Professor Silas Timberman has never been one for theatrics. A quiet American literature professor at a mid-sized college, Timberman decides to build a semester’s course around the democratic ideals of Mark Twain—a subject that under normal circumstances would not arouse the suspicions of the university administration. But as the Korean War rages on and congressional investigations of potential Communists gain traction, no amount of ideological nuance is safe. When Timberman is asked to renounce his work or face the repercussions, he finds that not only his tenure but also his very freedom is at stake. Inspired by Fast’s own persecution at the hands of the House Un-American Activities Committee, Silas Timberman is a gripping record of the injustices of McCarthyism and a rousing ode to those who fought against it. This ebook features an illustrated biography of Howard Fast including rare photos from the author’s estate.
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By Howard Fast
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1954 Howard Fast
All rights reserved.
Afterwards, Silas Timberman realized that the whole day had meaning, from the moment of his awakening to the end of the day; but even that was only the beginning of speculation on the interconnection of things; and it was not until much later that he began to comprehend fully how each day is linked to others, the hours and days and weeks and years, with time existing only as a measuring rod laid against a unified and continuous whole. Here he was still at a stage of separation, so as to speak, seeking out what he considered significant and meaningful.
He considered October 16, 1950, a most significant day.
In its beginning, it was ordinary. For the most part, he had never been a heavy sleeper, and his transition from sleep to wakefulness was gentle. He drifted out of one and into the other, becoming conscious of the warmth of his bed, the musty human smell, the feel of a body beside him which was Myra. Diffuse light came through the drawn blinds, and through the windows, the cool morning wind, blowing from the west across the prairies, across the cornfields and wheatfields. Then with his hands, inevitably, he assured himself of Myra, touching her very gently and waiting for her half-conscious response to his caresses before he drew her closer to him. This was awakening which he loved, and then he was awake and beginning a day.
Today, Brian Timberman was awake too, and Silas lay there tracing the soft pad of the child's bare feet as he made his way into their room and tentatively nudged his father.
Silas said, "Hi," and moved over to make room for his son. Myra yawned and sighed, and from far down in the valley came the hoot and whistle of the seven o'clock train from Chicago. The train whistle touched off other sounds, the crowing of a rooster, the barking of a dog, and slow and tired and finishing, the plodding sound of a horse and the rumble of a milk wagon—the last, something Silas never heard without an inner response and sympathetic weariness.
He drew Brian to him on one side and Myra on the other, and lay there, awake and warmly content.
* * *
"How easily life falls into a groove," Silas thought, "and how readily we leave it there and how contentedly."
He sometimes realized that he was amazingly like his children, who were direct and open in their desire for everything to remain as it was, and changeless; and again he would lay this seeming contentment at the door of approaching middle age combining easily with a chronic lack of ambition.
As on most days, he had awakened cheerful and refreshed, his own life renewed and begun again with the life of a new day. He went through the series of motions and thoughts which were seemingly fixed and unalterable, his fleeting admiration in a glimpse of his wife's still youthful body changing out of a nightgown into a slip, his precise motions for shaving, his usual complaints about everyone having shower rights except himself, his settling the first argument of the day between Susan and Geraldine, his abstract agreement that Brian deserved another comic book, and his usual perplexity concerning shirt, socks and tie.
Nor was there anything unusual that made him particularly conscious of these things on this day.
It was an ordinary day, and the long and short of it was that his was an ordinary life. He had never placed that life in judgment, and if it was full of the fat and substance of living, he had grown comfortably used to that also. The face he looked at in his mirror while he shaved was a totally familiar and undisturbing face, one that he had scraped at day in and day out for better than twenty years. The children were his children, his and Myra's, the little boy with his round, freckled cheerful face, Susan with her sandy hair and long pensive eyes, Geraldine, dark, suddenly withdrawn, pensively beginning her role as a woman.
Even himself by himself had not been subject to examination for a long time. Habit had encased his doubts, fears, longings and once restless probing at the world—and if disturbing questions arose, they were comfortably or uncomfortably relegated to the past of youth; and it would be quite correct to say that he took a certain satisfaction in being no longer young.
Yet he felt young. He came downstairs briskly on this Monday morning of October 16, 1950, his hunger prickling and coming alive to the sweet, pungent smell of bacon and pancakes. The children were already eating, jabbering away at each other, the girls disciplining the little boy. He went through the motions of helping Myra. He drank his orange juice standing up, kissed his wife, rumpled Brian's hair, and heard out of the quarter-ear reserved for it the conversation of his children. The kitchen was full of sunlight, and he made obvious comments on how good he felt, Myra's pancakes, and the kind of day it was going to be.
"Sit down and eat," Myra said. She had not rested as well as he had.
"Are you all right?"
"Of course I'm all right," Myra said. "But it's still not eight o'clock. Will you sit down and eat, Si!"
