Twenty years ago, my great-aunt loaned me a journal that my great-grandfather Nixon (her father) had kept. It was a crumbling mess — a typical 8×14 book of lined pages with a cardboard cover that was something like 90 years old (my great-grandfather passed away before I was born). He might have bought it at the Book Shop in our town (still operating in my lifetime). In this book, every day, he wrote down the work that he had done. This was in the early days of the 20th Century. My grandfather was a farmer. Nearly everyone was a farmer then, at least to some extent. He lived on a farm three or four miles outside our little town. All the entries were in pencil, and they had faded badly as the cheap, acid paper disintegrated. Most of the entries were just one line. They described the primary work he’d done that day, a lot of which involved cutting and splitting and hauling wood for heat and cooking. There were plowing and planting and other farm chores, of course. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really tell us much, other than that farm life consists of constant work, which anyone who’s ever thought about that life for ten seconds already understands — just as true in that era of less-mechanized, smaller farms as today. His journal doesn’t really describe anything; there’s no detail about the labor involved of sawing up trees by hand, cutting them into firewood lengths, splitting them with an axe and wedges. There are no details about taking care of horses or the tools or methods he used to plow or plant or harvest. I also searched in vain for any details about personal life. In those days before TV and radio, on a lot of evenings, at least on Saturdays and probably many evenings there would have been visits to or from neighbors. And there were church gatherings and all the social life of a little town. There’s none of that. In fact, I looked on the date that my grandfather was born. No mention of it. For a while, this bothered me. But I came to accept that this was in his mind simply a work record, and nothing else. Too bad. All the details we’d LIKE to have aren’t there. He wasn’t a recluse or a shy man, after all. He played the fiddle and, during the Depression, when money was scarce, he staged fiddling contests with admission at ten cents a head (my grandfather and that same great-aunt were the backup unit on banjo and piano, respectively).
I also have this playbill advertising a show at the Opera House, “Womanless Wedding,” which must have been a big hit in the day, since it featured 85 men and boys playing all the parts — male and female — in some sort of wack-a-doodle pageant in which about half of them would have been in drag (click on image to enlarge):
(This is a stock piece of performance art that continues to be performed. An online search will turn up many instances of it. This playbill isn’t dated, but had to be prior to Christmas, 1932, because the Opera House burned down on that morning. I’m guessing it’s from the late 20s. Take a look at the character names. Must’ve been hilarious to see local businessmen portraying Lilian Gish, Pola Negri (called “Poli” in a typo), Mary Pickford, etc. etc.) Ed Nixon appears partway down the right column as one of the “Old Time Fiddlers.”
His journal does have at least one pithy bit. Some time around 1902, after weeks of cutting, sawing, chopping and splitting wood, there’s this entry:
“Walked to town. Bought new ax.”
Now, THAT’s funny. I sincerely doubt that Ed Nixon intended it to be funny, but reading a long list of pragmatic chores, the human mind just looks for comic relief, and this stands out as sheer hilarity.
As with the rest of the entries, this mention of his walk to town tells us nothing. Did he buy his new ax at Lewis & Drake (still operating as Brant’s Hardware)? He probably passed a dozen other farms on the 3-1/2 mile walk into town; did he see anyone else along the way and visit with them? Did he maybe find a ride back home on someone’s wagon heading that way? Did he buy an ax AND the handle, or just the ax head (probably the latter — he likely wouldn’t have paid for a handle he was capable of whittling out himself). No way to tell.
The reason Great-Grandpa comes to mind now is that in my new working arrangement, I no longer have my palatial office suite in a great tower of glass and steel with a coffee room and restrooms that someone else cleans and a receptionist at the desk and all that; I work from home, and since there are no other colleagues to go visit down the hall or up on another floor, I have to get up out of this chair and walk SOMEWHERE, or turn into a withered mole creature of the CRT. So I walk each day to the post office or down to the ATM or anywhere that’s a reasonable excuse to cover a couple of miles and still get something done. It’s a habit that not many of us have any more. Errand? Hop in the car. It’s reasonable, after all; you can carry more stuff and you get a lot of things done in one quick trip. It’s only a mile to the post office (although I could go to a mailbox just a few hundred yards, that’s not the point), so I’m hardly duplicating Mr. Nixon senior’s distance, but it’s brought to mind his walk into town. I don’t encounter too many other midday walkers, but a few.
And, since this is Los Angeles, I recalled the story that was included in an anthology of writing in one of my school textbooks. A story by Ray Bradbury: The Pedestrian. I’ll bet I read that story twenty times during the course of the school year. And now I are one … and IN L.A.
As so often happens, when one starts thinking about a subject, the universe brings forth numerous correspondences. Slate.com ran a long article titled, “The Crisis in American Walking”: CLICK HERE.
I’ve always enjoyed walking. We’re only a generation or two (less for our fellow citizens who emigrated from other cultures more recently) from the world in which Shank’s Mare was the primary way to get about. Who knows, perhaps after days and weeks of writing brochures, scripts, production documents and other products of my trade, I’ll have an entry in my journal, “Walked to town. Bought new pen.”
© 2012 Brad Nixon