Implied

Ignoring the dangers of a world at war (L to R): Jack, Frank Conlin (home on leave one year before being killed-in-action on Iwo Jima), Mary, and Jerry, March 1943.

Ignoring the dangers of a world at war (L to R): Jack, Frank Conlin (home on leave one year before being killed-in-action on Iwo Jima), Mary, and Jerry, March 1943.

In Kay Square Press’s latest release, A Philadelphia Family Goes to War, day-to-day life during wartime is exposed in detail; but one interesting feature of the letters is what is not said, what is implied behind the words on the page. The correspondents reach out to each other across thousands of miles in a steady stream of hundreds of letters that take days, sometimes weeks, to arrive; yet, so often they don’t actually say what they mean.

The letters are filled with mundane facts—chatter just to stay in touch: Dad’s stiff shoulder, Bill’s bad feet, Pop Pawley’s fall on the ice. Commonplace information fills the pages: requests for writing paper, pens, razors, and candy; discussion of sports—football, baseball, and boxing—in June 1945, Dad writes, “I guess you know the A’s & Phils are in their usual place (Last place)”; and opinions about movies, radio, and music.

Ignoring the dangers of a world at war: Mary and Jack (home on leave six months after the Normandy D-Day Invasion), October 1944.

Ignoring the dangers of a world at war: Mary and Jack (home on leave six months after the Normandy D-Day Invasion), October 1944.

The boys at the front lines—Bill in New Guinea and Jack on board the USS Texas—are allowed to tell only a few facts. The censors keep them from giving details; at times, they aren’t even allowed to tell where they are. Thus, details about invasions or battle action are delayed for weeks and months. In June 1944, four days after the D-Day invasion of Normandy, only a form letter drafted by the ship’s chaplain was allowed, which Jack sends to his Dad. The letter mentions “unpleasant sights,” but focuses on successes and camaraderie, not the dangers:

“There have also been many unpleasant sights, but I won’t tell you about those now. At one time, we had 27 enemy prisoners on board…didn’t look like supermen to me. We also had 29 U.S. Army Rangers aboard... Their wounds were treated on board, and only one died…

We have been under attack by enemy planes and glider bombs at night, and have seen many planes go down in flames. There have also been shell splashes in the water fairly close to us … and most of us consider ourselves lucky…

This experience has drawn us closer together on the ship, and has shown us what a fine bunch of ship-mates we have. The Army has praised our shooting, and we are very proud of the knowledge that we have done a good job.”

Ignoring the dangers of a world at war: Bill (home on leave one year before shipping off to New Guinea) and Jerry, March 1943.

Ignoring the dangers of a world at war: Bill (home on leave one year before shipping off to New Guinea) and Jerry, March 1943.

When the boys get to describe their experiences at the front, they minimize the danger. In June 1944, from the jungles of New Guinea with the Sixth Army, Bill writes home:

“I am able to tell you only that we are really in it now, things are not as bad as they maybe and as yet our outfit has not seen any Nips but they are not over 2000 yds. away and at nite they come right up to our area. Fox holes and slit trenches are standard accessories with every outfit now. Second nite we were here a Jap plane came over & dropped a few but none were close to us.”

Both letters end with the same phrase, a phrase that the boys send home more than 50 times in their letters: “don’t worry about me.” The words say, don’t worry, but they mean—they imply—that the boys know the family worries constantly! They never really acknowledge the dangers they face; they never acknowledge or give credence to their family’s worries; but the implication is clear: “I know you’re worried about me.”

Similarly, Dad and Mary back home wait anxiously for each letter as a sign that their boys are alive and well while far from home. Neither one ever says, “I think you’ve been wounded or killed when I don’t hear from you.” They write only that it’s been a long time between letters…”haven’t heard from you” is as expressive as they get. They use the phrase frequently, as if the boys couldn’t write often enough. Except on January 31, 1945, when Dad deals with the kind of news that frightens him most; he writes to Jack:

“Last nights Bulletin told me about two sons, one killed one wounded at the same time, the only children of Herb Clark who I worked with for years… Things like this kind of get a fellow down a little, especially when he hasn’t heard from his boys in a long time. But I know that everything is OK. It just has to be!”

Of course, Dad is implying that Herb Clark’s tragedy may be his own any day soon. Yes, it gets “a fellow down,” but he never actually writes the words to describe his fear, he never writes: “you and your brother could be killed at any time.”

Then, in July 1945 as the end of the war feels close, Dad writes to Jack:

“…believe it or not I finally got ambitious & started to do some painting & general fixing. The idea struck me about 10 days ago while listening to the news. ...I got to thinking what a shack to have to come back to & call home. So Result! I got busy, so far I painted the bathroom & the stairs. Well when you start to do a little some­thing it always seems you run into more.”

William J. and Anna D. Pawley on their wedding day, April 1920.

William J. and Anna D. Pawley on their wedding day, April 1920.

Later in September of that year, after the war is over and Dad is expecting his sons’ return, he adds an explanation of his earlier “ambition,” the implied reason behind his efforts to paint and fix up. He had worked—through his constant, exhaustive letter writing—to hold his family together after losing his wife in August 1942; he makes explicit what he had implied in his earlier letter:

“The most important one for help & encouragement is missing! The home is a big problem for me. I would love to have a home that you & Bill would be proud to come back to but unfortunately I am only a man & not a combina­tion of Mother & Father.”

One thing that is never implied, that is always overtly and directly stated, that closes virtually every letter: a bidding of love. From father, sister, soldier, and Marine; from home, from the office, from aboard ship, and from the jungle; handwritten, typed, and V-mail; the letters all close with “love & kisses,” “love to all,” and “love from all.”

Some things are best communicated through implication; some things are best said directly.

Next entry will be posted on Monday, January 7th.

Veterans

© DreamWorks, 1998.

© DreamWorks, 1998.

My wife accuses me of loving war movies, as if I watch them only for the excitement. “Dad’s watching another war movie,” she’ll announce to the kids, as if I were mindlessly giving in to some obsession to watch Thin Red Line (1998), Saving Private Ryan (1998), or even an oldie like Paths of Glory (1957).

But when they are well done, war movies tell about the extremes of human experience where a person’s mettle is tested as in no other circumstance. Is there an equal experience to fighting to save one’s own life—literally? Or risking one’s life for others? Or making decisions and taking actions that matter in a life-and-death way—literally? Whether it’s planned actions or spur-of-the-moment reactions, one’s actions and decisions—one’s life—is intensified in war. That’s what I enjoy about well made war movies.

When Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) sits and cries alone—a central moment in Saving Private Ryan—the impact is one of personal struggle to absorb the terrors of war while maintaining focus to lead and lose men on a dangerous, hopeless/hopeful mission. Captain Miller’s moment of emotion underscores his heroism throughout the rest of the movie: he does more than can be expected in leading his men, confronting the enemy, achieving his goal…and in overcoming his fear.

That same intensity of experience is what I see in all real-life veterans that I meet. Look up the word “veteran” in a dictionary or thesaurus and you’ll find that it doesn’t dwell on war or military service; it is about experience, practice, expertise, mastery. When I meet a veteran, I wonder at what they’ve experienced and discovered about themselves; I wonder about their moments of fear and emotion and how they overcame them; I wonder at what they achieved despite their fear. And, of course, I wonder what I would be capable of if I had been put to the same test…

Soldiers clear a bunker in New Guinea, 1944. Bill writes, “you get a little sick & scared & mad as H.”

Soldiers clear a bunker in New Guinea, 1944. Bill writes, “you get a little sick & scared & mad as H.”

In Kay Square Press’s latest release, A Philadelphia Family Goes to War (available at Amazon), both boys—one a soldier and one a Marine during World War II—write home about facing and overcoming their fears. While in New Guinea in 1944, Bill writes to his father about the horrors of war and the lure of being home again:

“You see some awful sights, you know we lose men too & when you see some dead boys you know you get a little sick & scared & mad as H. The dead decompose fast here in the heat & rain & it is not a pretty sight to see. You get used to it, but never forget it. Hope this isn’t too gruesome but maybe you can see why it will be nice to be home again where there is nothing to worry about except $$$”

The anti-aircraft fire whitens the water ahead of an incoming kamikaze. Jack writes, “His pendulum-like sway makes him a tough target. Closer and closer he comes…they always look closer. Just when it seems he will prevail, one wing shears off, then the other, he bursts into flames and hits the water in a tumbling splash. There is wild cheering.”

The anti-aircraft fire whitens the water ahead of an incoming kamikaze. Jack writes, “His pendulum-like sway makes him a tough target. Closer and closer he comes…they always look closer. Just when it seems he will prevail, one wing shears off, then the other, he bursts into flames and hits the water in a tumbling splash. There is wild cheering.”

His brother, Jack, a Marine on the battleship USS Texas, writes, too about doing his duty despite his fear. During the battle of Okinawa, the Texas’s anti-aircraft (AA) teams lived and slept at their stations for 50 straight days; on April 6, the Japanese launched an estimated 700 planes—over half of them kamikazes—and exacted a terrible death toll on the US fleet in both lives and ships. When censorship about the battle finally ended in June 1945, Jack wrote his father about the thrill of victory despite being more than scared:

“…my station is still on the AA guns and our gun was one of the three guns who knocked out the particular Jap we got credit for. He was coming very low, heading directly at us, probably a suicide run, when the guns cut both his wings off—was I scared? That isn’t the word for it!”

Jack’s grandson gets a history lesson: standing at his grandfather’s post on the quad 40s anti-aircraft guns on the  USS Texas .

Jack’s grandson gets a history lesson: standing at his grandfather’s post on the quad 40s anti-aircraft guns on the USS Texas.

In the end, yes, I love war movies…especially when they show what makes our veterans veteran: the experience of overwhelming fear and the exhilaration of overcoming it.

History

Marines from  U.S.S. Texas  on liberty in Hollywood, CA, December 1, 1944, on their way to fight in the Pacific (l to r): Robert Evans, Jacob Straub, Fred Dunikowski, Jack Pawley.

Marines from U.S.S. Texas on liberty in Hollywood, CA, December 1, 1944, on their way to fight in the Pacific (l to r): Robert Evans, Jacob Straub, Fred Dunikowski, Jack Pawley.

Attributed to Winston Churchill is an expression that is only generally true: “History is written by the victors.” Certainly writing history is more pleasant and easier when the story is about one’s own victory. Victors focus on each element—their strategies, their decisions, their actions, their virtues—that led to their victories. Maybe that’s why history is often the story of nations, governments, sweeping events and geographies…victors tell their histories grandly.

Other histories are told, too, by other storytellers. History is simply a description of the flow of human experience, supposedly based on facts, in the form of a story. The storyteller selects enough facts from among many to create his/her version of history…and so the storyteller matters; the storyteller’s point of view matters; the storyteller’s agenda matters. For the victor, self-aggrandizement or self-righteousness may be the theme; for the vanquished, defensiveness or conciliation may be the theme; for future generations, explaining/criticizing/rewriting the past to make sense of their present may be the theme. For example, many histories are being told based on a single flow of human experience—stories of the 2016 election…stories of victors and vanquished, stories of monsters and men and women. As readers of history, we hope to decipher the truth.

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But at the root of all history are individuals living their individual, daily lives. With publication of our latest title, A Philadelphia Family Goes to War (available now for pre-order), Kay Square Press has compiled a firsthand tale of four such individuals, one family writing firsthand how World War II engulfed them. This is a history of the defining years of the Twentieth Century, told in deeply personal letters from a father to his sons and among two brothers and their sister. This is not a history told with an agenda or theme; from the first letter forward, the correspondents share personal discoveries, losses, worries, hopes, and loves. For three years, the story of those discoveries is traced, in real time, day-by-day, emotion-by-emotion, and battle-by-battle. As readers of history, we hope to recognize the truth.

While much of what they write is plain and mundane, much of it is firsthand observation and reaction to historic events: the invasion of Normandy, the battle for Iwo Jima, the U.S. return to the Philippines, and the racially charged Philadelphia transportation strike. The letters are always surprisingly heartfelt and honest. In their bare honesty, the letters also tell some unsavory or regretful facts. As four correspondents dealing not only with the fear of war, but also with the complete revolution to their way of life, they write things in confidential confidence. Opinions about some family members are, at times, unflattering; some assessments of neighbors are cruel; and in troubled and troubling 1940s America where racism and nationalism were completely unguarded, insensitivities and slurs arise. These aren’t movie-scripted characters invented by a professional; these are real people living in a real world and expressing it from a real 1940’s perspective. As readers of history we hope to understand the truth.

