Scott Cawelti

About Scott Cawelti -

Scott Cawelti was born and raised in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He taught writing, film, and literature at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) from 1968-2008, and has written regular opinion columns and reviews for the Waterloo / Cedar Falls Courier since the late 1970s.  He played for years in a folk duo with Robert James Waller and still regularly performs as a singer/guitarist/songwriter. Scott continues to teach as an adjunct instructor at UNI.

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  • Away in the Hilton: A Christmas Fable

    • Posted on Dec 22, 1983 by Scott Cawelti

    12-22-1983

    It was bleak mid-winter. Sleet had been ricocheting off windows and cartops for hours. Most people had quit work early and had long since gathered around their fireplaces to wait out the storm. Such storms were common in Bethlehem as the winter nights outgrew the days.

    The town was quiet, probably due to the force of the storm. The sleet continued unabated; traffic had long since ceased its usual evening rush, ' and except for an occasional pedestrian, hunched to avoid the whipping wind, the streets were deserted.

    The desk clerk at the Bethlehem Hilton was dozing as the bell gently pinged. "Excuse me," the woman said, her eyes cast down. "I know you're probably full, it being the season and all, but. . ." The clerk glanced at her, then at her husband, a much older man. Both were obviously poor, their feet wrapped in little more than rags, their coats torn and flecked with loose cotton lining.

     THE CLERK'S eyes suddenly grew wide as he noticed a strange light behind them that seemed to glow, giving their heads an unreal aura. "Like haloes," the clerk thought. The woman spoke again. "I'm Mary, and this is my husband, Joseph. We've come such a long way, and we're just worn out. If you have someplace, anyplace, we might rest a while." The clerk narrowed his eyes and looked closely now at Mary. He hadn't been born yesterday, but there definitely was something about this young woman that seemed magical even holy.

    She was with child, he noticed, but such innocence! She seemed the very incarnation of innocence, a first rose, a crystalline drop of dew. The clerk remembered, with growing excitement, all the pictures and statues of the madonna he had seen. This poor ragged woman could have posed for any of them. Without further hesitation, he smiled at the couple and said, "Of course, we have a room. A suite, in fact, upstairs. You both must be very tired. Follow the bellboy. Here, let me call a doctor, too."

    THE WOMAN looked overwhelmed with surprise and gratitude, and, the clerk thought, with just a touch of wariness. Still, she accepted his offer, and she and Joseph followed the quite puzzled bellboy upstairs to the VIP suite. Just as they arrived, another bellboy was hustling some irate customers out of the suite. They were disheveled and shouting as he pushed them into the elevator and out of sight.

    "Mary and Joseph? Here? But this is the 20th century!" the manager said to his clerk angrily. "And you turned out the Graham party? They're our best customers at Christmas in the VIP Suite!" The clerk remained calm. "I know, I know," he said, "but I'm sure this couple is for real. And you know I couldn't turn them away. We'd be an international laughing-stock. I swear she even has a halo, and he's down-trodden as a puppy. They look like Herod’s after them, they really do.” 

    The manager shook his head.

    "Well, I think it's probably a hoax, but you may be right. We can't take a chance. I'll call the newspapers and TV people. You've called the doctor'?" The clerk nodded.

    Upstairs, Mary and Joseph were slumbering on a king-size Magic Fingers Mattress. The color TV light shone bright around them, casting an eerie glow upon their exhausted bodies.

    THEY WEREN'T allowed to sleep long. They stirred to a loud rapping on their door. It was the doctor, an OB-GYN man, followed by four reporters and two photographers. After them came six TV camera and sound people followed by three Eyewitness News and Live Action TV reporters. The manager and clerk crowded in be-hind.

    The couple was suddenly surrounded. The doctor, without so much as a hello, began examining Mary for signs of imminent birth. His actions, which otherwise might have been embarrassing, didn't stop the news-people. A woman reporter lashed at Mary with a razor-blade voice; "How long have you been with child? Have you been having tax troubles? Wouldn't you rather find a manger?" Behind the woman reporter, a young man with blow-dried hair began shouting, "Have you seen any sign of the wise men? What is frankincense and myrrh, anyway? Are you going to call him Jesus, or What?" At that question, all the reporters leaned for-ward, microphones poised, flashbulbs flashing, video recorders keeping time.

