• Karl Thunemann

ICONS OF AMERICA

Mary Strachan Scriver


As I look back at it now, those early Fifties, I think my father was endangering a family he never ought to have had, all the while believing that he was endowing us with privilege. He worked for an ag cooperative and once a year his way was paid to do a national convention at some major ag-focused college.


We were not a rich family and he thought he was very clever to trade his check for enough money to somehow squeeze in as many American icons as we could drive to in a couple of weeks.


One of the economies was pulling a tent trailer. There were no campgrounds, but it was safe to sleep along the road. Eisenhower’s highway construction meant many gravel pits, which was a slightly different sort of industrial icon. Someone should write a history.


We visited a lot of battlefields. I’ve never forgotten the taste of the ripe peaches at the Peach Orchard battle site. Fort Ticonderoga. Can Old Ironsides be a battleground?

My father was raised mostly in South Dakota, but his family also tried to get a toehold in far north Manitoba. He always had a sort of split allegiance and maybe that’s why I have less sense of America and American patriotism as a governmental entity. More vivid to me is the North American continent and the borrow pits we stepped out onto in the mornings. We camped late at night, my father sometimes gripped by a kind of driving hypnotism. A few times we inadvertently set up camp too near a railroad track and woke terrified in the night. One night a medium sized black bear gave his back a good scratching on the underside of the camp trailer which made us a little seasick. He did not damage.


It was a media-generated list: the Washington DC basics: Jefferson Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument but somehow neither the Capitol nor the White House. We hung over the fence and saw Mt. Vernon from a distance because we were a little too late. I got the idea that the Statue of Liberty was in Washington DC but knew that the Empire State Building and the Rockettes stage show, which we attended, were in New York City where we rode the subway and would have lost half the family when a door closed suddenly, except that a native New Yorker, while reading his paper, reached out and blocked the door.


We visited a lot of battlefields. I’ve never forgotten the taste of the ripe peaches at the Peach Orchard battle site. Fort Ticonderoga. Can Old Ironsides be a battleground?



peach orchard

We went to Montreal and had breakfast at the Chateau Laurier, a mixture of snobbery and defiance. Neither adult explained anything to us kids. I’m not sure my mother knew about all these places. They were what my father had learned to consider important in school and from post-war magazine stories celebrating the nation.


I woke up a bit when we went to Concord and visited the house of the Alcotts with Amy’s pencil drawing still on the woodwork. And again when we visited the Limberlost and the home of Gene Stratton Porter. These were considered major concessions to my interest because I would be a famous writer, make the family proud. On the other hand we were told not to cross the Mojave Desert until sundown. My father got restless, so we drove in late afternoon, and I felt I was dying. Death Valley was not that hot.


I have no appetite for travel now. Bob’s niece always used her vacations to travel to Vegas, but she doesn’t gamble. She just likes to walk around in the glamorous commotion. She feels like she’s at the center of civilization, which to her is about money. Many people around here seem to have the same mental picture and maybe they’re more realistic than I’ve ever been.


Over the years, as you know if you’ve been following my blogs, my mental image of North America is geological, based on plate tectonics, and braced for anything. Mt. St. Helens, which I saw out my bedroom window every morning in Portland, exploded while I was in Chicago at school. When a big piece of Mt. Jefferson slid off the mountain, we saw it from a high floor on the Portlandia building. I was here on the rez when the Big Flood took out Swift Dam. I’ve heard the stories as Oregon Coast erosion eats beaches and houses.


My father would not have been able to understand pulling down bronze monuments, particularly the Portland icons like that crazy elk on the fountain for thirsty horses or Teddy Roosevelt, mounted, in the park blocks. Bob Scriver, who spent so much of his life creating those heroic figures, would have been gutted. I don’t like to see those things happening either, but one of the first stories I Iearned about bronze was that cannons were melted to get the bronze for the castings of portraits of heroes — but then the statues might be melted to cast cannons.


It’s not always glorious. The statue of Jefferson, in front of my old high school in Portland, was pulled down by one guy in the middle of the night. He couldn’t have done it if some other guy hadn’t parked his car and helped. Neither had any particular animosity. They just wanted to do it.

If mountains can crumble or explode, it’s folly to think of “civilization” as anything but a process that moves or dies just like everything else. Or anybody else, no matter how many iconic scenes they can claim to have visited. How many statues they have pulled down.



 












Mary Scriver is a retired Unitarian minister who lives in Valier, Montana