Handler’s Tail

“There is something about Chicago that paralyzes the spirit under a dead weight of formalism dictated by hoodlums…everywhere the smell of atrophied gangsters, the dead weight of those dear dead days hanging in the air like rancid ectoplasm…You suffocate in the immediate past, still palpable, still palpable, quivering like an earthbound ghost…Here the dream is suffocating, more real than the real, the past actually, incredibly, invading the present. It’s almost like you could reach out and have your youth over again, so solid, nostalgia taking solid form and face…But the fraud is immediately apparent. And the horror, the fear of stasis and decay closes round your heart.”

– from Naked Lunch, William S. Burroughs

There’s a certain feeling in the Midwest that’s not readily captured by images of Detroit or Chicago.  If our major cities were the mark of Midwest culture the Manhattan Project would never have gotten off the ground. Despite the international mystique of the University of Chicago, it was in the prairies West of the city that Argonne and Fermi Lab were built. In that open air and golden landscape the seeds of the 21st century were sown by metallurgists and physicists working on a project that changed everything about the way we look at life and death, international relations and the power of applied science.

A park near where I live sits on an abandoned missle silo that used to protect Argonne and Fermi during the Cold War, but most folks around here just go their to play baseball. It’s called Nike Park, first in honor the missiles once housed there, and second after the Greek goddess of victory.

The Congregationalist Church down the street from me was one of the first churches built in the area in 1833.  In 1955 Rev. Eugene Kreves broke with the church and founded the first Unitarian Universalist congregation in DuPage County.  The current church congregation still remembers the “heretic pastor” and blames him for bring the Devil to Dupage. When the church steeple was destroyed by lightening awhile back they saw it as a continuation of a curse on the building.

Drive a half hour out and you end up in corn fields, but that only gives you the perspective to see industrial factories on the horizon. About an hour south of here you hit “Armory Road” where a giant gas refinery sits all flashing lights and grey smoke. Lew Welch summed up the feeling in his Chicago Poem:

“I lived here nearly 5 years before I could
meet the middle western day with anything approaching
Dignity. It’s a place that lets you
understand why the Bible is the way it is:
Proud people cannot live here.

The land’s too flat. Ugly, sullent and big it
pounds men down past humbleness. They
Stoop at 35 possibly crining from the heavy and
terrible sky. In country like this there
Can be no God but Jahweh.”

I live in the suburbs, heading into the city by train it looks as though Chicago sits at ground zero of it’s own sociological atomic bomb.  Everything surrounding the city is dead and crumbling, a rotting infrastructure that no one cares to rebuild.  Head away from the city and you’re met with the plastic facade of suburban development, go out farther and you hit small semi-rural towns were the memories of farmers hold fast in the midst of economic collapse.

At night the metallic howl of the freight trains cuts through the constant hum of highways and the electric hiss of high tension wires. I think of  missile silos, government laboratories, lightening struck churches and factories squatting fat on once fertile farmland. I get together with friends, we pick up instruments as folks have always done, and tell our tale in the minor key:

“This Summoner bore to him a stiff burden …
A voice he had as small as hath a goat.
No beard had he, nor never should have;
A smooth it was as it were late shave.
I trowe he were a gelding or a mare.”

Josh Stockinger (HorseThief) – Bass, Electric Mandolin, Drums, Guitar
David Metcalfe – Guitar, Keyboards, Thermin

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