Act 10: The Final Act

Journey’s End.

©Philip Shucet Photography

It’s hard to think that anything good came from the presidency of Donald John Trump. But after six months of drinking more coffee than usual and drinking more whiskey than usual here’s what I have to say about the teachings of Donald John Trump.

Donald John Trump taught us how easy it is to stir up darkness. He taught us how easy it is to reach through every good thing we know and turn it into something awful. Donald John Trump taught us how to make good people afraid. How to tear apart families and friends. Donald John Trump showed us how to spit on anyone within spitting distance and after wiping spit from their faces spit on them again only to have them hang around for more spitting.

Donald John Trump showed us the worst of whatever it is you can think of even if you make it up.

We should thank Donald John Trump.

“What!” you are shouting out loud right now and if it’s nighttime you just woke up everybody in your house and maybe on your street.

It’s good to be reminded of just how terrible humanity can be. To be reminded that fear can be stronger than love when we fear our neighbors more  than we love them. To be reminded that people are not naturally good and that being good takes hard practice.

“No, that’s not true.”

“Yes, it is.”

“Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here,” Donald John Trump said. Donald John Trump taught us that immigration and immigrants are bad even though Donald John Trump and his wives and his kids are in America because of immigration and I guess you could say that proves his point or you could just say he’s flat out wrong and he is.

“You had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people on both sides,” Donald John Trump told us. And maybe it’s OK for very bad people to kill very bad people or for very fine people to kill very fine people or for bad people to kill good people or for good people to kill bad people as long as there are “very fine people on both sides.” I can’t vouch for what Donald John Trump said because I’ve never killed very bad or very fine people but it must be a lesson or I’m sure Donald John Trump wouldn’t have said it but he mostly said things that weren’t true so here’s another thing he said.

“When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” I guess Donald John Trump thinks looting and shooting are OK when they happen at the same time. I’m not sure because sometimes it’s hard to know what Donald John Trump meant because he didn’t finish many sentences unless someone wrote them out for him and he read them but I don’t believe Donald John Trump read much because he watched a lot of television.

Now here are some things that happened to me that maybe were worse than Donald John Trump being president.

When I was five years old my cousin pushed me off of a bridge into Mabscott Creek. This is not a lie. It happened and I cried and I screamed real loud and Chief Hutchins (Hutch we called him) heard me yelling and he pulled me out of the creek and shook his finger in my cousin’s face. Maybe being pushed in a creek by your cousin is not as bad as Donald John Trump being president because I did not drown or die because Hutch saved my life.

My father died. That was bad. And then my mother died and that was really bad because now both my father and mother were dead. My father was 101 when he died and my mother was 100 and they were never really sick or bad off and they never had to wear a mask or had covid because they were already dead so maybe that’s not as bad as Donald John Trump being president. I guess it depends on how you feel about your father and mother and I don’t want to think about that.

I could keep writing about all the terrible things that happened to me and some of them might make you cry but I’m not sure any of them would be worse than Donald John Trump being president.

There is one more bad thing. I do not like clowns. When I was a kid I did not like Clarabell the Clown. I liked Howdy Doody and Buffalo Bob but I wanted to push Clarabell into Mabscott Creek and hoped that Hutch wouldn’t be around that day to save that damn clown from drowning.

I did not like Bozo the Clown. Not his big painted mouth and not his big stupid head with hair coming straight out of the side of it. Bozo came to my town once and my mother took me to see him and I would not go in because I do not like clowns. 

None of them.

If you think this is satire and that helps you digest your food or sleep better I’m glad I wrote it. And if this makes you sore and you want to push me in a creek or spit on me or send me to a shithole country with clowns I’m glad I wrote it and I don’t care what you think because I would write it again.

The end

Act 9: Free Toby Cole

Toby Cole had something to say. 

Students with VPI administrators on the drill field, April 1970. Toby Cole in circle (Special Collections, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, unidentified photographer)

In early April 1970, you had to push tension out of your way when you walked across the drill field at Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg, Virginia.

Tucked between the Allegheny and Blue Ridge Mountains, Blacksburg was slow to experience the unrest of the 1960s. In October 1965, when David Miller burned his draft card in New York City, there was barely a ripple in Blacksburg.

But in that first year of a new decade the full force of student angst was bearing down on this small college town. 

Student demonstration, Spring 1970 (Special Collections, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, unidentified photographer)

And Toby Cole had something to say. 

Cole didn’t make a sign. He didn’t bark from a megaphone or burn anything. He didn’t mistake bravado for bravery. Toby spoke with needle and thread. 

He sewed the American flag on the seat of his pants. 

That Cole had the audacity to sew an American flag on the ass side of his blue jeans and walk across campus rubbed some edges raw.

I was a sophomore then, and one of the few members of the dwindling VPI Corps of Cadets. Until 1964 the Corps was mandatory for most students. But now on a campus of over 12,000, there were fewer than 500 of us who wore a uniform, woke up to reveille, and marched in formation to dinner every night. As news of Cole’s flag wearing reached the Upper Quad, cadets were incredulous. We had taken an oath to uphold the constitution and now a grub (our slang for non-cadet students) was poking a finger in the eye of America.

While cadets groused and fumed, another group on campus went into action. The Block and Bridle Club, an organization of agricultural and farming women and men, took matters into their own hands. To be precise, they took Cole into their hands. They grabbed Cole and held him captive.

As word of Cole’s capture spread, swarms of grubs marched and chanted, Free Toby Cole, Free Toby Cole, Free Toby Cole.

