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The College Of Zimmer And Hegel
The most important studies I ever engaged in werent at Cornell or Columbia, but in the windowless basement of the Zimmer Printing Company, a block and a half from the railroad tracks that ran alongside the Monongahela. Some of my greatest lessons unfolded near the mysterious dark green river, with its thick ice sheet near the banks in winter, its iridescent dragonflies in summer, and its always breathtaking sternwheelers pounding the water up and down, BAM! BAM! BAM! on the way to ports unknown. To me, the river was without beginning or end.
Before he went to Germany to beat up the Nazis, my warrior Uncle Bud worked on a riverboat that went down the Mississippi to New Orleans, on what mission I cant say, then on other boats that went up and down smaller local rivers. When I was five, he once threw an orange to me from a riverboat galley while it passed through a lock. A right fielders strong throwing arm sent that orange two hundred feet out of the watery trench into my hands. I didnt even have to move.
In the basement of the printing office, Buds father ("the General," as Moss called him behind his back) moved strong hands on and off of a printing press. Those presses are gone, but my grandfathers hands will never be gone. They remain on my shoulder as I write this. I would sit on the steps into his subterranean world, watching closely hour after hour as those rough hands fed sheets of paper into the steam-driven clamshell press. It went BAM! (feed) BAM! (feed) BAM! (feed) like the riverboats and bit by bit the job piled up on the table next to the press.
It was a classroom without bells or tests. I never got bored, never got out of line. In school I was thrown out of class frequently for troublemaking, but Pappy wouldnt stand for nonsense. Not a scrap of it. He was all purpose. I never saw a man concentrate as he did, as long as it took, whatever was called for. I transferred that model unconsciously to my teaching. While my colleagues were ruled by start-up times, bell schedules, lunch hour, loudspeaker announcements, and dismissal, I was oblivious to these interruptions. I was ruled by the job to be done, kid by kid, until it was over, whatever that meant, kid by kid.
No baseball or football, no fishing, no shopping, no romantic adventure could have possibly matched the fascination I felt watching that tough old man in his tough old town work his hand-fed press in a naked-light-bulb lit cellar without any supervisor to tell him what to do or how to feel about it. He knew how to design and do layout, set type, buy paper, ink presses and repair them, clean up, negotiate with customers, price jobs, and keep the whole ensemble running. How did he learn this without school? Harry Taylor Zimmer, Senior. I loved him. Still do.
He worked as naturally as he breathed, a perfect hero to meI wonder if he understood that. On some secret level it was Pappy who held our family together, regardless of his position as pariah to his wife and his estranged brothers, regardless of an ambivalent relationship of few words with his daughter and son, granddaughter and grandson, and with his remaining brother, Will, the one who still spoke to him and worked alongside him at the presses. I say "spoke" when the best I can personally attest to is only association. They worked side by side but I never actually heard a single conversation between them. Will never entered our apartment above the shop. He slept on the press table in the basement. Yet Pappy kept the family faith. He knew his duty. When Bud brought his elegant wife home from the war, she would sit in Pappys room talking to him hour after hour, the two snorting and laughing thick as thieves. He had lost the key of conversation only with his own bloodline.
I realize today that if Pappy couldnt count on himself, he was out of business and the rest of us in the poorhouse. If he hadnt liked himself, he would have gone crazy, alone with those heavy metal rhythms in the eternal gloom of the printing office basement. As I watched him he never said a word, didnt throw a glance in my direction. I had to supply my own incentive, welcome to stay or go, yet I sensed he appreciated my presence. Perhaps he did understand how I loved him. Sometimes when the job was finished he would lecture me a little about politics I didnt understand.
In the craft tradition, printers are independent, even dangerous men. Ben Franklin was a printer like my German grandfather, himself preoccupied with things German at times. Movable type itself is German. Pappy was a serious student of the Prussian philosopher Hegel. I would hear Hegels name in his conversations with Buds wife, Helen. Late in his own life he began to speak to my father again. And sometimes even to me in my middle teens. I remember references to Hegel from those times, too.
Hegel was philosopher in residence at the University of Berlin during the years when Prussia was committing itself to forced schooling. Its not farfetched to regard Hegel as the most influential thinker in modern history. Virtually everyone who made political footprints in the past two centuries, school people included, was Hegelian, or anti-Hegelian. Even today many knowledgeable people have no idea how important Hegel is to the deliberations of important men as they debate our common future.
Hegel was important wherever strict social control was an issue. Ambitious states couldnt let a single child escape, said Hegel. Hegel believed nothing happened by accident; he thought history was headed somewhere and that its direction could be controlled. "Men as gods" was Hegels theme before it was H.G. Wells. Hegel believed when battle cannon roared, it was God talking to himself, working out his own nature dialectically. Its a formidable concept. No wonder it appealed to men who didnt labor, like Mr. Morgan or Mr. Rockefeller or Mr. Carnegie yet who still disdained easeful luxury. It engaged a printers attention, and a little boys, too.
When I began to teach, I took the lessons of Monongahela and my two families to heart. The harder I struggled to understand myself, the better luck I had with other peoples kids. A person has to know where his dead are buried and what his duty is before you can trust him. Whatever I had to teach children is locked up in the words you just read, as is the genesis of my critique of forced schooling.
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