About Nancy Werking Poling

Author of women's fiction, blogger on current events and women's experience

Watergate and Canned Tomatoes

During the summer of 1973—while I canned fifty quarts of tomatoes, fifty quarts of tomato juice, twenty pints of tomato sauce, and twelve pints of catsup—Men in Power were asking what did Nixon know and when did he know it. Toiling in my narrow kitchen, with its five feet of counter space and four-burner electric stove, I simultaneously followed the Senate Watergate Hearings on a 15-inch black-and-white TV. I wanted answers too.

Operating all at once, the four stove burners rivaled a Bessemer in emitting BTUs. Blue and white speckled enamel canners occupied two burners. On another, a large tea kettle maintained a low whistle. On the left front burner a pan of water boiled.

As Tom Daschel posed questions to men who swore to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, I prepared tomatoes for easy peeling by briefly immersing them in the pan of boiling water. Nixon was in hot water too, and everyone knew him to be a sweating man, even when he sat in the air-conditioned Oval Office signing his now besmirched name. Had he been in my kitchen, the heat would have convinced him he was already in hell.

While H.R. Haldeman scalded the truth, I stuffed whole tomatoes into quart Mason jars, which I filled to the top with boiling water from the tea kettle. From a sauce pan resting on the sink drain, I lifted sterilized lids, placed them on the jars with tongs, then screwed on the metal rings. The whole country was getting screwed.

The simple life, that was the path my husband and I had chosen. Self-sufficiency. A quarter of an acre in tomatoes, corn, peas, green beans, and other vegetables, enough filled glass jars on basement shelves and cardboard boxes in our twenty-cubic-foot freezer to feed us until Armageddon or the next harvest, whichever came first. In 1973 our young bodies were agile. For hours we could bend over a hoe, work on our knees, gently place tomato plants in the ground, pack muddy soil around them.

“Now I’m just a country lawyer,” Sam Erwin said, obviously shrewd in spite of his self-deprecating performance. A country lawyer butting heads with urbane fellows acting as if they were above the law. I pictured Erwin as a young man, laboring in a garden not unlike ours. Dirt caked our hands, got under our fingernails. Had Erwin’s hands once looked the same? Surely those of Haldeman and Ehrlichman were well manicured.

Contrary to what we’d assumed, maintaining a successful garden required much more than planting and hoeing. We read Rodale publications, subscribed to organic gardening magazines. Some suggested that gardeners keep records of what they planted and when. Yes, the simple life was far more complicated than we’d anticipated.

Life was turning out to be complicated for John Dean, as well, who testified for seven hours one day. But he’d kept records, could tell the senators what Nixon and Haldeman and Ehrlichman had said in his presence. Pulling the weeds of deception out by the roots, he was.

My glasses steamed as I lifted the racks out of the canners. One by one I carried the hot jars to the counter, lining them up on layers of dish towels, then beginning the process all over again: dipping whole tomatoes into boiling water, stuffing clean jars, filling the jars to the top with boiling water, putting on lids, lowering them into the water bath.

Our garden was a political statement, something young people of the late 1960s and early 70s did to demonstrate our disdain for the Establishment. We refused to buy into the capitalist dream, shunning the symbols of affluence and power. Everything on my little TV set supported that decision. The government was corrupt, and the Watergate hearings were proving it.

Still, I was shocked, when on a July day, while I stirred a batch of catsup, Alexander Butterfield testified that Nixon recorded conversations and phone calls. To make sure I didn’t miss anything, I walked away from the pan to stand next to the TV. By the time I returned to the stove the catsup was sticking to the bottom of the pan, scorched, ruined.

As jars on my kitchen counter cooled, the lids would ping, evidence that the jars were sealed. When they were cool, I carried them, two at a time, down the basement steps, into a small dark room lined with shelves.

When I dropped in bed each night exhausted, in those brief moments before I fell asleep, I considered the sleepless nights many in Washington were experiencing, innocent and guilty alike: Senators Howard Baker and Lowell Weiker worrying about how the Republican Party would ever recover; Charles Colson and G. Gordan Liddy becoming aware that they might spend years in prison; Butterfield and Dean, no doubt fretting about betraying those they’d worked for. Then of course, Nixon himself. He couldn’t be sleeping well.

