Archive for June, 2008

History, Plus Change

June 30, 2008

“Everything changes – yet everything remains the same.”


Jumbo re

June 27, 2008

Doesn’t the man know that this is what Finnegans Wake is for?


June 24, 2008

If, whenever the notion of a library crosses your mind, you envision a musty crypt, a silent tomb of impenetrable gloom, a mausoleum-like chamber in which a softly growling stomach provokes instantaneous glares of disapprobation from strict, even severe, Library Authorities, or a casually whispered word evokes immediate commands to “shush!”, you haven’t been to the North Clairemont Library in San Diego. And you certainly haven’t been to the Haysville Community Library lately. Check out Alex Finlayson’s ”No Shushing in this Library.”

(Thanks to Zoe Burgess for alerting us to this excellent article.)

Rex Libris

June 23, 2008

Haven’t read it yet — but for the obvious and predictable reasons, you can bet that Rex Libris will be the very next graphic novel I read.

Farm Woman Update

June 23, 2008


More than seventy years ago, in the early years of the Great Depression, my grandfather Ernest Johnston lost his small Sedgwick County farm, moved his wife and seven daughters into town, and became a pressman for the Wichita Beacon. He sacrificed his hearing and two fingers to those presses, but he loved the work enough to stay for decades. Indeed, in the long history of that newspaper, his tenure was second only to that of its owner-publisher. The only work he loved more was the one he had been forced by circumstance to leave behind. So he became a miraculously prolific gardener, and kept his head and hands and heart close to the soil.


Perhaps it’s that dual heritage, love of the printed word and love for the green and growing things of earth, passed onward by the youngest of Ernest’s seven daughters, that has given me such delight in reading Chronicles of the Farm Woman. It’s a wonderfully plain-spoken treasury – yes, a chronicle – of all the changes wrought across the decades in the lives of Kansas farmers in the Neosho River valley, and beyond. Ultimately, it is the story of all the little things in life that cumulatively are always the most immense and important things we do. As Mary Frances McKinney often put it, “the most important crop we raise here on the farm is children.”


Perhaps what pleases me most about the Farm Woman is the way in which she emphasizes how integral, how inseparably interconnected, are the disparate elements of that Chinese proverb I quoted earlier: “If you plan for a year, grow rice. If you plan for decades, grow trees. If you plan for centuries, grow human beings.” Mrs. McKinney demonstrates graphically and irrefutably that you can’t have one without the others. It is a beautiful affirmation.


Candy Bomber Update

June 21, 2008


In the Culture and Zeitgeist section of the June 13th issue of This Week In Germany (a publication of the German Information Center) there is an excellent interview with Andrei Cherny, author of The Candy Bombers. In addition to a number of illuminating comments and observations, the text offers links to a handful of relevant sites of interest in their own right, such as the Berlin Airlift Historical Foundation, the Berlin Airlift Veterans Association, and, of course, the author’s own website.

A number of interesting photographs, along with historical monographs on many of the principle actors, are featured. Each is worthy of exploration.


Cherny’s site also links to a number of his articles on more contemporary events, including The Word War in the Winter 2008 edition of “Democracy: A Journal of Ideas,” a print and online publication which he co-founded and edits. Aside from its intrinsic value, the article further elucidates Cherny’s perspective on the events related in The Candy Bombers.


For example, after criticizing several alternative characterizations of our present global conflict, he writes that “the War on Terror is best compared to the Cold War – a long-term, global, ideological struggle that will be waged on every continent, occasionally flare into armed conflict, and be ultimately won not by imposing our will but by the power of our good works and example in convincing ordinary people around the world that democracy and open markets are a better choice for them than religious despotism and closed economies.” From his vantage point, “both parties have mentioned such a foreign policy strategy. But beyond the intermittent rhetorical flourish, neither has embraced its full ramifications.”


It’s easy to discern an integral relationship between this perspective and Cherny’s view of the Berlin Airlift. As he explains in the interview noted above, “in the larger sense what I argue in the book is that their approach to dealing with the Germans – a people the Americans had defeated and whose country they had occupied – became seen and accepted as the way America should act in the world. There was a big debate right after World War II, and even during the war, as to the kind of role America should play as it was coming into its own as a world power. During the Berlin airlift, as the candy drops became its defining feature, Americans came to view their role as a special one – a role predicated on the belief that we had a mission in the world to act in a way that married our military might with a sense of moral purpose.”


The Farm Woman

June 21, 2008


This coming Monday evening (June 23rd) we’ll be hosting a book discussion in the library of Jean McKay’s Chronicles of The Farm Woman: The Story of Mary Frances McKinney. I’m just a little more than a hundred pages into the book at present, but already enchanted, and pleased that I’d given it a try.


