North Country

Here is a photo I took last week of something Bob Dylan passed many times as a teenager.  It is the panel protecting a fire extinguisher set into a niche   left of the entrance to the Hibbing High School auditorium. It’s a captivating thing for a few reasons, even inside a building that captivates your attention and admiration every couple of feet. For Fire is aurally lovely, with its alliteration and near-rhyme. And I like the ambiguity of the stately phrase: For Fire. Perhaps if I happen to need fire, I can find the ingredients behind this panel. Perhaps if fire itself requires sustenance,  it can get what it needs behind this panel. The jewel tones of the lettering, the elegant pattern of the leaded glass, may remind you of Tiffany-style glasswork, and indeed, this fire extinguisher is protected by the work of Louis Tiffany’s studio.  I’d like to say I can imagine a boy with a sharp and mobile attention, and a sensitivity to color and wordplay, being fleetingly entertained by this familiar object, but I’m not good at that kind of fanciful reverie. It’s more true to say that hundreds of hours of attention to Bob Dylan’s songs has heightened my own sensitivities to color and wordplay and strangeness. In the emergency for which this artful business was designed, the beautiful panel would be in the way, and almost be certainly be shattered. Of course that is the way of things, and that  is something else I hear often enough in Bob Dylan’s songs.

Back to Hibbing, and other  emergencies. Here is another photo I took of railroad tracks leading into and out of Hibbing, where young Zimmerman may or may not have had a frightening sort-of accident on a motorcycle. At that time, maybe a half dozen people had a strong personal interest in his safety. Mythology invites us to symbolize these old tracks as destiny leading our restless young genius out of the torpid, suffocating little town.  And we’re talking fulfilled destiny here. A mere 6 years after he rode out of Hibbing, this young man’s clumsiness on a motorbike would galvanize the attention of thousands of people on more than one continent, and be written about in decades to come as an important turn in an important artist’s wheel.

In No Direction Home, you can hear Bob Dylan make short work of finding himself a restless young something or other in a small town. Hibbing is distinguished by being the very first of countless places Dylan has left, and a visit to Hibbing can offer anyone evidence that it is not simply Anywhere, USA. The changeling living in the Zimmerman home may have fled with more than  appetite and ambition.

This street sign and fire hydrant are the lonely gatekeepers to what looks like a grassy tree-filled park. The park is curiously marked with flat slabs of concrete and short flights of steps that are set into the grass and lead nowhere. This is the site of the original town of Hibbing, once called North Hibbing, which was the lifeline to and from the iron mines.  The mines grew, and the town grew, and soon they were too close for profit on the one hand and comfort and safety on the other. A settlement began a short distance south of North Hibbing, and after legal and political strife, negotiations, allurements,  pragmatism, and other inducements, the town moved south. On rollers pulled by horses and then engines, homes and businesses and public buildings were towed about a mile and a half.  People ended up opening their same doors on to different streets.  Fixtures like fire hydrants, street signs and lamps, and foundations were impractical or unnecessary to either move or remove. A visitor to old North Hibbing can walk upon the remains of  a community abandoned through vigor and ingenuity and compromise and compulsion, very different from walking upon the fertile remains of a battlefield or a town lost to flooding or other atrocity. You feel quiet and lonesome there and the place seems alive with the simple sadness of any benign ghost, anything necessarily lost. The past is very close behind in North Hibbing, and uncommonly so.

This is the Hull-Rust-Mahoning Mine in Hibbing over 100 years after iron ore was first discovered there. It looks uncannily natural to me, an impressive geological formation. The one or two trucks I saw trundling busily among the piles of earth seemed unmanned exploratory vehicles, bravely and mysteriously purposeful. At the time of our restless young something or other’s childhood, the mines in Hibbing produced 25% of the country’s iron ore. Within the history of late 19th-early 20th century  European emigration to the US, Hibbing must stand out a little, due to the disproportion between the voracity of the mines’ need for labor, and the size and isolation of their setting. Men poured in from Finland,  Ukraine,  Italy, their different skills put to work in the mines themselves and in the town they built. The demands of mining brutally demanded cooperation, the climate brutally reduced  many cultural distinctions to shared survival tactics, and quarters were close.  Assimilation was fairly rapid, rough, and compulsory.  In a coastal city, or an inland city with a greater variety of industries and more accessibility to other cities or large towns, a significant immigrant  population can lead to cosmopolitanism, in which a fluid in-and-out population is constantly refreshing culture.  Something different seems to have happened in Hibbing.  Difference was accommodated, tolerance was a necessity, yet the flexibility of the diverse community was also bounded and isolated, rather than continually challenged and renewed.

And this photo is partly what this kind of assimilation looks like. In 1954, Robert Zimmerman’s parents hired a Rabbi for their son’s Hebrew lessons in preparation for his Bar Mitzvah, which was hosted here at The Androy Hotel in the downtown Hibbing, and was attended by something like 200 people. We do wrong to condescendingly applaud this small town for an impressive level of tolerance, and if you’ve ever read Beatty Zimmerman’s adamant refusal to indulge any question of outsiderness in her life on the Iron Range, she must be taken at face value. This is the cooled crucible of assimilation.

I’ve visited Hibbing High School twice, and it’s been a singularity for me both times. It is magnificent in its material self, and not merely remarkable as an artifact of frontier ambition. I am thinking of buildings I’ve visited whose united design and function   humble and ennoble whoever enters them, and this simply is one of them. I’ve been a high school teacher and I can guess that apathy, dishonesty, impatience, and ignorance live there–in students, teachers, and administrators– as they do in any American high school, and still the building has the persistent solid rich thrum of a monument.  Day after day for years, our restless young something or other would have passed the paintings in these photos. Oil paintings flank the walls along either side of the grand entrance staircase. On one side, the history of America, on the other side, the history of Minnesota.  There is the intrepid mother and child entering the frontier they would help civilize, there is the ritual of civilization created through the testaments of powerful men. Our restless young something or other walked a gauntlet of symmetrical memorialized history day after day after day.

Bob Dylan sings, When I left my home, the sky split open wide. His Hibbing was a city of seams. Healed ruptures.  He grew healthy and protected upon healed ruptures of land, of Old World poverty, of ethnic and national hatred or incomprehensibility.  A seam is not false and it’s not a lie, but there may be a sarcophagal quality, a  nervelessness to it that would be intolerable to a certain sensibility. The splitting of the sky seems exactly the right rupture for this sensibility. Welcome to the infinite demands of the right now–will  you be ready for it forever?, is what the sky splitting open wide seems to say. Let’s say this was the first time he answered: Try me.

Make the trip to Hibbing. It is not a symbolic pilgrimage. You’ll find an unforgettable vein of American history in the spaces there, and you’ll find people deeply and presently conscious of their own personal histories. The people of Hibbing welcome visitors and pander to no one, not to Bob Dylan, and not to Bob Dylan fans. Find Linda and Bob Hocking at Zimmy’s and learn what intelligent hospitality looks like. They pander to nothing and they will embrace you according to the way that you live. That’s all, I’m done.  You must go to Hibbing.

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