassed myself by failing) to  the romantic Grand Ole Opry world of  the Open Road. Knowing cars and how to fix mine allowed me to dream with Jimmy Rogers and Merle Haggard of ramblin’, of ranging on my own out from a world in which I was all too familiar to places where I was altogether unknown. The anonymity promised me immunity from any recorded recognition for my failures. The combination of privacy and anonymity reminded me of the fixed spaces I was able to confiscate on the farm—personal places where I skinned out the Muskrats, Racoon and occasional Mink that wound up in my traps, or closets where I kept my cornhusking and hoeing tools, or the lean-to shelters I built in the woods and used for my semi-annual trapline scouting expeditions with Teddy, the farm guard dog. This concatenation of privacy and anonymity helped me to imagine a random smattering of havens across the course of my life through a world fundamentally uninterested in me or my welfare—and opened a chance, at least, that I might find alone (among itinerant jobs or in the course of professional training) the success that I had so far failed to find publicly at home. It was my way of keeping ambition alive in the paradox of a private mobility.


The first car that I made my own and thus opened a route to this peculiar world of privacy and anonymity was a 1936 Ford two-door sedan. I found it retired onto the back row of a used-car lot (suggestively close to the entrance of an associated junk yard).  I saw promise in this derelict, much more at first than in myself. It took me half a day to get the car started, and almost a full day to get it home; its mechanical brakes were worn out as well as maladjusted. The most reliable way to stop it was to run into something, which a couple of times was another car at a stop sign. The resulting bumps were pretty gentle. Still, none of us in Appalachia had yet heard of or experienced road rage; every one we encountered within 20-30 miles of home was likely to be familiar—if not to us then to our parents.

My reconstruction of that car from related vehicles left to rust away in junkyards was analogous to the reconstruction I thought I had to make then of my life as a whole. That summer (of 1957), I was “stopping out”, perforce, of an aborted college start at Westminster in Pennsylvania. I feigned illness and was permitted to withdraw “incomplete” from classes that I was bound to fail just in the nick of time. I got home just in time to help a friend of my mother’s keep his gas station going while he recovered from the kind of heart attack that had killed my father.  That summer, Mom and sister Polly landed housekeeping employment at Chautauqua, a day’s drive to the East in Western Pennsylvania.  I used the camouflage and income of the gas station—and the accompanying freedom from parental and collegiate audits—to scavenge through dozens of junkyards along the Ohio for parts from fallen Mercuries, Lincolns, and Fords (all models between 1932 and ’52) that I could fit onto and into the ’36 sedan. Ultimately, I traded a pistol I had acquired (without my mother’s knowledge) for a Candy Apple Red paint job to get the car road-ready in time for my Fall transfer to Ohio State University, about 150 miles West of Amsterdam.


As I should have known, and certainly didn’t, the readiness of the car for Ohio State considerably exceeded mine.  I see clearly now what I should have seen then—that I sought relief from my personal un-assuredness by owning and embellishing things that were admired by the taste mavens of the day. If such things also worked well, I escaped the embarrassing charge that all I cared about was appearance! In fact, I was preoccupied in those days with reputation; I was trying to create rather than find my place in the world.


The strategy I adopted for this—and applied simultaneously to the reconstruction of the ’36 Ford—amounted to Individualism. I would build both my life and the Ford with the kind of self-reliance enabled by the Tractor Maintenance and Repair program. The earliest stages of this individualistic strategy  governed my abortive collegiate initiation at Westminster: I did everything but study. I directed  the Sigma Nu chorus; organized and arranged the music for  the Bill Vern Quintet (and played the Traps on our dance gigs); played softball and basketball on intramural teams, and spent a lot of time “thumbing” back and forth to Pittsburg for sheet music and percussion accessories.  But it was the mysteriously scented whiffs of progressive rationalism that I encountered at Ohio State that swelled the individualist longing for personal recognition well beyond the containment of the Revival Meeting Christianity that had helped me handle the fears I encountered on the farm.

The Political Science of the Reformation

The following post is the first of a two part essay titled The Political Science of the Reformation written by Bill Frame as a Recapitulation of a Presentation to the Adult Forum of United Lutheran Church in Red Wing, Minnesota, December 2, 2018

Part I: The Ruling Role of Reason in the Kingdom on the Left

Ever since Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon introduced me to their image of “God’s Kingdom on the Left”—in which I perceived a community of interdependent vocationists rendering service to their neighbors—I have wondered whether the Reformers supplied a Political Science to develop and sustain such a community. Here’s what I’ve learned so far.


The most notable feature of the two-fold government ascribed by both John Calvin and Martin Luther to God’s management of human affairs is the radical separation of the two “folds”. Indeed, this very separation of the two “kingdoms” (as Luther called them) seems to be the critical condition of obtaining the sanguinary influence of Grace through Faith and the Holy Spirit upon the political condition of mankind—for which both Reformers fervently prayed (without, may it be noted, even the slightest hint of messianism)! Let me try to make sense of this peculiar “separation-as-bridge” idea.


