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Apples of the Earth

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Ah, Potato Day! There’s something in the spud to think about.

Fred Geis used to play a tune on the radio: “You’re My Little Potato.” Fred, a fellow poet, wrote a poem extolling Anne Holden, who always wore her hair pulled up in a bun. Fred mused that John Holden was the only one who had ever seen her with her hair down. I recall Fred wearing a tweed coat and black turtleneck at a poetry reading at the Village Smithy. A man who could spontaneously recite Shakespearian sonnets, he once told me that he had written thirty love poems in a month.

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My friend Jeff remembers the Potato Days rodeo in the ‘50s. Instituted by Bob Perry, among others, it was held on what is now the high school football field and featured a greased pig contest. Swarms of kids chasing a greased pig, and Jeff (aka Paige Meredith) was one of them. Why do I picture him barefoot in ragged coveralls chasing gleefully after the pig, like one of the urchins in the Winslow Homer painting?  

The potato song ran like this: you’re my little potato / they dug you up / you come from underground  (MALCOM DALGLISH – METAMORA). This inspired me to start a radio program of conservative commentary and name it Underground Potatoes. The show featured a wide range of topics, and I had a lot of fun with it. Back in those days the Soviet Union was trampling the people of Afghanistan underfoot. Yakov Levin, a Jewish prisoner of conscience, was serving a three-year sentence in a Soviet labor camp for disseminating anti-Soviet propaganda. Incriminating evidence: picture postcards of Israel, Uris’ novel Exodus.

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My wife and I advocated on the radio for Natan Scharansky — nine years a KGB prisoner — who sought to emigrate to Israel. Relentlessly interrogated and charged with treason, he endured years of solitary confinement and freezing punishment cells. We deeply admired his courage and wit in defying the Soviet police state and were overjoyed when he was finally allowed to emigrate. As he was leaving Lefortovo Prison he told them, “I want my Psalm book with me.” They withheld it. At the airplane he knelt in the snow and refused to leave without it. So finally they coughed it up.   

I marched in the Potato Day parade in 1985, wearing striped prison garb and chains to draw attention to the plight of conscientious dissenters such as Levin and Scharansky, as well as many Christian believers who were imprisoned for their faith. My friend Larry Hutson and his family dramatized the situation with a float depicting a Christian being brutalized by a Soviet prison guard. Roy Rickus swayed and played his clarinet as we passed by.  

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The first Potato Day was held in 1909. Old-timer John McCabe told me years ago, “That Carbondale valley raised more spuds than you can shake a stick at.” We became famous for our potatoes. During World War II we shipped out 900 plus cars a year to feed the troops. The Russet Burbank potato was developed right here in the valley. The McClure potato was named for one of our early residents, Thomas McClure.

My program on KDNK public radio was eventually discontinued because listeners didn’t want to hear me talking about abortion. I was replaced by Mike Strang, a local rancher and former congressman. Up-valley sentiment tends to favor abortion. In honor of the humble Carbondale potato I published a couple of broadsides under the same name as the radio program. One dealt with the Penny Hot Springs, which had become an attraction to nudists and an annoyance to neighbors. The other was a survey conducted on the streets of Carbondale in which I sought to understand the difference between conservatives and liberals.    

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Surprise results. Neither liberals nor conservatives believed that one race was superior to another. Some liberals associated Ronald Reagan with Hitler, but no conservatives did. Where did the big difference lie?  Conservatives overwhelmingly agreed with the statement “Teenagers should be taught to abstain from sex before marriage.” Liberals strongly objected.

Badgett alternates this column with fellow conservative Paige Meredith.

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