A Philadelphia Family Goes to War is a history by the people as they were living it, about the events as they were happening, in a city and a nation as they were evolving. A Philadelphia Family Goes to War is a true story..

Legacy

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A long-time friend of mine has asked me twice over the last few months, very earnestly, “What will our legacy be?” A college friend of his died a few months before, apparently putting this question in his mind; once we’re gone, how will people remember us? He means, of course, once he’s gone, how will people remember him?

My work on Kay Square’s latest book, A Philadelphia Family Goes to War (due out December 7), has opened my eyes about differences among memory, facts, and legacy. In my last blog, Necromancy, I recognized how easily things are lost to memory. Facts soon become long-forgotten, but facts can be found with effort. Facts about my parents are available, facts about my grandparents can be uncovered, facts about my great-grandparents must be dug out, and so on…facts become buried in time.

“Legacy,” however, is different than facts. Legacy is “how” a person is remembered—Einstein is remembered as a genius, Andy Warhol as an avant-garde artist, Abraham Lincoln as a determined leader of great vision. Legacy—at least the way my friend means it— seems to be a boiled-down version of a person’s full life, one’s reputation as the future perceives it. Legacy oftentimes is based on a single fact, if it's based on facts at all. Richard Nixon’s legacy is to be known as the first U. S. President to resign from office, regardless of his diplomacy with China or ending the Viet Nam War; John F. Kennedy’s legacy is to be known as the “assassinated president,” despite having stared down the Russians in Cuba or launching and inspiring the Moon landings.

Sgt. William J. Pawley, Sr.

Sgt. William J. Pawley, Sr.

While compiling the letters for A Philadelphia Family Goes to War, I found many new family facts that led me to a new sense of legacy. My grandfather, in particular, evolved in my perception beyond the facts: he grew up in a poor, tough, Irish-American neighborhood, “the Devil’s Pocket,” in southwest Philadelphia; he held his family together through the Depression and through the War; he supported his wife through her losing battle against tuberculosis; he supported and housed his parents and in-laws through their final days; he served as a Philadelphia policeman for 27 years.

William & Anna Pawley, April 1922.

William & Anna Pawley, April 1922.

But his letters—and a few recently discovered facts—belie a certain toughness that the facts suggest. During the war, he writes constantly about attending Mass and receiving the sacraments; he continually advises his sons to do the same. He senses and sends relief based on his faith when he writes to Jack in December 1944, “…keep up the Sacraments & God will take care of you.” He strives to be both mother and father to his family, even as his sons spread across the globe at war; in September 1945, he writes Jack again, “I would love to have a home that you & Bill would be proud to come back to but unfortunately I am only a man & not a combination of Mother & Father.” Surprisingly for a tough guy, my grandfather easily wrote about values, emotions, and faith.

I knew in the 1980s that my father had quit his job when he learned that the company had been falsifying advertising rates; I was very proud of him. I recently learned that my uncle had once quit a political committee when he learned that they were misappropriating funds; I was just as proud of him. But it soon occurred to me that the facts about these two men weren’t coincidental; their character and actions were a concrete expression of their values…values that must have come from, been reinforced by, and now become the legacy of their father, my grandfather: a tough guy who shared and lived his values, emotions, and faith.

I told my friend that the future will create our (his) legacy and he can’t know what it will be. For now, all he can do is know his values, live his values, and let the future make up its mind.

Necromancy

Epinal American Cemetery and Memorial, Dinozé, France.

Epinal American Cemetery and Memorial, Dinozé, France.

I had planned to feature a more common word—Obscurity—to make my point this week…but as I grew to understand what I wanted to say, a different, unusual word came to me: Necromancy. Necromancy is the act of communing with the dead. It has black-magic and witchcraft connotations—communing with the dead to tell the future. In Macbeth, for example, the weird sisters commune with the dead to give Macbeth warnings of his impending fate.

But I have been communing with the dead to understand the past, to bring the past out of obscurity. While working on Kay Square’s latest book, A Philadelphia Family Goes to War—due out on December 7—I’ve felt as if I’m communing with the dead…

My work began as editorial work, compiling 433 letters, understanding the cursive, organizing the dates, making sense of vague references. I began to research people, places, and things to make sense of 75-year-old facts. While much of the war is very well documented—battles, politicians, weapons and equipment—the real, regular people seem to be faded into obscurity.

I’ve learned in the letters about families and individuals who made the ultimate sacrifice…but their names never went far beyond the few days or weeks when they died. My father’s photo album from the war years shows several friends and family whose names I’d heard, whose pictures I’d seen, but whose lives are faded into obscurity.

That’s when the dead began to commune with me…necromancy. Sometimes it was information in the letters, or in enclosed news clippings, or in other old documentation that I tracked down; they told me the stories of brief lives and great sacrifice, of great holes created in families, and how the world quickly (and innocently) forgot and moved on.

The dead have told me about:

William Callen, circa 1942.

William Callen, circa 1942.

  • William Callen: A first cousin to my father, Bill married Eleanor Adams in June 1942; they lived in Camden, NJ and he worked at the New York Shipbuilding Company until he entered the Army in December 1942. He rose to the rank of sergeant in the 100th Division. During an assault on a German-held town in eastern France, he led his squadron’s attack on a machine gun emplacement and was killed in action, November 20, 1944. Originally buried in the Epinal American Cemetery, Dinozé in northeast France, his body was returned and interred June 18, 1948 in the Beverly National Cemetery, Beverly, NJ.

Albert & Alice Callen, May 20, 1942.

Albert & Alice Callen, May 20, 1942.

  • Albert F. Callen Jr.: Bill’s brother and a first cousin to my father, Al married Alice Marietta Keck in May 1942. As a Coxswain in the US Coast Guard, Al was wounded in Leyte, the Philippines and qualified for a medical discharge, April 11, 1945. But he requested permission to remain in action and was reassigned to Okinawa. While waiting for transport, he was crushed beneath an overturned truck and died April 29, 1945. Originally buried in the Tacloban Cemetery in the Philippines, his body was returned and interred June 18, 1948 next to his brother in the Beverly National Cemetery, Beverly, NJ.

Mary Costello and Francis P. Conlin Jr.

Mary Costello and Francis P. Conlin Jr.

