Darby and the Magic Moment

Probably the character in Howard Elman's Farewell most in line with my own thinking is Birch Latour. Birch, 24 (in 2014), is Howard Elman's grandson. Below are a few lines in Howard Elman's Farewell that Birch says in addressing the Darby Planning Board.

"Communities are always changing, but when we look at the history of a place we identify two important time periods, the idealized time period, what I call the Magic Moment and the End Time when change has so degraded the place that its Magic Moment identity is lost forever. Think of those communities in the southeastern part of our state. Darby is on the verge of its End Time. If we don't do something in the next few years the Darby we know will cease to exist."

It wasn't until I wrote that paragraph that I grasped an idea that was important to me. Perhaps the concept of the Magic Moment was there all along, but not at the surface of my consciousness; perhaps it's the act of writing that brings ideas up from the depths. It's as if Birch is a real person, who I channel. I think better when I type. Maybe my cognitive apparatus is my hands. Certainly the contents in my head have been questioned.

The Magic Moment is the notion that there's particular time period when a community's identity becomes fixed in the minds of its inhabitants and visitors. Change can be for the better or for the worse, and sometimes a place has such little beneficial emotional value to its residents that it doesn't matter what happens to it. My concern is for the special places, places that somewhere along the line establish an identity of value that lingers over time and that enlivens, enriches, and sustains its inhabitants. When such a place reaches its End Time it's a tragedy not just for one person but for many. I remember driving through a neighborhood in Youngstown, Ohio, back in the 1980s. Abandoned steel mills gave the place a lonely, haunted feeling. (Which later I noted in my novel Mad Boys.) I went back a decade later–no change. For all I know the place has come back, but I'll bet it's not the same Youngstown as before.

A big theme in my Darby books is the identity of the town, which is constantly under threat of one kind or another. Identity is a big theme in the real world, too. Some communities–especially big cities–seem to be able to withstand huge cultural–even disastrous–changes and still retain their identities. Think of Paris, Rome, New York, Boston, New Orleans. But even big cities can lose themselves. Look at Detroit. Will it ever again be the Motor City? Probably not. I think a general rule is that the smaller the place the more vulnerable it is to change and loss.

Darby's Magic Moment parallels the Magic Moment of the real town of Westmoreland, NH, where I live as I write this today. Here's how Birch Latour expresses the idea while he's addressing his fellow townspeople at the planning board hearing.

"'Darby's Magic Moment occurred in the decades following the American Revolution. Farmers grew crops, raised cattle, sheep, pigs, chickens, and turkeys. Local industry thrived: blacksmiths, tinsmiths, candlemakers, glass blowers, sawyers, and timber framers. I'm thinking of two historical figures, well-known local cousins with the same name distinguished by their trades, Wooden Josh, a carpenter, and Iron Josh, a blacksmith. Every neighborhood had its own one-room school houses, twelve in all. Every child could walk to school, because school was right around the corner. There were three different churches. Citizens met at town meeting to govern themselves. Darby town [like Westmoreland] was pretty much self-sufficient.

By the Civil War Darby's Magic Moment had gone by, and the town has been in decline ever since. We've lost almost all of our farms. We no longer manufacture the goods we need, but buy them elsewhere in the global economy. In another generation River Darby, Center Darby, Upper Darby, and Darby Depot risk merging into one amorphous suburban blob, with its citizens commuting to jobs in Keene, Brattleboro or Bellows Falls, and infested by an outsider element of desperate working poor and criminals: druggies, burglars, bullies, poachers, and arsonists. Meanwhile, property taxes continue to rise, state and federal laws cut into our autonomy. Our children are schooled elsewhere in large, expensive unnecessary warehouses of education. This very building that serves as our town hall and meeting house is expected to be too dangerous for use within the next five years. The timbers that hold it up are too degraded to be repaired. Soon Darby will only be a name for another taxing station.'

"Birch paused to let his words sink in, and then he said, ‘It doesn't have be this way. We can do more than postpone the End Time; we can recreate the Magic Moment of Darby in a new and creative way. We will bring back the Magic Moment.'"