In so many ways, The Farm Woman  rekindles memories of many of those great rural classics of farm life in the Great Depression years or their aftermath. For me that means M.G. Kains’ Five Acres and Independence: A Handbook for Small Farm Management, Aldo Leopold’s incomparable A Sand County Almanac, or Louis Bromfield’s Pleasant Valley.


Consider, for example, this brief but poignant passage from one of Mary McKinney’s columns appearing in William Allen White’s Emporia Gazette:


“Have you ever noticed a group of trees as you drive along a country road? Perhaps there is a cedar among them and maybe a gnarled old apple. A yellow rose bush to blossom first in the spring and possibly a lilac and clump of asparagus. If you drive more slowly you will see a pile of stones and the ruins of a cave – the remains of a Kansas homestead. As I sit on my front porch I can see six such groups of trees. A generation ago those houses were teeming with life. Three or six or eight children. The boys slept in the loft and girls in the front room.


“As the boys grew up they turned their backs on the farm. The girls married and left it. The old folks passed on. Fire and time have brought the houses to ruins – a clump of trees, a few stones and a yellow rose.”


For me the particularities are ever so slightly different – an ancient Kiefer pear rather than a gnarled apple by the ruins of an abandoned farmhouse, a line of Osage Orange trees littering their hedge apples along the abandoned boundary line, flowering quince or forsythia to herald the coming spring, sand plums and Hercules Club trees lining the ghosts of vanished fencerows. Yet the vision is fundamentally the same.


One of my fondest childhood memories of Haysville is of my mother herding rowdy sons into an old blue and white DeSoto and driving her boisterous expedition out to the peach orchard on a hot spring day. It’s the persimmon tree that garnered the scientific name Diospyros, but it’s a fresh-picked peach that truly deserves the appellation “fruit of the gods.”


That memory returned to me a hundred times over in later years, when I envisioned my own miniature utopia on a handful of acres down in Rockwall County, Texas. I planted more than a dozen varieties of peach trees, expressly calculated so that in that more southerly clime a new variety of peach would ripen every couple of weeks from the end of March until early October. Nirvana.


It’s true that Chronicles of The Farm Woman: The Story of Mary Frances McKinney is somewhat inconsistently edited, and occasionally flawed by a bit of awkward prose. Ignore that. Persist, and I believe that you too will find it to be a wonderfully rewarding read.


The Power of Chocolate

June 19, 2008


A Review of The Candy Bombers, by Andrei Cherney

(Haysville Sun Times, June 20, 2008) 

Ken Bell


In times of difficulty – wars and rumors of wars, terrorism, rising unemployment, relentlessly increasing food prices, gasoline prices approaching $4 a gallon, global warming – it is easy to yield to cynicism or despair. Yet it is precisely during such ‘times that try men’s souls’ that it becomes more vital than ever that we maintain hope and redouble our conviction that humankind truly can triumph over grim adversity.


“If you ever need a jolt of hope about the world we live in,” writes Andrei Cherny near the end of his marvelous history of the Berlin Airlift, The Candy Bombers, “go to Berlin and see the possibilities history can hold. In Potsdamer Platz, where Hitler and Speer planned for a gargantuan fountain and parking spots for a thousand cars, where Markgraf’s police raided the black marketeers, where hundreds of American and Russian troops faced off with machine guns, where a single, stooped man dragged a paintbrush across the pavement to divide the city, there is now an IMAX movie theater, a Sony store, and a Legoland.


“To be sure, there is still competition in Berlin for the allegiances of its people. On what once was the American side of Checkpoint Charlie, there is a Subway sandwich shop. Mere feet away, on the old Soviet side, there is a Schlotsky’s deli. Some may tut-tut such rampant commercialization, but no one dies or starves in face-offs over cold cuts and condiments.


“That this is Berlin today is a testament to the strength of allied military power, to the commitment of two generations of Americans to the idea that democracy and freedom can be brought to the most unlikely places, and to the redemptive, transformative power of human goodness.”


It is above all else the redemptive and transformative power of human goodness that permeates and animates the narrative of this wonderful book.


In truth, when I lived in Berlin during the last decade of the Cold War, more than three decades after the events recounted in this book, I met dozens of Germans whose most intensely emotional childhood memories were of the “Luftbruecke” (the “air bridge”), and whose gratitude for the “candy bombers” remained undiminished by the intervening years.


There is no doubt in my mind – a certitude reconfirmed in the reading of this work – that the single most important turning point in postwar history was the Berlin Airlift.


