Look, in the grand scheme of things (wait…IS there a grand scheme of things? It doesn’t seem very likely, does it. But never mind, it’s too early for that sort of tangent.) Chris Rock getting slapped by Will Smith is pretty small beans. Who cares if a rich actor slaps a rich comedian?
Except it happened in front of an audience–a live audience and a really huge television audience. Except that it happened during an award ceremony. Except Smith, just half an hour or so later, said, “People do crazy things for love,” as if the slap–and let’s just call it what it really was: a violent assault–as if that violent assault was the result of love. Except that some folks interpreted the assault as a ‘defense’ of Smith’s wife, who was the butt of a tacky Chris Rock joke.
Except that the assault was really a clear, public display of male ego, of male rage, of male privilege. Except that Will Smith felt he had the right to interrupt a ceremony to exact physical retribution for a perceived insult to somebody else. Except the assault had nothing to do with love. Except that Will Smith made the entire incident–the entire award show and the entire night–about him. “Keep MY WIFE’s name out your fucking mouth.” MY wife.
You know what would be a good way to defend your wife? A good way to turn that joke into something actually about love? A good way to truly demonstrate your love for your wife? Use your time in front of the camera to talk about alopecia. Use that time to educate folks about what it is. Use that time to discuss the weird and often unhealthy social relationship between women and their hair. Use that time to remind folks that humor doesn’t have to be cruel. Use that time to say love doesn’t depend on hair. That love doesn’t depend on appearance. That the Beatles were right, and love is all there is.
At the end of his acceptance speech, Smith said, “I’m hoping the academy invites me back.” Invites ME back. Me. This may be the saddest thing about the entire incident. Will Smith was given an opportunity–a truly unique opportunity–to demonstrate how love for another person works. Instead, he put himself in the center.
EDITORIAL NOTE: I’ve said this before, but it’s always worth repeating. Hell, it’s necessary to keep repeating. Burn the patriarchy. Burn it to the ground, Burn it to the ground and collect the ashes, and grind them into powder. Bury the powder deep in the earth, and salt the ground above it so nothing will ever grow there. Pour cement over the salt. Then nuke the entire site from orbit (it’s the only way to be sure).
I see that the Senate committee investigating the January 6th Insurrection is considering issuing a subpoena to Ginni Thomas, the wife of SCOTUS Justice Clarence Thomas, after the public revelation that she was deeply and actively engaged in arranging the 1/6 demonstration AND ALSO actively encouraging the White House Chief of Staff to help overturn the legitima…wait, what?
The 1/6 committee is considering a subpoena? Are you fucking kidding me? The wife of a SCOTUS judge is plotting to scuttle a presidential election, and they’re CONSIDERING a subpoena? Arrest her. Charge her with a crime. What is wrong with you people?
And why is Clarence Thomas allowed to rule on cases involving his wife? Fuck that, why he he still on SCOTUS? Why hasn’t this malignant bastard been forced to resign? Why hasn’t he been impeached?
Why aren’t Steve Bannon and Mark Meadows and any of the other Republican assholes who’ve refused to answer a subpoena in jail on contempt charges? As far as that goes, why hasn’t the 1/6 Committee been holding public hearings like they said they would? Why hasn’t the 1/6 Committee subpoenaed Margie Greene and Gym Jackson and Lauren Boebert and Mo Brooks and that weaselly bastard Josh Hawley and any other seditious member of Congress who might have information about the insurrection?
Why isn’t Manhattan AG Bragg prosecuting Trump? Hell, why isn’t Attorney General Merrick Garland prosecuting…well, any of the Trumps? I know, I know, it takes time to build a solid criminal case, but Jesus suffering fuck, this is ridiculous.
And yeah, sure, it’s great that some of the fuckwits that actually broke into the Capitol Building to disrupt the election are being tried and sentenced. But does anybody believe that if BLM folks had broken into the Capitol, that they’d be given sentences of just a few months? No fucking way.
