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Hack’s Arch

Merrill Hacker, “Hack”, was visited near the end of his days by cultural anthropologist Phi Stafford from Indiana University. He was a resident of the Bloomington Convalescent Center. From his room, Hack maintained a close relationship with nature and displayed a kind and devoted heart for his fellow residents. His story is told in the chapter entitled Homebodies: Voices of Place in a North American Community IN Gray Areas: Ethnographic Encounters with Nursing Home Culture (2003), Philip B. Stafford (ed). Santa Fe: SAR Press.The effort to preserve Hack’s arch was led by the Monroe County Historic Preservation Board of Review and the Monroe County Commissioners. The arch will be re-dedicated in a ceremony with his family at its new location in Will Detmer Park on April 23, 2018.

The first time I saw Hack in the corner of his room in the nursing home, I was reminded of Burt Lancaster in Birdman of Alcatraz. Tall, lanky, and graceful, though slightly bent, Hack is silhouetted against the window, his back towards the room as he tends to living things – the pigeons and sparrows which visit his second floor birdfeeder, the two foot long seedlings sprouting from white styrofoam cups. One seedling is a hackberry and I’m struck by the coincidence of naming – even moreso as Hack explains to me his connection with the hackberry tree standing out back of the nursing home. The hackberry, he explains, is an ancient tree. “You don’t see too many of them around here anymore.” They’re called hackberry, he explains, because the bark looks as if it’s been all hacked up. The one out back, he notes, had some kind of injury to it as he noticed that, almost overnight, a butterfly-like growth appeared on a crotch of the tree, “a way it kind of repairs itself,” he says. He fans out his fingers to show how it looks. He tells me which tree he’s talking about among the several behind the facility.

A couple of days later, as I leave by the back door I check out the tree. Sure enough, about twenty feet off the ground the immense tree sprouts a shelf-like growth exactly as described by Hack. The nursing home employees casually enjoying their cigarettes under the shade of the huge tree have, as in Shel Silverstein’s book The Giving Tree, an entirely different connection with that tree. I doubt they have noticed the growth and I bet they don’t know its name.

In another visit, as I chat with Hack’s roommate, we are politely interrupted by Hack, who wants to show me the praying mantis, now mummified, which flew through the window into his room a few days ago. Pinching it gently between his fingers, he explains:

“They’re like lady bugs.” Phil: They eat a lot of stuff? Hack: They catch ‘em. Just like that (shows motion with his hands)…faster than a man can draw, that’s what they say. I sit and watch‘em, ‘till I get real close, and they know exactly, like rabbits.

Phil: They stay real still?

Hack: Just like you bat your eyes.

He explains how this one came to join him in his room…This one flew in the window. I told Myron (roommate), look at that, and that thing flew in here. I said, where’d he go… and I looked and looked and looked. I was afraid that thing would get in bed with me. And I finally found it.. fact is… there (pointing) I caught it settin’ up there. Phil: yeah, now you got a trophy.Hack: I’m gonna try to mount it. Phil: Mount it with a pin? Hack: Put him on there (moves to the wall to show the spot where the mantis will be displayed). I don’t know. I’ve got so much to do. I’ve got a list over a mile long.

Our discussion turns to some of the other items on his wall: one of those “bird’seye” photos of a farmstead taken by itinerant pilots and sold to the relevant farm families; another framed photo of a small bungalow highlighted in front by a stone arch at the beginning of the sidewalk leading to the house. The arch has no accompanying fence. As such, it seems out of place. Hack mentions how his son used to mow the grass across the road at Ms. Wisnand’shouse. (I am amazed at how the circle turns – Ms. Wisnand, now in her nineties, lives in the next room!). Hack, pointing to the arch, and speaking proudly of his son, says:

“He sees now what old Dad did. I did that.”

Phil: You did?

Hack: A windstorm (blew it down)… my son said (to the insurance man), ‘There’s nobody gonna fix that unless they put it back exactly like Dad had it!’ This guy (handyman) looked at it and said, ‘I’ll put it back exactly like that’… and he did.