Here is Calvin’s description of the two kingdoms. It appears late in his 3rd Institute–just after his account of God’s liberation of us from servile obedience to Church, Law, and National Morality:


…there is a twofold government in man: one aspect is spiritual, whereby the conscience is instructed in piety and in reverencing God; the second is political, whereby man is educated for the duties of humanity and citizenship that must be maintained among men. These are usually called the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘temporal’ jurisdiction…by which is meant that the former sort of government pertains to the life of the soul, while the latter has to do with the concerns of the present life—not only with food and clothing but with laying down laws whereby a man may live his life among other men holily, honorably, and temperately. For the former resides in the inner mind, while the latter regulates only outward behavior. The one we may call the spiritual kingdom, the other, the political kingdom. (The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol I, Book III, Ch 19, p. 847.)


The juxtaposition of this description of divine governance with a review of God ‘s liberation of us through Jesus Christ suggests the distinctive task of all modern political science, viz., to find and develop a reconciliation between our freedom and individuality, on the one hand, and our need of collaboration and civility, on the other.


The immediate question before us here is: Does the reconciliation of individuality and governance embraced by the Reformation offer mankind a more civil, just and sustainable community than the various alternatives otherwise forged in modernity, such as the Leviathan proposed by Hobbes and Locke; the Capitalism recommended by Adam Smith with preliminary support from David Hume; the Social Contract advanced by Jean Jacques Rousseau; the Republican Government enshrined by Federalism in the American Constitution of 1787, and the radically diverse and yet egalitarian “identity” cultures currently emerging from largely immobilized traditional democracies? (The ancient alternatives, described especially well and comprehensively by Aristotle, became obsolete with the rise of the modern state, and beyond our moral and ethical reach with the arrival of Machiavelli and the eventual and consequent dawning of The Enlightenment. The Reformers, however, remained open to Aristotle’s politics for managing the affairs of their Kingdom on the Left; Did that help their Political Science escape the strictures of modernity? We’ll see!)


So—how did each of these modern regimes square the demands of liberated individuals with the elements of political life that protect and domesticate that liberation? Hobbes supposed that human beings are better understood as in a “state of nature” obtaining before their entry upon political life. Hence, he imagines us on an equal footing with each other (in strength, cunning, property), and radically egocentric—rather than as drawn by a teleologic nature toward ever greater sociality, neighborliness and practical and theoretic wisdom (as Aristotle and a bevy of “heathen” thinkers admired by the Reformers thought). Hence, his Leviathan provides powerful, legal protection of each citizen’s right-to-life, and thereby frees us each of our deepest fear (viz., of violent death at the hands of a neighbor), to pursue a lengthening list of “human” rather than “civil” rights. (Even with John Locke’s sympathetic adjustment, the imagined vast “state” seemed incapable of producing even the modicum of patriotism necessary to provide a standing army of civilians willing to stay in the breach just when their lives were at risk!)


Smith’s notion of an exclusively economic society composed of liberated, self-interested individuals guided by “an invisible hand” and supported by a “moral sentiment” native to humankind  needed, nonetheless, a government capable of ameliorating the several dislocations produced by industrial life—such as the propensity to monopoly among entrepreneurs, and the “idiocy” that is certain to develop among division-of-labor workers in industrial manufacturing.


Rousseau’s  “correction” of Hobbes’ droll description of the “state of nature” (in which life consists of “a war of each against all” and is consequently “nasty, poor, brutish, solitary and short”)  with his naïvely social “noble savage”, and his substitution of a community-forming “social contract”  in the place of the minimalist guarantee of “the right to life” was attractive—but the astringent “civic virtue” on which it depended turned out to be beyond the moral reach of any polity known to or imaginable in modernity.


James Madison and the founders of the American Constitution of 1787 sought a “more perfect union” (than the Articles of Confederation) for a population whose tendency to fractionalization was limited by (and therefore made controllable) a combination of institutional checks and balances known as “Federalism”, and the “greater number of citizens and extent of territory” presented by the array and extent of the 13 colonies (and manageable “by republican [i.e., “representative”] rather than of [“direct”] democratic government”.  (As I will argue later, this majority-faction-stopping diversity of culture and economy that empowered the Federalist political science of the American constitution was very helpfully supplemented by a Christianity bearing a distinctive mark of the Reformation—namely, a separation that came to be described here as between church and state!)


To find whatever political science may have been created by the Reformers, we must look initially (and perhaps exclusively) into their conception of temporal government—which Luther called the Kingdom on the Left. The principal elements of the theology which Luther and Calvin largely shared were drawn from Scripture and applied ultimately to mankind by God’s Right Hand in what Luther called the Kingdom on the Right: That we are “justified” in our relationship with God by Faith alone; That we are thus freed from the intermediation of the priesthood and thus become equal members of the Priesthood of all Believers, and that there is nothing we can do, either alone or in company, to win salvation (which, according to the terms revealed by holy Scripture, is a gift of Grace freely given by a loving God).


Luther sets out to establish a sustaining institutional form, legal structure, and political ethic—let us provisionally call it a “political science”—for his Kingdom on the Left by carefully hewing to the methodological advice Calvin posits at the end of his summary of God’s two-fold government of mankind:


Now these two [realms] …must always be examined separately; and while one is being considered, we must call away and turn aside the mind from thinking about the other. There are in man…two worlds over which different kings and different laws have authority. (Calvin, Ibid.)