This is fucking infuriating. There are so many political pundits fretting that the US might be losing representative democracy. We’re not losing it; we’re pissing it away. We’re letting the authoritarian right take it from us. We’re allowing them to strip away voting rights, to ban books they don’t like, to criminalize trans kids and their parents, to eliminate safe and legal abortion, and so much other shit that it’s too long to list.
And ain’t nobody being held to account for none of it.
Can we please, for fuck’s sake, hold somebody accountable for something?
Yesterday I wrote that I didn’t need to write about the war in Ukraine all the time. So this morning, what am I doing? Right; writing about the war in Ukraine. Specifically, all the dead generals. The Russian Army has lost five (and possibly a sixth, though that’s unconfirmed at the moment) generals in the last 25 days. They’ve lost three regimental commanders in the last 24 hours. When I say ‘lost’ I don’t mean they became confused and wandered off; I mean they were killed in combat.
Generals and regimental commanders (in the US military, RCOs are usually full colonels, the rank just below general) hardly ever get killed. They might die of a heart attack or liver disease or something, but they just don’t get killed in combat. They’re rarely close enough to the fighting to be at risk.
You may be asking, “Greg, old sock, why would these Russian generals and RCOs be so close to the fighting?” It’s a valid question (and c’mon, stop calling me ‘old sock’). The answer is, they’ve got to be close to the fighting because failures in their electronic communications equipment force the generals to be there in person to give orders.
You may be asking, “Greg, old…uh, these ‘failures in electronic communication equipment’ of which you speak…what are they?” Another good question, and the answer is both tragic an hilarious. The Russian Army developed a sophisticated, highly secure, cryptophone system called Era. It was supposed to allow secure communication in almost any situation–so long as there is at least 3G cellular telephony available.
What did the Russian Army do at the beginning of their invasion? They destroyed all the cell phone towers. So they basically knee-capped their sophisticated Era cryptophones; they just won’t work. That means the Russians have been reduced to using ordinary cellphones with sim cards to communicate with each other, and those calls are easily intercepted by Ukrainians. Now the generals and RCOs have to get close enough to the fighting to issue strategic orders. Which means they’re close enough to get killed.
Generals and RCOs getting killed plays hell with morale–both the morale of the troops, who hate not knowing who’s in charge, and the morale of the remaining generals and RCOs who now have to take their place close to the fighting.
To make matters worse for the Russian Army (and yeah, we want to make things worse for them), Russia accidentally acknowledged that almost 10,000 Russians have been killed in action, and more than 16,000 wounded. The WIA number is undoubtedly low. As a general rule of thumb, you can assume two to three times as many combat wounded as combat killed–so the number of WIA is probably closer to 20-30,000.
Here’s another thing to take into consideration: in combat, wounding the enemy is often more effective than killing them. A dead soldier can’t be helped, so troops can ignore them and keep fighting. A wounded soldier, on the other hand, is screaming (which has to be distracting) and requires aid, which means other troops have to stop and treat them and carry them off the battlefield–which further reduces the size of the fighting force.
Again, these casualty numbers are in just over three weeks of fighting. The US, in the 20 years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, had 7,000 KIA.
In an earlier post, I talked about the Russian Army running out of trucks. They’re also running out of generals and combat troops. They should load the remaining troops into the remaining trucks and get the fuck out of Ukraine.
Every morning this week I’ve sat here at the keyboard and started to write a post about the situation in Ukraine. Every single morning I’ve put a couple hundred words in a row, and every morning I’ve deleted them all.
I mean, what is there to say? Well, obviously there’s a LOT to say–the military situation, the refugee situation, the NATO situation, the war crimes situation, and on and on and on. But the internet is awash in experts opining and analyzing all that. What is there for ME to say? Is there anything I can contribute that’s meaningful?
Not much. I can express opinions, but my opinions about Ukraine aren’t very much different from most folks. And as for those folks whose opinions support Russia and Putin–what is there to say to or about them? Not much, other than ‘Russian warship, go fuck yourself’.