Pointing to the stone work, Hack says:

I cut every one of them with a pitchin’ tool…

Phil: You cut it with pitching tools… you mean you dug them out of the ground?

Hack: You face it. Phil: You call that pitching it? Hack: Yeah… pitching it is making rock face out of it…and squarin’ it up – it’s a breakin’ tool (shows me the movement of the tool with his hands)… something like a big wide chisel, but it’s cut on just like that – you get that just right and it’ll break the rock. But you line it with a square, and then cut it. Put your rock face on it.

Phil: Did you work in a rock quarry too? I asked, beginning to wonder if there was anything that Hack had not done.

Hack: My uncle was a stone carver, he cut stone WPA. He cut on what they called a banker, made out of heavy 4 by 4’s… in fact – like a (unintelligible) so they won’t bounce. It’s gotta be solid or the rock won’t break just right. These banker tables was made so they didn’t give – that’s where they broke the rock. They put it on there and hit it with a wooden maul… made outta hedge apple. (note 1)

Phil: Oh really… yeah?

Hack: …bout as hard as you can get. You get a root, make it out of hedge apple. Most of‘em had a wooden pin.

Phil: What kind of head did the maul have? Hack: It was round (discusses how a good maul won’t split). Phil: Does your son still live there? Hack: My youngest boy’s there, Stevie. Phil : And the arch is still standing there? Hack: Yeah. A big storm came right up Vernal Pike. Phil: Yeah, I remember that. Hack: And they didn’t get no warnin’… Phil: That was about five, six years ago. Hack: Back in …oh… (pause) it broke trees all down in there. After the trees was all down and the people was gathered around there, the siren went off…

Phil: (laughs) Hack: My son says, why in the hell… that shows they’re really on guard… you’d better believe it. And when it comes out in the paper, it was “high winds.”

Phil: High winds

Hack: When it twists the trees off (shows with his hands in a wringing motion), that’s awfully high winds.

Phil: I’d heard that a hedge apple tree was hard wood, you can’t split it. Hack: It’s curly…. you can see the grain go round there. I used that for a long time. My uncle used to work on the WPA. You know the stone wall around Rose Hill? (the city cemetery)

Phil : Sure. ’33, something like that? ’34? Hack: Well, I was just a kid. I’m 79 now, I imagine I was about 14. Hard times. Phil: Yeah. (pause) Well, were you born in this house? Hack: My kids were… I bought that in 1939, my wife and I was married in ’38. Phil: You set up housekeeping there? Hack: Yeah, that’s where all the kids were born. Five kids. I had six kids, lost the second boy, didn’t know how to breathe. Phil: Happened to me too. Hack: All they needed to do was put him on a respirator, but back then they didn’t know what to do.

Phil: Yeah.

Hack: There’s a double garage out there, with a breezeway (pointing) … here’s that old building. (unintelligible) Anderson bought the land all the way through to Packinghouse Road – and I tore that old building down.

Phil: Why did you move from there (one picture) to there (next picture of farmstead)? Hack: My second wife, we married in ‘69, and she owned that piece down there, and when we was goin’ together, that’s what we said, when we’d both retire, we’d go down there. That was an old school building (pointing to the house), called Red Cut, bout three quarters of a mile from Koleen, right down in an old lake bed. Thousands and thousands of years ago all that stood in water, but an extra big rain happened thousands of years ago and washed the lower end out, and that lake drained. There’s still a creek. (Conversation moves on to his time in this house near Koleen)

