The town in Central Ohio where I grew up didn’t have big department stores. You had to go to the capital, Columbus, for serious shopping. My mother would make that pilgrimage two to three times a year. It was an easy drive to the big city in our two-tone pastel green and white 1957 Plymouth Belvedere with matching green and black houndstooth upholstery and Fireball V-8 engine. No seat belts of course. The public battle with the car manufacturers had only just begun. Thirty-six thousand nine hundred thirty-two highway deaths in 1957 were still not enough to push Congress to pass a mandatory seatbelt law. It took until January, 1968, for a law to be passed requiring seat belts in all new private vehicles. By that time, highway deaths were exceeding fifty thousands per year.
But in 1957, I was blissfully cruising to the big city unsecured in my seat. I loved these trips. Once we got to Lazarus Department store, my mother would turn me loose while she was free to shop. I don’t think she ever thought I was in any danger of being molested in the bathroom or kidnapped by some pervert. I suppose those things did occur but the incidence was so low that it never seemed to be a concern for my mother. I would head straight to the toy department, riding the escalators with great glee and sometimes, if no one was behind me, I would attempt to walk down the up escalator just for the thrill of besting the machine. It felt like a real accomplishment for a seven-year-old. It also provided a bit of satisfaction to have done something a little contrary to the rules and gotten away with it. Was this the beginning of a life-long questioning of authority?
I would hang out in the toy department until my mother would come retrieve me after she had done her shopping. Sometimes she would have packages but most of the time she would have scheduled her purchases for delivery or she put things on lay-a-way, which was a service the store offered to good middle class people like my parents who could buy the things they needed by paying for them over a set period of time, interest free of course. Once paid for, they could be picked up or be delivered to our house. My mother would make her purchases using her charge plate. This was a flat metal rectangle about the size of the metal identification tags soldiers wear hanging around their necks.
The charge plates were embossed with the customer’s name, address and account number. When you made a purchase, the plate was put in a machine with a form that had three layers with carbon paper in between. When the lever of the machine was depressed, it forced an imprint to be made on the three copies. One was given to the customer and the store kept the other two for billing purposes. A monthly statement was sent to the customer who was expected to pay the bill by mail at the end of the month. If my memory is correct, my mother had three of four of these from different stores which she kept in her purse linked together by a beaded chain. Plastic credit cards with eighteen percent or higher interest charges were still several years in the future. They were something my parents never fully embraced even in later years. They felt paying interest was a waste of money. If you couldn’t afford it, don’t buy it, save for it if you really needed it.
After a fun morning of roaming Lazarus Department store, we would head to Mills Cafeteria. Mills Cafeteria with its neon windmill sign was a Columbus landmark since 1915. It was a place where shoppers could go for a moderately priced meal in a clean, brightly lit atmosphere. The customer would go through the food line and indicate their choices to the staff who would hand it to you to be placed on your tray. If children were too young to handle their tray or a customer was elderly, staff would carry your tray for you. I remember insisting that I could manage my own tray and would then be extra careful how I carried it so as to not embarrass myself and incur the wrath of my mother.
There were two things I loved about Mills Cafeteria. One was the “Clean Plater Club”. If your parents would vouch for you that you had eaten all your food and not wasted anything, you got to pick out a free toy from a bin that was behind a counter. The toys weren’t all that great but it felt special to get something for free and to have the approval of the restaurant and your parents. I know the concept of being a “clean plater” has come under criticism in recent years linking it to increased obesity in America. In 1957, we either didn’t have such a problem or it hadn’t been realized. For me, growing up in a Scots-Irish Protestant home, my parents’ mantra was definitely, “Waste not, want not”. They were children of the Great Depression of the 1930’s and I think they were proud that they could always provide enough food for their children. This had not always been the case for their parents. I was expected to eat all of what I had chosen.
The other thing I loved about this restaurant was the gigantic mural* on the wall beside the staircase that led to the upper dining area. It covered the entire wall from top to bottom. It was painted by two Hungarian immigrants, Andrew Karoly and Louis Szanto from New York City. It depicted a vista of the Ohio River looking toward Belpre and Blennerhassett Islands from Marietta, Ohio. There were, what seemed to my child’s eyes, endless details that fired my imagination. With its warm pigments of yellows, reds, blues, browns and greens it illustrated a romantic montage of Ohio in its early days. There was a steamboat as well as a keelboat that gave the impression of cruising on the mighty Ohio River. To my mind’s eye, they were not statically fixed on the mural but in motion heading to or from somewhere exciting, full of adventure and mystery. Two people are seen carrying a canoe up the water front who I imagined were returning from some foray into the wilderness.
There were representations of famous nineteenth century personages of Daniel Boone, Johnny Appleseed, the composer Stephen Foster and busts of US Presidents from Ohio: Grant, Hayes, McKinley and Taft. The great inventor, Thomas Edison, is depicted along with the Union Army Civil War General and hero, William Tecumseh Sherman.
