We packed up our VW bus and left Vermont on 12 August 1974 on the first of what would turn out to be at least a dozen transcontinental trips, as every year we kept returning to Vermont for the summer until our final parting in 1982. Our first stop in 1974 was Utica, New York. I began a travelogue at our next stop in Akron, Ohio, the following day:
Two trucks, battling for the lead, at a snail’s pace on a long hill, hogging both lanes. The traffic builds up behind. I am behind the truck in the passing lane. Someone in a great hurry pulls into the right-hand lane, betting that the truck in his lane will win out. The lead changes several times. In the end, after a good ten minutes, the truck in my lane wins out. The car next to me cuts in ahead of me from the right and spurts past. We have dropped back into the right-hand lane, nonplussed and a little scared by this naked display of competition. Car upon car with Ohio plates pass us, as if used to such goings-on on the highway. Only a woman in the passenger seat, passing close to my left, shakes her head very slowly with closed lips while staring straight ahead—as if to reassure me that not all Ohioans had become inured to such highway dramatics.
Unable to get a room at the Holiday Inn at Akron because most rooms were reserved for a convention. A charter bus of convention-goers was just arriving, neck-tied and well-fed. Steffi was disappointed. “Ich wollte schon immer da bleiben wo die Welt sich trifft (I always wanted to stay where the world meets).“
August 14, Effingham, Illinois. Sign on the window of a car from Pennsylvania passing us: “Hang on—San Diego”. “I wanted to put a sign in our window, too,” Steffi said.
August 15, Joplin, Missouri. Memories of my first over-night stay in Joplin, in my Olds on a cold night in March 1958. Memories, too, of Route 66 out of St. Louis to Fort Leonard Wood. Much of it has now been converted into Interstate 44, killing off most of the old businesses en route in the process.
Trini selecting a postcard of a Marion pony to send to Juliet (she bought it in an Indiana county famous for its ponies). Steffi chided her for always selecting a card with a subject that interested her rather than the person for whom the card was intended. Trini took this reproach to heart at the Meramec Caves in Stanton, Mo., and selected a picture of a stalactite that resembled a statue of the Virgin Mary. “Alexi likes the Virgin Mary,” she explained.
The Meramec Caves a disappointment. Not because they weren’t worth seeing, but because of the trappings: gaudy lights, hyperboles, and sensation-pandering. The presentations diminished the natural sights, as if they were worth seeing only because famous people had viewed them: Art Linkletter’s use of a nook in the cave for a honeymoon room on his practical joke show, “People are funny,” was billed as a main attraction, and as a climax an American flag was projected onto a wall of onyx stalactite, reenacting the dedication of that part of the cave to those who had fallen in World War II.
August 16, Clinton, Oklahoma. Ran into 110 degree heat in southwestern Oklahoma and turned in early. Trini spent two hours in the pool and learned by herself what I had been trying to teach her, without success, all summer: to dog-paddle. Now the temperature is 97 degrees and seems cool. “If it would only stay that way,” Steffi says.
August 17, Albuquerque. The heat yesterday as scary as the severe cold in Vemont. The fear that it would never cool off again, and that we would have to crawl to San Diego in short, frantic laps.
Steffi, on seeing the Coca-Cola advertisements of American scenery: “Why do we never go by these scenes?”
August 18, Flagstaff, Arizona. On the road: a small roadside chapel, a wood-frame building the size of a chicken-coop, at a rest-area on Interstate 40 west of Gallup, New Mexico. A sign to get travelers to stop: “Relax and Reflect.”
In a café, Winslow, Arizona. Ill feeling toward what appeared to be a typically boisterous redneck, cracking crude jokes partly with, partly at the expense of the waitress—but relieved of my distaste by the discovery that one of his companions was what appeared to be a full-blooded Indian.
The coolest, most pleasant weather of the trip in—Arizona!
Shortness of breath and chest pangs yesterday and today: worries greatly diminished by a sign at Holbrook, AZ: elevation 5,000 feet. Flagstaff is 7,000 feet: the first night without an air-conditioner.
