Outtakes: A fascination with slightly off center

When you reach the broken promised land
Every dream slips through your hands
And you’ll know it’s too late to change your mind
‘Cause you pay the price to come so far
Just to wind up where you are
And you’re still just across the borderline
~ Ry Cooder, Across the Borderline

Harrison Ford and I turn 75 this year, but that’s about where our likeness ends. He is still moving forward in the movie business, while I’m looking backward over my life, contemplating whom I met and what I remember about them. In doing so I am trying to recall what it was about memorable people that sticks in my mind. It turns out that most of them fell slightly off center in their personalities, purposes in life and what they did to give me that impression. It probably says as much about me as it does about them. They come in various shapes, sizes and categories of interest – from New England secession, to a history of baseball, to books in which the author mixes a mulligan stew of ideas causing the reader to wonder where he gets the data to back it and, sometimes asking, “What in the world is he saying?”

Let me say now that Blade Runner, one of Ford’s early movies, was based on a story by one of these eccentric people, Philip Dick – perhaps my favorite science fiction writer. The title of his story upon which Blade Runner was based was Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Irony is a major technique that Dick uses. As Ford hangs off a building roof by his fingertips, he is saved by the very android he is supposed to kill. Dick’s replicant, in fact, has human characteristics such as mercy, in addition to a human body. Dick is off center from many current sci-fi writers who bring charging robots, dragons and all sorts of non-human characters into their stories. He, instead, made you feel you were reading about a current situation until, that is, it turned slightly askew of present reality. His book, The Man in the High Castle, depicts an America in which Germany and Japan won World War II. But, wait, there’s this guy Hawthorne Abendsen who lives in a guarded estate in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and has written a book called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy about an alternate universe in which Germany lost WW II. In Dick’s story, the Germans burned Abendsen’s novel.

How about someone else off center? My secessionist writer and friend, Thomas Naylor, was a resident of Charlotte until his death five years ago. He led the charge for our state and whoever wanted to join us, to pull out of the union and form our own nation-state that focused on community, local control, local resources and the needs of a smaller group of people than the current U.S. population. Our country as it is presently configured, he believed, was too big for the good of many of its citizens. Since Thomas’ death the current state of the nation does not show a great deal of improvement, and secession may be a possibility. (I want you to know I’m writing this piece wearing my “Get the U.S. Out of Vermont” T-shirt.)

Naylor had a number of believers who joined him, not the least of whom was Rob Williams, at the time a yak farmer and co-author with Ron Miller of the book on Vermont titled, Most Likely to Secede with a sub title reading, “What the Vermont Independence Movement Can Teach Us about Reclaiming Community and Creating a Human-Scale Vision of the 21st Century.” “Human scale” seems to be a positive description of what the secessionists would like to see in a new nation state.

And secession may seem an unusual cause for Naylor, given his own upbringing, scholarship and 24 years on the Duke University faculty in the economics department. He grew up in Mississippi and considered his father a racist. Following higher education at major universities, he went on the faculty at Duke. After serving as president of a computer software firm, he turned to international management consulting, during which time he traveled to the Soviet Union. It is quite likely that it was there he developed an interest in separation of countries from a large union. He was an early predictor of the unexpected changes in the Soviet Union and its Eastern European counterparts, comparing its status to America that he felt was in a similar situation and should consider sizing down – hence the Second Vermont Republic.

Our current president’s political agenda, according to an article in a January 11 Seven Days, could speed up the secessionist move. The economics of a separate country are yet to be worked out. However, a smaller base would allow funds to be kept and used locally rather than sent on to large corporate powers.

The third off-center memory happens to be about a relative, my Uncle George Herter, an author of bizarre books and someone that nine years ago, the New York Times called “The Oddball Know-It-All.” His book titled Bull Cook and Authentic Historical Recipes and Practices lays real charge to the word “authentic” and what the Times called, “one of the greatest oddball masterpieces in this or any other language.” Whether it was Queen Mary of Britain’s taste for creamed spinach, George’s co-authorship with his son Jack Herter, Jr. – of which I know no Jack Herter, Sr. – or Charlemagne’s invention of sauerbraten, George knew it all and wrote confidently of its history. He also became famous (or notorious, depending on your point of view) for taking over his father’s clothing goods store in Waseca, Minnesota, and turning it into a sell-anything mail order house. Focusing on sporting goods, Herter’s soon branched into areas that were only peripherally sport related.

My fourth off-center memory is about my father’s friend Bill Veeck, a gamesman and major league baseball team owner who really knew the meaning of the phrase, “sports are meant to be fun.”

Did you ever hear of Eddie Gaedel? He was a baseball player who went straight to the St. Louis Browns on August 19, 1951, made one at-bat, walked on four consecutive pitches, was replaced by a pinch runner and left the team the same day. Eddie hit right-handed, threw left handed and stood three feet seven inches tall. He was one of Veeck’s publicity stunts. Another, which in point of fact was more for good pitching than for publicity, involved a tall African American who was called the “greatest pitcher ever excluded form Major League Baseball,” Satchel Paige. Veeck brought him to the Cleveland Indians a year after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. People, including Satchel himself, were uncertain exactly how old he was. The nearest guess was “around 40.” He pitched in 21 games his first year, his record standing at 6 wins and only a single loss by mid-season.

I have other off-center acquaintances I’m sure, and it is fun to pressure your brain into remembering exactly what gave them that slightly East-of-Eden character. I’d say it was hops. What do you think?