The problem (for me) is that it’s hard to write about anything else at the moment. Everything else seems trivial. Art? Clarence Thomas in the hospital? Republican hypocrisy? Pickleball? The January 6th prosecutions? The arrival of Spring and getting back on the bike? Voter suppression? The latest research on crows? Today’s hearing on the nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court? There are lots of things that occupy my mind and my time besides Ukraine. It’s just that none of them seem as important. None of them ARE as important.
What makes this all the more awful is that the war in Ukraine has become something of a stalemate. It’s turning into a war of attrition–the ugliest, cruelest, and most brutal form of war. A war of attrition isn’t about territorial control; it’s about imposing as much suffering as possible in every way possible in order to force the enemy to give up. It’s about wearing away at the very foundations of a sustainable life–food and shelter. It’s about reducing towns and cities to uninhabitable rubble.
But here’s the truly awful thing: I suspect–I fear–the American public will begin to treat the war of attrition in the same way they’ve treated the global pandemic. They’ll get bored with it. It’ll be normalized, in the same way they’ve come to accept a thousand deaths a week from Covid as normal. In the same way they’ve come to accept extreme weather disasters as normal. Instead of being tortured from a death by a thousand cuts, those cuts will be seen as routine. (By the way, if you google ‘death by a thousand cuts’ most of the results will refer to a song by Taylor Swift rather than lingchi, the ancient Chinese method of torture and execution–how’s that for normalization?)
NOTHING ABOUT THE WAR IN UKRAINE IS NORMAL.
So, what are we to do? What am I to do? Carry on as usual with this blog? I guess the only answer is to try to find some sort of balance. Write about the stuff that interests me, even if some of that stuff is trivial. But also keep talking about the suffering of the people of Ukraine, and about the deliberate cruelty of Putin, and about the policies of nations that support–or fail to support–Ukraine.
That’s what I’ve decided to do. But it feels a little like attrition.
First, let’s admire the courage and determination of the Ukrainian military and the civilian volunteers. I think we all knew Ukraine would put up a fight; we all knew they were scrappers. But damn.
Their resistance has been inspiring. And let’s be honest, it’s also been intimidating as fuck. “Here, carry these sunflower seeds in your pocket so the ground on which you die will flower.” That’s ice cold, right there. That goes beyond Josey Wales ‘plumb, mad-dog mean’ levels of scrappiness; that’s deep into Keyser Söze territory. We’re talking grim poetic borderline pathological resistance. And it shows.
Just over seven thousand US troops died in twenty years of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Russia has lost more than that in three weeks.
I say Russia ‘lost’ that many troops, but it would be more accurate to they’ve ‘thrown away’ that many. It’s increasingly obvious the Russian military is hollow. The inside has rotten away. A couple decades of systemic corruption left a facade that appeared solid and sturdy, but masked a military that was drastically unprepared for sustained military operations.
What it comes down to is this: the Russian army doesn’t have enough trucks.
We hear a lot about Russia’s 190,000 troops involved in the invasion, the majority of them are support personnel. In the military we refer to this as “tooth to tail”ratio–the number of support troops (the tail) necessary to keep combat troops supplied and fighting (the tooth).
Russia is big. Really big. So big that it takes forever to get from one side to the other. Because of that, their military depends on railroads to rapidly move equipment from one place to another. Trains are more efficient; the army can move military units and supplies around inside Russia pretty quickly. But that all stops at the Russian border. Beyond the border, it comes down to trucks and truck-like supply vehicles.
We know that in the weeks leading up to the invasion, the Russian army amassed a LOT of troops and supplies on their border with Ukraine.
So this is what you need to know. The standard Russian military truck is the Ural-4320. The Ural-4320 is a multi-use truck; there are armored versions to carry troops, versions to transport fuel, and it’s also used as a platform for the BM-21 rocket launcher. But mostly, it’s just a really solid truck used to haul stuff. It has a top speed of around 50mph and can carry about 6.5 tons of material on hard surface roads.