August 19, Yuma, Arizona. Not quite believing Bill Mitchell [a fellow grad-student at UMass] when he told me of making much better mileage at high elevations: thinking this was one more of those little exaggerations that everyone makes. Greatly surprised, however, to make better than 25 miles per gallon between Albuquerque and Holbrook after averaging only 19 to 20 miles per gallon before.
The heat so intense between Phoenix and Yuma that one longed to remain completely motionless—to avoid the heat factor of the wind.
August 20, San Diego. Thoughts on driving through the desert: Vermont is lovely; California is magnificent.
Not all of my impressions of San Diego were positive, however. I was put off by a large sign raised high in front of a Presbyterian church: “If God were permissive, He would have given us the ten suggestions.” The “educational” TV station identified itself with a salute to “San Diego, America’s Finest City.” I soon noted a predilection for using the term “world-record” as a descriptive qualifier, whether it be of a marathon, a volleyball tournament, or a banjo-playing contest.
We settled into the home on 5358 Saxon Street of a colleague on leave, Bob Filner, who would later be elected to Congress for many terms as one of the more progressive representatives from southern California. My appointment was temporary, a one-year contract, with some prospects of renewal, but very little likelihood of conversion to the tenure track (despite the hope I was given of this possibility at my AHA interview). With an over-sized history department of forty-two members, San Diego State University was in retrenchment mode, and concern about my job dogged me for the entire year until my contract was finally renewed for one more year in the spring. In my journal I noted the irony that I had felt more confident about getting a teaching position the year before—although I had not yet begun writing my dissertation!
In retrospect, I made a serious error of judgment in dragging my heels in joining the faculty union. My salary was only $14,000, and I could hardly afford the considerable annual dues, especially with the likelihood of the termination of my contract at the end of the year. But I had another, less defensible reason for rejecting the requests of my colleagues, who wanted 100 percent departmental membership to strengthen the union in its negotiations with the administration. My insecure status had made me quite critical of the tenure system, which at this early stage of my career seemed to me less a vehicle to job security than an obstacle to getting a job. Elimination of tenure would open up many more positions to competition based (at least in theory) solely on merit; in a fair contest I selfishly believed I had an excellent chance to prevail. My fellow one-year appointee, John Cumbler, a labor historian who succeeded in getting a job at the University of Louisville for the following academic year, tried to convince me that collegial solidarity would ultimately be of much greater benefit to me than going it alone. How right he was became clear to me in spring 1976 when the department, forced to cut back by a dean who rejected all “decisions of the heart,” voted by a narrow margin to eliminate my position. The Russian specialist in the department, Neil Heyman, offered to take over my upper-division courses. Henceforth SDSU would no longer have a specialist in German and European intellectual history.
I did not help my cause, either, when at a departmental meeting on 3 October 1975 I found myself casting what turned out to be the swing vote—and I was on the conservative side!
The issue was whether a Native-American history course, taught by Native-American studies personnel as a course in the history department, should be permitted to continue teaching the course in the department despite very critical student evaluations. The curriculum committee (with traditionalists Jon Sutherland, Raymond Starr, and Dennis Berge) recommended that the course not be offered next semester in order to give the Native-American staff a chance to iron out the flaws in the course. The course would then continue in the fall with the participation of a history department member (probably Berge, who claimed not to have enough time to participate in the coming spring semester). But a sizable group in the department felt that this was another case of the white man telling the redskins what to do and pleaded for a continuation of the course in the spring. A motion to that effect was made. It was amended to read that the course be given, provided the course was revised to the satisfaction of the department and a member of the department participate in its planning. I supported the amendment, which passed, but opposed the motion, which failed—by one vote.