  • Francis P. Conlin Jr.: Frank was my uncle’s best friend growing up and was a good friend to (and admired by) my father. He enlisted in the Marine Corps at the age of 20 soon after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and trained as a Marine paratrooper. In early 1944, the Marines disbanded their paratroopers…to Frank’s great disappointment. He transferred to the Fleet Marine Force (the guys who “hit the beaches”) and was sent into action in the Pacific in August. On March 10, 1945, Frank was killed in action on Iwo Jima at the age of 23.

Leo Strong in his formal service portrait, 1944.

Leo Strong in his formal service portrait, 1944.

  • Leo Strong: Leo was a neighborhood friend who corresponded regularly with the Pawleys. He served in the U.S. Navy as a gunner in a dive-bomber. While in training in Virginia in 1944, he met up with my father and “the Swabbie” and the Marine toured the town drinking and dancing with southern belles; that was the last time my father saw his friend. Seventeen months later, Leo was killed just after the war had ended when his plane crashed in a non-combat mission in the Pacific.

There are many other names and other photographs that I’ve yet to hear about…maybe the dead will continue to commune with me, to give up more secrets about the past, to help me pull brave, dear people out of obscurity through necromancy.

Letters

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“The medium is the message.”
                          Marshall McLuhan in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man

His concept was revolutionary when McLuhan wrote it in 1964: the medium is just as important, maybe even more important, than the contents. The way we communicate is equal to what we communicate. I have found this to be true in compiling the archive of letters to be published this December, A Philadelphia Family Goes to War. Of the hundreds of compiled letters, 70% of them are the original handwritten sheets—ephemera that has been stored and protected for approximately 75 years.

There is nothing equal to the medium of a handwritten letter: the tactile, private, personal connection of holding the sheet; seeing the scrawl of ink or pencil; noting the corrections, marks, and stains across the pages. The physical sheets—the medium—tell stories of their own; the sheets tell of dedicated hours committed to writing, reading, and re-reading; the feeling and styles of the paper hint at the writers’ situations; the scrawl of ink reflects the emotions at the moments of composition.

Among the contents of the letters are details of history and mundane minutiae. Mary manages her baby brother’s love life; Billie guides both his sister’s and brother’s decisions about school, jobs, and marriage; Dad cautiously disburses bad news about family war dead and missing. But the letters—even when you don’t know the correspondents—tell their own tales:

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  • In January 1945, Mary begins writing her brothers on writing paper brightly embossed with red and green roses, likely a Christmas gift in 1944…she runs out of the paper by March.

  • For 18 months, Mary works at Strawbridge & Clothier—one of the major department stores in the Philadelphia area at the time—and frequently uses S&C stationery when writing from her desk.

  • Both brothers ask Mary to send writing paper, pens, and stamps…all at a premium at the front. Jack complains “Have been doing quite a bit of writing lately but have to use this darned station­ary. It's so thick and rough. Can't wait until the stuff Mary sent arrives.”

  • Billie, stationed close to the front in New Guinea, writes on a variety of scraps of paper, often scribbling his letters in pencil from fox holes and slit trenches.

  • Jack, a Marine stationed on the battleship USS Texas, writes on gold-embossed ship’s stationery in a manner his father calls, “beautiful pen­manship and very neat.”

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  • Dad writes thick, dense, detailed letters beginning with the date and time when he sits to write, describing breakfasts, dinners, food prices, family updates…committed to staying in touch with his sons.

  • From the harbor at Leyte, Philippines, from the deck of the USS Texas, Jack pauses his writing as the ink is smudged by rain: “(Excuse rain drops, it just started so I came below).” But his struggles below deck continue, “Boy, it's really hot below here, so the next smudges you'll probably see will be perspiration...”

  • Similarly, Billie in a letter notes with arrows in two places where he has smudged the ink; “Tears!” he explains in a side-note.

Importantly, even when the contents of the letters are mundane, receiving letters held enormous value to all the correspondents. Over a quarter of the letters mention the excited expectation of waiting for mail call at the front or the mailman back home. Participating in the invasion of Hollandia in New Guinea in the spring of 1944, Billie writes to Dad that he doesn’t know what could be more important than mail to a GI so far from home. In one letter, he writes:

“The mail has been quite meager for over 2 wks. Guess all this action at Hollandia has something to do with it, probably need the space for something more important than mail tho I don't know what it could be, mail means more than food or medicine to keep a guy going.”

The content usually didn’t matter, because the medium—the handwritten letter—was enriched with unique connections that were best appreciated when touched.

Discovery

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The story lay dormant for 15 years; it had bubbled for three years of everyday activity, paused, was tucked into a box, and left at the bottom of a back-room closet. Then in 1960, my grandfather’s rowhome in southwest Philadelphia was damaged in a fire—the neighbor’s boy had been playing with matches and set the house next door in flames. That house was destroyed and the fronts of several houses in the row had been damaged. The front of my grandfather’s house, both upstairs and down, was destroyed forcing him temporarily into an apartment.

Salvaging what he could, he discovered the box at the bottom of a closet in the back, unused bedroom: 433 letters that he and his children had shared during World War II. Sheet after sheet of familiar script on post cards, onionskin, formal stationery, V-Mail, even scraps of paper…letters that had kept his family—my family—connected over three years of war, across two oceans, on four continents, and across 14,000 miles.

But the story began before that…the story began in 1938 when my grandmother at 38 years-of-age was diagnosed with tuberculosis. The family—daughter, Mary; older son, Billie; and the “baby” (my father), Jack—was pulled close together as they supported her through her illness. For more than three years, she was in and out of hospitals, where my grandfather visited her every day (children were allowed visits only on Sundays), until she died on August 31, 1942. The family had developed a closeness that was then tested by the War—the nation needed men to fight Imperialism in the Pacific and Nazism in Europe…and this Philadelphia family responded.

The correspondents, left to right: William J. Pawley, Sr.; Mary Pawley McCauley; William J. Pawley, Jr. (Billie); and John P. Pawley (Jack).

The correspondents, left to right: William J. Pawley, Sr.; Mary Pawley McCauley; William J. Pawley, Jr. (Billie); and John P. Pawley (Jack).

