(Alistair Cooke, in The American Home Front: 1941-1942)
Sometimes at stressful moments, when to-do list items cascade, we turn to one another and say, “Let’s run away.”
We rarely ever do. But I have been known to back the car out into the night, and just drive around the city, down streets I’ve never navigated, losing myself in winding subdivision lanes that empty out in cul-de-sacs, the car filling with the winter air, the heat up, the click-clack of tires on rutted asphalt, the driving sound of “Get back to where you once belong” played out into the night air, until I turn the wheels for home.
“Let’s run away”
Maybe running away was all it was for Alistair Cooke, though there’s precious little hint of it offered in the former Masterpiece Theater host’s account of his drive through wartime America. Entitled The American Home Front: 1941-1942, Cooke’s prose is sufficient enough, his descriptions often quite vivid, yet it is all delivered with an air of cool detachment.
Yet here between Good Friday and Easter, two bits of narrative stand out. One is his description of a meandering early morning drive in still dark Los Angeles, when he “got lost in the weaving boulevards,” when he “noticed how magically soothing was the scent of trees, the black foliage that looms all around you in that dreamlike town, and the occasional trailing of the pepper trees over the roof of the car.” Driving quiet streets, lost in thought, perhaps buttressing himself against depression, Cooke broods. “I let myself be lost for a time and drove aimlessly around the silent boulevards, threading the night foliage like a contented field snake sliding through undergrowth,” he says, a man wandering, a man on a quest, a man looking for himself.
Next up is a sobering account of Cooke’s visit a few days later to the Japanese-American internment camp of Manzanar in the California desert east of Los Angeles. The federal government rounded up the internees in March 1942, allowing them two blankets and a few personal belongings. They left homes and businesses for “a valley dry as old chocolate and swirling with dust,” to find “windowless, heatless shacks,” Cooke chronicled.
But it was the now 79-year old imagery of that drive that took me by surprise. Internment at Manzanar took place against a backdrop of magnificent, if austere, beauty. Cooke describes how the families forced to leave Los Angeles “went through the dark violet shadows of the Tehachapi Mountains, through Red Rock Canyon, up over a sagey plateau of creosote bushes and the spiked crucifix of Joshua trees, across barren flats where the afternoon sun makes the streaks of salt shine as painfully as turned swords.”
Intentional or not, Cooke’s account contains subtle images appropriate for this Holy Weekend: a shadowed valley (of death), Tehachapi (a Kawaiisu word for “hard climb,” suggesting the agony of Christ’s climb to Calvary), a (blood) Red Canyon, a spiked crucifix (a splintered cross), a turned sword (in Christ’s side). Liberation three years later, which Cooke could only anticipate, suggests the promise of liberty to come: the risen Christ. Hope and new life from a tragic event, and yet a comedy of grace.
Hidden in Cooke’s continent-ranging drive under the shadow of world war is an unspoken spiritual odyssey, a white line out of town to “buttress against depression” which, in a sense, explains all our journeys--at least, if not to shake off spiritual malaise they are to remember again who we are, and who we were, and who we can become.
Earlier today I turned to her in a day that we had begun as a slog in fog, sun streaming through the window, light overcoming darkness, and said, “Let’s run away, ok?” And she smiled, as we turned for home.