When I got out of the meeting I had pangs of conscience. Why, when I had the chance, had I not stood by the liberal forces? After all, Ray Starr’s arguments that the syllabus was lacking in organization and that the teacher of the course couldn’t say whether he was teaching a course in Indian history or in Indian-White relations were extremely flimsy and only reflected Starr’s prejudices about what constituted a good course. The reason probably was that I did not like the downgrading of student evaluations that the liberal motion implied. After all, my good evaluations were the strongest thing I had going for me in my quest for a job. If they were to be dismissed as unimportant, my position was weakened. I could rationalize my vote against the motion on other grounds as well: Dave Weber [1940-2010], who supported the motion, had suggested that it might be best to just let the curriculum committee handle the matter rather than jeopardize good relations by having the whole department come down on the course. But the amendment to the motion had precisely this effect and would in any case have prevented the course from being offered in the spring. My sense of guilt, however, resulted from the realization that this was just a rationalization. In the crunch I had come down in favor of traditional attitudes intolerant of failure, because, at the moment, or so it seemed, I stood to gain from such attitudes. Whether I really stand to gain is very questionable. The people who initiated the motion to retain me last year all came from the liberal camp. Raymond Starr would vote against me anyway—good evaluations or not—because he accepted the conservative administrators’ arguments that the department was too big, etc., and the more I reflected on the meeting, the more I recognized the necessity of opposing the exclusivist, authoritarian mentality embodied in the curriculum committee’s treatment of the Native-American course: the presumption of “white fathers” running the department along the rigid lines that places their own rigidity in a favorable light, because it sanctifies rigidity as the educational summum bonum. In the long run that attitude is far more damaging to me than any failure to heed teaching evaluations. One has to be consistent in one’s support of democracy and experimentation.
I recalled Steffi’s warning the previous year not to trust Raymond Starr: “Trau dem Raymond nicht. Er ist schadenfroh.” And indeed his was the only dissenting vote (as I was told by Bob Filner, back from his sabbatical) when the department voted almost unanimously in December 1975 to request an extension of my contract for a third year, a request that the administration denied. Filner and I had something else in common, besides our distrust of Raymond Starr. Bob was fighting for tenure while I was fighting for a job. I admired his chutzpah in making no concessions to the conservative forces despite his precarious position. He entitled his colloquium talk “Sex, Science, and Society,” starting his talk by saying, “I don’t know if it’s science screwing politics, or the other way round, but that’s where the sex comes in.”
Students were my strongest supporters in my quest to remain at SDSU. One of my best friends was a very intelligent student, son of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, whose maiden name he adopted. He had been brought up by a rigid, anti-intellectual step-father who resented his step-son’s bookishness. Though obviously drawn to his Jewish background as a potential source of strength and belonging, my student proclaimed himself an agnostic—which made it easy and comfortable for me to get along with him. In my journal I noted the following observation: “His attitude toward his Jewish background like my attitude toward my aristocratic background: proud of it, but unable to fully identify with it—and to some degree therefore turning against it.”
This student acknowledged a weakness, his attraction to “powerful intellects:”
Walking by a classroom in which Charlie Hamilton [a recent acquisition from the University of Chicago] was teaching, the word “transubstantiation” on the blackboard caught his eye. He stopped and looked in: “I’ve got to sit in on one of his lectures some time.” It was something of a let-down for him to be told that I had left the writing on the board in the class preceding.
Another good student friend, though only sixteen at the time, was Stuart Schechter, now a successful lawyer in San Diego, with whom I have exchanged lengthy holiday cards for the past thirty-five years!
My strongest supporter was an adult student by the name of Harvey Silvers, who was impressed by my “Hitler’s Germany” course, which he took in the spring of 1976. A native of Chicago, Harvey was a self-made man, the first person in San Diego to manufacture hairpieces for individual clients. He got most of his customers at an annual fair in Del Mar. Now he was doing very well, with several employees. “All I need now is a little bit of culture,” he said. “I’m getting there.” A former socialist, he had become an active Zionist and defender of Israel. However, I found myself very much in sympathy with his distrust of Christianity. Behind the growing de-emphasis of the humanities in university curricula, for instance, he detected a religious Christianizing motive that did not want to raise problems and issues for discussion and analysis. Harvey did his best to keep me at SDSU, as noted in my journal on 27 February 1976:
“In teaching German history, he’s gotta attack religion,” he explained to Steffi. “There’s no way he can teach the course without that. He can’t do that in private colleges which draw their funds from religious groups.” He supports me because I am “educating” San Diego college students. He is impelled by a genuine fear of repression, intolerance, and anti-Semitism in America. Beyond that he is impelled by a genuine revulsion against a mindless, unfeeling system in which educational values can be so distorted (e.g., in the administrative argument against continuation of temporary faculty members— “We need flexibility to serve student needs”) and in which people can be treated so callously. He is impelled by a deep-seated feeling that rights must be constantly defended, abuses constantly challenged.