Within two months of losing his mother, Billie enlisted in the Army and was inducted in New Cumberland, PA, where on Thanksgiving night, November 26, 1942, he wrote the first letter that was tucked away in that box. Importantly, he was honest in his writing: “Have plenty of company here, about 5,000 buddies, all of them just as dumb as I about Army life.” Thus begins the story of this Philadelphia family going to war. A little more than a year later on December 17, 1943, Jack—at 17 years-of-age—sends his first post card home as he heads off to Marine Corps training; he naively writes, “What a train ­ride!!!”

The “ride” from that first letter forward is one of personal discovery: worry, dedication, bravery, patience, persistence, hopefulness, tragedy, loss, and love. For three years, the story of that ride is traced, day-by-day and battle-by-battle, in their from-the-heart collection of letters. My grandfather and Aunt Mary wrote about many things, but always optimistically about waiting to welcome their boys back home; the boys wrote what they could—censorship limited the details—but they always closed their letters with the hollow admonition: “Don’t worry about me.”

This collection of letters—and peek into history—is due out this December: A Philadelphia Family Goes to War. It is a personal story filled with daily life, intense worry, high hopes, and history: the collected letters of four Philadelphians during World War II, two who waited at home for the safe return of their boys: one a soldier and one a Marine.

Business

"Have you ever seen a lioness devour her cub?...Save your heart for love and use your brain for business." Dwight Schrute, in  The Office (2005-2013).

"Have you ever seen a lioness devour her cub?...Save your heart for love and use your brain for business." Dwight Schrute, in The Office (2005-2013).

The idea of “business” seems to have fooled many people, because cleverly hidden at its core is a single guiding principle and goal: profit. Business’s goal is profit. Manufacture something to distribute it at a profit; coordinate an array of goods to sell them at a profit; provide a service for a profit. Business succeeds or fails on that sole principle: profit. The goal of any action tells everything: what people will do, say, and jeopardize is defined by the goal…with this clear principle in mind, business easily takes on the personae that Dwight refers to above: business is a cold, profit-driven affair.

In conducting business, companies spend billions marketing themselves and their products as something personal: you will be happier, you will be healthier, you will have more time, you will be more successful…with our product or service. “Buy and benefit!” they say. To be fair, I am a big consumer and I feel happy to be happier, healthier, etc. because of my purchases. But my personal happiness is only a small item in the process, a by-product along the seller’s road to success. The mantra from The Godfather (1972) is correct, it’s not personal, it’s just business.

“Even the shooting of your father was business, not personal, Sonny!” Tom Hagen to Sonny Corleone, in  The Godfather.

“Even the shooting of your father was business, not personal, Sonny!” Tom Hagen to Sonny Corleone, in The Godfather.

In today’s world, a new business has evolved—still cleverly fooling us and hiding its goal: personal information. This form of business clearly fools people, as it arose and evolved and succeeded in plain sight.  We all “reviewed” the privacy contracts and agreed to them…but who foresaw the insidious nature and universal scope of this business?  Google seems free; Facebook seems free; LinkedIn and Twitter and Instagram seem free, but they come at a price.  Apps on your cellular device seem free, but they come at a price. Allegedly beneficial services track everything about us and sell it to any bidder…because the business goal is profit. The charm and intimacy and “friends” of Facebook are a by-product of the business…the interactions may feel personal, but it’s all business. That business and its profit are insidiously based not on selling to you…they are based on selling you to the bidders.

Even after their methods have been revealed, even after Congressional testimonies and multimillion-dollar fines, we’ve all read and agreed to their “new & improved” privacy statements as a way to feel personally protected. Nevertheless, the last shards of privacy are gone and the selling continues at a profit.

“Ethically,” businesses are committed to creating profits for the owners—private or public. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) oversees that process for the public sector, and professes “to protect investors; maintain fair, orderly, and efficient markets; and facilitate capital formation….to help [investors] secure their futures, pay for homes, and send children to college.” But there is little to no spoken consideration of the quality of product or service, integrity to the customer, or rights of the employees. All too often, business ethics end with the commitment to profits. As investors, we like the profit side of the balance sheet; but as customers and employees, even as private citizens, we’ve learned, “There is the no balance to the balance sheet.” Let’s not be foolish about that.

Courtesy

In 1986, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met in Reykjavik to negotiate nuclear disarmament...world's apart working toward an agreement.

In 1986, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met in Reykjavik to negotiate nuclear disarmament...world's apart working toward an agreement.

When I began this blog 91 entries and 26 months ago, I hoped to find a sense of relevance despite the facts around me: the world continues to rush through changes by super-sized leaps, some great improvements, some great disappointments. I work hard to keep up with the improvements, but I am terrified of the disappointments, the backsliding that seems to be overtaking us.

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Core to my interaction with people—all people—is what used to be called “common courtesy.” I was treated with courtesy and taught courtesy throughout my youth: things were explained, requests were made, even corrections were given with a sense of shared respect. People listened to me as much as they expected me to listen to them. Articles in magazines and newspapers, television and radio shows, people on the street and on the phone…courtesy was common to them all. Not that we all agreed or gave in all the time…but disagreements became a discourse and true loggerheads required persuasion! Mad Magazine was as outrageous as behavior got: Mad Magazine was daringly impolite!

But common courtesy has “backslid” to become completely uncommon. Some burning need to be aggressive and to act superior to others has driven widespread attacks at any target at any opportunity. Trump’s Twitter attacks on people or institutions are crude, but met with equally insensitive, vulgar, or even libelous verbal attacks. Roseanne Barr’s infamous tweet was ignorant, but met with tremendous venom, the cruelty of which often surpassed the original ignorance. Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave a restaurant and the response was both self-righteous “moral superiority” on one side and caustic outrage on the other. Recently, a member of Congress said that opposition to Trump’s immigration policy should be delivered as “public harassment.”

Even away from the spotlight of fame, every day on Facebook or Twitter I see torrents of angry, racist, mean-spirited, dangerous commentary. Post even a mild-mannered opinion and chances are someone will attack it. Online news headlines often feature reports/photos/videos of intolerant people demonstrating their worst behavior…only to become quickly “viral” with volumes of venomous, self-righteous commentary both in defense and opposition. Anger generates anger, insults stimulate insults, “our” self-righteousness is opposed by “their” self-righteousness!

Yet I know that courtesy gets us so much further than harassment or defiance. Some will shout me down; the kind ones will say, “Naïve and irrelevant!” and the rude ones will shout, “Ignorant! Stupid! Shut up!” But at the heart of courtesy is simple respect—not always agreement or acceptance, but a basic respect that acknowledges other’s needs, other’s ideas, other’s opinions. Courtesy assumes a sense of equality between and among all people, and meets them with sensible behavior. Especially when there is disagreement or unacceptance, courtesy is usually the best bridge.