Why was I so obsessed with watching the Watergate hearings? In many ways they were like a soap opera, where any minute the plot takes an unexpected turn. At times I imagined background music changing tempo, becoming more somber as the drama built. Yet, I, like many other Americans, sensed that history was being made; that bringing down a president was no light matter; that the country would never be the same.

There was probably a more personal reason, as well. In spite of our goal of self-reliance, I recognized that my husband and I could never be separate. Just as we had vowed to stay married for better or for worse, we were part of this country for better or for worse. As much as we wanted to isolate ourselves from capitalist society, we were tied to its fate.

 

(This is an abbreviated version of a piece published in some magazine in the distant past. I don’t recall which one.)

 

 

Trump’s take on Andrew Jackson

President Trump’s May 1 remarks about Andrew Jackson and the Civil War may point to something more problematic than a lack of historical knowledge. “I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later you wouldn’t have had the Civil War….he had a big heart. He was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War, he said ‘There’s no reason for this.'”

Trump is not just uninformed; he is promoting a revised history, and I doubt that it’s accidental.

Educated in a southern high school, I learned that the Civil War was not fought over slavery but over states’ right to secede from the Union. A friend, an intelligent woman, recently said she graduated from high school uncertain about who had won the Civil War. Only a year ago I listened to a young libertarian/survivalist couple enthusiastically tell about a writer popular with them and their friends. The Civil War was not fought over slavery, the author has written.

We’ve seen Trump’s ability to creative alternative facts: his inauguration was attended by more people than any other in history; President Barack Obama wiretapped Trump Tower. The news on TV is mostly fake news.

Maybe it is not ignorance, but a strategy for concentrating political power. “A totalitarian makes war on truth, perverts the assumptions that underlie critical thinking, and masters the dark art of propaganda” (Cynthia Tucker, http://www.pressconnects.com/story/opinion/columnists/2017/03/20/trumps-supporters-still-back-himregardless-debunked-lies/99274946/).

Is Trump deliberately promoting a revisionist view of history? If so, to what end? Who will benefit? Who will be the losers?

Nancy Werking Poling is author of Before It Was Legal: a black-white marriage (1945-1987).

Kim Jong-Un as a cult leader

In 2008, on an autumn day in Seoul, my husband and I hiked the mountain behind Yonsei University. Part way we came upon a group of young men in camouflage digging a long ditch. What were they doing, we asked in English. They were South Korean soldiers digging a trench in case North Korea invaded. North Korea’s threat became real to me.

Two semesters in Seoul and one day in North Korea do not qualify me as an expert on the peninsula. The day trip north, though, made me aware of how short a distance the border is from Seoul, one of the planet’s most densely populated cities.

A novel I’m reading, set in the compound of a cult, brings to mind the Jonestown Massacre, where 900 of Jim Jones’s followers drank cyanide-laced fruit punch. If we have learned anything from groups like that, it is that cult leaders don’t operate out of what many of us consider rational behavior. For the leader, at least, submitting to someone else’s authority is worse than death.

It’s no stretch to believe that Kim Jong-un, like his father, is a cult leader. He has convinced the North Korean people that no matter how bad things are, it’s worse everywhere else. He also promotes paranoia: the U.S. is set on annihilating their country. All sacrifices the people make are for a greater good.

In Kim’s apocalyptic world view, violence and destruction are inevitable. He can justify the murder of a half-brother and uncle, the imprisonment and oppression of the North Korean people. Perhaps North Koreans have come to accept that if they are going to die anyway, their Supreme Leader will at least be in control of their final days.

Meanwhile the U. S. military acts as if Kim might respond according to our rationality. Place a battleship nearby, rattle the sabers. He’ll see our resolve and back down.

What we know about cult behavior, though, suggests that it’s hard, if not impossible, to predict the leader’s and his followers’ reactions. An apocalyptic end that includes bombing Seoul may be more alluring than all other options.

Sure, we may prevent Kim from producing a missile that can reach the U.S. But Seoul, with its population of over 10 million, is just 35 miles away.

