In Search of the Old Red Gods

As a young boy, I grew up in a series of towns in southern Wisconsin, ranging from two different suburbs in the Milwaukee metro area, to little Mt. Sterling, a village with only a hundred people in Crawford County, just a few miles from the Mississippi River. Later, as an adult, I moved from Platteville, where I’d attended college, to the cities of Missoula, Montana, and La Crosse, back in Wisconsin, both about 50,000 in population. From there it was north to Menomonie, a smaller city of about 10,000, like Platteville. Then further north, to Rice Lake, a little smaller than those two towns. Finally, I moved out into the country, where my wife and I began our life together, 25 years ago this past Memorial Day Weekend. The nearest town to us is Birchwood, with just over 400 inhabitants.

I have come pretty much full circle.

In my travels I’ve seen many of the great cities of this country: Milwaukee, Chicago, Minneapolis, Seattle, Denver, Phoenix, Atlanta, New York, Boston, Los Angeles. In Europe, I’ve walked the streets of Rome and Vienna, Budapest and Amsterdam. Back in 2016, we went to China, spending our last night in Shanghai, a city of 25 million. Twenty-four hours later, I was at the general store in Birchwood, buying a gallon of milk. A year earlier, I’d been on a visit to New York with my brother Alan, waking up one morning in our hotel on Times Square in Manhattan, and by that afternoon I was sitting on my deck, looking at our lake and listening to the call of loons. Every time I have traveled, I have enjoyed the places we’ve visited, but I’ve always been glad to be back home.

Because home is where the heart is, they say. And, in my case, it is also the place where  I feel closest to the Old Red Gods.

 

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The call of the country.

It’s taken me some years of living out here to even begin to articulate why it is I enjoy it so. Much of it is obvious: the solitude, the relative quiet, the friendliness of the people. Modern urban conveniences aren’t that far away; there are three supermarkets in Rice Lake, along with a 7-screen movie cineplex, a bowling alley, not just one but two theater companies that stage dozens of shows, lots of nice stores, a medical center and, of course, a Walmart. More expansive shopping, along with small-college sports and minor league baseball, are in Eau Claire, an hour to the south. And if we want even more expansive shopping, big-name entertainment and major-league and college sports, the Twin Cities are only a two-hour drive from our driveway. In some big cities, you can drive two hours from the ballpark or the mall and still be in the metro area, especially on days the traffic is heavy.

My ancestors came to America for the land, and the opportunities it afforded. They were farmers, shopkeepers, loggers, miners. In other words, like millions of others who fled Europe for freedom and the chance to make lives for themselves and their families that would be better than what they left behind. And, in a sense, we still do that today. Every move I’ve made, job to job and town to town, has been a step up the ladder, or so I’ve always hoped. They all led here, to a place where we can contemplate a picturesque lake, and where I can write, interrupted only by the distant sound of a passing car, or on days like today, our Yorkie barking downstairs as she tries to flush a mouse.

Long ago, I concluded I could never live in a city. Our son moved to Milwaukee for college in 2006 and is still there, living in a suburb. Our daughter had gone there six years earlier, then left in ’07 for an even bigger metro area, Boston. Today she and her husband are raising my grandson in a nice suburb, only a fifteen-minute train ride from the city.  But I could never follow either of them. While growing up, I was happiest in the smallest of towns, especially Potosi, a burg of just over 700 on the shores of the Mississippi in the southwest corner of Wisconsin. Even today, I know that if for some reason I ever left the shores of Pickerel Lake, I would make my way back down there, to a home in one of the many little coulees, or better yet, on a bluff overlooking the majestic river. That would be much like here. Like John Denver once sang, “Thank God, I’m a country boy.”

 

They’re out there, waiting. 

So, who are these Old Red Gods that I said I’m feeling close to out here?

First, I will state for the record that I am a Christian. I believe Jesus Christ is my personal savior and the only road to eternal salvation, a stance that got me in trouble last month when I stood before the Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and, along with a like-minded fellow delegate from Minnesota, challenged the ELCA to publicly recognize the supremacy of Christ by eliminating a clause from its Inter-Religious Policy Statement that questioned that very truth. (We wanted to strike lines 630-655. Our motion was voted down, resoundingly and loudly, and subsequently we were roundly and profanely denounced on social media by many Assembly delegates, including pastors, which tells you something about today’s ELCA.)

I am also not talking about the “gods” that are supposedly being embraced by a handful of far-right folks in the U.S. and Europe, which apparently has gotten some left-leaning academics in a dither, not that that’s hard to do.