Tony Shalhoub accepting his Tony for Best Leading Actor In A Musical.

Tony Shalhoub accepting his Tony for Best Leading Actor In A Musical.

As a perfect example, on June 10 at the Tony Awards, Robert DeNiro used his fame to shout an obscenity at President Donald Trump; most, if not all, of the audience stood to applaud. But I’m convinced it accomplished nothing…DeNiro’s attitude toward the President is well known and the vulgarity of his anger simply generated anger: DeNiro supporters were reminded of their anger, and Trump supporters were angry with DeNiro. Shortly later and in sharp contrast, when Tony Shalhoub was named the year’s Best Leading Actor In A Musical, he took the stage to deliver an eloquent message against Trump’s policies—without ever mentioning Trump’s name. He delivered a strong, positive lesson about his father's immigration while remaining courteous to his audience, respectful to the Tony Awards and to the nation. DeNiro got all the headlines, but viral venom flooded the internet pro and con for days; conversely,  Shalhoub’s courteous message met ignorance with intelligence, blindness with vision, hatred with love. I’m convinced that Shalhoub used his two-minutes to raise us up, to bypass our anger, maybe even to think for a moment. That’s what courtesy can do.

Sons

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Every father is a son; while it is an obvious fact, I understood it anew in 2013. That year, I had a run-up to Father’s Day that tangled the two ideas. It began when my son phoned me about 10 days before his expected college graduation. He was terribly sick—a 104° fever had him vomiting continually—but he was required to show his final project for film class the next day: show it or don’t complete the course in time to graduate. His advisor also surprised him with a question about being one credit short for graduation…I told him that I’d be there in the morning. At 8:00 a.m. I was in the car headed to New York; at 10:00 I was on the phone with his counselor; at 11:00 I was with my son; at 6:00 we walked to the Heimbold Center and showed his film; and at 6:20 a gaggle of students applauded the film. I drove home at about 8:00 p.m., crawling in Friday-night G.W. Bridge traffic, wondering, “Is this what it means to be a father?”

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Suddenly, I was playing in my head a scene of my youth: my father called an 8-year-old me into the kitchen and asked sternly,  “Did you take soda from Harry’s Market?” I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. “No!” I said. My brother had just come from Harry’s Market where the owner had told him a story about how I tried to steal a case of soda! My brother was appropriately shocked and came home with the news. My father took me at my word—the truth—and loaded me into the car. “I don’t want Harry making these accusations!” my father said to me and anyone else who might hear him. My father led me to the store counter where Harry stood. “Is this the boy you saw stealing the soda?!?” my father demanded.

“I didn’t see him, it was my son who saw him,” he answered.

“Get your son!” my father demanded next.

The son was soon in front of us to recount and recant his story to say that it was a boy “who looked like” me…but it wasn’t me. My father was livid. He turned to Harry. “You accused my son in front of my other boy’s friends! You’d better get your facts straight next time,” he said. “You can steal my money, but don’t steal my good name!” my father paraphrased Shakespeare’s Iago…he always had a quote ready to make his point.

All I knew was that my father was a warrior on my behalf that day and I liked to think that I’d been the same for my son.

Ten days later when my son graduated, we went to a celebratory dinner in White Plains. For the daily special, the server announced the seasonal soft-shelled crabs, my father’s favorite dish. Being a good son, to honor my father on my son’s big night, of course, I ordered the soft-shelled crabs and ate them with relish.

Perspectives

My Uncle Bill in the Philippines, September 1945.

My Uncle Bill in the Philippines, September 1945.

I’ve been compiling letters from World War II that will become the collection, A Philadelphia Family Goes to War, for release in December. I am repeatedly surprised how their sincerity and truthfulness are so noble that they seem stereotyped, they seem clichéd by today’s standards. We read them from a 21st Century perspective and doubt or miss or question their reality.

I have approximately 500 letters—post cards, V-mail, form letters, and beautifully handwritten letters from November 1942 through November 1945—which chronicle my family’s experience of World War II. They are unedited letters among a father (my grandfather) and his daughter at home in Philadelphia and his sons—a Marine and a soldier, off to war around the world. While much of what they write is plain and mundane, much of it is so heartfelt and honest that it surprises me. These aren’t movie-scripted characters from the pen of a professional storyteller; these are real people seeing the real world and expressing it very differently than we do today…from a 1940’s perspective.

My Uncle Bill in training at Camp San Luis Obispo, March 1942.

My Uncle Bill in training at Camp San Luis Obispo, March 1942.

My Uncle Bill joined the U.S. Army early in 1942 and soon found himself in what he calls “a Military Police (MPs) outfit” stationed in the Philippines and New Guinea. Over his last year of service, he was stationed “in back of the infantry” at the front and saw terrifying episodes of war, suffering, and endurance. His letters are frank, but today’s readers might mistake them for cliché. To his father, he writes:

June 23, 1944
Dear Dad,
Dad don't let anyone tell you that MP's are non-combatants. Our men go right up with the doughboys & stay up there. Our area is, of course, in back of the infantry but if you have read about the Japs you know how they are experts at infiltration. Night before last 4 came up to about 100 yds of my bed. The boys in the dugouts shot one of them in the legs with a B.A.R. and then he held a hand grenade to his own chest & finished the job. I saw him next morning & altho it was the bloodiest, rottenest mess I've ever seen or want to see, I felt no sickness.

Later in 1945, his 6th Division set a record for continuous time in combat: 110 days straight. Again, his simple honesty comes across as glib. To his brother, he writes:

May 7, 1945
Dear Jack,
Yes, Jack, we broke all records for a division in combat but to tell you the truth those doughboys don't give a damn for records or ribbons. You should see some of those kids who were up there for 110 days, they look like old men, tired eyes like dead men, dirty as hell, little cuts become ulcers from the filth & flies, every scratch becomes infected from lack of a good diet & no resistance.

Uncle Bill on duty with “his buddy,” Sgt. Bader, New Guinea, May 1944.

Uncle Bill on duty with “his buddy,” Sgt. Bader, New Guinea, May 1944.