Now, let’s say Ukraine’s road/highway network will allow a Ural-4320 to move at a sustained 45mph, which may be a wee bit optimistic. Let’s say it takes an hour to load six tons of supplies (food, ammunition, replacement parts for armored attack vehicles, medical supplies, fuel, etc.). It takes another hour to dive 45 miles into Ukraine. Another hour to unload supplies. And one more hour to return to the supply depot. That’s four hours.
Let’s say that truck can make four trips per day–sixteen hours. The other eight hours will be spent on stuff like truck maintenance, drivers eating and sleeping. That’s the very best case scenario. That’s assuming nothing disrupts the process–no ambushes, no caltrops in the road, no flat tires or engine issues, no loading or unloading problems, no refueling issues. That means Russian combat troops and assault vehicles can expect to be resupplied up to four times a day. If they’re only 45 miles from the Russian border.
If elements of the Russian army are 90 miles from the Russian border, the very best case is they could only count on resupply twice a day. At 180 miles, only once a day.
Kyiv is about 230 miles from the border.
We see lots of photos and videos of tanks and other armored vehicles destroyed by the Ukrainian army–and yay for that. But perhaps more importantly, they’re taking out resupply trucks at an astonishing rate. That’s one reason we’re seeing so many abandoned Russian vehicles and tanks. No fuel, no food for the troops, no ammunition to fight.
Russia will do as much damage as it can in the hope that Ukraine will give up, but it doesn’t have enough trucks to keep it up or take it very far. And the Ukrainian army won’t relent enough to allow the Russians to establish safe supply depots inside Ukraine. It’s not very dramatic, but in a contest between Ukrainian grit and Russian trucks, the trucks lose. And if the trucks lose, so does Russia.
Last week while out noodling around I came across a tank. When I say ‘tank’ I mean a decommissioned military tank. An M60 battle tank, to be exact. It’s fairly common when the military starts scrapping old tanks, they offer them to small towns to use as memorials, or to ‘decorate’ public parks or town squares or wherever the hell a small town would like to park one. The US military stopped deploying M60s in 1997.
But this isn’t about the tank, really. It’s about how I photographed it. Which was like this:
A friend asked me a couple of questions about the photo. First, what the hell is this a photograph of? Second, if it’s a photograph of a tank, why didn’t I include the whole tank? Those are valid questions. But they’re difficult to answer.
They’re difficult to answer for several reasons. The primary reason is that I’ve been shooting photos for so long that I rarely actually think about composition. I just kind of know what I want in the frame. Another reason it’s difficult to explain is because shooting a photo seems like it’s just a matter of releasing the shutter (or, with a cell phone, poking the whatsit that initiates the photo). But that moment is the result of a fairly complex process.
I wasn’t paying much attention to the process when I shot this, but I’ll try to recreate my thinking. Obviously, it began by getting out of the car to look at the tank because…well, there was a tank and I wanted to look at it. As I walked around it, I was attracted to that cascade of squarish shapes made by the building–so many different-sized squares of different textures. Then there was that white circle that sort of balanced the round rear tread wheel of the tank. And then there were those sweet vertical lines of the chimney and the light pole. And then I was drawn to that tiny splash of red, and that diagonal slant of the roof of the shed, and even the spade leaning against the light pole. All of those things appealed to me, both individually and as a collective.
I’d be lying if I said I noted all that stuff in that order, but when you’re lining up a shot it’s like your brain is ticking off boxes in a list. That works, that works, that doesn’t–so move a bit, that works. And then there’s some point when your synapses seem to agree that you’ve got all–or most–of the stuff you want in the frame, and you take the photo.
I’d probably have taken that photo even if the tank wasn’t there, because the light and the geometry appealed to me. But it was the tank that drew me to that spot and to me, that wee bit of tank is important to the composition. So, to me, it’s still a photo of the tank. The rest of the tank is implied.
Wait…I think I can explain this better. That same day, I took a photo of an old, rusted out Ford panel truck. Three photos, in fact, but only one photo mattered. Here’s the first photo.
