Just Ordinary Citizens: The affection we feel for outgoing presidents

On the Morning Of

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

I make no apologies for the fact that my main feelings today on the inauguration of the 45th president of the United States are of affection for the outgoing 44th. Maybe it is because the Obamas are my generation (like Michelle, I was born in 1964). Maybe it is because I found my political core—apart from my parents or friends or outside expectations—during President Obama’s terms. Maybe it is because our son was not quite of voting age during the 2008 election, so I felt a sense of proxy at the voting booth—I was casting a ballot for both of us—in doing what he could not eight years ago. Maybe it is because we had a First Family in the White House with young children whom we watched grow and mature before our eyes.

Presidential families do feel like our families, too. They enter our living rooms and private spaces and, in some cases, our hearts. Our current age of partisanship, of course, taints the relationship (this post will certainly be seen as fawning and will invite some snark), but the feelings are beyond politics.

When Amy Carter moved to the White House in 1977, she was nine and I was twelve. I read every article I could about her—what she liked, where she was going to go to school, details of her daily life. I don’t remember ever feeling as though I should not be fascinated by her and her newly public life, even though I grew up in a strongly Republican household and red state. I wonder if I were in those circumstances today, would I feel more pressure to act—to feel—differently simply because the president’s politics were not those of my parents?

Harriet “Hattie” Whitcher

One of my personal projects is transcribing diaries of my great-aunt Hattie, a woman of mixed heritage who lived in a rural reservation county in South Dakota. Her diaries, which she kept every single day from 1920 through much of 1957, are filled with mundane details of weather and chores but also her impressions on national and world events, especially presidential elections and transitions (read her entry about voting for the first time in 1920). As I follow politics on Twitter and listen to podcasts (e.g., you can hear Obama’s last interview as president at Pod Save America), I imagine her sitting by her radio, her only source for real-times news, drinking in every word, perhaps taking notes to use for when she wrote in her diary.

In 1953, Hattie was 71 years old when she wrote about the inauguration of Dwight D. Eisenhower and the transition from Harry S. Truman (see bottom of post for videos):

January 20, 1953, Tuesday

A few clouds but some Sunshine. Men gave cattle hay in a.m. I listened to Inaugural of Pres. Eisenhower and Truman (Harry) going out at Noon, I guess 11:30 our time. Vice-Pres. Richard Nixon of California took Barkley’s place. Mr. and Mrs. Truman, Harry, Bess and daughter Margaret left Washington in Private Car of Pres. but just ordinary citizens for their home at Independence, Missouri. Ex. Pres. Truman was [to] give farewell as Train left Washington. I guess the Cheers they gave made Mr. Truman sad at Heart, one [day] he [will not] forget if he lived to be a hundred years, which he [is] going to be. His Office will be at Kansas City. I don’t know if Mo. or Kansas. I like the 2 small Rugs in Back Porch of varied stripes while I write in diary. I rest to admire these rugs.

Her heart is with Truman and his family, now “just ordinary citizens,” as they make their way home.

Similarly, my heart and thanks are with the Obamas today.

I am also struck by the final lines of Hattie’s entry, her meditative focus on the simple beauty found in her own home, her stopping her writing to admire two small rugs, almost as a way to ground herself on this very emotional day.

Life offers us meaning and beauty in unexpected ways. Yesterday, in my work as a book indexer, I was writing an entry for Freddie Mercury, which led me to think about my favorite Queen songs. I played “Don’t Stop Me Now,” which seemed a fitting tribute to our outgoing president. I played it over and over.

Don’t stop now, Mr. Obama. See you on the other side of the presidency.

Truman’s Farewell Address
Eisenhower’s Inauguration
Post edited slightly January 21, 2017.

The Lunar Eclipse of July 16, 1935

Recent images from NASA’s New Horizons mission show mountains that, according to New Horizons scientist John Spencer, “would stand up respectably against the Rocky Mountains.”

Pluto's Surface
Pluto’s Surface (NASA photo)

From CNN’s Amanda Barnett:

“The height of the mountains is important because it’s a clue that there may be water on Pluto. Scientists know that Pluto’s surface is covered with nitrogen ice, methane ice and carbon monoxide ice. But Spencer says, ‘You can’t make mountains out of that stuff. It’s too soft.’