From the beginning, Luther names “human reason” as the exclusive founder and caretaker of God’s Kingdom on the Left. Not only does he thus juxtapose Reason to Faith, but he credits Reason as capable (under certain conditions of rhetorical cultivation and experience) of resisting the sinful propensities of the flesh since The Fall as well as those stirred up in the world by Satan’s gratuitous blandishments.


This resistance is accomplished by the chief product of reason—”the sword of the [civil] law”—which, of course, “is in the world by God’s will and ordinance.” (Luther, “Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed,” in Timothy F. Lull, ed., Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings (Minneapolis, c1989), p. 660-61. Both law and its enforcement have been among us from the beginning, “for the world and the masses are and always will be un-Christian, even if they are all baptized and Christian in name.” Moreover, even the best Christian soul, while on earth, is carried about in a mortal body and cannot, therefore, escape the need of law “to keep still and to maintain an outward peace.” (Ibid., p. 665)


Reason “is to have no jurisdiction over the welfare of souls or things of eternal value”, and the Gospel is to have no jurisdiction over temporal affairs.


[A] man who would venture to govern an entire country or the world with the gospel would be like a shepherd who should put together in one fold wolves, lions, eagles, and sheep, and let them mingle freely with one another, saying, ‘Help yourselves, and be good and peaceful toward one another. The fold is open, there is plenty of food. You need have no fear of dogs and clubs.’ The sheep would doubtless keep the peace and allow themselves to be fed and governed peacefully, but they would not live long, nor would one beast survive another. (Ibid., pps. 665-66)


A key rationale for this stark separation of the two kingdoms and of reason from faith is that reason finds the axioms of Luther’s Reform theology utterly incomprehensible—a form of “foolishness”—even when stated in the most “reasonable” imaginable form. “God comes down to you!” Do not follow the instincts of reason; do not climb up to Him!


He has made a ladder, a way, and a bridge, to come to you, and says: I descend from heaven to you and become a man in the body of the Virgin Mary. I lie in the manger at Bethlehem. I suffer and die for you. So believe in Me, and have the confidence to accept Me as Him who has been crucified for you. (Ewald M. Plass, comp., What Luther Says (St. Louis, c1959), p.173, Para. 504 (and passim in the section on “Reason”)).


A critical consequence of all this is that nothing much about reason—including role in the management of temporal affairs—can be learned from the Bible. So, from whom can it be learned? From a bevy of “heathen” political thinkers led by Luther’s theological nemesis, Aristotle!


[N]othing is taught in the Gospel about how [the Kingdom on the Left] is to be maintained and regulated….Therefore the heathen can speak and teach about this very well, as they have done. And, to tell the truth, they are far more skillful in such matters than the Christians….Whoever wants to learn and become wise in secular government, let him read the heathen books and writings. (Quoted from Luther on Psalm 101 by Duncan B. Forrester, “Martin Luther and John Calvin,” in Strauss and Cropsey, eds., History of Political Philosophy (Chicago, c1963), p. 290, note 36.)


Despite this (to some) surprising bow to Aristotle, et. al., Luther does not entirely skip over his own largely rhetorical contributions to the political science of his Kingdom on the Left.


I have written more splendidly and profitably of civil authority than any teacher has ever done (except perhaps St. Augustine) since the times of the apostles. In this I may glory with a good conscience and with the testimony of the world. (Plass, p. 575, para. 1749).


And again, in 1532:


…since the time of the apostles, the office of the state has never been praised in the manner in which we have praised it. (Ibid., para. 1750).


His ultimate peroration on temporal authority (in his essay on why and to what degree it should be obeyed) is a paean of praise for the political that is worthy of Cicero or Aristotle (except for its opening clause):


[N]ext to the Gospel…no better jewel, no greater treasure, no costlier gift no finer foundation, no more precious possession, exists on earth than a government that administers and upholds justice. Government authorities are properly called gods. So great are the virtues, benefits, fruits, and good works that God has placed into this estate. For not in vain has He called its administrators ‘gods.’ He does not want this to be a lazy useless, idle estate, in which people seek only honor, power, pleasure, or mere self-interest and wantonness. (Ibid., p. 576, para. 1753).


All this amounts to Luther’s brand of forensic ( or teaching) rhetoric: Strategic comments meant to cultivate popular respect and willing obedience to God’s left-handed rule. To it, both he and Melanchthon add a student-recruiting and curricular proposal for raising the standard of statesmanship and legislative acumen. In his exhortation to the rising number of Christian princes to build schools for the temporal kingdom (from which has emerged the world’s loyal Lutheran colleges, including even Swedish and German ones in America’s Upper Midwest), Luther argues that Councilmen should feel duty-bound to provide civic education to children whose parents fail to do so. As those into whose “faithful keeping” God has consigned “the property, honor and life of the city” (i.e., the poleis, the distinctive political form of classical Greece), the Princes are told that they would be remiss in their duty before God and man if they did not seek its/their “welfare and improvement day and night with all the means at their command.”