Two writers weigh the impact of travel on Earth’s climate

A response to the previous post, “Travel: an environmental dilemma” 

by Jean Franklin

My husband Carl, a physics teacher and meteorologist, has known about climate change since 1970, but thought it would not become a problem in his lifetime. Then shockingly, about 10 years ago, scientists announced that Earth is warming much faster than expected.

We talked it over, facing the facts. As American baby boomers, we had consumed more fossil fuels than any generation in history, and at age 60 we had enough discretionary income to continue harming the environment for 30 more years. We lived in a 3,000-square-foot home and drove two cars to work. We were planning to buy a small RV and tour the Western national parks.

In 2007 we decided to change our lives. We have now lowered our carbon footprint more than 60 percent. Our big decision was to scrap the RV idea and buy solar panels for our bookstore and a Prius. In 2010, we moved within a mile of downtown, where we could walk to work, church, and restaurants. Through a combination of planning and luck, we sold our large house and bought a 1,000-square-foot cottage.

We also changed our thinking about travel. We have not been on a plane since before 9/11. Not only does it take massive amounts of fossil fuel to lift 500 pounds (two people plus luggage) 30,000 feet into the air and propel us thousands of miles, but the jet’s contrails, frozen water vapor, act as a greenhouse gas, trapping heat in the atmosphere.

Since we live in paradise—Western North Carolina—we vacation within a few miles of home. We visit our children in Durham and Atlanta, but otherwise, we like to park our car at a hotel in a quaint mountain town and simply stroll, enjoying restaurants, plays, and concerts.

We travel to fabulous places through books and documentaries. It does not break our hearts to miss seeing the Serengheti or the Great Barrier Reef; it breaks our hearts that millions of African people and elephants are starving due to acute droughts, that large sections of Australia’s great reef are dead due to overheated sea water. Some Americans say, “My small efforts won’t help,” but scientists beg to differ, and beg for our help. The game is not over. Battle fatigued climate scientists say that everything we do will make the future better.

Note: Some people who fly purchase carbon offsets—for example, from groups giving away efficient cookstoves to prevent native people from cutting down trees in rainforests for firewood. Google “carbon offsets” and browse the many options.

 

Jean and Carl Franklin, retired teachers and co-owners of Black Mountain Books, teach and write about climate change.

Travel: an environmental dilemma

While boys my age huddled in their bedroom closets sneaking peeks at scantily-clothed women, I nurtured fantasies of another sort. “State Capitol Building,” (city, state), I’d write. “Dear Sir: Please send me information about your state for my school project. Sincerely yours, Nancy Werking.”

In return for my effort and three-cent stamps provided by my parents, I received brochures from nearly every state. I filed the materials alphabetically in a cardboard box, stored in my bedroom closet.

It was the second state, Arizona, that most captured my imagination. (Alaska hadn’t yet been admitted.) Arizona’s P.R. materials had glossy photographs of rugged mountain peaks, varieties of cacti, Native Americans engaging in rituals. Colors were the browns and oranges of the earth, and turquoise.

I’ve just returned from seventeen days in Arizona. While Facebook friends back home complained about frigid temperatures, I absorbed the warmth of the Arizona sun. My husband and I hiked in the desert and visited old Spanish missions. Every morning I ate breakfast out on the balcony of our little efficiency apartment.

It wasn’t my first trip to Arizona, but the first time I’ve considered how my travels impact the environment.

My husband and I flew round trip from Charlotte, NC, to Tucson, AZ. “According to the Department of Energy, an airplane emits 21 pounds of carbon dioxide per gallon of A-1 jet fuel it burns. If we need 6,900 gallons to fly a full plane round trip New York to Phoenix, that’s an emission of nearly 145,000 pounds of carbon dioxide” (http://gscleanenergy.blogspot.com/2013/04/how-much-gas-does-it-take-to-fly-you.html).

We rented a car. Budget upgraded us to a Chevrolet Impala, which gets about 22 miles per gallon in combined city/country driving. We drove an average of eighty miles a day, each day burning around four gallons of gasoline. Don’t ask me how, but a gallon of gasoline produces about 20 pounds of carbon dioxide.