When the events recounted here began, three years after the end of the most destructive war in human history, Berlin was a landscape of unmitigated devastation. The city comprised nearly two billion cubic feet of rubble, and little else. In three laborious years, the Germans had cleared less than half a percent of the vast wreckage. (When the task was finally completed years hence, the enormous quantity of detritus was scraped into a gigantic mound named Teufelsberg – the Devil’s Mountain – forming the highest single point in Central Eastern Europe from Berlin eastward to the Ural Mountains, deep within the Soviet Union. On the peak of this monument to destruction, the Americans built Field Station Berlin, an intelligence facility, where I worked for three years during the later Cold War as a Russian linguist.)


In 1948, three years after the conquest and despite American commitments, the people of Berlin were starving. The daily distribution of food supplies by the occupation forces averaged 1,040 calories. (In the hungry years of the Great Depression, Americans had consumed an average of 3,260 calories per day.)


When asked about the biggest problem they faced in educating their children, 42 percent of Berliners replied that it was a lack of food. Hunger was cited as their principle worry by 74 percent. “The average German over the age of forty was 30 pounds underweight, and the average man in the American zone weighed 112 pounds.”


Three times as many Berliners died each week as were born. The infant mortality rate was higher in Berlin in 1948 than it is in war-ravaged and starving Darfur today. In America, a Hershey bar cost five cents. In Berlin, an entire month’s wages could have bought just five of these precious candy bars. Used, half-smoked cigarette butts were common currency.


Unsurprisingly, prior to the Russian blockade and the Airlift, the starving Berliners reported that they preferred a full stomach to freedom by a margin of 70 to 22 percent. Yet they had neither food nor freedom. “In the last weeks of 1947 and first weeks of 1948, 1,600 Berliners – a large number of them anti-Communist activists – had simply disappeared, vanished without a trace.” Hundreds more were openly arrested by Russian troops, and also disappeared. As the Supreme Commander of the American occupation, General Lucius D. Clay laconically observed, “You cannot build real democracy in an atmosphere of distress and hunger.”


Although these dismal facts, and much beyond, are recounted in these pages, it isn’t distress and suffering which The Candy Bombers is about. Instead, it is about transcendence: the amazing story of how, against all odds and despite the opposition of the powerful, the practical and the “wise”, good triumphed over evil.


To reiterate but a few of the Airlift’s astonishing historical results:


  • “The siege of Berlin had not only failed, it had backfired. Berliners had become rabidly pro-democratic; Western European nations under threat were banding together and seeking a defense treaty with a United States that was turning its back on isolationism; and all around the world the Berlin Airlift had become a symbol of an America that was not only strong but good.”


  • “Before the blockade, Soviet Communism had been a force that was on the move, creeping across the map of Europe and toppling free governments one by one. After the blockade was defeated, the Communists would not gain another inch of territory in Europe. In fact, they would never even try again.”


  • “…in 1948, had it not been for the Berlin crisis, Thomas Dewey [and not Harry Truman] would have been elected President of the United States.”


For anyone curious about the grim aftermath of World War II, the genesis of the Cold War, or the more urgent contemporary challenge of introducing freedom and democracy to a population long-inured to dictatorship, The Candy Bombers is imperative reading. Diligently researched, excellently written and emotionally compelling, Andrei Cherny’s book is a revelation. If you read just one “serious” book this summer, The Candy Bombers would be an excellent choice.


Ken Bell is the Assistant Director of the Haysville Community Library. His elder daughter Krystal lives, works and studies in Berlin.


Haysville Community Library & the Future of Our City

June 19, 2008


(Originally written a couple of months ago (April), shortly after my arrival at the Haysville Community Library, this brief essay remains the best practical statement to date of my personal perception of the role and place of the library in our community. Comments avidly solicited.)



If you plan for a year, grow rice.

If you plan for a decade, grow trees.

If you plan for centuries, grow human beings.


                                                                                                — Chinese Proverb




Bang for the Buck


Local government is always and everywhere a matter of limited resources confronting practically limitless demands. Every choice is challenging and tough. Streets and sewers need repairs. Facilities are aging, outmoded or overcrowded. Every constituency, from the elderly to the very young, from growing families to the isolated homebound, presents the city with urgent priorities or unmet needs. Many worthwhile, even essential needs compete directly for scarce funds.


Often, difficult choices made by the city council address one critical priority at the expense of another. And every dollar spent must be raised from citizens whose own personal needs are no less vital. Those citizens and their priorities and aspirations are the very reason for the existence of that government.


In consequence, all too frequently government seems to be a zero sum game of “robbing Peter to pay Paul,” serving one vital community interest only by shortchanging another equally vital one.