…the welfare of a city does not consist solely in accumulating vast treasures, building mighty walls and magnificent buildings, and producing a goodly supply of guns and armor…A city’s best and greatest welfare, safety and strength consist rather in its having many able, learned, wise, honorable, and well-educated citizens. They can then readily gather protect, and properly use treasure and all manner of property. (Luther, “To the Councilmen of all Cities in Germany That They Establish and maintain Christian Schools (1524)”,  in Lull, op. cit., p. 713).

Read Part II of The Political Science of the Reformation.

Seeking Asylum in the World: 1980-1993

Part Seven of the essay Professor Without Portfolio.

I was fully inured to my Kenyon professoriate (but increasingly devitalized by it) when I piled Ellie and our two teenage daughters (Sam was in his second year at Dartmouth) into the Volvo on an early summer morning in 1980 and headed for Chicago’s Gold Coast. A year’s service as chair of Kenyon’s Department of Political Science had convinced me to take at least that much time away from the College and our hilltop home in Gambier, Ohio. The opportunity to do so was supplied by a fellowship to lead a research seminar for undergraduates at the Newberry Library in Chicago’s Near North Side on “The Idea of Privacy in the Western Tradition”.


I had then been 13 years at Kenyon, had reached the rank of Professor, and—until the experience of the chairship—supposed that I would retire, die, be buried and feted in Gambier. The chairship introduced me to the utterly strange world of academic administration. Suddenly the colleagues with whom I had designed and taught courses, criticized student performance, and negotiated tenure and promotions became my “patients”, each one suffering a distinctive and surprisingly advanced “illness”—egocentrism, rejection of institutional duty, demand of personal accommodations in compensation and perquisites which were not only inequitable but violations of collegiate policy. Their requests of me, their new chair, were very discreet and for “favors” that they knew were inequitable and unjust. Their discretion in making such requests was extended to the public denial of critical judgement of their colleagues in tenure and promotion cases, thus leaving the confusing impression that negative recommendations were rendered by the unanimous endorsement of the department. On three occasions, I stood alone before quizzical if not hostile students and colleagues to defend negative personal decisions rendered by universally positive colleagues.


In my haste to get a recess from the experience and the place, I encountered the severest imaginable criticism from my older  daughter; she would graduate from The Francis Parker School in Lincoln Park, Chicago, instead of with her friends at “home”! She and I have survived the breach. She has not forgiven me the substitution of Francis Parker for the finishing year in Ohio—but we have each borne and forgiven more serious affronts from the other both before and since and we love each other all the more profoundly.


Although the seminar on Privacy turned out to be popular—it attracted 25 students from almost as many colleges across the Midwest—Chicago turned out to be more fascinating for me and for many of the students. At its end, I resigned my professorship at Kenyon, joined the First National Bank of Chicago as a trainee, and thus launched at mid-life a 12-year career in Commercial Banking and Corporate Finance.


I’m still not entirely sure why I did that. Chicago’s bluff urbanity in the place of Gambier’s fecund rumour-mill and precious rusticity had something to do with it. A year’s fresh experience anywhere would have dulled the prospect for me of returning to the college and my departmental responsibilities, but the considerable charms of “that toddlin’ town” entirely obliterated it.


A yet larger factor was the malaise that swept into the college on the heels of the American withdrawal from Vietnam. The anti-war protest had enlivened the civic and intellectual life of the campus just as I began my teaching there. As the nearest thing to a local expert on the war and the Sino-Soviet relationship, the protest provided me a platform on which to establish my professorial standing in Kenyon’s “highly selective” enclave of privately educated sons of east coast professionals.  It diminished my “class” fear of both students and faculty, and gave me enough self-confidence eventually to notice that many of both were far less sure of themselves than they were anxious to seem. This was a critical discovery; it taught me something about myself that I might not have seen until much later in life.


My position on Vietnam—that American participation in the conflict amounted to “containment” and was in our national interest—was profoundly unpopular on campus and in academia. But the deliberative, even disputatious, culture at Kenyon in those days actually generated authority for those who espoused unpopular positions, so long as we did so with manifest care for the truth and civility.


Particularly at Kenyon, the discussion of the war occurred principally in the classroom rather than out on the quad, and the “teach-ins” were distinctly fair and respectful. It was the students who led the resistance to blockades, shout-downs, and building and office occupations, most of which were suggested by certain members of the faculty and staff who, ironically, regretted the braking effect of deliberation on precipitous action. In fact, an address by the studentpresident to an assembly called to close the college after the infamous Kent State incident resulted in its staying open, almost alone among Ohio’s institutions of higher learning. He turned the faculty away from closing down by arguing that we had sought refuge in Gambier from the world that included the Kent State violence in order to find deliberative counter measures to it. To give up the enterprise when it was most needed would be irresponsible foolishness. (I used the same argument from Augsburg’s chapel pulpit 30 years later, from which I was to preach just as the events of Nine Eleven were breaking—supplemented by a newer personal awareness that actual evil coexisted in the world and there was no reason to be surprised by evidence of it.)