In fact, I knew nothing at all about this concept until very recently, when I read an interview with Stephen Hunter, one of my favorite authors, upon the publication of his latest book, Game of Snipers. For those of you unfamiliar with Hunter’s work, he’s best known for his series of thriller novels featuring Bob Lee Swagger, a Marine veteran of the Vietnam War, who set a record for sniper kills by a U.S. marksman. Swagger’s character is inspired by real-life Gunnery Sgt. Carlos Hathcock, who owns the unofficial record. Swagger’s fictional total of 87 confirmed kills trails Hathcock, but his actual tally of 391 would virtually match his real-life counterpart.

At the end of the interview, Hunter says this:

“I am currently working on a Bob in which I deal with many issues his career has raised but not answered, particularly as our values and expectations change. As you might imagine, I still believe in the Old Red Gods, and this book will express that fealty to masculine duty, heroism and decency.”

 

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Ryan Philippe played an updated version of Bob Lee in the USA-TV series Shooter, which aired from 2016-18.

 

I’m looking forward to the next “Bob,” of course, and part of it is due to curiosity about how Hunter will be able to show a 72-year-old Swagger in action, which he does very believably in Game of Snipers. But what is it about the “Old Red Gods”? Hunter doesn’t elaborate here, but a Google search produced this 2008 article from farmprogress.com, which tells us that the “Old Red Gods” go back a long ways: Who are these red gods…?

Wayne Capooth’s prose is a little overheated, but Kipling’s poetry certainly is not. A while back, I saw a volume of Kipling at an antique store and added it to my rare book collection. Published in 1918, this Collected Verse of Rudyard Kipling contains the complete version of “The Feet of the Young Men,” which Kipling first published in 1897.

 

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Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936). His pen gave us some of English literature’s greatest works, including novels (The Jungle Book), short stories (“The Man Who Would Be King”) and poetry  (“If–“).

 

The poem does indeed have a meaning that transcends the decades, relating just as well to the guy living in 21st century Wisconsin as it did to the guy living in 19th century England. I found it especially meaningful because of a trip I will be embarking upon soon. My cousin Walt Hemple and I will be journeying up to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, in northern Minnesota, for a week of canoeing and camping, beginning October 5th. While I’m not excited about being out of touch during the second week of the Major League Baseball playoffs, I’m pumped about the challenges that await us on this trip, and the beautiful nature we will experience together.

Hunter says the Old Red Gods symbolize a “fealty to masculine duty, heroism and decency.” Certainly his character of Bob Lee Swagger embodies these traits. In Game of Snipers, Bob is approached at the novel’s beginning by a woman who needs his help in tracking down the Syrian sniper responsible for the killing of her son, a Marine who was KIA in Iraq several years before. Bob could’ve told her to take a hike, or at the very least given her an “I’m sorry, but I can’t help you.” But he didn’t. He gets involved, leading to a very exciting hunt for the legendary Juba the Sniper. In other words, Bob does the honorable thing. “Honor” is certainly exemplified by the Old Red Gods as well.

This ties in, I think, with what my favorite president, Theodore Roosevelt, had to say about the “barbarian virtues.”

Over-sentimentality, over-softness, in fact washiness and mushiness are the great dangers of this age and of this people. Unless we keep the barbarian virtues, gaining the civilized ones will be of little avail.”

Roosevelt wrote those words over a century ago, but they could easily apply to today’s America. TR was not a stranger to high-end culture; he was born into wealth and raised in New York City, educated at Harvard, and was very familiar to the political, financial and cultural movers and shakers of what would be known as the Gilded Age. But he knew the common man and woman, too, going back to his days as a cowboy and rancher in what is now North Dakota. Throughout his enormously successful presidency, he was almost constantly on the move, and traveled widely throughout the country, visiting not just the big cities but the small towns and rural areas, where he connected easily with people from all walks of life. It would be a style we would not really see again until the 2016 campaign of Donald Trump, whose own patrician upbringing and personal wealth were forgotten by the massive crowds who would pack his rallies, both before and during his presidency. (What Roosevelt might think of Trump’s personal style is another thing altogether, but nobody can doubt that the man has a connection with people that other politicians struggle to emulate.)

 

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From the time he returned from the Spanish-American War in 1898 until his death nearly 21 years later, Theodore Roosevelt captured the attention of America like nobody before or since. Many loved him, some hated him, but everybody was interested in what he had to say. 

 

Roosevelt famously advocated what he called “the strenuous life,” one that involved exercise, exploring the great outdoors, hunting and fishing and rowing and riding,  almost anything that challenged him physically. He was a boxer in college and later, in the White House, studied Japanese martial arts, in addition to maintaining his fitness in the boxing ring. He recognized that not only were these activities vital to a person’s physical and mental health, they provided something even deeper, a connection to those “barbarian virtues” of old that enabled determined and courageous men and women to set out across the great oceans of the world and explore wild and dangerous new lands.