She was nettled about something, but not enough to disturb his good spirits. He stopped trying to help her, and joined breakfast, listening to without hearing Susan's description of Brian as a pig. "He has always been a pig," she said, "and it's a wonder he doesn't turn into a pig." "I'm not a pig," Brian said calmly between mouthfuls. Geraldine ignored them and read a book. "I don't like you to read at the table," Myra said. "You know I don't." It occurred to Silas that Geraldine attempted to insert a regal quality into her pretense of not hearing, and the thought of the word regal made him notice how Myra moved in the very ordinary act of bringing another plate of pancakes to the table.
"You're a lovely and regal woman, Myra," he said, and when she looked at him so questioningly, he grinned with delight. Mornings like this were good; he noticed things; yet his thoughts ran in platitudes. He looked admiringly at the kitchen, the expanse of white enamel fixtures and cupboards and devices, the yellow linoleum on the floor, the yellow curtains on the windows, the fresh butter and the glass pitcher of syrup on the table, the hotcakes and the crisp bacon; and he relished his platitudes. He noticed the high refrigerator, and was amused by his reflection that it brooded protectively over the room, like a Roman household god in older times.
The chimes at the front door sounded, the four rising and falling notes that he disliked so and had so often vowed to replace with a plain, old-fashioned doorbell—and he opened the door to accept the handful of letters and circulars and the mail subscription copy of The New York Times.
Ordinarily he would have considered The New York Times as his first duty of the day. He approached The Times almost religiously, for it was not only a defense against a lurking provincialism that he always sensed in his very immediate vicinity, but a salve to all his pleasures in a quiet and unexciting life. He often argued that if a man read The Times intelligently, he would not only be well-informed, but he would also be armed against the forces of darkness and untruth. Silas considered himself so armed, and each morning he replenished his ammunition from this remarkably encompassing journal, and thereby strengthened himself for the day ahead.
And he did not merely read; he gave thought to what he read, and he arranged and re-arranged; and if the truth be told, he knew a good deal more than he admitted to himself or to others. In a way, he considered it a virtue that he could pit knowledge against knowledge in inner struggle and be so little moved by it. When he argued a point or discussed a point with Myra, he did so almost as a man does useful but perfunctory setting-up exercises, skillfully, but without a hot desire to convince or win a point.
But this morning he lacked all desire to become incensed over anything. He was indifferent, this morning, to the inept lying of politicians—which occasionally brought out his best sarcastic trend of observation—to the inanities of some notable sermons, which he often commented on in Monday's paper, to the rise of juvenile delinquency, which deeply troubled him, or to the quick little bites at civil liberties, increasingly noticeable, which touched him and upset him more certainly and frequently than he cared to confess even to Myra. He felt no desire to attempt to unravel any of the complex international scene, always so abundantly present in The Times, and even the daily book review did not entice him at the moment.
In other words, though the world was with him a great deal, he decided to dispense with its intrusion today. Today, he would bask in the marvelous mechanical-metal-pushbutton security of the kitchen. Today, he would savor the taste of home, wife, and children to the utmost.
So you can see that the day began, for Silas Timberman, very well indeed, not too different from other days, a little different, perhaps, but not too different. There were days when Myra enjoyed his almost-foolish early morning cheer; today, apparently, it nettled her, something Silas could understand; but otherwise the day began very well, and might have continued to be a fine day in every respect, had not Ike Amsterdam come in at breakfast time to unburden himself and have a cup of coffee, but mostly to unburden himself.
* * *
He came in by the kitchen door as a matter of old and tested familiarity, his briefcase under one arm, pressed with a dozen newspapers and magazines, his hat in his hand, his shaving cuts fresh on his wrinkled face; he entered tentatively, his tiny green eyes squinting in defiance and alert humor, but tentatively, saying,
"Thought maybe you'd gone already."
He said the same thing whenever he dropped by for breakfast, about once a week, and that single time an enormous concession to Myra, to her charm and ease; and this very matter of concession made Silas speculate, often enough, on what it was in such sour and bitter old men as Ike Amsterdam that made their affection and approval so precious. Yet he never overdid it or tried his welcome, nor did he ever leave the impression that it was not a particular treat for him. A widower and childless, he lived alone and ate alone and slept alone. In four years, he would become Professor Emeritus—after a lifetime as a teacher; and the very thought of retirement was drying him out, wrinkling him, aging him. His cronies had died or gone away, most of them, and there were few among the younger men he could come close to. It made him turn to children with that strange closeness and instinctive knowledge of the very old for the very young, and the children liked him.
He put down his briefcase, papers and hat, and sat between Susan and Geraldine, who eagerly made room for him, "Pancakes?" he smiled.
"Will you have some?" Myra asked.