By suddenly substituting in the aftermath of the war private for public affairs, and personal complaint for ringing rhetoric, the malaise took much of the civic life out of the place. Grade inflation set in, perhaps to help “our” graduates gain admission to the “best” law, medical and business schools. Graduation-credit equivalencies were suddenly easy to come by and were supplemented by an expansive list of “advanced placement” and off-campus study programs, perhaps to raise enrollment by making college more easily accessible. And these liberalities were accompanied by a major infusion of “soft” drugs, mostly in honor of Pleasure, newly enshrined as a legitimate objective of education, or to medicate a lengthening list of study-stopping or distracting psychic ailments. Those of us who had become legendary as “demanding” teachers were forced to lighten our assignments to retain adequate enrollments in our “elective” courses. Suddenly, there were few fora (and even those were ill-attended) on the vexing moral and ethical questions that had beckoned many of us to the academy in the first place. And there were no longer any acceptable ways to acknowledge true excellence; everything contributed to the transfiguration of “C’s” into “A’s” and true “A’s” into new “A’s”.


A simultaneous oversupply of employable Ph.D.’s deepened the malaise by suddenly lengthening the road to tenure and increasing the risk of being denied it by some bureaucratic bobble or vengeful colleague. This weakened collegiality and shifted institutional priorities to tenure and promotion processes and away from personal and professional achievements. Careers suddenly stopped progressing at home, and opportunities for fresh starts at other colleges or in related industries dried up. And those of us who had squeezed through the gates before the crush felt accidentally rather than deservedly privileged by good timing.


I would have fled half that hopelessness in any other industry. But those of us who professed the study of the human condition in and between such agglomerations as Polities, Tribes, Religions, Nation-States, Cultures felt “stuck”.  We resisted—unsuccessfully—the recasting of our Fields of Study as “Social Sciences”. Our fascination with Ideas and our skepticism of Data meant that we were lightly published, if at all, in the new spate of “refereed journals”. Our scholarship was argumentative and interpretive rather than research reports and methodological essays. We were not as sure as our counterparts that mankind was either destined to or was actually progressing morally and ethically.


Deep down, even the most ebullient of us suspected that because we had acquired our knowledge bookishly rather than experientially, and had certified its relevance for right living by reflection and discourse rather than by “practice”, we could not “do” and were left with only the ability to teach. (I traded that conviction after I left the classroom for one closer to the truth, namely, that such practical arts as banking and corporate finance serve private interest immediately, and the best academics begin, instead, with public things. Some of this insight was borne upon me by the conversation I had for years after I resigned my tenure and rank—with corporate figures that dreampt of professing their trade instead of practicing it, and academicians that dreampt of practicing a trade instead of professing it. One set of my interlocutors wanted to be better off economically, and the other morally. Very few, indeed, suspected that in our culture either dream excludes the other.



The truth is that the last half of my 15-year tenure at Kenyon eroded the promise with which it had begun. I saw (invented?) that promise at my first Kenyon commencement. A legendary professor of history was feted that day upon his retirement. Decked out in his academic robes and slightly stooped, he stood before the College to receive its collective gratitude and an honorary Kenyon degree conferred by the Board of Trustees.  The whole place came to its feet in a spontaneous expression of institutional, even communal, self-congratulation. I saw myself moving down the enchanted paths I imagined he had trod, establishing a storied reputation as citizen-hero and transformational teacher, receiving the visits of grateful alumni at every Homecoming in the living room of my farm-ette—and eventually around my headstone in the local cemetery.


Even while enduring the persistent exploratory probes of Kenyon’s privileged undergraduate ruffians, the critical elements of this image took salutary shape. I surprised those early challengers by confessing and firmly defending my convictions concerning the war in Viet Nam, and softened them, ironically, with a blunt candor to resist the “new” morality that substituted drugs for reflection as the route to understanding. Most of all, I represented to them a genuine fascination with ideas and celebrated the insights that our classroom interaction quite frequently generated. Even the most cynical of them began to see that drugs armed the mind with a miasma that obscured its image of both God and man.


In the end, I won their respect by the only form of teaching my fear of them would permit: I listened to them carefully and long enough to eventually confront them on each of our disagreements. Many of the most challenging and thoughtful of them got to coming over to the house to continue a discussion that had begun in the classroom—and then invited me into the fraternities to get me on their ground (and to return the hospitality).


(The test that I nearly failed was of my chaperoning skills for a moveable dance early in my second year. The daughter of a colleague of mine joined a coterie of volunteer dance companions imported for such occasions from a women’s college in northern Ohio and came into my particular zone of responsibility draped drunkenly over the strong, willing and wobbly body of a manly senior. All evening, I had been asked to share a “smoke” with students by providing a light for cigarettes that, in many cases, resembled those my father had made so brilliantly with one hand while guiding a team of horses in some task with the other. The students’ creations that evening were less refined, and the “tobacco” smelt strange—and when the colleague’s daughter came through in such imminent danger of giving up her favors on the dance floor itself, I realized the conspiracy of which I (and perhaps she) were subject. I found the president of the fraternity among the audience loudly anticipating the fast-approaching catastrophe and compelled him to agree that our watches, as well as the wall clock, had somehow gotten slow by about 15 minutes. With a loud and authoritative shout, I ended both the event and the spectacle. I learned the smell of “weed” that night and never again went near the dormitories on dance weekends.)