Although I didn’t believe there was a real threat of a resurgence of classical anti-Semitism in the U.S. (and opposed the invocation of such a threat as an argument for Israeli expansion), I found myself encouraging Harvey’s incipient paranoia, just to keep him so delightfully subversive! Harvey wrote a registered letter to the president of the university (who coincidentally became president of Kent State University a few years later, where Olaf headed the math department from 1976 on) to try to get him to change the rule against third-year temporary appointments. According to his report, Harvey also gave Neil Heyman a dressing-down for having volunteered to teach German history next year, appealing to his Jewish conscience! He even called up the German-American Club in San Diego to ask them if they had a job for me—as if to alert them to their duty to take care of their own!
In San Diego I also worked to extract some articles from my dissertation prior to revising it for publication as a book. A publication or two would certainly enhance my chances of getting a job, and completing a scholarly article looked more manageable and less time-consuming than converting my dissertation into a book, a more long-term project. The library resources at SDSU were limited, but the very good library at the University of California, San Diego, located in La Jolla an hour away, contained in its holdings the personal library of the famous historian Koppel Pinson (1904-1961). My article, “The Role of Heinrich von Stein in Nietzsche’s Emergence as a Critic of Wagnerian Idealism and Cultural Nationalism,” was published in the German journal Nietzsche-Studien in 1976. It allowed me to write the text in English while leaving all quotes in the original German—a great advantage in any publication dealing with Nietzsche! I had been attracted to Nietzsche since my undergraduate days when I discovered that he was one of the few non-Jewish German intellectuals of note who was not only entirely free of anti-Semitism, but also took an uncompromising stand against this malignant but growing politico-cultural movement at the end of the nineteenth century. To me his clarity on this particular question salvaged at least a remnant of German honor in the face of the more dominant rival aesthetic and political tradition, perhaps best personified by Richard Wagner, which defined German exceptionalism in contradistinction to allegedly Jewish traits, such as materialism, commercialism, immoralism, and secularism. Nietzsche’s response to the “Jewish question” still strikes me as exemplary today. “Let us rejoice in Jewish successes and achievements,” he said (loosely paraphrased); “for they help us all.” A Wagnerian in his youth, Nietzsche unequivocally repudiated German nationalism, ethnic supremacism, and political Romanticism in his later works. But Nietzsche was also sullied by his reputation as a power-monger whose vitalist philosophy had appealed to and was appropriated by many Nazi followers (though not by the more honest ones, who were quite aware that Nietzsche was their antagonist, not their ally). My liberal Harvard teacher Crane Brinton (1898-1968) had written a devastating critique of Nietzsche during the war (as George Santayana [1863-1952]) had already done during the First World War). In college I could not yet claim to understand the full scope of Nietzsche’s purpose in attacking Christianity and the Western moral tradition. My main effort in my oral examination on Nietzsche was to try to refute the conventional notion that Nietzsche was advocating or condoning ruthless competition in a perennial human contest for power and supremacy.