Then there’s the issue of water. By definition a desert receives little rainfall. Yet, like the nearly million people living in the Tucson area, we regularly showered, flushed the toilet, washed our dishes, and did a few loads of laundry.

I’ve been fortunate to visit Europe, Africa, and Asia. I’ve been exposed to other cultures and have loved the people everywhere I’ve gone.

But for the sake of the planet, I may have to give up travel.

On the other hand, the U.S. is in a de-regulation mood. If so few care about Earth’s destruction, why should I?

(Nancy Werking Poling is author of a new book, “Before It Was Legal: a black-white marriage (1945-1987),” available where books are sold.)

What is Congress doing to our wilderness areas?

(a guest blog by Jean Franklin)

On Congress’ first day in session, the House approved rules setting a zero-dollar value on federally protected lands that are transferred to states. By devaluing federal lands, including the Pisgah and Nantahala Forests, Congress is paving the way for such a transfer. States will likely raise funds by selling our lands to developers or to mining, fracking, and logging interests. All Western North Carolina (WNC) Representatives voted yes on this bill.

Our wilderness areas are priceless, not worthless. WNC benefits economically from the human longing to visit wild, pristine nature. Many citizens protect additional land by donating it to conservancies, thus benefiting living nature immeasurably.

Famed biologist E.O. Wilson, in Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, presents an elegant proposal to combat species extinction: “Only by committing half of the planet’s surface to nature can we hope to save the immensity of life-forms that compose it.” Nations have already set aside about 15 percent of Earth’s land area, but millions more square miles must be saved — not contiguous, but arranged to preserve flyways and habitats.

Tragically, Representatives McHenry, Meadows and Foxx, by voting for House Resolution 5, moved to dismantle generations of good stewardship. We must tell them they’ve made a gigantic mistake.

(This essay appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times, Feb. 24, 2017.)

I didn’t know: racial violence out Route 50

“Florida doesn’t count,” my North Carolina friends say when I tell them I consider myself a Southerner. After all, I attended Robert E. Lee Junior High, my classmates weren’t Yankee retirees, and I like grits.

I’m sad to say that my southern identity has been confirmed by the non-fiction book, Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America (2012, Gilbert King, author). I have no memory of ever hearing about events in Groveland, located out Route 50, less than forty miles from my home in Orlando.

In 1949 seventeen-year-old Norma Padgett, white, falsely accused four young black men of raping her. The NAACP defended the three young men, the fourth having been hunted down and killed when he fled capture. In one horrific chapter after another we read about a brutal sheriff, a judge with no regard for fairness, and a unabashed racist community determined to administer “southern justice.” By story’s end, three of the four defendants have been murdered. The home of the head of Florida’s NAACP has been bombed, he and his wife killed. Homes of other black citizens have been burned to the ground.

Events in the book are not from some vague, distant past; this virulent racism occurred during my lifetime.

Court rulings don’t extinguish attitudes that go to our community’s core. The increased visibility of African Americans in professions and a former black President can be daily reminders that white people no longer hold all the power. No, racism like that in Florida of the 1940s and 50s doesn’t simply disappear in one generation. The children of Norma Padgett, of Sheriff Willis McCall, of Klan members intent on lynching the Groveland Boys—many are likely still alive. Their grandchildren too. “Political correctness,” they’ve come to call expectations of civility, of respect for people of another race or ethnic group.

Under a Trump presidency racism need not be concealed any longer. In fact, according to Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, “2016 was an unprecedented year for hate. The country saw a resurgence of white nationalism that imperils the racial progress we’ve made, along with the rise of a president whose policies reflect the values of white nationalists” (http://abcnews.go.com/US/trump-cited-report-finding-increase-domestic-hate-groups/story?id=45529218).

Devil in the Grove and the resurgence of blatant racism leave me with a disturbing truth: If growing up a white girl in a segregated society enforced by violence is a credential of being a Southerner, then I’m a Southerner. As an adult in the era of Trump, though, I will not remain unaware of violent racism that has been unleashed.

Nancy Werking Poling is author of a new book: BEFORE IT WAS LEGAL: A BLACK-WHITE MARRIAGE (1945-1987)