Having escaped that very close call by a widely admired deception, my reputation for intelligence and prudence leapt and I emerged as something of a classroom and advising legend. But within less than a decade, the realities of my professorial life became caricatures of my original expectation. What I originally assumed as mutual respect among professors turned out to be back-biting envy all too often or sharp-elbowed rivalry. The friendship for which I longed was possible, but only among the unranked and unelected. Many faculty seemed to suffer envy in the face of scholastic achievements by their colleagues. (A notice that I posted early in the 1970’s to the members of the department that a young colleague’s first book had been published by a major house elicited an anonymous “So what?” from one of them, and a “Who cares?” from another.) Sharp, personal repartee and quarrelsome public questioning greeted even departmentally sponsored guest lecturers, to say nothing of the presentations of Kenyon faculty. Whole departments showed up at public lectures either to cheer or castigate the lecturer. The intellectual life of the college became a tournament rather than an inquiry, a rivalry rather than a deliberation.


So—the year-off from my chairship of the department, and temporary relief from the lonely burden of responsibility for its liberating mission in an academy less and less interested in (or capable of) Liberal Education almost inevitably escalated into thoughts of resignation. Hence, at midlife I left the academy to more fully pursue my academic calling. I left the distracting trivialities of the ivory tower for what I hoped would be the gravities of the world. I abandoned colleagues in the hope of finding friends.

Developing a Self to Contend with the World

Part Six of the essay Professor Without Portfolio.

During the frequent station stops along the way from Ohio State through Hawaii to Kenyon, I learned that finding a job is a lot easier—and far less satisfying—than finding one’s place in the world. In fact, I now think that one’s place in the world does not even exist until one’s Self has developed enough perspicacity to recognize it. Known as “discernment” in the parlance of Vocation, such perspicacity seems to sharpen in deep reflection upon the events of one’s life—as though reflection was the stone, discernment the knife, and life the foot upon the pedal or the hand upon the wheel. And the life force rises and falls respectively during episodes of good or ill “fit”, good or regrettable work. (After the farm, my best fit (and worst work?) was practicing Journalism at Ohio State—and it entailed a distinctly maturing dose of suffering. Until the Augsburg presidency, my best “good work” (and least comfortable fit?) was professing Political Philosophy at Kenyon—and it revealed the dependency of good teaching on episodic learning (which disorients you just as you were becoming comfortable with the last course correction).  Although good work and good fit came closer together for me at Augsburg than at any other time in my life so far, my best “good work” has never—and will never–escape the strictures of duty.)


Although the kind of dialectic under discussion here may seem a tautology—or at least a paradox—it is neither. Self takes shape through interaction with the world, and its role in subsequent such interactions is made larger thereby. Eventually, the Self becomes strong enough—independent enough—to actually contend with the world, even-Steven (but never better than that while we are in the world).


My particular Self certainly lacked the capacity to contend with the world—especially the world of the conspiracy cabals of the late ‘50’s at Ohio State and, in the ‘60’s and ever since, of the exclusive partisan clubs among faculty at every college and university in the land—until I was well into my professoriate at Kenyon. The thing that effected its eventual invigoration was the recognition that the dialectic of world and self couldn’t advance vocationally without a third element—a teleological element made accessible by education and close acquaintanceship with admirable persons who could draw the Self upward (rather than relying on lower forces to propel it in that direction from below). The Ancients called that element “the good” and thought it rooted in Nature; many of the “moderns” who acknowledge it  think it a product of wishful thinking and believe it rooted, if anywhere, in History. Some very few call it “destiny” and think it a gift of the Divine. Whatever it is and whence ever it comes, it leavens the dialectic and enables it to rise—morally and consciously.


Only a couple of years earlier, with the confusion and self-consciousness of adolescence hard upon me, I encountered a sudden, stultifying fear for which this dialectic offered a balm. Triggered perhaps by the failure of my first venture in romance (she was Catholic, and both of us “knew” that any such inter-sectarian relationship had no future whatsoever), the fear was of the prospect of being profoundly and permanently alone. I reacted ambiguously—by casting about for ways to ingratiate myself with any nearby and popular group, on the one hand, and by seeking a radical independence of all groups, on the other (i.e., solitude in the place of alone-ness). In the long run, the stronger of these was the latter—because it entailed freedom, both “from” the prevailing biases of the groups, and “to” a life chosen by my lights and “belonging” to me (as one’s place in the world should seem). Of the two, I preferred independence. My experience suggested it as “realistic”; even when he was around, my father’s disappointment in me constituted an abandonment. His death was the ultimate abandonment—and it sent me rather more in search of an independent (rather than servile) inclusion, and a proud (rather than lonely) solitude.


The first “independent inclusion” I sought was of my peers. By that time, I had become acceptable to my mother and the portion of polite life in that part of the country that was governed by females, and secondarily by my father and his farmer friends. I was heir apparent to the 160-acre Appalachian farm he had acquired at the very end of the war. As the inheritor of his bass voice—and blessed by my mother’s subjection of me to piano and choral lessons—I was regularly asked to read Biblical texts in church or sing solo there or at the Grange, Farm Bureau, and other farmer meetings in the region.