    But the couple was not responding well to the questions. Joseph lay on the bed, covering his eyes with his forearm. Mary sat up and looked in panic at the milling crowd. Shading her eyes from the TV lights, she began talking, at first slowly, then in a rush, mixed with gasps for breath: "I can't understand it. I swear I don't. Here we are, just two poor people coming into town, tired to the bone, wanting a place to rest so we can just keep going, but everywhere we go there's all this talk about wise men and myrrh and I don't know what all, and poor Joseph here is getting tired of all these stupid questions, and everyone wanting us to call the baby Emmanuel or Jesus or names we never heard of.

    "WE HAD TWO children already, but had to give them up for adoption, we're so poor. We was just traveling to live with his mother and try to raise this baby up right, and we'll name her Louise or maybe Marlene if she's a girl, and I don't know what if it's a boy, and can't you just leave us alone. . ." Mary dissolved into tears.

    The reporters looked sheepishly at each other. The recorders were clicked off, the lights turned out. The clerk felt sick as he looked at the manager, who looked back at him furiously, then made a slashing motion across his neck with his fore-finger. The doctor broke the silence. "It's all right, she has at least a month to go."

    The reporters left quietly, a couple of them apologizing to Mary, who was sobbing. Joseph never moved. Finally, the manager made his way to Mary. "I'm so sorry, you really will have to leave. We must have had you confused with another couple. And we really have no vacancies here. This is Christmas, our busiest season. I think you can find a place down the street at the Salvation Army station." The manager and clerk hustled them out of the VIP room and down the back stairs.

    As soon as the couple was rushed out a back door, the manager called the papers and TV stations, pleading with them to kill the story. Which they did.

    THAT NIGHT, Mary and Joseph slept on worn straw mattresses at the Salvation Army station, with all the other poor people. Later, carolers came by and sang "Silent Night" outside the Bethlehem Hilton. The Graham party, installed back in their VIP suite, listened and sang along, feeling especially holy and full of the Christmas spirit, in spite of their recent bad experience at the hotel.

    The carolers didn't go down to the Salvation Army station. They knew that the poor people were either too tired to hear or too lost to care.  Joseph and Mary, now asleep, couldn't have heard them anyway.

    Merry Christmas, everyone.

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    Posted in
    • Religiosity
    • Humor
    • Christmas
  • An Open Letter on Capital Punishment

    • Posted on Dec 15, 1983 by Scott Cawelti

    12-15-1983

    Dear Sen. Gallagher:

    Last Sunday's Courier-Record contained your letter asking for reactions to your changing views on capital punishment. You noted that you voted for repeal of capital punishment in Iowa back in 1965, but now you're wondering whether the death penalty should be brought back, but only under certain circumstances and only at the judge's discretion.

    Here's my reaction: It's a rotten idea. It's rotten to the core, and even the core is rotten. The state says that the worst kind of murder is premeditated, where the killer takes a life not in passion but cold calculation. Planning another human's death and doing it is first-degree murder, no matter what the motive.

    So why should the state be an exception? If the state plans and carries out a killing, why isn't the state then guilty of first-degree murder as well? Yes, I know the reply: because the state's motive is pure — justice. The convicted murderer took another life, and therefore doesn't deserve to live. This reply doesn't wash for three reasons:

    • Killing murderers may seem like justice in the Old Testament sense of an eye for an eye. But there's another sense of justice, based on mercy, and even love. "Thou shalt not kill," the same book says. That includes murderers, I'm afraid. "An eye for an eye" comes out to "two wrongs make a right" in practice. And that's wrong.

     • Killing murderers doesn't bring back the victims, nor does it help the families of the victims. It might make them feel better, but that's a feeling that often arises from simple vengeance. We love western movies with vengeance plots, but outside of the entertainment value of chase scenes, no for action.

    • Having the judge make the decision for the life or death of a convicted murderer is the most rotten part of the whole idea. That means a human being may or may not die depending upon the judge for the day. Shades of the old west again, where hanging judges were feared as much as outlaws.

    The only case for capital punishment that makes any sense, as you know, is deterrence. If someone changes his mind about killing someone else because of his fear of being killed by the state, then you might have a case. The evidence I've seen, though, indicates that most potential killers take no thought whatsoever of getting caught. And most of killings — from passion, insanity or accident — are not premeditated enough for the death penalty to make any difference.

    FINALLY, DO remember that there may be worse punishments than death. Some lifers ask to die, as though death would be a mercy, given life in prison. Not many feel that way, but the fact remains that murderers are being punished — and severely — by being assured of having to live in a cell the rest of their lives. As you rightfully said, "It is becoming a serious concern to everyone about a pattern of disregard for human life which seems to be evolving."

    I agree. The state has no business murdering its citizens, be they murderers or not.

    Go comment!
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