It’s not light reading, but the Vietnam War novel “Matterhorn” by Karl Marlentes has been good reading for long sunny weekend sessions in the backyard for the past couple of weeks. I had a difficult time climbing the front half of the Matterhorn narrative, so to speak, so I skimmed and skipped ahead to the last 300 pages in which the story picks up momentum and surges toward a conclusion with sections as compelling as anything I’ve read on the war theme. My favorite prose book about Vietnam is “Dispatches” by Michael Herr (favorite poetry book is Michael Casey’s “Obscenities”), but Marlentes, who took 30 years to write and rewrite this book, gives us a vivid account of the mass lunacy that is war-fighting. The crucial action is set in 1969 and based on Marlentes’ own tour of duty. I’d be interested to hear how an African-American reader with knowledge of the subject grades Marlentes’ depiction of the black characters. He devotes many words to the white-black racial dynamics in Vietnam, and as a whole emphasizes the interior lives of the soldiers. Vietnam was the hot war of my youth, and I narrowly missed having to decide how I was going to respond to being drafted. President Nixon suspended the draft just as I turned 18, after I had drawn a low number in the birthday lottery for all 17-year-old guys six months earlier. That near miss on an existential decision-moment makes Vietnam a highlighted topic for me.
The South Common was quiet at 6.15 a.m. today, however, in general the park is being used more actively this year than I’ve seen in past years. The use has gradually stepped up year by year, based on my unscientific observations. Even with the Rogers School student population gone, the daily activity around the school and throughout the Common has grown steadily. I think it says something about people feeling comfortable (read: safe) in the park. It helps that the Lowell Police Dept. has a neighborhood precinct in the school building. Cruisers come and go regularly. I also think it helps that the Jackson-Appleton-Middlesex streets area is drawing a more varied residential population. The South Common is the closest green space for them. Additional apartments and condos along Thorndike St. and in Gallagher Square have brought more people into the area also. The Appleton Mills artist complex in the Hamilton Canal zone should bring another new batch of folks to the Common. At almost any hour there is someone walking a dog on the Common or on the bordering sidewalks. People exercise on the track all day. In this season the pool is busy until closing.
The planned improvements to the Common cannot come quickly enough, especially more and better lights, thinning and trimming of trees, some softening of the landscape with perennial flowers, and a permanent solution for the playing field, either artificial turf or grass with an irrigation system. It’s still an “inner city” park, which requires constant upkeep for litter, broken glass, discarded bedding left by local overnighters on warm days, and damaged tree limbs caused by the weather or vandals. A lot of this is due to bad behavior, but we have to keep trying to maintain a high quality public space. It would be an interesting experiment to try dual refuse containers (placed all around the park) labeled Trash and Recyle with heavy-duty liners to see if that would help with the trash. To be fair, the City workers do well keeping up with the trash barrels and grass mowing. But I don’t think there are enough receptacles. A few years ago, the UMass Lowell administration introduced more aggressive recycling with lots of new square refuse containers for trash and recycle-able items, and our recycling numbers jumped way up. They also look better than your average trash can, which can’t be said for the standard-issue oil barrel-type containers that look like something from the exercise yard of a correctional facility.