But among my contemporaries, my standing was shaky.  I was too skinny—even with sharp elbows I couldn’t block out rival rebounders; too Eastern—older of two offspring of a college-educated Philadelphia mother who became a demanding teacher in the Southeastern Ohio school district she helped found; too musical and literary—no locker-room tales of romantic dalliances, too few of risky adventures with comrades, and nowhere near enough badinage skills to qualify as the kind of raconteur that was admired in those parts in those times.


Obtaining full acceptance by the trend setters among my contemporaries without becoming the group wise-guy or comedian was best done by handsome fellows with first-team varsity ability in sport.  I was a good pitcher of softball, but that was after-school church stuff—not enough physical combat to rival the standing of football. (I came close to measuring up when I inadvertently fractured a batter’s ankle with a fastball.)


So—I chose “thinking” as my strategy. I had learned something of the art from my mother. She made good use of it in constructing the speeches that her education, accommodating disposition, civility and clever turns-of-phrase qualified her to make to school, church and farm audiences all over the region. Her father had been a Methodist minister known best for his graceful homilies. My father’s curse-laced speech and sharp wit was widely admired among his compatriots. So, thinking and fluent rhetoric had a good reputation in the family. Hence, I have always equated them, and have become a devotee of forensic rhetoric—of clear, fascinating and instructive expression in the classroom, from the podium, and on paper. (And a preference, in private, for “rich” speech, though free of obscenities.)


At the time, thinking seemed a distinctive strategy. It was non-confrontational. It didn’t require an assertion of “rights” or “due to’s”. It needed but a certain persistence, a constantly furrowed brow, and a self-effacing interest in the remarks of interlocutors who thought themselves particularly smart or learned. It played out in rhetorical gambits with which I could acceptably interrupt and enter the conversation of the moment: “But what about….?” Or “Don’t you think….?” Or “Didn’t I just read ….”?


Although I didn’t realize it until greater maturity came to me, thinking had the added advantage of going straight to ideas. It didn’t pause over feelings. Whether the idea of the moment was “good” or “bad” didn’t matter half as much as whether it was “sound”. Thinking allowed for conversation with charlatans as well as angels, with people I secretly wanted to punch—or embrace. It allowed for a relational life outwardly devoid of love or alienation.


Although the strategy didn’t work so well for my immediate purposes—it didn’t lift me directly into the local “in” crowd—it did foster a peculiar form of reflectiveness useful for breaking free of the tyranny of popular opinion. (The other day I found notes of a week’s worth of “all nighters” in my 19th year to elect “qualified” judges—one or two only of good and knowing friends who approved of  me and my character—and to deny to casual critics such as store clerks to whom I had given too little or too much cash for my purchase or drivers irritated by the abruptness or hesitation of my left turns the power to flay my tender soul with a sharp word or obscene gesture.)


Beyond that election of those possessing the exclusive right to judge me, perhaps the earliest and most elementary realization of my search for independence and a place of my own was that writing is less a vocation than a modus-operandi. That turns out to be true, also, of academic fields-of-study. Political Philosophy, for example, is a profession—defined by a code of conduct among practitioners rather than by their dedication to justice, civility or neighborliness. Only when one consciously choses the aim of one’s political philosophy as well as a realistic strategy for effecting it, does one have a love-thy-neighbor vocation—either political, non-political or anti-political.

From Politics to Political Philosophy: 1966-1980

Part Five of the essay Professor Without Portfolio.

Just as I was closing in on the B.A., I was encouraged to apply for admission to the M.A. program by one of the several mainland profs found taking “leave” at the University of Hawaii in those days—Bob Horwitz of Michigan State University. To test his notion that I would make a good academic, he hired me to interview Hawaiian homesteaders on Molokai, the Big Island (Hawaii), and Oahu for his Ford Foundation land study. Each of these families homesteaded 30-35 acres, all but the house and yard of which was planted to pineapple and harvested by Dole Corporation. My first published academic writing grew out of that work. It concerned the “unrealized promise”, as I saw it, of a timber industry on the Islands’ watersheds, which were “reserved” by the missionaries-turned-land owners exclusively to irrigate sugar cane and pineapple crops. (Ellie’s family had direct experience with this Hawaiian form of “colonialism”: On a certain Friday early in the 20th century, her grandfather was kicked by a mule that was used to “flume” cane to the mill on Maui by way of wooden irrigation raceways. He died early the following week; the Planters did not provide weekend medical services on the plantations.)


The land study work introduced me to Alan Spitz, a student of Horwitz’s who had been in Army Intelligence in Japan. He had married Mariko there, and they had two children almost exactly the ages of Sam and Kelly. He and I often took the four of them on Sunday mornings to the comparatively empty beaches at Waikiki or Diamond Head, and talked of cabbages and kings and other such things as they got sand-caked and sunburned. (“What were you doing? They could have been burned to a crisp or carried off by sharks!!”) Over the years after Hawaii, Alan often invited me from Kenyon to discuss the Marxism of Mao Tse-tung and related matters at seminars and lecture series he organized as department chair or dean at Washington State, Michigan State, and the Universities of Wyoming (Laramie) and of New Hampshire (Durham). He admired my notion that the “totalitarians” were prompted by “ideology” rather than opportunity, but didn’t think political philosophy was within his intellectual reach. For my part,  I admired his humility—and wondered why I, of all people, blundered in where angels feared to tread!  I lost track of Alan and his family when his nomadic academic career carried him to the University of Alabama at Huntsville, and mine to the First National Bank of Chicago.