As Hack talks about his life, I generally stand in awe. He possesses only a basic education, but a wealth of knowledge. I am reminded how much I love the work that brings me in touch with smart old guys like this. When he talks about doing some “water witchin” as a kid, and not finding a peach fork, he lets me know how he improvised with a coke bottle and a “number nine” wire. When he tells about the man from Texas who came up to drill wells, it’s important to remark that he used a number five casing, “not a number six like they use around here.” And when he got his water from a rock spring out at his Greene County home, it was cold…” it was at least 51 degrees, and that water in the wintertime would feel good on your hands.” As he talks his body enters into the conversation. The objects we use to construct our conversation, the pictures on the wall, help cement the relationship between us and place us in the landscape we are noting together. The stone arch is significant. Yes, it does have a symbolic import; it’s a symbol of his artisanship and a vehicle for a son’s pride in his father. But it’s more than that. It’s a presence in and of itself. As Hack stands there and “faces” those rocks with his hands, that arch is rebuilt, recreated anew, just as Bosco describes Sidoine’s housework as acts of creation.(note 2) It also occurs to me that the picture of the arch is not taken from the house looking outward, but rather outward looking in. The arch is not an exit but an entrance – an entrance to a home and a family. The absence of any attached fence makes sense now. This is a home which welcomes and invites. It speaks to hospitality and neighborliness, not property and enclosure.

As Hack talks of his life in these places he is not merely reminiscing, he is reliving, re- experiencing them. The slight bend in his upper body suggests not age but a physical yearning towards a place. Perhaps old age replaces the horizontal journey of youth with the vertical journey towards the earth. Western culture seems to denigrate the low, the earthy, the fallen.

Perhaps these metaphorical associations are universal as some would argue (note 4). Indeed, the “fear of falling” has become, in American society, a heavily charged issue and a pivot point around which major “policy” decisions are made, both within the public and the private family spheres. The family asks “But what if Mom should fall?” and places her in a nursing home to assure that she won’t. And how is her fall prevented in the nursing home? – by tying her to a wheelchair and calling it “up, with restraints”. Another wise and creative old informant of ours, Milton, is aware of this death delaying tactic and prefers, as he says, “to just slide into the floor” when it’s his time.

Hack is a man like Jack Beechum (note 3). A man with a sense of scale. A man who, like the child, sees the small wild things and, with the wisdom of years, sees the traces of events much larger than those in our small lives – the ancient trees, the washed out valleys. In the nursing home, he carries on this way of being in the world. Amid the rushing and clanging, the hard shiny surfaces of the nursing home, Hack moves in a somewhat different but parallel dimension. A natural man in a somewhat unnatural environment, Hack maintains his equanimity and only rarely criticizes what he sees around him. Once, he reports, they got mad at him for trying to catch a man who was falling. “They’d have to cut my arms off to keep me from doing that!” he says.

In our ethnographic freeze frames, we often portray informants as static beings whose lives have neither value nor existence beyond our fieldwork. As I write (in 1999), Hack has resumed his “horizontal journey” and moved out of the nursing home to a small apartment in a nearby small town. “There’s everything I need”, he explains, “a park across the street and a tavern that’s‘sposed to sell tenderloins this big (showing me with his hands),” I’m anxious to visit him andcarry on. “It’s number eight,” he says.”


  1. William Least-Heat Moon writes of the hedge apple in his book PrairyErth, an absolutely remarkable history of place – Chase County, Kansas. After speaking of the unusual fruit of the tree, he notes: “It is, of course, the wood of Maclura (pomifera) that men have for several thousand years admired: one of the heaviest on the continent, a cubic foot of it in a natural state weighs more than half that of an equal size chunk of limestone, and is nearly as hard, taking the edge off a lathe chisel or saw blade immediately; yet the wood is two and a half times stronger than white oak while still marvelously flexible: an Osage orange bow made from a good sapling properly seasoned and strung with bison sinew could drive a dogwood arrow up to the fletching into a buffalo, and to this day some archers believe the wood superior to yew, the stuff of the famed English longbow. (1991:283).

  2. Bachelard, Gaston. 1994. (original English trans. 1964). The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon.

  3. Berry, Wendell. 1974. The Memory of Old Jack. San Diego: Harcourt Brace.

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