Saturday, October 20, 2018

Political memoirs of a ‘distinguished’ ex-journalist...

By Jim Heffernan
I covered a lot of political campaigns in my days as a distinguished journalist. Umm, distinguished? Well, distinguished from, say, garbage man or woman, or doctor or nurse.

Now we again find ourselves in the midst of a hotly contested political campaign in Duluth, the Eighth Congressional District, the State of Minnesota (also Wisconsin, if you’re inclined that way). Everything but the “president.” (Quotation marks intended.)

My journalism career covering political campaigns started way, way back in 1964, briefly covering the campaign of Congressman William E. Miller for vice president of the United States of America. (What other United States would I be referring to? More on that later.)

Some readers — oh, I’d say just over 99.9 percent — do not remember William Miller, but I do. He
William E. Miller
was the running mate of Barry Goldwater in Goldwater’s bid for the presidency in 1964. Some readers — oh I’d say about 42.3 percent — do not remember Barry Goldwater either, but I do. The Republican Goldwater-Miller team was facing the Lyndon B. Johnson-Hubert H. Humphrey team fielded by the Democrats. All ancient history…like me.

Miller visited Duluth late in the campaign, drumming up votes for Republicans in perhaps the most concentrated Democratic region of the country. Some might recall Johnson-Humphrey won. I was assigned to follow Miller, mainly around UMD, where he held an impromptu press conference on the lawn outside Kirby Student Center, where as a recent student I had spent a lot of time smoking cigarettes and not hitting the books.

There have been many, many campaigns between then and now during which I had contact with incumbents and hopefuls in my journalism role. After a while you begin to notice certain similarities among people who run for public office, especially the big-timers seeking the higher offices.

All of which brings up the current campaign, which I am viewing from the sidelines, having retired
from active journalism some time ago. Certain themes never change, and today I thought I’d share a few that I’ve noticed over the past half century, give or take a decade or two.

This is a nonpartisan report. Candidates for the Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Independents, Reformists, Martians, any other, all often say the same things, lacing their pronouncements with the same declarations. Here are some I’ve noticed:
·      Let’s begin by picking up on “United States of America.” They hardly ever just say “United States” when they refer to our beloved country. Is there anyone within hearing distance who needs to be told they are talking about the United States of America? Yet they seem incapable of just saying United States without the “of America.” Maybe there are other “United States” somewhere on the planet but I can’t think of any.
·      All candidates roll up their sleeves a lot. Standing before rapt (or unwrapped) audiences day after day, they call for “bold reforms” of just about anything and vow that when elected they are going to roll up their sleeves and tackle the problem or maybe all problems. Some make these pronouncements jacket-less and wearing short sleeves. Ah, metaphor.
·      All Americans are “hard working,” when referred to by candidates. Are they? I am not a hard working American. I’m retired. Others still in the workforce might slough off a lot. There are some acknowledged exceptions cited by candidates of a certain stripe: Americans collecting welfare are not hard working, nor do they roll up their sleeves.
·      Military personnel are all “heroes” in the words of many politicians. This includes active or reserve personnel plus anyone who has ever served in the military, known as veterans. All are heroes on the campaign trail. Well, I served in the military and never achieved hero status. In fact, while serving in the military I never met anyone I consider to be an actual hero. There are some, of course. But very few.
·      When things get tough (and the tough get going), politicians never fail to “pick themselves up, dust themselves off” and tackle the problem. What problem? Any problem. Our society has a lot more problems during the political campaign season.
·      Woe betide the candidate who doesn’t pick him or herself up, dust off and pin a teensy-weensy American flag on their lapels, provided they are wearing jackets. Sometimes they must doff their jackets to roll up their sleeves to come to the aid of hard-working Americans or heroes who serve or have served in the military.

