Wednesday, July 26, 2006
July 24th, in Utah, is always sweltering. This year the temperatures have been triple digit, but they haven't stopped the celebrations. July 24th, in Utah, is Pioneer Day, a day to rival the 4th for parades with floats and marching bands, clowns on bicycles, beauty queens, children dressed in sunbonnets and cowboy hats, horses, and waving dignitaries. It's the 4th largest parade in the country. Flags fly in everybody's front yard. In the afternoon, people picnic in the canyons and in parks and backyards. The air smells of barbecues. We had tacos at our house, and apple pie and ice cream. The night sky is filled with fireworks blooming in stadiums and parks and front yards. We did ours in the front yard, clapping and whistling as each one sputtered and flared and shot off its showers of colored sparks. The grandkids chased each other in the dark, stopping only to admire them.
This is the day when, in 1847, Brigham Young climbed out of his wagon as it began its descent out of Emigration Canyon, gazed across the valley, and announced, "This is the place," which was good news for all those thousands who followed, having buried loved ones in shallow graves, pulled handcarts through a few thousand miles across rivers and deserts and mountains. Children today sing: For some must push, and some must pull, as we go marching up the hill, merrily, merrily on our way, until we reach the valley-o! and Pioneer children sang as they walked, and walked, and walked, and walked, and walked...
My own great-grandfather, Jesse Benjamin Robinson, born in the Gulf of Mexico on the steamship William Nelson, was just eight years old when he walked and walked and walked. His parents were emigrants from England, his father a weaver by trade. They couldn't force him to join the Confederate army, but they did force him to work in the cotton mills in Mississippi. Jesse wrote, "My only recollection of the war was that a soldier came to our home and tried to take my father's alto horn. I ran up to him and put my arm through the coils of the horn and held on to it. The soldier dragged me outside, but I held on tight. Finally he said, 'Take it, you damned little Rebel!' As soon as we could leave the south," he wrote, "we sailed on a riverboat up the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers to St. Joseph, where we outfitted with an ox team for our journey across the plains. I remember a few incidents which occurred. Oft times at night, it would be necessary to clear the snow away and build fires on the ground to warm a spot for our beds to be made upon. Priceless as our few blankets were, we awoke one morning to find that hot coals had burned several holes in them."
Jesse was just one of many of my people who came to America, most of them from England or Wales, and crossed the plains. Some of them married on the way, in Nauvoo, Illinois, in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Some of them had babies. Some died. Most of them had been ostracized by the families and friends they had left behind.
This day, and this post, is dedicated to them: William (the Sweet Singer in Israel) and Susannah Robinson, Horace Austin and Laura Ann Skinner, Solomon Michael and Lucy Jane Barkdull, Richard and Elizabeth Hatton, and all their children, Jesse Benjamin only one among them.
William Stafford wrote in a poem called A Presence:
A shadow dawns inside my shadow,
and a voice my voice contains; a hand has
curled like a glove on my strengthened hand--
A charge--a surge in color and sound,
that world in a heightened curve--has come,
force in the season, an enhancement of being.
I hear an interval that isn't a storm
calling: that voice commands the legions
of snow, and all my allegiance follows.
I swing into knowledge and fall, all
the way into tomorrow, away from friends,
thin voices that fade in this new dawning.