The mural also had vignette scenes of life in 19th century Ohio. There was a covered bridge, an old mill, scenes of maple sugaring, farming at the famous Malabar Farm of author Louis Bromfield, one of the early proponents of sustainable agriculture and land conservation techniques. There was one thing after another to hold a child’s attention.
But the main draw for me that I always returned to was the depiction of a boy looking across the landscape. He was holding a history book. Beside him was his faithful dog seeming to also be enthralled by what he saw. That boy, with his back to the viewer was me. I was in that painting and the painting was real life in my young mind. The bounty and history of Ohio and America was spread out before me. I was eager to embrace it. If it was the intention of the artists to glorify the past and inspire the future in a youth, they succeeded, in my case, most gloriously.
This view of America stayed with me me for many years. It was supported by a daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag that was performed every morning in school. It was further reinforced by my years in the Boy Scouts where patriotism was encouraged. I earned my God and Country merit badge when I was 14. This was an award the Boy Scouts had that entailed a series of consultations with my Presbyterian minister, Rev. Dr. Irvin Emmons. He was a very intelligent and educated man, a Princeton Divinity graduate who, I believe, recognized in me a spiritual nature. He suggested I consider pursuing a path into the ministry. While I didn’t follow that path, I did become a psychotherapist, which could perhaps be considered a form of secular ministry.
Reverend Emmons is also responsible for my awakening to the value of all human beings and the connectedness we share. One Sunday before Labor Day, he gave a sermon about the value of all workers. He pointed out that the work of all people from the least skilled to the most skilled contributed to the wealth and welfare of everyone. He pointed out where we would be as a society if we didn’t have garbage collectors or plumbers or any of the other jobs that keep us safe and healthy. He made a compelling argument for not judging people by their wealth and social status. On that day something awakened in me. I felt myself a part of society in a way my young self had never experienced. I can’t say I became a Democrat that day in a congregation that was mostly a sea of conservative Republicans but it did inoculate me from ever becoming the Trump type Republican we see today. If any of my readers are Ministers, Rabis, Priests, Imams, or other legitimate spiritual leaders and have at times despaired whether your weekly sermons or homilies made any difference to your congregants, trust that your words inspire people more than you will ever know. Words spoken in support of all humanity are seeds seeking fertile ground. That day my mind was this fertile ground.
It wasn’t until my last year of high school that my here-to-fore solid vision of America and its greatness was challenged. The word Vietnam increasingly had found their way into American homes especially via television. This was 1968, a momentous year for America. The North Vietnamese Army launched a major offensive in January. This offensive, while devastating to the North Vietnamese Army and indigenous forces of the Viet Cong, is credited with initiating an end to US involvement in Vietnam, although the war tragically dragged on for another four years.
On April 4th of that year, exactly 53 years from the writing of this essay, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Almost two months later to the day, on June 5th, Robert Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles, California. This was also the year Richard Nixon was nominated by the Republican Party on a law and order platform. Two weeks later the Democratic Party nominated Hubert Humphrey in Chicago amid anti-war protests that turned violent as police waded into the protestors and began beating and teargassing them.
I can’t say I fully grasped what was happening in my America. I still thought it was important to support my country. As readers will remember in a previous essay, I actually tried to enlist in the Armed Forces after graduation only to be redirected by a Navy Chief to get an education first. Like many Chiefs I have since met, he had a kind of worldly wisdom that a seventeen-year-old never has.
It was in college that the Mills Cafeteria vision of America faced its first real test. It was in classes and in discussions with peers that I had to reckon with the contradictions between what I had been taught by so many of the people I loved and respected and what I saw happening around me. It wasn’t easy. It was the first time I questioned my own patriotism. It was a time of reevaluation of what I believed in. This process was made even more acute by a year spent going to school outside the United States. I wrote about one experience in the WWII American Cemetery in Luxembourg that was particularly intense in a previous essay titled, “Zoe”. I even wondered if I wanted to return to America.
I did return and immediately after my graduation, I was drafted in the last call-up of my local Selective Service Board. I considered fleeing to Canada where many young men had gone to avoid military service. I could not bring myself to do that. I ultimately did not have to serve as a result of a spinal injury in high school sports but I didn’t know that until I had my pre-induction physical. I can now say that I have no regrets that I didn’t “dodge” the draft as the term was used at the time. I am also grateful that that my name isn’t on that long black granite wall in Washington D.C. of the 50,000 plus of my peers who died in Vietnam. I am saddened by their untimely deaths.
Sometimes it is easy to love your country, especially when you see the opportunities it offers to its citizens to prosper or when it does the amazing feat of landing a man on the moon. It is harder when you see that some citizens are limited in their ability to prosper because of their gender or race. It strains one’s ability to feel pride in one’s country when it continues to wage wars with no end or goal in sight. And for me, it is especially difficult when our citizens and our elected officials stand by silently as week after week citizens are murdered with guns that are easier to obtain than the ability to mail an absentee ballot in an election.