Birch has a plan to save Darby, but it will be costly and who can know whether the plan will work. That's a book yet to be written. Through various devices outlined in Howard Elman's Farewell, Birch wants to recreate Darby as an 18th and 19th century village but with 21st Century technology. He wants to bypass most of the 20th Century. In his thinking, the 20th century was the destroyer century, not just for the wars in spawned, but for the cultural identities it smashed. Birch's plan is his own version of virtual reality, which plays out in Darby Doomsday, the video game that he and his friends are creating.

I've only sketched these ideas in Howard Elman's Farewell, because the book belongs to Howard and I didn't want to upstage him. Let's just say say that Darby Doomsday is an important plot element in the book.

I would like to expand upon this idea of moments, applying it to my own life. My moments were not particularly magical, but they certainly were transformative. The first moment:

I'm four years old. After my father is drafted into the Navy, my mother moves from Keene to Epping, NH, with my baby brother Antoine and me to be near her mother and brother, a Catholic priest that I am named after, Father Joseph Ernest Vaccarest (Father Vac, as he was known).

My mother reads me a story of the three little pigs, or maybe the story comes to me from another source–I can't remember. What I do remember is that I've been programmed by elders to believe that pigs are small, pink, clean and cuddly.

Cut now to visual memory. I am with my mom, my "memere", and Father Vac. We are visiting a farmhouse. I remember the strong smell, very unpleasant, and a feeling of unease. We walk on planks because the area between the driveway and house is muddy. Besides this make-shift walk is a wooden fence. Suddenly, pigs appear in the mud behind the fence. They are huge. In my four-year old mind they are like ambulatory freight cars, caked with filth. They stink and they are also extremely loud and aggressive. I fear for my life, trampled and eaten alive by pigs. The farmer comes out of the house and with some difficulty he succeeds in driving the pigs away from us. It crosses my mind that these real pigs are extraordinarily different from the three little pigs. The moment remains with me like this: Ernie, you have been betrayed by your elders. You cannot trust what they say to be true. That notion, established when I was four years old, is still with me.

Now it is 1953. I am twelve years old and I have walked the mile from my family house on Oak Street to Main Street to witness the biggest event of my lifetime to date. President Eisenhower is coming to Keene to help us celebrate our Bicentennial. It looks to me as if the whole city has turned out for the parade. I can see the President in an open car, standing on the floor of the rear of the limousine waving to the crowd.

But it's not the President that grabs my attention: it's the people in the crowd, especially the adults. They are jubilant, waving and grinning. Perhaps if I had been among them as an adult I too would have been in a good mood in the presence of the President of the United States. But as a 12-year-old I'm getting those old feelings of … well, it's not betrayal this time. It's something more subtle, pervasive and terrifying. The sight of the President had made grownups–these people who control my world–stupid.

Over the succeeding years I have expanded on the idea: Celebrity–that is, the concept of celebrity–makes people stupid. It clouds the judgment of usually cautious thinking people. There have been moments–not too many–when I was the celebrity and by gazing at my audience I could see what I had done: Lowered the collective IQ, impoverished their judgment. To this day I stay away any time a big shot comes to town; I never go to concerts–which are the worst. I remember a few friends who went to the Woodstock festival and who pitied me because I chose to stay home, where what I felt was vast relief.

And then there was a political moment, the year before Woodstock. I'm attending an anti-war rally. I've been trying to find a political belief. In high school, I tried "I Like Ike," and I did like Ike as a President. He was reassuring. But Republican thinking, especially in the person of Senator Joseph McCarthy, made me uneasy. The Civil Rights movement drove me to the liberal side. Later, as a telephone man and union member I joined the Democratic Party and voted for John Kennedy. So now it's 1968, and I'm a veteran but big time into the anti-war movement. My liberal tendencies are coalescing. Finally, I have something to believe in.

I attend an anti-war rally. A celebrity anti-war guy (can't remember who) is giving a speech. Suddenly, the crowd starts chanting, "Ho-ho Ho-Chi Minh." Something in me breaks. The idea that we would be rooting for a dictator who is killing our soldiers makes me ashamed. Apparently, celebrity makes liberals stupid, too. I left the rally, and I left the idea of tying myself to a political ideology.

This kind of thinking–skeptical and stubborn, and maybe in the end wrong-headed– often leaves one isolated, an outsider who lacks the kind of core belief that is the mark both of a leader and of a loyal follower. It means I have to depend on myself to make judgments and on my loved ones and a few close friends for companionship. It's probably the turn of mind that made me a writer.