There’s nothing wrong with this as a photo. Again, I composed it intuitively, without a lot of thought. It’s got good lines. The curve of that tree is nice; it sorta kinda follows the shape of the truck. There’s a decent balance to the composition. It’s a perfectly adequate photo, a decent documentation of an old, rusted out Ford panel truck. Nothing wrong with it, but not terribly interesting.
So I got closer. Changed the perspective.
Again, there’s nothing wrong with this photo. Again, the composition was casual but deliberate. However, you’ve probably seen ten thousand photos almost exactly like this. A rusty wreck of a vehicle–an artifact of an outdated civilization cast aside in a living environment that will continue to grow while the artifact slowly degrades into nothingness. The best thing about this photo is that it places the panel truck in a larger landscape, which emphasizes how out of place it is. But basically, there’s nothing new to see in this photo.
So I got closer and changed the perspective again.
This is the photo that mattered. I took a bit more care with the composition. I knew I wanted the rust, I knew I wanted the suggestion of a large landscape through the windows, and I knew I wanted the lines of the shattered window and those bubbles formed by the thin layer of ice.
The actual old, rusted out Ford panel truck wasn’t really important; it’s the idea of the old, rusted out Ford panel truck that mattered. It’s a photo of an abandoned vehicle in the same way the first photo is a photo of a tank. The old, rusted out Ford panel truck is implied; you only need to see enough of it to hint at its existence.
The photo of the tank and the final photo of the panel truck are both photos of things that don’t belong there. Was I actually thinking of that when I took those photos? Nope. But after you’ve shot enough photos, a sort of algorithm develops in your brain. It’s like you know at the cellular level that everything in the frame matters, so you become very deliberate about what you keep in and what you keep out.
What you choose to include and exclude is grounded on why you’re shooting the photo. And that’s the thing. You may not be consciously aware that you’re shooting a photo of things that don’t belong where they are, but there’s some chunk of your brain that’s is actively registering that fact. If the tank or the panel truck were what mattered, you’d just photograph the tank and the panel truck. But you keep looking and moving and shifting around until your brain is at least semi-satisfied. Then you take the photo.
Okay, I’ve made the mistake of re-reading this (which I generally try to avoid in these blog posts). It sounds to me like I’m talking bullshit here (which is why I generally avoid re-reading these blog posts). But I’m still convinced that this is how I shoot photos. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve approached something that I wanted to photograph–that I felt was very photographable–and then walked away without taking a single shot because I couldn’t get what I wanted in the frame. There was something in the frame I didn’t want, or something I wanted but couldn’t include. My mind knew it, even if I wasn’t immediately aware of it.
The photographer Marc Riboud once said, “I photograph the way a musician hums.” That makes sense to me. Musicians, even when they’re just idly humming, know without thinking which notes work and which notes don’t. The wrong note ruins the composition.
