“The Davenport Divide” by Ivy Harper or How UNO Slandered a Nebraska Native, Hometown Girl

October 28, 2012


WASHINGTON, D.C. (exclusive) by Ivy Harper

More than six years ago, I sent UNO a fiction submission as part of the admission process for UNO’s MFA in Creative Writing Program. Turns out, the UNO Program had been deemed  a “money-maker” and was only open to out-of-state students who paid three times the tuition; additionally, just like UN-L, UNO had a “deal” with NELNET to “bump” students – who needed help with graduate student loans – their way. This was during the notorious period where NELNET was fleecing the Federal Government with the good old help of Chancellors Perlman, then-UN-L Vice Chancellor for External Affairs, Kim Robak, et al.

Moi being moi, I knew that Professor Richard Duggin’s rejection that included this sentence, “your writing lacks energy & enthusiasm” meant that the proverbial “something” was up.

I’d been fortunate enough to graduate from UN-L’s stellar Journalism School, had published a best-selling biography of Bob Kerrey, won a national writing award, and spent the past quarter century making money as a free-lance writer, financially modest as my writing career had – mostly – been. So, naturally, I figured I’d be a candidate for an NU graduate writing Program.

Oh, and I’d penned a book for Eunice Kennedy Shriver called, “A Time for all Seasons: The History of the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Foundation” that still sits in the archives of the JFK Library in Massachusetts. Not to brag but it’s a terrific read and with luck, someday it will see the light of publishing day. Jacqueline Kennedy was to be the Editor of my Kennedy manuscript but when she died, Eunice Shriver – who’d watched her family be burned by William Manchester’s book and who did not trust New York publishers – chose to simply file my work away for posterity.

But back to UNO. According to them, my writing lacked that utterly objective measurement called “enthusiasm.” As I’ve said many times, my whole life I’ve been told to “curb my enthusiasm” and naturally, my writing is pretty much a reflection of my exuberant personality.

Ergo, I started investigating UNO and let me tell you something, my Friends, HELL hath no Fury like a Chancellor challenged.

Youda thunk that I was attempting to smuggle plutonium outa one of America’s aging themo-nuclear power plants the way that UNO, UN-L & NU’s Men-in-Suits Regents treated me for questioning how it is that one of America’s cherished – nee sacred – Federal/Morrill Land Grant Act Institutions could – legally – establish an entire Program that – seriously – would not allow Nebraskans into it.

First off, the head of UNO’s Undergraduate Creative Writing Department had just penned a soft-porn book on the Nebraska dime.

So, I asked Duggin if writing about child sex abuse, sex, sex, and abortions constituted writing that exuded “energy & enthusiasm.” He didn’t like my uppity-ness. See, one does not tell Ivory Tower Emperors that they have no clothes.

As for my course of action, you know how Woody Allen famously said that he wouldn’t want to join a club that would have him for a member.

Yeah, well, I’m no Woody Allen. My first thought when I was rejected ostensibly because my writing lacked “energy,” was What the Truck!” UNO should be eager to wrap their writing arms around me. After all, I’m the classic definition of “brain gain.”

I’m a hometown Nebraska girl who – literally – handed the entire state a “valentine” in my Kerrey biography. Again, not to toot my own writing horn (although I guess I really am) but a number of folks really like my writing. [okay, my previous sentence was a bit over-the-top but hey! life’s all about “branding” oneself these days] My original 2006 plan: to move to  Nebraska so I could teach writing at Southeast Community College.

But UNO put an end to that. UNO also slandered me in the process of covering their ass about founding a Program that blatantly discriminated against in-state-tuition Cornhuskers. Oh, and I’m a fourth-generation Cornhusker whose Nebraska nieces and nephews happen to be fifth-generation Nebraskans.

The kicker was – as I’ve written before – is that UNO’s Creative Writing Department Head called me in the middle of the [second] application process and – out-of-the-blue – offered to give me a personal recommendation to America’s finest MFA in Creative Writing Program. When I asked how it was – logically, Professor – that I was not “good” enough [meaning that I qualified for in-state tuition] to get into UNO but yet – by his own statement – I was a stellar enough writer to  make it into the country’s best MFA in Creative Writing, this UNO Professor let out – literally – a huge huff and hung up the phone.

Below is the work that I submitted to UNO in 2006. Strangely enough, it deals with land, fences, and boundary disputes.

You decide. Does it lack “energy & enthusiasm,” my Friends?  You know, since that metric is so non-subjective and easy to determine and for the record, I’m being completely sardonic.

                                              “The Davenport Divide”


                                                                                                          Ivy Harper

      Chapter Two

The rain gave Argyle a brief reprieve. He felt confident now with his plan to plow what earth remained and plant legumes like clover and alfalfa to  restore the soil. He knew it would take time, but Argyle was a patient man.

Back then, Argyle was still using his favorite phrase, “You can’t keep a good man down.” It was hard for August to reconcile the joy with which August would utter this phrase over and over to his friends and family with the weathered, wounded man wilting away in the next room.

And then the notices came. The first was from the local draft board telling August and Clay to report for duty at Fort Logan, Colorado and the second was from Argyle’s close friend, James Ferguson, in Davenport, who announced he’d sold his Colorado land to a local land speculator and Argyle had thirty days to clear out. James had promised Argyle that the family’s Colorado land was to remain forever with the Fergusons but that if they did ever decide to sell, it would go first to his fellow Scotsman and friend. Argyle had believed James. Completely. In the back of his mind, Argyle was convinced that James would eventually sell the land to him. After all, their ancestors shared a village in the moors of Perth.

Just to make sure that the McCalls understood that the thirty day deadline was unyielding, the third was an official notice from the Logan County sheriff’s office that officials from the Denver Guaranty Trust Company were bringing trucks out to haul away any detritus the McCalls left.