Cooler heads prevailed when the Blacksburg police encouraged the Block and Bridle students to release Cole. It was a short-lived citizen’s arrest. The message was clear. Don’t mess with the flag.

Bosses at the college were quick to reprimand Cole. That only sparked more unrest. Even though the Block and Bridle Club captured Cole, student ire was aimed at the Corps. To protestors the Corps’s presence on campus was a visible arm of a repressive government. On April 14 a flyer circulated calling for protests against the Corps. The flyer said, People, the Corps must go!

The next day students faced off with cadets on the drill field. The university quickly issued an injunction to stop further drill field protests, but whoever expected impassioned students to follow campus-issued injunctions was living a different reality.

Student faces off against cadets during drill, April 1970 ( Special Collections, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, unidentified photographer)

Protestors lock arms to stop cadets, April 1970 ( Special Collections, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, unidentified photographer)

Students face off with cadets on drill field, April 1970. Philip Shucet in circle (Special Collections, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, unidentified photographer)

The Toby Cole incident and the disruption over the next few days were a whisper of things to come. On April 29 the United States invaded Cambodia. Protests began to shut down college campuses across the country. 

Then, on May 4, four students were killed on the Kent State Campus, shot by members of the Ohio National Guard. Two dead were 20; two were 19. Four Dead in Ohio.

Americans killing Americans on an American campus. 

The next week 107 students occupied VPI’s Williams Hall. Tolerance was short-lived. The State Police were called in, the doors of Williams Hall were yanked off their hinges, and 107 students were removed, arrested and suspended. 

State Police remove protestors from Williams Hall, May 1970 ( Special Collections, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, unidentified photographer)

Protestors leaving Williams Hall, May 1970 ( Special Collections, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, unidentified photographer)

State Police arrest a protestor, May 1970 ( Special Collections, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, unidentified photographer)

In 1970 we were pushed to pick a side. Are you with the Americans dying or the Americans killing? That was Nixon’s America.

In 2020 Americans are still killing Americans, this time on American streets. And people are still being pushed to pick sides. Are you with the Americans dying or the Americans killing? 

The flag — and our country — can be stretched only so far before it frays and disintegrates.

This is Donald Trump’s America.

New York Times, September 3, 2020 (Tannen Maury, EPA, photographer)

Toby Cole was ahead of his time. Cole took needle and thread to the flag and his pants 19 years before the US Supreme Court decided on June 21, 1989, that using the flag - or burning it -   to express an opinion of a political nature was protected by the First Amendment. 

And who wears the flag today? Take a look. The worm turns. Not for the better.

Act 8: 1500 Miles to Iowa

I went to Iowa. 

©Philip Shucet Photography

I made the 1500-mile drive from Virginia to Iowa to be in the middle of the first serious moments of the 2020 election season. I already tolerated seven Democratic Party debates. Each more disappointing and useless than the one before. But now the field would finally begin to winnow. At least that’s what I thought then. We all thought Iowa would matter.

Des Moines was crawling with candidates and media. With film loaded, batteries charged, and a bag of camera gear, I made photographs. 

“Just pay attention, Philip,” I reminded myself.

But I didn’t.

I didn’t pay attention to the news that a man in Washington was diagnosed with coronavirus on January 21. I missed that the World Health Organization declared coronavirus a global emergency on January 30. I didn’t know that 259 people were dead in China by January 31. Or that Italy was a simmering pot soon to boil over in a rage. 

By the time I stepped through my front door back home another 1,000 were dead in China. 

The New York Times (Lam Yik Fey)

I’m paying attention now.

So what about those photographs from Iowa? And the political commentary I intended to piece together? They’re in quarantine. 

My mind’s on other things. I’ve been thinking  about the folks I met in cities and towns across those 1,500 miles.

  • That fellow in Indianapolis who made the best falafel I’ve had since Tel Aviv 32 years ago. 
  • The silent cowboy who sat in a coffee shop looking at his phone for hours without ever looking up or taking a sip of coffee. What did he see that I didn’t?
  • A guy at Scenic Route Bakery who sat with a newspaper on his lap, intermittently reading and napping. I believe that sofa was a refuge for him.
  • The man I shared a table with at Java Joe’s who told me to buy Good Economics for Hard Times. (I did. I need to read it.)
  • The gentleman in the apron and yarmulke who talked to anyone that would listen. He was always smiling. Except when he turned toward a private moment. Then the smile faded.
  • Folks sitting in booths beneath a panoply of signs that look back on an America when people were social without the help of Twitter, Instagram or YouTube.
  • A barkeep barista in Oskaloosa who drew a beer for a lady and made an espresso for me.
  • A classically trained violinist gigging to earn a living at the Raucous before the Caucus. The violinist was fantastic. The raucous wasn’t.
  • A woman running a pizza out to a guy sitting in a truck on snow covered 4th St in Des Moines. I blinked and there she was with that pizza.
  • All-around good folks hanging out together sitting and standing close, rubbing shoulders and elbows. Having fun.

I wonder how those folks are faring? Did any of them lose their job? Are their businesses making it? Are falafels still selling? The coffeeshops? The restaurants? The people enjoying good times?

I wonder how - or if - life has changed for the 900,000 people living in Indianapolis and the 16,000 in Indianola? For the 3 million in Iowa and the 12 million in Ohio? I wonder.

So, no political photographs for this commentary. No Trump. No Biden. 

And, Bernie? No. No Bernie.

Just a few photographs of really fine folks that you can see here.

Stay well.

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