I’m certainly not the first writer to look at this concept. Here’s a very good blog post by a fellow named Jim Cornelius that delves into the topic a little more deeply: The Barbarian Virtues. And other writers note that Roosevelt was not alone among his contemporaries in signaling that a return to these virtues was vitally necessary if America was to thrive in the new century: The American Scholar: Barbarian Virtues.

One could argue, I suppose, that despite what Roosevelt and Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. advocated, the nation didn’t pay them enough heed, and the vacuousness of the Roaring Twenties, with its emphasis on accumulation of wealth and having a good time, gave way to the Great Depression. Perhaps a more disciplined, harder-working society could have avoided that economic cataclysm. The nation rebounded, thanks to the leadership of TR’s distant cousin, Franklin Roosevelt, to recover from the Depression, and not by sitting around wringing its collective hands. FDR put people back to work, and hard work it was. Gradually, the country came back around to “barbarian virtues” it had embraced in earlier generations, and just in time, too, because without those virtues, we would have had a very hard time in World War II, and it was a hard enough fight as it was.

 

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Despite the entreaties of Roosevelt and others, Americans were more focused on having a good time during the Roaring Twenties…

 

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…but then everything collapsed as the 1930s arrived. 

 

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In the 1940s, we rediscovered the Barbarian Virtues, just in time. 

 

Are the Old Red Gods dead?

As Jim Cornelius notes in his blog post linked to above, the barbarian virtues, the call of the Old Red Gods, are conspicuous by their absence in much of modern American society. When something as simple as a handshake is measurably weaker now than it was thirty years ago, you have to wonder not only what’s wrong, but what can be done about it. While many writers say that it’s too late to stop the inevitable collapse and that the thing to do is prepare for it, I’m not necessarily that pessimistic. We’ve been through times like these before, and we’ve always come out of them, thanks to strong leadership. In the first half of the 20th century, Theodore Roosevelt set the stage for cousin Franklin, and following FDR, hard-nosed leaders like Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower held the line against external threats and started moving the country along the road toward greater racial harmony and equality of opportunity. John F. Kennedy inspired us to go to the moon, no mean feat for a nation that had barely entered the age of jet travel. And in the eighties, Ronald Reagan shook us out of our post-Vietnam and -Watergate malaise to usher in a period of peace and prosperity that extended well past his two terms in the White House.

I think it all comes down to leadership. You might have a lot of people who embrace the barbarian virtues, who might be able to accomplish a pretty fair amount as individuals, but with a strong leader, the sky’s the limit.

In the post-Reagan years, such leadership has been hard to find. It’s especially hard now, when a ruthless media environment exists seemingly for the sole purpose of tearing someone down whenever that person decides to take a stand, to embrace those barbarian virtues. But the Old Red Gods still inspire some. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was a world champion bodybuilder before becoming one of the biggest movie stars of all time and then two-term Governor of California, put it this way:

 

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Finding the barbarian virtues.

Since my move up here to the lake in 1994, I have come a long way toward finding those virtues and embracing them. I was a few months away from my 38th birthday when we arrived here, and looking back on the years prior to ’94, I wasn’t paying much attention to the Old Red Gods. During those earlier, more chaotic years, I tried to blame my struggles on external factors: jobs that didn’t turn out well, a first marriage that went bad, financial decisions that backfired. The truth was, I wasn’t listening to the Old Red Gods. I wasn’t even trying to seek them out, much less pay attention. If I’d embraced those virtues, those values a lot earlier, I surely would have avoided a lot of problems. Once I started embracing them, things started working out, from the martial arts dojo to the bookshelves that carry my novels, from scuba diving in the South Pacific to climbing in the Andes of Peru, to marriage with one of the most dynamic women you’ll ever find.

Duty. Heroism. Decency. Honor. That’s what the Old Red Gods have tried to impress upon us for centuries, for millenia. The barbarians weren’t so barbaric after all, because they knew those things, and embraced them. That’s why they were eventually able to overcome the cultured but decadent Roman Empire. It’s why they continued to move ahead, to achieve, to conquer, all the way to the moon. If we can embrace those values again, we can reverse this downward spiral, we can once again have a firm handshake, and perhaps someday my grandson will walk on Mars.

And we go — go — go away from here!

On the other side of the world we’re overdue!

‘Send the road is clear before you when the old Springfret comes o’er you,

And the Red Gods call for you!

“The Feet of the Young Men”

Rudyard Kipling, 1897

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