An old poet contends with the Space Age,
by Jack Neely
See if I'm not right. Just go back 40 years and look around. Nearly everything
you see seems to scream, It's 1957!
Elvis Presley's Jailhouse Rock was playing at the Tennessee. At the
Bijou was a new movie by young filmmaker Robert Altman, a startling documentary
called The James Dean Story. Everybody, even tire stores, were selling
TVs, especially the new '58 Motorola, with its "Presto-Chango" wireless remote
tuning. The wrestling champ out at Chilhowee Park was the masked Zebra Kid.
Knoxville Police busted a North Central gambling den called the Moon Club,
confiscating the slot machines known hereabouts as Roscoes. Accused
segregationist bombers John Kasper and the Clinton Six were in jail for meddling
with the peace at desegregated Clinton High.
Senator Albert Gore was still making his desperate call for more atomic
plantsand better education to keep up with those amazing Soviets.
Sputnik II was sometimes visible in the night sky that November, carrying
the doomed cosmodog Laika. Some found it upsettingboth the dog's fate
and the fact that this milestone satellite wasn't stenciled USA. But
most took it as great fun. Even a new city bus, serving the Fountain City
route, was christened Sputnik.
Perhaps not coincidentally, UFOs were everywhere. Up in the Dante community
of northwest Knox County early one morning, 12-year-old paperboy Everett
Clark was letting out his terrier, Frisky, when he saw something odd: resting
in the tall dewy grass of Mr. Sterchi's cow pasture, an oblong translucent
object. When he looked again, two men and two women were near the object,
trying to catch his dog. Frisky snarled. As Everett approached, he heard
the visitors speaking "some strange language, like on television"like
Nazi soldiers, he clarified. One gestured at Everett just before all four
boarded the oval thing as if they were "walking through glass." The vessel
rose noiselessly into the air, Everett said, "like a helicopter."
Left in the tall grass was an impression, 24 feet long and 5 feet wide.
Adultsreporters among themverified the saucer's footprint, and
were puzzled. Some dubbed it the "Whatnik." Oak Ridge scientists even showed
up with Geiger counters, checking for radiation. It was 1957, and you could
never be too sure.
But there was at least one character in Knoxville that November who didn't
fit into 1957 very well. A tall man with a bow tie and shaggy white hair
parted near the middle, like young men did around the turn of the century,
he stood in Market Square looking at the old Victorian Market Hall. Many
complained the old place was too old-fashioned for this TV age; that it should
be torn down and replaced with a nice big modern parking lot. But the old
man from just over the mountain in North Carolina liked the place just as
it was. He had visited Market Square several times, always talking with farmers
who didn't recognize his name, marveling at their extravagant produce. After
his first visit around 1940, he'd written a letter to a friend marveling
at this place where, in a central business district, you could buy hazelnuts
and black walnuts and ginseng.
Speaking at UT that Thursday morning, he said of the Market Hall, "It's a
worthy and dignified landmark and belongs among these mountains." The old
man's name was Carl Sandburg. The urban poet so well known for his odes to
Chicago had moved down to the Smokies a dozen years ago to live in an old
house in the country near Flat Rock with a handsome herd of goats. There
he enjoyed a long and comfortable nonretirement. He boasted of the virtues
of solitude and country living, but he loved to travel and talk to people
in cities. One of his regular stops was Knoxville, Tennessee, where his good
friend, author and English professor John Hodges, lived. In 1957, Sandburg
stayed in the Hodges' house in Sequoyah Hills.
Sandburg was nearly 80 and as successful as any poet has a right to be. He
had nothing to lose by speaking his mind, and he had several opinions to
share with the overflow crowd that morning at UT's Alumni Gym. He'd given
a more formal speech about Lincoln there two years earlier, but in '57 he
was more in the mood to mock this new automatic worldas well as some
of the people who populated it.
"To hell with Jimmy Hoffa!" Sandburg lambasted the shady labor leader. "He's
a combination of Huey Long and Adolph Hit-ler." The crowd in Alumni Gym
Sandburg also had an opinion of those romantic exiles, the Duke and Duchess
of Windsor: "They remind me of the walking and talking dead."
He made fun of Americans' fear of the Sputnik: "This is the first man-made
moon," he said. "It circled around us as we ate breakfast. It represents
man's wanting to know. It is a humana exploit. Dogs will be followed
by apes. Eventually other animals will begin to circle the earth. But when
we can produce a Sputnik carrying an elephant around, we'll be the number-one
But Americans of the future, he said, will be "nothing but bums." By 1967,
Sandburg predicted, Americans would be enjoying a four-day work week. "I
predict the time when we'll have nothing but leisure time."
"Russia is ahead of us not only in engineering," he said. "They have surpassed
us in literature, music, and ballet. Two, three, four carsthat's the
concern of so many Americans. Beauty shops are springing up everywhere; people
are conforming more and more. There was never a generation of people on the
face of this earth so incessantly told not to be content with the lot God
has accorded them."
Sandburg left to enjoy his 80s more than most poets get to. In years to come,
he'd kill time with President Kennedy in Washington and with Elizabeth Taylor
in Hollywood, but he always returned to his mountain farm. He died there
in 1967at home among his rare old goats.