To conclude: In my own years as a distinguished journalist (distinguished from, say, accountant or bartender) I must say I always sought to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. After all, the pen is mightier than the sword. Hmmm, that has a ring to it.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Cloquet Fire: It Was a Day to Remember…

By Jim Heffernan
* Note: Today marks the 100th anniversary of the 1918 fires. 
What follows is my column that was originally printed in the 
Duluth News Tribune and re-printed in my book, Cooler, Near the Lake.
Today marks the 70thanniversary* of the great Cloquet fire that burned much of Northeastern Minnesota and killed hundreds of people. The ranks of those who remember it first-hand are getting thin, although there are still plenty of people in their late 70s and older around to tell about it.

Mention of the Cloquet fire brings vivid memories to me. While I missed it by more than two decades, my mother, Ruth Carlson, was age 19 and not yet married on that Oct. 12, 1918, and talked of it often when I was growing up.

Everybody who was in this area then had a story to tell about that terrible day. Many have passed the stories down through their families. This is my mother’s Cloquet fire, as she told the story often, once, a couple of years before she died in 1983, into a tape recorder.

They say that to a foot soldier huddled in a foxhole in combat the war is only as big as that foxhole. So it is with witnesses of cataclysmic events. We only see a small part and only after they are over do we learn of their scope.

My mother’s Cloquet fire story started in downtown Duluth and ended in her home on Piedmont Avenue between Third and Fourth streets in the West End. Here, in her words, is the way it was–for her.

“It was a very lovely sunshiny day. It was a Saturday and I had baked several loaves of bread. My friend and I went downtown in the afternoon to look for a birthday gift for another friend. We left about 2:30 and went to Wahl’s store, which was George A. Gray Co. then.

“(After shopping) when we came out on Superior Street a terrific wind was blowing and it was very dark. We boarded a streetcar and coming up Piedmont Avenue we met trucks with people on them screaming. Balls of fire were rolling down the avenue, paper and other debris burning. We were frightened and hurried to our homes. (At that point) we hadn’t heard what had happened.

“The wind was so strong you could hardly breathe. I got home and my family was very excited. My mother had died in April so it was my father and five (younger) sisters wondering where to go. People were driving down Piedmont Avenue in trucks and cars, screaming. They had been picked up in Hermantown where everything was on fire.

“Soon a friend of ours called and told us to pack clothes and a little food and be ready to flee down to the bay because Duluth was surrounded by fire and (he said) the bridge crossing to Superior was burning. The Woodland area was also burning. A neighbor came over crying and wringing her hands because her three children were visiting in Lakewood with their grandmother. She didn’t know if they were alive.

“Then we heard they had ordered the people from Twelfth to Tenth streets and the area all around there to vacate. There was so much smoke we could hardly breathe. The rooms were filled with smoke. They called my dad and asked if he would take the grocery truck from where he worked to Hermantown to pick up people. He couldn’t leave us alone.

“(Later in the evening) my younger sisters were sleeping and my dad and I were up watching. About 2 o’clock in the morning the wind died down. We were saved–how thankful we were. My friend and I walked up to Hermantown the next day. What a sight we saw–people weeping standing in front of ash piles that had been their homes…so much sickness,too…the people were dying from the flu. (The fire occurred during the great Spanish flu epidemic.) It was not a pretty sight to see beautiful trees and vegetation all black, but the people were brave and went back to their small farms and started to build again.

“It was a day to remember.”

I have one other family account of that fire. My father (who had not yet met my mother) was in the Army (World War I was winding down), stationed in San Francisco. He knew nothing of the fire in his hometown until newspapers reported it with front page headlines proclaiming such things as “Duluth Leveled By Fire.”

It was some time before he could determine his own parents and siblings back in Duluth had survived, and most of Duluth itself had not burned.
Originally appeared in the Duluth News Tribune on Wednesday, October 12, 1988 
and reprinted in the book by Jim Heffernan, Cooler Near the Lake (2008).

*  To learn more about the 1918 fire... click HEREHERE and HERE.