That leaves H20—water ice like we have here on Earth.

‘The steep topography means that the bedrock that makes those mountains must be made of H2O—of water ice,’ said Stern [New Horizon’s principal investigator]. ‘We can be very sure that the water is there in great abundance.’

‘Who would have supposed that there were ice mountains?’ said Hal Weaver, another New Horizons project scientist.

‘It’s just blowing my mind,’ he said.”

One of my daily pleasures is transcribing entries from my great aunt Hattie’s diaries, which she kept from 1920 – 1957, so that relatives and anyone else interested in everyday history can read them. The project has become almost a form of meditation on history and progress, life and meaning. This year I am posting entries from the years 1925, 1935, 1945 and 1955. This is from Hattie’s diary from July 16, 1935:

“Mr. Chauncey, Billie and Neil came last eve and brought us Peas and Radish and men watched Moon Eclipse from 9:30 until toward 11 o’clock.”

Lunar Eclipse, July 16, 1935
Lunar Eclipse of July 16, 1935 (AP Wire photo)

Canadian author Albert R. Hassard wrote in the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (Vol. 29, p. 321) that the July 16, 1935 full lunar eclipse was the “most interesting lunar eclipse it has been my privilege to observe.”

“The centre of the moon at totality had developed into a colour I have noted as ‘bloody red’, like the interior of a blood-red orange…. The moon had an ‘eerie’ appearance. One had to reflect for a moment or two to realize that the body out there was really our celestial sister, and not Mars, or some other strange object which had suddenly obtruded itself upon our view. The Milky Way was well defined, much clearer in fact than it oftentimes appears upon a clear and moonless night.

At the end of the total phase I cased observing. I was well repaid by what I had seen, and felt that such a spectacle as this might not again be seen by me in my lifetime.”

While Hassard observed the eclipse through a telescope, his description helps me to imagine the farmers and ranchers of rural South Dakota gathering on the wide open prairie, in essence a natural planetarium, to watch together a spectacle over 200,000 miles away. Just think of the wonder they would have upon seeing the images of the mountains of Pluto, which had been discovered only five years previously in 1930.

In our 21st century’s onslaught of headlines and information and clickbait, we are reminded to stop for a moment to indulge in the wonder of something truly awesome—inspiring awe and blowing our minds.

Lunar eclipse image: AP Wirephoto. [Photograph 2012.201.B0405.0011], Photograph, July 16, 1935; (http://gateway.okhistory.org/ark:/67531/metadc427788/ : accessed July 15, 2015), Oklahoma Historical Society, The Gateway to Oklahoma History, http://gateway.okhistory.org; crediting Oklahoma Historical Society, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

Why Write? Because Ordinary Life Matters

When I get discouraged about my writing, especially the unrelenting everyday-ness of it and its ultimate solitary nature, I think of my great aunt Hattie. Her Great Plains diaries span the years 1920 through part of 1957. During that time, she wrote literally every single day. No exceptions.

For whom was she writing? That is a question that has plagued me as I work to transcribe and write about her life’s words. She raised no children. As far as I know, while she did not keep her diaries a secret, she also did not share them widely.

Not until doing this blog series did the answer—which was there all along—become clear: She wrote for herself. Because ordinary life matters.

Harriet (far right) with siblings

For family and friends and anyone interested in history, I post daily excerpts from her diaries at “Hattie’s blog.” This year, I’ve been sharing her entries from 80 years ago, 1934, a year of Depression and the Dust Bowl, a year between a Great War still fresh in people’s memory and a Second World War yet to come. On this otherwise uneventful day (below) we learn about the weather (always the weather), “fixing” plums, dark everyday dresses, the Farmer’s Wife magazine, clothes needed to protect workers from mowing and raking thistles during a dust bowl year, farm machinery, family birthdays, and how long it took for Hattie to begin to recover from having broken her leg 15 month prior.

I am convinced that Hattie wrote to remind herself of the details of everyday, ordinary life that are so easy to forget and take for granted but that can matter more than anything else. Maybe that’s why I write, too.