As the war slowly heads toward its end, my uncle is charged with guarding the relatively few Japanese prisoners who surrender. He tells how the prisoners are completely unprepared for capture because they had been taught to die first, in part based on “the untruths they are taught about Americans’ treatment of prisoners.” He writes to his father of the mistaken prisoners and the nobility of the U.S. “doughboys.”

June 22, 1945
Dear Dad,
I am surprised to see how many Japs are surrendering. We have had over 1000 prisoners now since we've been overseas. This is not much considering the way the Germans gave up but then you can't compare them. The Nip is a good soldier & is plenty tough but he starts to wonder if he is right about the Americans when he sees the treatment he is given when captured & especially when wounded. We have one here a Jōtōhei  [Superior Private] who speaks English quite well (a rarity) & he is really disgusted with himself for believing all the stuff his superiors told him about us & the way we torture a captive. I doubt if any of them would try to escape if given a chance. I saw one in N.G. who was pretty bad & lost a lot of blood, he was lying in a field hospital beside a doughboy. The Nip needed a blood transfusion in the worst way & the doughboy said to take some of his. That Jap cried for two days & nites. He couldn't get over it. The doughboy was hit himself. Oh well that's good old G.I. Joe for you. Everybody's a buddy when he's down and out.

On this Memorial Day Weekend, I will probably watch some war movies…I used to think of them as entertaining clichés; but I’m changing my perspective. I’m learning that life—especially during intense times—offers many surprising perspectives.

Motherhood

Is there anything more comforting...?

Is there anything more comforting...?

With Mother’s Day only a few days away, naturally my thoughts turn to my mother—like everyone’s thoughts, I assume, turn to their mother. Naturally, too, my thoughts turn to the mother of my children, my wife, whose motherhood is certainly a blessing for me, almost as much as it is for my children…maybe more, but in a different way.

At the same time, I importantly differentiate between “mother” and “motherhood.” Technically, “mother” is someone who has given birth to a child…the result of an act; but motherhood is a continual state of being that encompasses physical, emotional, spiritual, psychic, even surreal benefits. Motherhood is an amazement: someone who both gives you life and then sacrifices her own to see that your life is safe, joyous, and successful. Real motherhood is a special quality, like my father’s idea about heroism: doing more than one’s duty, more than what’s expected…all for the love of one’s child. Motherhood creates otherworldly happenings: the mother who senses across the miles an injury to her child; the mother who lifts a car off her child; the mother who works multiple jobs or goes nights without sleep or risks her life for the benefit of her child. Real motherhood ineffably links lives to one another.

I frequently hear stories that horrify me about women who don’t have that special quality of motherhood despite being, technically, mothers. Women whose children suffer or long for the love, strength, support, and sacrifices of motherhood. I hear reports about criminals, rapists, murderers who hated their mothers or never knew them…and I compassionately think, “Without the benefits of a mother’s love, how could anyone prosper, even survive?” Yet I also hear stories about people who prosper despite their mothers’ shortcomings or the early loss of their mothers; I pityingly think, “How could they have succeeded without a mother’s love to buoy them up?”

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I fear that a blog about Mother’s Day will be too trite, too corny…because the quality of motherhood is too essential to be evaluated, too precious to be defined. The racks in card stores are filled with trite, corny, pretentious cards trying to express the inexpressible…in 1976 in her Saturday Night Live monologue, Madeline Kahn explained it simply: “There just doesn’t seem to be any way to repay…my mother gave me birth…and I gave her a scarf!”

My mother in the midst of her motherhood.

My mother in the midst of her motherhood.

Because in my life, the motherhood that my mother provided me was as essential as food, as life-sustaining as water. Yes, she gave me birth, and then she gave me love and faith and knowledge and security and understanding...she nursed me through illness, coached me through dating, helped me through school, hugged me through disappointment, praised me for success, and encouraged me through failure. Of course, she wasn’t looking for repayment because there isn’t any…even though we all keep trying.

Of a million stories I could tell, one is clearest: I visited my mother in the hospital at the end of her battle with cancer. As I was preparing to leave for the night, I said to her, “I love you.” She replied, “I love you, too.” Only as a tease, I asked her, “Do you really? Are you sure?” She simply but very emphatically answered, “Oh, yes, I’m sure.” As I walked to my car I realized that I was sure, too; a certainty I’ve relied upon my whole life.

Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms whose motherhood is an amazement!

Death

USS Hancock  casualties buried at sea, April 1945.

USS Hancock casualties buried at sea, April 1945.

A coincidence of the calendar and the phases of the moon made 1 April 1945 and 2018 both April Fool’s Days and Easter Sundays. But fate made 1 April 1945 the start of the US invasion of the island of Okinawa, the deadliest battle of the Pacific. The battle for the island continued until 22 June 1945, resulting in more than 250,000 deaths: 12,000 American military, 100,000 Japanese military, and 140,000 Okinawan civilians. As many people died in that one battle as died in the atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.

USS Texas  at sea, with two Quad 40 antiaircraft guns at the fantail—the very end—of the ship.

USS Texas at sea, with two Quad 40 antiaircraft guns at the fantail—the very end—of the ship.

My father was there on the battleship, USS Texas, serving in the Marines and manning what they called “Quad 40s,” antiaircraft guns at the fantail of the ship. Having survived the battle of Iwo Jima just three months earlier, the captain of the Texas, Charles A. Baker, believed that the best way to stop the Kamikazes was to be ready: crew lived at their stations 24-hours-a-day for 50 days. Decades later, my father wrote,

“There will be no scurrying up ladders; the crew does not dislike the idea. Our guns stay manned and ready.  K-rations and sandwiches are the bill-of-fare with the ever-present cup-a-joe….but the snap in the air sharpens the appetite, minimizing the difference.  At night, I lie down to sleep on the predictably hard deck. My life jacket—we called them, “Mae West”—makes a pretty good pillow. The Pacific’s star-spangled sky proves a beautiful bonus.”

Kamikaze an instant before it strikes the  USS Missouri . No U.S. servicemen were killed but the pilot was killed instantly; his remains were recovered on board. The  Missouri ’s Captain William M. Callaghan ordered that the pilot be given a military burial at sea, complete with a three-volley rifle salute and a bugler playing “Taps.”

Kamikaze an instant before it strikes the USS Missouri. No U.S. servicemen were killed but the pilot was killed instantly; his remains were recovered on board. The Missouri’s Captain William M. Callaghan ordered that the pilot be given a military burial at sea, complete with a three-volley rifle salute and a bugler playing “Taps.”