PUTIN: Lawdy, I surely do miss the days when the Soviet Union was kicking ass and taking names. I remember when Grozny was part of Mother Russia, not just some town in the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. CHECHNYA: Yeah, sorry, not sorry. Here’s your hat, there’s the door. PUTIN: I think I’ll take Chechnya. BILL CLINTON: Don’t do it. Don’t you do it. PUTIN: I think I’ll do it. CHECHNYA: Over my dead body. PUTIN: Okay. Haha smiley face. [Takes Chechnya] BILL CLINTON: Damn it, Vlad. PUTIN: Well, it was unfortunate that a whole bunch of people died, but Chechnya looks really good on my trophy wall. Can’t make an omelet, and all that. PUTIN: You know, I’m thinking there are parts of Georgia that would look real sweet on my mantle. GEORGE W. BUSH: Georgia? What? PUTIN: Not that Georgia. We got us a Georgia of our own. NOT THAT GEORGIA: Hey! We’re standing right here. PUTIN: Not for long. Haha smiley face. GEORGE W. BUSH: Don’t you do it, Vlad. Just don’t. PUTIN: Hell, son, I won’t take it all. Just bits of it. Won’t nobody even notice. PUTIN: [Takes Abkhazia and South Ossetia] GEORGE W. BUSH: Damn it, Vlad. PUTIN: I mean, I really like Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but there’s something missing. You know what would be cool? Crimea. I’ve always wanted a warm water port. Sevastopol is cute as a button. UKRAINE: Dude, Crimea is part of Ukraine. PUTIN: Oh. Well, bless your little heart. OBAMA: Don’t do it, Vlad. Don’t you dare do it. PUTIN: My Uke homey Viktor Yanukovych is okay with it. UKRAINE: We already kicked Viktor Yanukovych’s whole ass out of the country! PUTIN: I think I’ll take Crimea. OBAMA: Vlad…I’m serious here. Vlad… PUTIN: [Takes Crimea] OBAMA: Damn it, Vlad. PUTIN: It was just Crimea. I left the rest of Ukraine, didn’t I? And Sevastopol is, like, the best warm water port ever. I think I’m going to keep it. TRUMP: It’s okay with me, buddy. UKRAINE: Hey, whose side are you on, Trump? PUTIN: Trump is SO TOUGH on me. Haha smiley face. TRUMP: They speak Russian in Crabeum, don’t they? I mean, they must be Russian, then. What do I care? What’s in it for me? UKRAINE: Crabeum? What the fuck? And where are those weapons you promised us? TRUMP: You’ll get the weapons. But first, I need a favor. UKRAINE: Motherfucker. CONGRESS: Uhhh, you know, we authorized those weapons. You can’t use them as blackmail. TRUMP: Jeeze, okay, okay. I was just joking. PUTIN: I really really like my new Crimea, but if I had me a Donetsk and Luhansk, then I’d almost have a complete set. UKRAINE: No you don’t. Donetsk and Luhansk are totally part of Ukraine, you prick. BIDEN: Vlad, I wouldn’t. It would be a mistake. PUTIN: Would it? Would it really? Haha smiley face. BIDEN: Don’t be stupid, Vlad. PUTIN: [Takes Donetsk and…wait, what?] UKRAINE: We’ll hit you so hard your kids will be bruised. If we had a stick, we’d jam it so far up your ass it would tickle your tonsils. BIDEN: We’ll give you a stick, Ukraine. PUTIN: What the fuck? UKRAINE: Putin, go fuck yourself. With this stick. And, oh yeah, this Javelin missile. PUTIN: What’s going on here? BIDEN: Told you. Should’ve listened. PUTIN: Okay, okay, listen, here are my conditions for a cease fire. UKRAINE: Putin, you feculent fuck, if you have anything worth saying, we’ll read it in your entrails.
I don’t know what you did last weekend, but I drove 75 miles to the small former coal town of Humeston, Iowa. Why? Because there’s a tiny cafe. Almost every small town has some sort of tiny cafe or diner. But this one–the Grassroots Cafe–serves a grape salad that’s so good you want to lie on the floor and kick your feet in the air. And the bread pudding would make angels weep that it exists for mortals on the earthly plane.
Humeston is a really small town. Population: 465 in 2020. It was the home of the Humeston and Shenandoah Railroad, which in 1881 ran 113 miles from Humeston to (guess where) Shenandoah, Iowa. In its glory days, the H&S RR ran 14 classic 4-4-0 steam locomotives, hauling mostly coal, grain, livestock and occasionally passengers to the slightly larger town of Shenandoah, where the railroad joined up with the Missouri, Iowa, and Nebraska Railway system. (You may be wondering, “Greg, old sock, what is a 4-4-0 locomotive?” I wondered the same thing and I googled it. You can do the same thing. Don’t be lazy. And stop calling me ‘old sock’.)
By the late 1920s, the H&S RR was beginning to fade. The advent of the automobile (and, more importantly, the truck), combined with improved roads, the gradual decline of local coal, and the beginnings of the Great Depression, strangled the small railroad business. The railroad died slowly and in sections, but by the mid-1940s, during the Second World War, it was essentially gone. As the railroad died, so did the town’s population.