1934 August 29th, Wednesday

Cool night, a south breeze all night and continued strong this a.m. but bright until towards eve clouded but no rain, only a strong S.W. wind and some dust. I fixed the plums, started to put through colander for butter but too slow so I pitted them and cooked late p.m., also slept in p.m., looked at catalogs a lot as I want dark everyday dresses and read late p.m. the Farmer’s Wife. Maggie got meals, cleaned the kitchen and front room, baked bread and baked a lemon-pie, cleaned kitchen windows, ironed and put curtains up on same also got dinner for Hank (Henry) and George Haukaas who came for the body of Wm Whiting’s car, also Thomas Whiting stopped where they were working. A car passed going to B. J. Wagner’s. Mr. Chauncey, Billie and Fritz mowed and raked thistles. Mr. drove tractor. Fritz on trail mower. Billie raked. Elmer and Will tried stacking with slings but nothing doing so came home for stacker. Elmer and Billie go clothes at home to protect from thistle thorns. It was 15 months today I got my leg broken so walked considerable without crutches, to-day also Louise’s and Papa’s Birthday.

Lisa’s Note: Learn more about The Farmer’s Wife at “Celebrating The Farmer’s Wife Magazine” and “This is YOUR Magazine”: Domesticity, Agrarianism, and The Farmer’s Wife,” and browse a 1932 issue of the magazine below.

It Was All Dust

Hattie’s diary entry from 80 years ago today speaks to the unpredictability and ferocity of the Dust Bowl, which many people don’t realize extended as far north as the Dakotas. An article in the next day’s Nebraska Beatrice Daily Sun stated that the storm left a coating of “dust an eighth of an inch deep in less than 10 minutes.”

Hattie’s diary from Thursday, July 5, 1934:

“Bright, cool early a.m. then very warm out of N.E., then S.E. breeze, the wind changed to S.W. in afternoon then N.W., clouded in North and South and rain there but only a very severe dust-storm down Antelope Valley. Will and I [were] in the dust-storm from Jim Mann’s to Pat Karnes’ Corner west of store and it was so dark we couldn’t see at times, finally car got so full [of] sand we [were] stalled and wind and dust quit so Ben Elliott family came along and they tied us on and we got started again, stopped at store for mail and Ralph Armbruster came home with us and took Elmer’s Car back to have it fixed. Elmer was riding out on stock and he laid on Ground and held his saddle horse during dust-storm. Maggie at home and she went to the basement during storm. No rain here…. Maggie did the work and canned the beef we got from Ed last eve and she cleaned the downstairs but it was all dust in late p.m. again.” [emphases added]

Dust Bowl - Dallas, South Dakota 1936
Dust Bowl – Dallas, South Dakota 1936, public domain photo, USDA Image # 00di00971

Watch Ken Burns discuss the making of his PBS documentary The Dust Bowl:

Glorious Fourth of July, 1933

As the Fourth of July approaches, I thought you might enjoy a re-posting of a few excerpted July 4 entries from various years of my Great Aunt Hattie’s diaries. All of the entries below were written from her farm and ranch in Hidden Timber, South Dakota, on the Rosebud Indian Reservation, and here is a video version of Hattie’s experience of the Glorious Fourth of July, 1933:

Harriet “Hattie” Whitcher was a writer, although I’m not sure she thought of herself as one. Many of her entries are written in the kind of shorthand one uses when writing only for oneself, but she never failed to notice and record details that most people miss. One of the touching aspects of the following entries is that they show how the active and wide community that she loved in the first years of her marriage slowly changed as she and her husband, Will, aged (they did not raise any children of their own), so that, by the end of Hattie’s life, she often missed the companionship of traveling with neighbors to races and ball games, horse shows and picnics.

All of the photos below and in the video above are from the July 4th, 1933 celebration at O’Kreek, South Dakota, and were most probably taken by Maggie Gehlsen, who was a live-in helper to Hattie at the time.

Happy Fourth of July, everyone. Enjoy.

July 4, 1933: Barbecue, Program, Clowns, Music by Orchestra, Indian dances, ball game, O’Kreek vs. Wood and O’Kreek won, races, Kitten-ball, dance in evening with orchestra (The Four Aces or Bailey’s) and a wonderful crowd. I saw Mrs. Charles Sinclair (Edith Brownfield) and boys of Winner as they were at the Celebration with Carl Anderson’s. We ate only sandwiches from the stand and ice cream and pop in the evening.

