works of art. Direct questioning risks phony answers. The job is to get people to talk naturally and openly. Occasional unacademic questions asked in a conversational way will help, but mostly Terkel operates just by being himself an open, concerned adult, talking a bit but mainly listening to other folks talk about things that matter to him and them. Terkel shares the faith expressed by David Brower, old environmentalist in San Francisco: “Think of what’s stored in an eightyor a ninety-yearold mind…. You’ve got a file that nobody else has. There’ll be nobody like you ever again.” Human life is enormously wasteful, spending decades to create such files, then destroying them in a moment like sand-castles on the beach as the tide rises; but Terkel opens the perishable files by convincing people that at least to him, they really are Somebody. The heart of his method is his character. It lets him save what otherwise would be lost. There’s never any doubt that Terkel’s heart is with the plain folks among his interviewees, not with the laureled and triumphant; and this latest book gathers together many ,notable specimens of the common wisdom. For one, there’s the story of Florence Scala, a tailor’s daughter who had been a volunteer at Jane Addams’ famous Hull House. Florence Scala tried unsuccessfully to save the Hull House neighborhood from being destroyed so that the Illinois at Chicago campus could replace it. The suicide of her frustrated leader, Eri Hulbert, set her to thinking. “You know,” she told Terkel, “there’s a real kind of ugliness among nice people. You know, the dirty stuff that you think only hoodlums pull off. They can really destroy you, the nice people.” C.P. Ellis, once the Exalted Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan chapter in Durham, North Carolina, left the Klan and became a union organizer. “When I began to organize, I began to see far deeper. I began to see people again bein’ used. Blacks against whites. I say this without any hesitance: management is vicious. There’s two things they want to keep: all the money and all the say-so.” Sledgehammer Sledge, marine veteran of the Guadalcanal campaign and in the ’80s a professor of biology and a devoted birdwatcher at the University of Montevallo in Alabama, had no patience with the glorifiers of war. “People talk about Iwo Jima as the most glorious amphibious operation in history…. What in the hell was glorious about it?” Sledge remembered how to use a seven-inch knife to knock the gold teeth out of the mouths of dead Japanese. Betty Basye Hutchinson, beauty queen from a country high school who became a nurse for the disfigured wounded as they were brought back to California, spoke of her “terrible anger.” “I started an autobiography,” she said, “and always the war came up. This disappointment. We did it for what? Korea? Vietnam? We’re still at war. Looking back, it didn’t work.” Eric Nesterenko, hockey player for the Maple Leafs and the Black Hawks, got at the essence of the middle class. “This is one of the ways you are somebody you beat somebody. You’re better than they are. Somebody has to be less than you in order for you to be somebody. I don’t know if that’s right any more.” Roberto Acuria, organizer for the United Farm Workers in California, found “the beautiful feeling of solidarity” even in hard times for the strikers. “You’d see the people on the picket lines at four in the morning, at the camp fires, heating up beans and coffee and tortillas. It gave me a sense of belonging. These were my own people and they wanted change. I knew this is what I was looking for.” suppose one last part of my trib ute to Studs Terkel is that he sets me talking too. Listening to so many people pour out their joys and especially their sorrows, I somehow get the feeling that cave men must have heard the gist of it all, around their fires in their smoky caves. I hear Terkel’s good folks lamenting that the world’s in a hell of a mess. I quietly agree but with the addendum that Adam and Eve first made that complaint, which has been justifiably repeated by every generation since. A farm worker tells about hard times in the California fields. I remember the medieval poem about the plowman and his wife, plowing barefoot on the bare ice, so that the blood followed. The musician Lloyd King says he couldn’t get up in the morning if he thought everything was going to hell. I can only hope that he sleeps soundly. I just don’t see the necessity or the justification for the sort of hope that we ancients had as students in the ’30s, when we could say without irony, “Come the revolution….” The inescapable human condition, I’m driven to believe, is perpetual struggle against the overwhelming odds of what used to be called original sin. Homilists tell us we can each do a bit to keep ourselves and other critters and things from being quite as bad as otherwise we would be ‘a bit more at some times, but a bit less at others. Today, when the bad guys are pretty much in charge, good people must work mainly around the margins. Slick Texas Monthly can undo with a single issue what DECEMBER 19, 1997 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 27
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