Although the railroad is gone, the track left behind became Iowa’s first rails-to-trails bike path. Thirteen and a half miles, from Humeston to Chariton. Unfortunately, it’s also Iowa’s worst-maintained bike path. About half of it is gravel and cinder; the other half is…well, just grass. Sometimes overgrown grass. It’s doubly sad because it’s one of the few bike trails with covered bridges.
On arrival in Humeston, I gave in to an impulse. Sometimes you just have to give in to your impulses. You know how it is. You’re on the road, you see a train, you pretty much have to say, “Train” out loud, even though anybody with you can see the damned train. Same with horses and cows (and, I don’t know, maybe sheep? Yeah, probably sheep). Even if you resist saying it aloud, there’s a part of you that’s thinking and wanting to say “Cow” when you see a cow. It just happens.
The photographic equivalent of saying “train” or “cow” is shooting your reflection in a window.
Obviously, I gave in to that impulse. My first thought was that Humeston should be photographed in black-and-white (why yes, I DO have an app I use just for b&w photography–doesn’t everybody?). But the day became so sunny and bright (though still brutally cold) that I quickly abandoned that idea and shifted to my standard photo app.
And my first photo was, yes, a reflection selfie. There’s no point to it; you just have to do it sometimes. Usually, you do it once and that’s enough; you won’t have to do it again for weeks or months. The impulse has been fulfilled and you can get on with your life. But there are occasions when the itch just doesn’t feel properly scratched until you’ve done it a few times.
So I wandered around on the streets of Humeston briefly (briefly because 1) it was savagely cold and 2) there isn’t enough of Humeston to wander around at length). It feels like a small town, to be sure, but it doesn’t feel like a small town in decline. Sure, some of the shops are empty, and some are a wee bit worse for wear, but everybody I met was cheerful and there was a sort of bright enthusiasm to the limited commerce. The aisles of the general store (yes, there’s a general store) were so exuberant that they were almost hallucinatory.
As much as I love to visit small towns, I always find myself wondering what it would be like to grow up in one–and deciding it would be awful on so many levels that you’d need an abacus to count them. I have absolutely nothing to base that on, and the people I know who grew up in small towns generally have nice things to say about the experience. But damn.
On the way home from Humeston, we passed through the town of Lucas, Iowa, where we saw this charming little brick building. Of course, we decided to stop and look.
Lucas is so small it makes Humeston feel like a metropolis. Before it was a town, it was just a station on the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad line. The station was established in 1866. A decade later, the Whitebreast Coal and Mining Company sank a mine near the station. There was a rich deposit of coal, and by 1880, they’d opened a second coal mine and created a company town. If you’re not familiar with the concept of a company town, it’s basically a town in which practically everything–all the stores, the housing, the local services–are owned by a single company that’s also the sole (or at least the primary) employer. If you wanted to buy a shirt or a loaf of bread, if you wanted to have a boil lanced or a tooth extracted, you paid the money you earned from the company back to the company, before returning to the house you’ve rented from the company.
By 1890, there were 1300 people living and working for the Whitebreast Coal and Mining Company in Lucas. But here’s the thing about coal. Once you dig it up, it’s gone. A coal mine without coal is just a big fucking hole in the ground. The last productive coal mine in the Lucas area closed in 1923. By 1930, the population had dropped to about 500. In the 2020 census, the population was only 172.
There were three antique/craft stores in Lucas. None of them were open during our brief stop, nor was the John L. Lewis Mining Labor Museum (union organizer John Lewis apparently got his first job as a coal miner in Lucas). I doubt that Doc Bell is still in business, but his office is still standing. If you look, you can recognize the bones of the old company town that existed here a century ago.
That was my Saturday. A day spent not doing much of anything–just noodling around in small towns, thinking about stuff, shooting shop-window selfies. In other words, a day well spent.