An old poet contends with the Space Age, and Knoxville

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 plants—and 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 upsetting—both 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. Adults—reporters among them—verified 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 world—as 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 applauded.

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 power again!"

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 cars—that'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 1967—at home among his rare old goats.