Nietzsche’s purpose became much clearer to me once I understood what he was arguing against. That insight came as a result of my research into the Wagnerian and anti-Semitic intellectual tradition culminating in the openly racist publications of Houston Stewart Chamberlain (1855-1927), the Germanophile Englishman who embraced German nationalism with all the exaggerated fervor of a convert. An early and much less extreme exponent of Wagnerian völkisch nationalism was the talented but short-lived young aristocrat Heinrich von Stein (1857-1887), who had been engaged as the tutor of Wagner`s children. Nietzsche saw in the thirteen-years-younger man an alter ego of his former self, before his bitter falling-out with Wagner in 1876. Hoping to enlighten Stein about the perils of Wagnerism and convert the promising youth to his own life-affirming philosophy, Nietzsche carried on a lively correspondence with Stein and invited him to visit Sils-Maria in 1884. Stein had just published a very conventional celebration of Germanic heroes and saints in the Wagnerian mode, to which Nietzsche responded cooly in December 1882: “As for ‘the hero’: I don’t think as well of him as you do. Neverthelesss: it is the most acceptable form of human existence, especially if one has no other choice.” One sentence in that same letter suddenly clarified for me what Nietzsche was trying to do: “Ich möchte dem menschlichen Leben etwas von seinem herzbrecherischen und grausamen Charakter nehmen (I would like to take from human existence some of its heartbreaking and cruel character).“ No sooner have we come to love something, Nietzsche went on to explain, than the tyrant inside us (whom we like to call “our higher self”) forces us to give it up. It was this nihilistic (i.e.,life-denying) “ascetic ideal,” so brilliantly dissected in The Genealogy of Morals (1887), that was the target of Nietzsche´s ever more virulent attacks on Platonic idealism, world-renouncing Christianity, and the secular movements such as scientism, liberalism, socialism, and nationalism that rested on the same “nihilistic” metaphysical foundations. How different Nietzsche’s conception of the self-overcoming “Übermensch” was from the pious, battle-crazed warriors of Wagnerian myth! In my journal I noted that “one understands philosophers not by reading them, but by thinking about the problems they thought about.”
This publication on one of the most important German philosophers in a peer-reviewed international journal no doubt helped to get me a temporary position at the University of Oregon for the 1976-1977 academic year. It was a replacement position for the well-known historian Roger Chickering, who had just received a Fulbright award to Germany. The offer from the University of Oregon came as a huge relief, very late in April 1976. I had already accustomed myself to the thought of unemployment, preparing to turn all my attention to supporting Steffi’s business, which would probably become our main or even sole source of income. I even took lessons from a colleague of Steffi’s in San Diego on how to cast silver jewelry, the “lost wax” method that Steffi had never tried. At the annual AHA meetings in Chicago in December 1975 and in Atlanta in December 1976 I interviewed for academic jobs, but without result. I also applied for prep school jobs, gaining an interview at the Harvard School in Los Angeles, but was turned down for the position in favor of someone who could also coach a sport. In my journal I reflected on approaching unemployment with a certain ambivalence:
The bitterness out of obligation: as if I am missing something if I do not extract from my experiences [of unemployment] the full potential for bitterness that they contain.
I thank my fate for making me unemployed and anxiously await the morning mail for an interview invitation or a job offer. In that order. At the moment, thanking my fate is still a form of protective sour grapes.
Papa’s remarks, which seemed so jejune [and didactic] at the time, now making sense to me. In answer to Sylvia’s question, how one gets to achieve a high position like his: “One has to work very hard between the ages of twenty and thirty.” Or in response to my remark (which seems jejune to me today) that one could always make money: “Ja? Bei uns ist das nicht so leicht (here it is not so easy).”
The depressing, mean-spirited article by an émigré from the Soviet Union in The New York Review of Books: “Russia today is an enormous rest home for the indigent in which the government pretends that it pays wages and the workers pretend that they work.” How callous that sounds to someone who is about to go on unemployment, as does the passage, “Free, if substandard, medical services, relatively cheap rents, and small guaranteed pensions encourage a sense of dependency on the state.” The word “substandard” says everything. What is the standard?
In my search for potentially remunerative projects, I even thought of writing a study of the Dr. Seuss books, which I was reading to Nicki at the time:
Dr. Seuss books as marvelous barometers of their times: today we read one published in 1940, Orton Hatches an Egg. An elephant (100% dependable) hatches an egg for a tropical bird. Because the elephant has promised to do this until the bird returns, he does not budge, even when derided by his fellow animals or captured by hunters for a circus. While the circus was playing in Palm Beach, the bird—enjoying the easy life—happens to see the elephant. At the same time the egg finally hatches. Now the bird wants to reclaim it. But it turns out to be a flying elephant! The reward for perseverance! The elephant is America, the bird is decadent Western Europe. And Nazi Germany is repudiated by the triumph of environmentalism over the principle of heredity or race. What better repudiation of racialism than the transformation of a bird into an elephant simply because the elephant cared for the egg!