I read just today that the state of Tennessee has sent to the Governor’s desk a bill that would allow just about anyone to openly carry a firearm. Similar bills are being put forward in many other states. I am left wondering, is this the wars we have foisted on numerous countries through the years coming home in a form of self-destructive Karma? What are we becoming, a nation that resolves all its grievances through violent confrontation, whether it is in a domestic dispute in our homes, grudges against employers in the workplace, revenge for bullying in our schools, or fear of people of other races or cultures? It seems the voices of reason have been drowned out by the frightened, the weak minded, the angry, the aggrieved political and social voices in America. At times it makes that awe-struck little boy staring in wonder at the glorious mural on the wall of Mills Cafeteria want to cry, to scream, “Where is the joy and optimism of America!”
Should anyone think, in reading this that I have given up on America, I assure you that, while over the years I have been brought to the brink of giving up on the promise of democracy, I still hold in my heart the belief that democracy is the one best hope for America and the world to promote freedom and to advance in its understanding of what civilization can achieve. Democracy is messy. It makes us struggle with our worst and best aspirations. It recognizes injustice and struggles to alleviate it. It is imperfectly perfect.
If I could paint, I would create a sequel to the mural on the wall of Mills Cafeteria. It would feature a young boy and girl looking outward. This time they would be looking across the Potomac River toward the Capital. In the distance would be the Lincoln Monument, the Washington Monument, the Capital Building, the White House. On the Capital Mall would be thousands of people looking toward Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., speaking from a raised platform.
Surrounding the painting, forming a kind of inner frame, would be miniature portraits. These would show martyred Presidents: Lincoln, McKinley, Garfield, Kennedy who all died of fatal gunshot wounds. There would be portraits of the scientists who developed the vaccine for polio that ended that pandemic: Hilary Koprowski, Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin. Harriet Tubman, James Meredith, Sojourner Truth, John Brown, Frederick Douglas, James Baldwin would be included representing the struggle for equality of the races. Susan B. Anthony, Jeannette Rankin, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Dr. Mabel Ping-Hua Lee, and Wilhelmina Kekelaokalaninui Dowsett would be depicted for their work as early sufsuffragists and women’s rights.
The Apollo 7 astronauts would be depicted. Along the bottom of the mural would be the flags of all the nations who have a viable, functioning democracy. High in the sky would be the Space Shuttle and a bald eagle. Just above the horizon is a tiny image of a Wright Brother’s biplane. There would be images of Christian Churches, Jewish Synagogs and Islamic Mosques. There would be scenes of children of all the ethic and racial groups found in America playing together. In one corner there would be a blacksmith beating an AR-15** gun barrel into a plowshare.***
In the foreground are a boy and a girl about the same age as the boy in the original Mills Cafeteria mural. Sitting next them is the same dog. Standing beside them is a man with silver hair. He is handing the boy and girl a copy of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. Included in this sheaf of papers is a copy of the Magna Carta and a book entitled, “Federalist Papers”.
In my mind this is an unfinished work. There is still space that could be filled with significant images. I welcome readers’ input on this work in progress. I hope my international readers will have suggestions from their own country’s history. Perhaps together we can create a “mural” that inspires the next generation to see the rewards and struggles of democracy and encourages them to face the challenges of the future.
Goodbye Columbus and thank you.
Thank you for being one of my readers. I welcome your feedback and suggestions you have for adding to my “mural”. This essay has been a long time coming, you might say a lifetime. It takes a certain amount of personal history to gain insight into where one has been and know where one now stands. I often tell my young clients that life is a marathon not a sprint. Every day is an opportunity to make a positive difference in your own and others lives.
*The mural in Mills Cafeteria has apparently been lost to time. It disappeared in 1977 when the building was torn down. If anyone knows what actually happened to it, please let me know. You can find a photograph of the painting by Googling, Mills Cafeteria, Columbus, Ohio.
**An AR15 is a high powered, semi-automatic, military style assault rifle with a high rate of firing. It is readily available in the U.S. and has been used in several of the mass killings in the U.S. in recent years.
***This a reference to Isaiah 2:4 in the New International Version of the Christian Bible: “And He shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”
My last essay, written by guest author, Lemuel Gulliver, received many comments from readers. Two said they thought it was brilliant. Several found it intensely funny. A couple of readers said they started reading with a sense of dread as they thought this was truly a pro-gun piece. A few paragraphs in, they realized that it was satire and were greatly relieved. I have passed all these comments on to Mr. Gulliver and invited him to submit more essays. Satire, like pure humor, is difficult for me to write. I am usually so serious in my response to events in the world. Like they say in the theater world, “Dying is easy, comedy is hard”. I’ll see if Mr. Gulliver or maybe some other guest writers will help me intersperse some levity between these more serious essays.
Hello and welcome to my newest reader from Bitburg, Germany.
As always, love the ones you are with and the ones you wish you could be with. Life is short even without a pandemic to threaten it. Be safe. Be well.