Hattie’s Caption: Carving Barbecue Beef

July 4, 1939: Bright, hot, and south wind real strong, clouded in S.W. and a regular dust storm for awhile in afternoon. Le Moyne chored and went home horseback on Gold Dust, and came back at 3 p.m., and he said there was a real dust storm here, and Will and I went to Abbotts at 11 a.m. They got ready and filled our car with gas from their barrel, so we all went to White River, via O’Kreek and Mission, and was a real dust storm there, could scarcely see horse racing, calf roping, and no ball game until as we were leaving grounds, Murdo and Wood started to play.

We got home at 6:30 p.m. and all clouds were gone to the east, no rain here, but a beautiful evening. A large crowd of people at White River to a Free Celebration of the 4th of July.

Hattie’s Caption: Tom and John with Barbecue Bone, and Jay standing back, smiling at them with their large pieces. They had more than their share, so passed pieces on.

July 4, 1934: This is the Glorious Fourth of July. North wind, dusty but bright until I p.m., was cloudy during Hidden Timber ball-game between part of Longview and Hidden Timber, rest substitutes, and a few sprinkles of rain then clear eve.

After morning work Elmer took Maggie to Armbusters, and she and Rita went in Carl Gehlsen’s Car to Sell’s, and Elmer, Carl, Mary and Josephine Armbuster went to Valentine Celebration. Harry and Louise and family came and the men made ice-cream. We ate dinner and went to Hidden Timber Celebration, back in evening and Ed, Rena and Yvonne were here butchering an E. R. A. calf gotten at Boarding School. Harry got a quarter, also we did, all went home.

Hattie’s Caption: Bald Head Men Got Prizes at Legion

July 4, 1942: I put things, quilts, pillows, a stool, some lunch and dishes and clothes in suitcase. Washed all dishes. We left for O’Kreek, got tire fixed that went flat on Will coming from Valentine, went to Gregory S.D., saw the Ft. Meade, S.D. Soldiers Parade, then left for White Horse Ranch, south and east of Naper, Nebraska, about 6 miles southwest of The Point between the rivers, but first we crossed Niobrara Bridge south of Naper.

Folks were eating lunches or had finished, we came in from the west side of the place, was a large pasture and white horses in it, and an arena built northeast of trees, and large trees around the buildings. After trained white horses, cow and bull and dog performed by 5 girls and 4 boys, ages about 9 to 17 years old. They had a rodeo, but we went to the ranch buildings, then to Point, Butte, Spencer, then our old home, 1 mile down railroad track from Spencer.

Hattie’s Caption: Youngest Married Couples

July 4, 1943: Sun shone bright and nice in general until evening, then there was a real rain at Mission and east to north of Antelope Creek, for we got stuck in Charles Merchen’s yard, and Bob had to pull us out with their tractor to the highway east 1/2 mile, and Wm Van Epps, Floyd and Margie and Dean Totten, Wm Abbott, Mrs. Cora Ann, Billie, Delores and Mrs. Anderson (Rika), Mrs. Abbott’s mother, were behind us. They went off the road towards the ditch, but got out.

We started to have trouble in mud north of Sazamas. A bunch of young men pushed us up the hill. I think it was Sazamas. Then at Carl Andersons, Van Epps, Totten and Abbott pushed, south of River. Need never bothered. We got home from Boarding School Show, Road to Morocco, starring Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Dorothy Lamour. Was a good show all in all. [Film clip below from Road to Morocco]

July 4, 1950: Rained and rained this forenoon, and it kind of quit in p.m. Sun was shining brightly when I got up from a nap at 4 p.m. Will lay down also as he has heart pains, so we had to stay home this late p.m. in such a beautiful part of the day, and I had such a lonesome feeling, felt as if we were entirely out of the world.

Hattie’s Caption: Longest Married Couples

July 4, 1954: Bright, hot day but cool in Valentine Park. Lunch all fixed and in the car. Got ready, went to Rosebud, no one at Ball Park, so went on to Rosebud and looked around some, on to Valentine to Park to eat dinner, was nice, water from spring so cool. To Rodeo. Had supper at park. Up town to wait for drive-in, first to Fish Hatchery. Never saw anyone we know.