But there is at least one very important exception. Every dollar spent wisely on a well-managed, public-spirited, state-of-the-art community library offers a return on investment that cannot be matched in any other way.


No other expenditure of public funds can simultaneously stimulate economic development, empower our citizens, encourage and facilitate community involvement, engage and enlighten our youth and enhance our community’s quality of life, while educating, entertaining and enriching the life of every city resident regardless of age, sex, income, social status or ability to pay.


A vibrant, well-funded public library isn’t a mere hodgepodge of dusty old volumes rotting away in an intellectual backwater: it is the vital hub and local gateway to global communication and worldwide information, the coin of the realm in the information age.



Stimulating Economic Development


For small businesses and aspiring start-ups, the Haysville Community Library is the great equalizer. Working on the thinnest of margins, often on a shoestring, entrepreneurs and smaller enterprises simply don’t have the resources to compete with ‘the big boys’ in such critical areas as research and information services. But these potentially fatal weaknesses are precisely those areas in which the library has considerable strength.


As just one example, consider that the Haysville Community Library’s free computer usage guarantees ready access to a host of absolutely free online courses offered by the Small Business Administration and a number of state agencies that encourage and facilitate the growth of small businesses.


These free courses encompass everything from identifying a target market and preparing a business plan to finding start-up funding, marketing a product or service, and a host of other vital small business concerns, including:


  Starting a business

  Business planning

  Business management

  Finance & accounting

  Marketing & advertising

  Government contracting

  Computer security


  International trade

  Federal taxes

  Small business retirement


Using free public access to a computer at the Haysville Community Library, a large collection of allied information resources and services, and enthusiastic support from a team of concerned information professionals to aid his or her search, each and every citizen of Haysville who is thinking of starting a new business has a world of information at hand.


The library staff and facilities are also available to enable groups as well as individuals to utilize these free resources. All that is required is a phone call to the Haysville Community Library to reserve time, space and resources, and enlist the supportive aid of caring and involved professionals.


Of course, these facilities, services and resources aren’t restricted to use by start-ups and aspiring individuals. Established businesses and ongoing concerns are equally free and strongly encouraged to use the library to sharpen their competitive edge, discover emerging opportunities, and solve practical business problems on a daily basis.


There is an eminently logical reason why the Haysville Chamber of Commerce offices are located in the library: the Haysville Community Library is an unparalleled public resource for encouraging and strengthening community economic development, expansion and growth.


Empowering Citizens


No aspect of the great American experiment is of greater significance than the maintenance and preservation of our democratic freedoms. Yet few of our fellow citizens know even the most rudimentary facts about their own government. Less than half could tell you who represents them in Washington. The merest fraction could declare who represents them in Topeka. Even fewer have attended a meeting of the city council or the school board. Almost none know where to turn when they have a particular and pressing problem that can only be addressed by their local, state or national governments.


Or, if they do know, it’s all too frequently a matter of what Will Rogers described as “what you know that just ain’t so.” The resultant confusion and frustration is what so often explains, as pundit E.J. Dionne wrote a few years back, “Why Americans Hate Politics.”


For quick, correct, accurate, definitive answers to questions ranging from “who sits on the House Committee on Science and Technology” and “what’s the current status of HB107” to “who’s my representative and how did he/she vote on x” there is simply no alternative front line resource that can match your community library.


Want to know the website address of every Presidential candidate not just Republicans and Democrats, but Greens, Libertarians, Independents, Socialists and both factions of the Prohibition Party ask the library.


From workshops on community involvement or on useful internet resources, to comprehensive printed source materials, to solid objective advice on the pros and cons of various political resource websites of all persuasions, the library can provide each and every citizen with the means to make informed decisions, to participate and to make their voices heard.


Similarly, the library assures a safe and welcoming environment, a community gathering place where citizens can explore and discuss ideas without fear of reprisal or censorship.


When used effectively, the community library can serve as a crucial link between the individual citizen and the larger community, strengthening our democracy and enhancing its value for all. The Haysville Community Library can be a political powerhouse because it is an information storehouse.


As the cognoscenti of the western world’s most enduring empire knew, potentia scientia est: Knowledge is Power.



Encouraging and Facilitating Community Involvement


Local government everywhere is inundated by the overwhelming need for engaged and active volunteers to perform vital community services. There is always more work to be done than hands and hearts and minds to do it. All the strengths which permit the community library to serve as a primary vehicle for the empowerment of citizens can also be used to connect our citizen volunteers to community tasks that urgently need doing.


One key indicator of the library’s central role in the life of the community, and its efficacy in marshalling resources to benefit the larger public, is the sheer number and diversity of private associations and informal affinity groups that use the resources of the library continuously.