At the end of April 1975 the Vietnam adventure finally came to its ignominious close with the evacuation of the last American soldiers from the top of the American embassy building in Saigon (which was immediately renamed Ho Chi Minh City by the victorious communist forces). The following day I enjoyed one of the best and most successful classes I have ever taught. I opened up my introductory U.S. history class to students’ reflections and comments on the dramatic events of the previous days. One after another student got up and, without any prompting, condemned the American intervention in the war and elaborated on what a huge mistake it had been. Having been careful not to introduce current politics into the classroom, I had no idea of the depth of opposition that these students harbored to the American role in the war. It was an educational moment that left me with enormous hope for and optimism about the future, even if dampened somewhat by the furious American bombardment of Cambodia in the wake of the seizure of the American merchant ship, the Mayaguez, on May 12th.
As was the case with most recent arrivals in San Diego, we had a succession of visitors anxious to experience the California lifestyle. Steffi’s mother and Tümmi came in spring 1975. The old Nazi, then in his mid- to late sixties, admired the hang-gliders and surfers and said he wished he were young enough to engage in such dangerous sports as well. The following year it was Steffi’s father’s turn to visit. He came in January and February 1976, the best time of year to experience the dramatic difference between temperate and subtropical climates. Unfortunately all his photos were over-exposed. He had not counted on the intense light of the southern California sun. However, he was delighted to discover a pomegranate tree in the back yard. “Das ist ja die reinste griechische Antike (this is pure Grecian antiquity)!” he exclaimed. Gerhard, an architect by profession, also taught an adult education course in his hometown of Nuremberg on the psychological meaning of colors. He distinguished between two German words for “feeling,” Empfindung, a corollary of the color red—the active quality of reacting to outside stimulus and hence able to forget—and Gefühl, the corollary of the color blue—the passive quality of internalizing outside stimuli and hence unable to forget. He was much given to performing psychological tests, one of which I recorded in my journal:
He presented me with four squares on a page, each containing a dot, a line, or some other simple figure. His instructions were: “Draw something around them.” I took this to mean that I was to enclose each figure in some way. My immediate temptation, for the sake of simplicity and because I felt I would be breaking the rule of spontaneity by thinking about more elaborate designs, was simply to draw a circle around each figure. The square with a dot seemed especially to invite such a simple solution. Then I thought that was too easy, and such an automatic response would reflect unfavorably on my personality, so—noticing a notation, g. Selbstbewusstsein (self-confidence) at the side of the sheet—I made a g out of the circle. Similarly I tried to add a twist to the circles I made around the other figures. These twists gravitated toward the bottom. Gerhard was marvelously shocked when he analyzed what I had drawn: “Das ist ja ein Trauma! Du kommst von der Mutter nicht los (you can’t get away from your mother). There’s something that is pulling you down to the Mutterschoss (mother’s womb or lap). That is quite clear from all four drawings.” Steffi was delighted. “I’ve always said that.” Her exultation knew no bounds. But Gerhard was marvelously serious, as if there could be absolutely no doubt about the validity of his findings. “Was ist es denn, das du nicht verarbeited hast (what is it you haven’t worked through)? Maybe you can speak about it. That there is something from which you can’t free yourself is quite clear.”
My ultimate judgment on this experiment was rather spiteful:
In Gerhard one sees clearly the mental aberrations (astrology, color psychology, etc.) to which Germans, it seems, are driven by the lack of an appropriate mode for self-expression in the objective world.
Of course, I was very curious about Gerhard’s take on Nazism, which he had experienced as a soldier in the non-commissioned ranks during the war. He did some very funny impersonations of strutting officers.
“Mir ist alles Sektiererische verhasst (I hate everything sectarian). That is what disturbed me about National Socialism.“
When asked why he thought that Nazism had come to power in Germany, he gave three reasons:
First, the threat of Marxism. “I was not a proletarian and as a result I did not want to belong to the proletariat.” Secondly, the need for unity. “There were so many national Bünde (associations) of all kinds, which supposedly were pursuing the same goal. One sensed that all that would have to be simplified, reduced to a lowest common denominator.” Third, the Jewish problem. “We had six million unemployed, but no Jews were unemployed. They stuck together.”