Horwitz, himself, brought me to Kenyon from the University of Washington in 1967 to help “refound” the college’s department of political science, an assignment he had won as Kenyon prepared to admit women after 145 years of men only. The department had been roiled by the doctrinal dispute of the day—between the social science and traditional “civics” treatment of the subject—and had been reduced by retirements and resignations. In moving from Michigan State to a liberal arts college, Horwitz (who had studied under Leo Strauss at the University of Chicago) was pursuing his pedagogical preferences—but also a rare opportunity to build a political science department in an image he had learned from Strauss. At Kenyon, he became the classic academic entrepreneur. Even the most accidental encounter with him on campus or in the village became a departmental meeting or petition. The president and dean worried that he would exact a new position or speaker invitation from them during the briefest of exchanges at the post office or in the grocery. He made us the second largest department in the college, close upon the heels of English, the blessed beneficiary of Kenyon’s post-war recruitment of John Crowe Ransom and the Kenyon Review, the house journal of Ransom’s  “new criticism”. (Eventually, of course, all of us in the humanities at Kenyon and similar places were eclipsed by the employment promises of the bio-sciences.)


Horwitz’s singular dedication to the Kenyon assignment was characteristic of him—and helped me moderate my own similar propensity later on. Despite the medical and dietary advice he received from the Cleveland Clinic in the early days of heart bypass surgery, he died about two-thirds of the way through my 15 year tenure there. (He would regularly come out to the house on slack days at the college on the pretext of consulting on a departmental issue, make straight for the refrigerator, and consume whatever forbidden fruit he could find there—all beyond the knowledge of his wife and doctors.)

Marriage as Antidote to a Life Too Public

Part Four of the essay Professor Without Portfolio.

A year earlier, I had met among the university’s officially-sponsored student organizations one  Eleanor Chiye Omoto. A san-sei (her grandparents had emigrated from Japan to Hawaii), she had come as far East as Ohio State to secure the mainland post-secondary education that Japanese and Chinese families in Hawaii of even modest means then thought superior to any existing option in the islands. We married in the wake of The Spokesman saga, and commenced in Hawaii a 25-year marriage that produced three complicated, distinctive and wonderful children (Sam and Kelly in Hawaii and Kate in Seattle), helped me acquire three post-secondary degrees (the B.A. and M.A. from the University of Hawaii, and the Ph.D. from the University of Washington, all in Political Science and Chinese Studies) and gave us for much of 13 years a rich and fulfilling life in Gambier, Ohio, home of Kenyon College, about an hour’s drive from where I had grown up. There the children were raised pretty largely by their mother in partnership with the public schools;  “Dad” was AWOL—writing his dissertation, teaching, advising, and getting caught up in the infinitesimally insignificant and yet infinitely absorbing issues of campus life. Ellie refused the offers of time and curriculum to earn an undergraduate degree, and we separated and divorced in the 1980’s, after we had moved to Chicago and all three children had left home. We remain in close and regular contact.


During the first two-thirds of the Kenyon sojourn, I was busy defending the American military presence in Southeast Asia. During the rest of it, I sought with increasing desperation to defend liberal education against the growing attack of pre-professional undergraduate training.


Ellie had helped me escape the addictive, cabalistic life of dogmatic journalism I had fallen into at Ohio State. She thought I would make a good academic. Our marriage forced me to corral the peripatetic scatter of my life. I began moving systematically toward a Bachelor’s degree in Politics, the subject that I liked most to write about, and I experimented along the way from Ohio State to the University of Hawaii with several alternatives to the future lost in my father’s death.


In the wake of the collapse of The Spokesman, I edited a weekly journal on “super modified” automobile racing. It was assembled and published in Granville, Ohio, and entailed my carrying a 35mm Heiland Pentax to the infields of dirt tracks around the Midwest to photograph—and dodge—spectacular spin outs and wrecks. (I suffered one scare in those days that almost broke me of my smoking addiction. I switched to “chewing” because composing and laying out the racing paper required the uninterrupted use of both hands for about four solid hours at a time. One morning, during a one-sided exchange with a highway patrolman particularly critical of my driving, I got over the chewing but not quite the addiction; I swallowed my “cud” and suffered a day’s worth of violent “hick-ups” unrelieved by—well—regurgitation.)


For a while during this period, I wrote a weekly column on urban affairs and race relations for a Black-owned daily in Columbus whose staff, to our mutual entertainment, couldn’t avoid overexposing my half-column author’s photo. At the outset of the Hawaii sojourn, I wrote “features” and sold ads for a dual-language (Tagalog and English) bi-weekly newspaper on Oahu near Pearl Harbor. Within a year of my arrival in Hawaii, friends of Ellie’s family recommended me for a job at a 24-hour service station between Ala Moana and Waikiki in Honolulu. Eventually, I managed the night shift and developed a close relationship with the Hawaii Armed Services Police (HASP) who came to the station as needed to quell the all-too-frequent melees between shore-leave sailors down from Bremerton and the local Hawaiian men who regretted the naval incursion upon “their” vaunted beaches and night life.