Thursday, July 3, 2008

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Butter Trays

From 1977 to 1992, I worked in television production out in Colorado. The pay wasn't much, so most of my vacations involved throwing a tent, sleeping bag, and ice chest into the back of my pick-up truck, picking a direction and just heading out. No schedule, no timetable and no particular destination. I'd stop at every historical marker, museum, and point of interest turned cow pasture on whatever road I was on. I've been to quit a few out of the way places; from Missoula to El Paso; from California to Kansas. The best museums are not the one's that have the fancy goo-gah's and ornate foo-frah's. The best museums are the one's that have the worn out, common everyday items. The things people actually used. It's the simple, and the unadorned, that can give one insight and appreciation for the "lives of quiet desperation". They are most often found in small town museums; towns where the two lane highway doubles as main street. Little one room museums around the corner, that don't charge an entrance fee, but just have a donations jar on the desk when you walk in. I always know I'm in the right place when I see the donations jar.

Take the butter tray as an example of the common and unadorned. Old butter trays have a compartment underneath for shaved ice. Nobody saved these butter trays on purpose. Nobody ever said, "We need to save this because some day they'll invent electricity, and refrigeration, and soft spread margarine, and whatever that stuff is that you can squirt out of a tube right on to your sandwich." They survived by luck of the draw, by their own tiny share of cosmic significance. Set on a shelf in some little room, with the shaving bowls and hand drills, collectively shouting "We're still here."

Ice production was a huge industry at one time. The United States was once the world's leading exporter of ice. Loaded by the ton onto sailing ships, packed in sawdust, and sent around the world. The English in India considered the possession of American ice to be a sign of "proper breeding." Boca Reservoir, west of Reno, was built specifically for ice production. It wasn't built by the state for the enjoyment of fishermen and pic-nickers. It's not a green zone financed at taxpayer expense. It is the remains of a business. It was created by a guy looking to make a buck. There's nothing left of the old ice house now. Nothing, save the reservoir itself. The foundation stones near the highway are from a brewery that came later. Nothing remains but things like butter trays, waiting for someone to wander in and make the connection.

My mother was responsible for taking care of some of the previous generation while they were dying. One result of this was, she inherited quit alot of old stuff. Enough antique furniture to redecorate her house, and literally stuff her garage to the rafters. At one time, you could barely open the garage door, much less walk around in there. Mom has a good eye for furniture, fine linens and such. She can spot the difference between the regular silverware and the good silverware, that sort of thing. I, on the other hand, have developed an eye for what can only be described as "curiosities". My main function in the family is to act as a kind of clearing house for the oddball debris of human life. As my brother Steve once said, "If Ron doesn't want it, it must really be worthless."

Sometimes mom will offer me something from my own childhood. Several years ago it was a set of books; a collection of Anglo-American literature published in 1927, about 30 books in all. (Hawthorne, Tennyson, Longfellow etc.) Mom bought them at a second-hand store to decorate her new house in the 1950's. Being a young mother of three, having a little literature around certainly wouldn't hurt, and besides, their red cloth covers looked good in the bookcase. They are mostly from what I think is called "The Romantic Era." There are also "Transcendentalists." I don't know much about that, I just like a good story. They serve as a kind of museum unto themselves. I call it "The Museum of Love and Glory." Today, as it was growing up, when there is nothing much to do, I pick one off the shelf at random and see if there's anything in there that I can understand. I was wandering in the Ralph Waldo Emerson wing of my little museum, looking for a tie-in to all of this political stuff I've gotten myself into lately, when I found this little butter tray of an idea. It seemed appropriate for the occasion. So, Happy 4Th of July to any and all who are still reading this.

Concord, July 4, 1857

O Tenderly the haughty day
Fills his blue urn with fire;
One morn is in the mighty heaven,
And one in our desire.

The cannon booms from town to town,
Our pulses are not less,
The joy-bells chime their tidings down,
Which children's voices bless.

For He that flung the broad blue fold
O'er-mantling land and sea,
One third part of the sky unrolled
For the banner of the free.

The men are ripe of Saxon kind
To build an equal state,
To take the statute from the mind,
and make of duty fate.

United States! the ages plead,
Present and Past in under-song,
Go put your creed into your deed,
Nor speak with double tongue.

For sea and land don't understand,
Nor skies without a frown
See rights for which the one hand fights
By the other cloven down.

Be just at home; then write your scroll
Of honor o'er the sea,
And bid the broad Atlantic roll,
A ferry of the free.

And, henceforth, there shall be no chain
Save underneath the sea
The wires shall murmer through the main
Sweet songs of Liberty.

The concious stars accord above,
The waters wild below,
And under,through the cable wove,
Her fiery errands go.

For He that worketh high and wise,
Nor pauses in his plan,
Will take the sun out of the skies
Ere freedom out of man.

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