From the Chamber of Commerce to the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, from TOPS (Take Off Pounds Sensibly) to quilting groups, from the Association of Business and Professional Women to Cities & Schools, the library is open to all, and actively engaged in promoting community interests and public spirit. There’s always room for more.



Engaging and Enlightening Youth


At the time of the last census, the median age of Haysville residents was 33.5. Slightly more than one third of all residents (33.8%) were age 19 or less. Nearly 40% were under the age of 24. Our youngest citizens are a significant and growing fraction of our community, and the single most vital element in our emerging future.


In town meetings and public comments before the city council, one concern expressed consistently by a significant number of our most involved, active and thoughtful citizens, has been the crucial need to provide recreational diversions to our younger population that are  healthy, constructive and safe.


Along with school-sponsored and church-sponsored events, and organized athletics, the library is the paradigm of public institutions that can achieve those ends.


For Haysville youth, there is no community institution other than our public schools which can match the community library in its ability to instill curiosity, stimulate imagination, impart knowledge, evoke understanding, develop community awareness, and create opportunity.


Over summer vacations, on weekday afternoons after school, in the evenings and on weekends, the Haysville Community Library is the only convenient library and public internet venue available to school children. For preschoolers, it is simply the only library available at all. College students use the library when home for the weekend or on holiday breaks. And those who once abandoned school, or who have been forced by circumstance to abandon it, will find in the library a valuable resource for earning a GED and creating new opportunities and a brighter future.


There are few more inspiring or illuminating sights than watching a group from the Alternative High School avidly search for just the right book in the stacks on an early morning before class, or laughing with a preschooler as she stares in wide-eyed wonder at the discovery of an exciting and colorful new storybook, or observing inconspicuously as a dozen or more children, teenagers and young adults explore the enigmas and complexities of the world at large on the Internet after school.



Enhancing the Quality of Life


A strong and vibrant community library is a sine qua non of that difficult-to-define but intuitively understood talisman of cities everywhere, the quality of life.


In the 2004 edition of their work Cities Ranked & Rated, Bert Sperling and Peter Sander discussed the important role of media and libraries, the first component of their ranking index for “Arts & Culture.” “These assets,” they wrote, “Serve the twin purposes of providing intellectually stimulating entertainment and education for families and children. An area with strong cultural assets usually also has good educational ones, a strong sense of tradition and heritage, and finer entertainment options. Furthermore, strong cultural assets tend to attract other assets, thus improving an area’s overall quality of life. This fact is not lost on local governments and chambers of commerce, many of which will aggressively pursue such amenities with funding when they can.”


That’s why, according to Sperling and Sander, “over 90% of those surveyed believe that libraries play a vital role” in the life of their communities, and are inextricably linked with their community’s quality of life.


A strong, vibrant, public-spirited, state-of-the-art library is an integral element and key foundation stone of any dynamic and growing community’s essential quality of life.





In the Age of Information, community dollars invested wisely in a healthy public library generate an unequaled return on investment.


Contemporaneously stimulating economic development, empowering citizens, encouraging and strengthening community involvement, engaging and enlightening youth, and improving the community’s quality of life, the Haysville Community Library educates, entertains and enhances the life of every resident regardless of age, sex, income, social status or ability to pay. It preserves our yesterdays, enriches today, and enlightens and illuminates tomorrow.



Homeward Bound

June 19, 2008


I’m a Kansas boy – a Wichita native who grew up first just a few dozen blocks from the northern boundary of Haysville – a short hike from Seneca Square and the old Peter Pan ice cream store, and a short ride in the back seat of an old DeSoto from the Mugs Up root beer – then, after eighth grade, on the east side of Wichita, in the shade of the ancient elms arching over South Crestway.


I left home at the age of 17 and my peripatetic meanderings have led me through Colorado, Indiana, Missouri, California, Georgia, Washington, DC, Europe (Berlin) and, via myriad intermediate points between, most recently and for the longest stay, to Texas (alphabetically in Alief, Austin, Dallas, Garland, Houston, Rockwall, San Angelo, and Terrell). All this along a trajectory inexorably homeward bound.


Now, a jack of many trades yet master of few, I’m very happily nestled at home in the Haysville Community Library: which, conveniently, brings me roundabout to the topic of this blog. It isn’t at all about anything in particular, but about various and sundry and everything in general . . . the Cosmos as oyster . . .where it’s the ellipsis that counts, the meaning of which to be determined.


My intentions, however murky and inchoate, are relentlessly to pursue the will-o’-the-wisp directive ‘to err is human; to repent, divine; to persist, devilish.’ I intend to err, to repent — and to persist.