"Well, maybe just one or two—can't resist them." He was stirring his coffee in that methodical manner that both girls loved, and they watched eagerly for him to taste the first spoonful of it. They took direct and simple pleasure from the manner in which he savored coffee; if they could have explained it, they would have explained that out of these gestures of the old man, the coffee became wonderful and so did other things. And Brian, staring and intrigued, asked his usual question about age.
"Not that I'm so old," Ike Amsterdam answered him seriously, "but I get older, son."
"Don't I?" Brian wanted to know.
"Not so you would notice it, no sir." And then he told Myra how fine the coffee was.
"Ike," asked Geraldine, "will you walk to school with Susie and me?"
It was no more than an excuse for him to bring out his watch, as he well knew, but he reached into his vest very gravely, took out the huge watch with the intricate bas-relief of fawns and devils on its cover, snapped it open, and considered the time. "Now maybe I'll have time and maybe I won't," he said. Brian asked him what time was. "Ah," he grinned, "that's a daisy, Brian. Can't be like money, because you're born with it, born rich or poor, you're born with time—but it gets like money, sonny. Some spend it well and some foolishly, and some of them cling to it and then it's gone anyway and right now you got more of it than I have. Am I right, Silas?"
"It sounds like you read that in a book," Geraldine said.
"That's the way things you say sound when you get to my age. How have you been, Silas?"
"Pretty good, Ike. Go ahead and eat."
The old man chewed thoughtfully. The children were almost through with breakfast, and they watched him with interest. Myra sat down at the table, and Amsterdam said to Silas.
"What do you intend to do about it?"
"Civil defense day. Today's the day. The posters have been around for two weeks, and today's recruiting day. Convocation at four o'clock, and Anthony C. Cabot's going to speak."
"It must have slipped my mind entirely," Silas said. It came back vaguely now, but he was neither greatly interested nor troubled, and he wondered what all of it meant to the old man. Myra remarked that she thought it was just a routine thing and not worth any particular concern.
"Depends on how you look at it," Amsterdam said.
"I don't know, Ike," Silas shrugged. "I suppose those things come down from the state capitol and run their course. What's the difference?"
"Going to enlist?"
"For civil defense?" Silas smiled and shook his head. "I'm a busy man, Ike, and I don't think any bombs will be dropped on Clemington—or anywhere else in the States for that matter."
"That's just it."
"The whole foolish fraud."
"Well—I suppose you could look at it that way. On the other hand, there is a war going on and there are such things as atom bombs and this is more or less of a formality—and, Ike, it's no skin off my back."
"No? Funny thing about a young fellow like you, Silas, been through a war and a lot of other things, and there you just spread your hands and sit back and say—what the hell—just pardon the expression, young ladies," he smiled at Susan and Geraldine. "It's no skin off my back."
"Well, is it, really?" Myra wanted to know. "I don't know much about this war, except that it would have been better if it had never been. There's nothing we can do about it, Ike."
"Suppose it takes a notion to do something about us? Has a man a right to face idiocy and say it's idiotic? That's what I been doing all my life, and I intend to go on doing so. To raise a civil defense organization here at Clemington is idiotic and worse. In the first place, it reveals an abysmal ignorance of what this bomb is and what it does. In the second place, its alarm-mongering, and I don't like alarm-mongering. In the third place, it's a fraud. And in the fourth place, it's an insult to a normal man's intelligence."
"What does abysmal mean?" Susan asked him.
"Both of you get your books. It's time for school," Myra said.
"For the life of me," Silas said, "I can't understand why this has provoked you so, Ike. No one is asking you to be an air raid warden or anything else of that sort. If Cabot wants to cut up and make a big thing out of this, why let him. It doesn't involve you."
"It involves my common sense," Ike Amsterdam replied.
"I don't see that at all," from Myra.
"If I think a thing, believe a thing, and then remain silent, that's a prime matter of conscience," the old man said, rather primly. "I'm disappointed in both of you—disappointed," he repeated. "Now, if you will permit me, I will escort these two young ladies in the direction of their school."
* * *
After the children had left with the old man and Brian had gone out to play before kindergarten, Silas still had better than an hour until his first class, and he helped Myra get through the breakfast dishes. At this point, neither of them was unduly disturbed by what the old man had said, for it was quite plainly the kind of thing Ike Amsterdam would say and had been saying for a long time. It did not mean, they decided, that he was for the war or against the war, for civil defense or against civil defense; it simply meant that he considered his intelligence to have been insulted on a matter of simple logic. All the rest, all the talk about conscience, they decided, was window dressing.
"Then I wonder," Myra asked, "why it depresses me so?"
"You felt that way before he came," Silas observed.
"Why? Because I didn't wake up laughing and singing, as you did? Can't you get used to the idea that not everybody reacts to everything the way Silas Timberman does?"
"Myra, I'm not going to walk into a silly argument."
"Whatever comes from me is silly—is that it?"
Excerpted from Silas Timberman by Howard Fast. Copyright © 1954 Howard Fast. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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