It was easy to see, however, that Gerhard must have had a hard time in the Nazi era. This was not a person who fit in easily anywhere, least of all in a highly regimented society.
For the summers of 1975 and 1976 we returned to Vermont, always varying our cross-country routes a bit and stopping for sight-seeing diversions on the way. Our stops on our return to San Diego in August 1975 included Syracuse, NY; Fremont, OH; Davenport, IA; York, NB; Cheyenne, WY; Evanston, WY; St. George, UT; and Victorville, CA. Among the places we visited were Pioneer Village in Nebraska, Fort Bridger in Wyoming, the first state house in Fillmore, Utah, and several Spanish missions in California. Only an hour or so out of Irasburg, while still on Interstate 89, three-year-old Nicki asked, “Are those the Rocky Mountains?” On our museum stops Nicki had plenty of chance to use his newly-acquired expression “neato,” a word he had picked up from Trina. In Iowa, angered that he was not allowed to buy candy at a roadside store, Nicki refused to return a pack of gum to the rack but instead threw it across the room. The shopkeeper reprimanded us: “You gotta lot of cathin’ up to do. You can have your fun with him now, but he’ll be a lot of trouble later.” That prediction fortunately never came true. Nicki had some wonderful expressions when he wanted to be dressed or undressed in the morning or at night: “Put me on, Daddy,” or “take me off, Daddy” (literal translations of zieh mich an or aus). The climatic variations on our trip were quite stunning. In Nebraska it was too hot to have lunch outdoors, in Wyoming it was too cold to have breakfast outdoors. At a camp site in Green River, Wyoming, we were told by one of the natives, ”You know what they call that stretch of road between Laramie and Cheyenne in winter? Ho Chi Minh trail.” We marveled at some of the wonderful compound place names: Wagonhound Road, Sweetwater County, Medicine Bow, Big Blue Creek, Eight Mile Road. Dead Man’s Wash, Horse Thief Basin. A sign in a barren Wyoming landscape read: “Keep Wyoming Green.” Above it someone had painted in, “Smile.” “Typical California small town,” I noted in my travel journal as we were nearing our destination:
The crests of “service organizations” (Lions, Rotary, Optimist, Kiwanis, Altrusia—with its slogan ”patriotism, efficiency, service”—American Legion, Women’s Professional League, etc.) prominently displayed at the entrance to the town, as if to warn against intruders who would disrupt the self-congratulatory homogeneity of the community.
Returning to Vermont in May 1976, we chose a southern route with stops in Gallup, NM; Santa Rosa, NM; El Reno, OK; Rolla, MO; Indianapolis; Youngstown, OH; and Poughkeepsie, NY. In the California desert we ran into a frightening sand storm that forced us to the side of the road for several hours. In my journal I noted
The Texas-sized pothole in the parking lot of a café in McLean, Texas, which caused the rear end to scrape bottom and sent the boxes in the back toppling forward. We feared it might have broken the rear axle—just the kind of accident which one so often has or hears of on trips of this kind. The leering, gloating faces of the bull-necked ranchers and cow-hands staring at us through the windows of the café.
The only damage, however, was to one of the gallon-size bottles of wine we were carrying in the back seat. It broke and left behind a wonderfully decadent aroma for most of the rest of the trip. Trini, who had been selected for a gifted class in San Diego (turning me from one day to the next from a critic to a champion of gifted education), learned the poem “The Distlefink” by heart to get a free hamburger at the Dutch Pantry restaurants en route.
The last show we had seen on public TV in San Diego was Somerset Maugham’s “Quartet,” prompting the following comment in my journal at the end of May 1976:
What makes him good is his commitment throughout the most insipid plots and stock characterizations and verbal diarrhea to the proposition (reappearing in one form or another in all his works) that “art is the only thing that matters, not wealth, not power, not love.”