The image of Argyle tearing out of the farmhouse and howling at the heavens surfaced in August’s meandering mind. His father stood that night in a darkened doorway staring at a bleached black sky devoid of a single star. August could see his father’s lanky frame shivering, his arms bruised from pounding a baked and unforgiving earth. Argyle did not return to the farmhouse for a long time and later, Alma understood that the words on those three thin pieces of paper burned her husband’s heart creating a hole that would widen as the years wore on.

That night August endured a restless mix of sleep, recurring dreams and memories of the war from which he recently returned home. Scattered scenes of long nights in muddy foxholes peering through the darkness and throwing hand grenades towards the sound of any movement in the grass and brush haunted him. Half conscious, he saw evenings near dusk when his squad leader would yell, “Here they come” and August and the others would all start firing and reloading with trembling hands while waiting for another assault. One vision included Nagoya and Osaka where his squad was assigned to destroy rifles and ammunition of the Imperial Army.

In another, his platoon was ordered to handle security for a contingent of Japanese soldiers being returned after ten years on the coast of China and Manchuria. They were older and ragged and bent as they tried to keep step in formation as they marched from the ship without sabers and rifles. As morning broke, August saw both the sun and the silhouettes of stooped, beaten men who he momentarily identified with realizing that he, too, was home to pick up the pieces of a life interrupted.

A rooster’s crow awakened August for good. He dressed and walked to the kitchen where Argyle had fried some eggs and bacon. The two sat down to eat and exchanged spare pleasantries.

“Ready to head out,” Argyle tried to sound upbeat.

“It’s going to be a great day, dad, don’t worry.” August collected their gloves, work belts and a few other items he threw into the back of the Chevy. They drove back out to the forty acres which was one-fourth of a 160 acres, or a quarter of a section. There was a barbed wire fence, backed by wood, that was intermingled with scrub trees, bushes and a hedge separating the forty acres of John Stanton’s land from the forty to the west owned by Garrett Loudon. The fence provided a clear separation of the two properties and the McCalls liked the idea because their small tractor  had no trouble turning around to change directions. August and Argyle had thirty acres of wheat and ten of milo.

“I am going to attach the cultivator and get some weeds out of that milo,” August said as he started the tractor. Just as he was moving ahead, he heard the roar of an engine beside him. He saw Loudon beside him and above him in the cab of an over-sized Massey Ferguson Tractor with a power blade and a scoop on the front. Loudon looked down at August and grinned. If a wave can show arrogance, his did as Loudon accelerated down the lane towards his property. August continued to work the ten acres while Argyle sat in the car and dozed under the warmth of the sun on the glass windshield. August could hear the roar of the Loudon tractor on the far side of the field. It took a few minutes for what was happening to register with August who ran to the side of the car where Argyle had fallen asleep.

“Let’s go, Dad, The Loudons are tearing out our fence.”

They drove to the end of the field and they could see Garrett Loudon making the last pass of pushing the fence and brush and the hedges to one side. August ran towards Loudon who had gotten off his tractor. Argyle followed with an old man’s gait, a slow run. August, at six foot, three, towered over Loudon.

“What are you doing, tearing out our fence?”

“What do you care, August?” You don’t use it and we need more turning radius.

August clinched his fist. Breathing heavily, his face flushed, August formed a circle with his thumb and middle finger and pointed an index finger towards the sky.

“You could have asked us. You could have talked to me…we would have worked something out. You are going to have to pay for this.”

Loudon stopped listening, turned and walked away. Over his shoulder, he said, “I don’t owe you a dime.”

“August, let’s go.” Argyle took his arm and led him back to the car. “Calm down, son. There’s got to be a way to fix this.”

August was shaking and his lips quivered.

“Dad, it’s the idea. They think because they have more land and more money that they can get by with anything.”

Argyle looked down. “Men with money usually do.”

“Dad, we needed that fence. That wood is irreplaceable, not to mention the expense of barbed wire.”

“Don’t do anything, son. I will call Verle Gasek tomorrow.”

Argyle McCall took off his hat as he entered the small law offices of Gasek and Harrington, one of the areas’s handful of practicing attorneys. The few young men from Thayer County who decided to attend law school rarely returned to set up shingles in such a sparsely populated locale. But Verle Gasek was a farmer at heart and he wanted to give back to the community that nurtured him. The only reason he’d been able to afford law school in the capital, Lincoln, anyway, was courtesy of the generous G.I. Bill that paid his entire tuition including books. He’d even been given spending money that he used at the Student Union on Friday nights. Gasek’s mother hailed from the part of Nebraska called Little Bohemia because so many Czechs settled there. He liked being around her rowdy relatives, too.

Verle ushered Argyle into his spare but literary-looking offices. He sat behind an oak desk that looked like the kind common in Nebraska’s one-room schoolhouses. On the wall were six or seven framed certificates, most of which appeared to be in Latin and citing Gasek for exemplary work of some kind or other. Argyle could not make out the words from his seat.

“How may I help you, Argyle?” Gasek moved a manila folder from one pile to a spot directly in front of the places where his hands rested.

Argyle told his story succinctly and then stopped.

“You have a case, Argyle, and I will take it.” Gasek spoke almost as briefly as Argyle did.

“Later this week, I will file an action for trespass and for willful destruction of property. Most likely I will ask for treble damages because so many trees were destroyed.”

“No amount can replace them,” Argyle looked down as if he was ready to weep. He was thinking of the poem that Alma loved so much, the one by Joyce Kilmer. ‘I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree. Poems are made by fools like me but only God can make a tree.’

from “The Davenport Divide” by Ivy Harper

To be continued…

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