Maybe the readiness of the Texas crew or maybe just luck, but death never visited the Texas that spring, even though Kamikaze attacks rained death on the Navy. Kamikazes sunk 36 ships and killed 4907 sea-going personnel, the heaviest single-battle death toll for the Navy. Describing April 12, my father wrote,

“The USS Tennessee is cruising abreast of us to port and is attacked by five planes.  Four are splashed but the fifth crashes the ship.  Tennessee’s stern is awash in flaming fuel; it is terrible to watch.  We later learn that there are more than 100 casualties.  The plane hit a 40mm mount manned by marines. Texas marines wonder about their sea-going friends.”

But even as the death toll climbed at Okinawa, as faceless lives were lost by the thousands, each life still mattered.

“About noon one of our carrier planes crashes 5000 yards off our port bow.  Another plane circles to mark the spot until destroyer Williamson rescues the pilot. The circling plane and the rescuing destroyer, to save one man, is reassuring.”

Gun crews on the  USS Texas  track—and kill—a Kamikaze as it heads for her decks.

Gun crews on the USS Texas track—and kill—a Kamikaze as it heads for her decks.

Days later, an enemy soldier was also spotted in the water. A whaleboat is sent out to pick him up.

“About noon we sight a man in the water 500 yards off starboard.  We worry that suicide swimmers might attack the ships, so a few marines are ready with rifles.  This swimmer is indeed Japanese, but not bent on suicide: he is a pilot, shot down the night before, in good condition but scared.  He is the first live Japanese we see close up and the curious crew gawks.”

Kingfisher spotter plane is hoisted back onto deck on the  USS Texas.

Kingfisher spotter plane is hoisted back onto deck on the USS Texas.

The struggle to save each life, even in the face of countless deaths, even in the midst of endless killing, is personal.

“On April 27 we witness a highly emotional event.  The ship's Chaplain, Lieutenant Dickinson, tells us over the loudspeaker that one of Texas's spotter planes has been hit and the main pontoon has a gaping hole and cannot stay afloat long. The plane is returning to the ship. Each of our seaplanes carries a pilot and an observer—we are told the observer is badly wounded. Normally, the plane lands, taxies alongside, and is lifted aboard by a crane. We wait and watch.  The plane touches down about 150 yards off the beam.  A sizable hole in the main pontoon, clearly visible, fills with water; the plane stops dead and immediately begins to sink within perfect view of us on the fantail. The pilot, ensign J.R. Thompson, is up and out of his cockpit in an instant, climbing precariously toward the wounded observer, H. Jahnke.  The pilot has now reached the wounded man. He straddles the fuselage and puts his arms under the observer’s arms.  Every man watching pulls with him.  The plane begins sinking fast.  Now a whaleboat is underway but will not arrive in time.  Jahnke's only hope is the pilot.  Helplessly frustrated, we can only watch.  The pontoon is quickly submerged and they are going down with the plane! Then Thompson, after seemingly endless minutes, somehow pulls the red-headed sailor free and tosses his deadweight into the self-inflating raft.  The sailor seems lifeless as the ensign plunges into the sea; the plane disappears.  A rousing cheer—like at a football game—goes up from the crew and lumpy throats abound.  The ship's log, in abbreviated, icy rhetoric, will read: ‘At 1310 plane #5-0-7 made forced landing, pilot and observer picked up as plane commenced sinking.’  For me, it is one of the most unforgettable moments of the war.”

The lesson of Okinawa’s huge death toll was that the seemingly inevitable invasion of Japan would result in millions of deaths: accepting defeat was a foreign concept to Japanese culture. Harry S. Truman, the new president following Roosevelt’s death on April 12, made the decision to use atomic weapons to convince them to surrender. Thus, the half million war-deaths in the Pacific from April through August was considered a success compared with the millions who might have died.

Constancy

Blue-green Uranus (upper left) appears close to Jupiter (lower right) and her four Galilean moons, even though they are approximately 1.3 billion miles apart—a deception of the telescope. © NASA

Blue-green Uranus (upper left) appears close to Jupiter (lower right) and her four Galilean moons, even though they are approximately 1.3 billion miles apart—a deception of the telescope. © NASA

All my life, I have taken comfort in the constancy of the skies. Even as the Sun, Moon, and planets continuously cross the sky, their movements are completely predictable and dependable. Last summer, for instance, tens of millions of Americans planned their travels and parties for the few hours of “The Great American Eclipse.” This July, Mars will dominate as the fourth brightest object in the sky (after the Sun, Moon, and Venus) when it passes within 36 million miles of Earth—the second closest pass in 60 thousand years! Because of the constancy of the skies, we can calculate, predict, and enjoy with certainty.

The American poet, Robert Frost, writes, “You'll wait a long, long time for anything much / To happen in heaven beyond the floats of cloud,” lines that suggest to me a kind of disappointment. He goes on to write, “We may as well go patiently on with our life, / And look elsewhere than to stars and moon and sun / For the shocks and changes we need to keep us sane.” I vehemently disagree…I don’t need “shocks and changes” to keep me sane; I feel an unreasonable comfort knowing where and when the Sun and Moon will rise and set…their predictability gives me sanity, security. The sky does not disappoint.

Jupiter, in profie. © NASA

Jupiter, in profie. © NASA

Of course, the skies offer a constancy of beauty as well: the brilliant winter constellations, Orion and Canis Major with our brightest star, Sirius; summer’s predictable but surprising Perseid meteor shower; solar and lunar eclipses; the elaborate, colorful images of planets, especially as the images get bigger and better—Jupiter’s storms, Saturn’s rings, the blue-green of Uranus, the deep blue of Neptune, the red of Mars; and Pythagoras’s “Music of the Spheres,” the slow interlaced orchestration of barely perceivable movement every night.

The moon, in particular, moves noticeably and predictably every night, a confirmation that days go on, the world goes on, the universe goes on. With neither weather nor atmosphere, the surface of the Moon is nearly unchanged since I first started watching it decades ago, nearly unchanged since Ptolemy watched it in the Second Century or Columbus watched it when he sailed the Atlantic in 1492! Tonight, April 15, 2018, the Moon will be New—invisible in the glare of the Sun. Then, each evening, it will appear as a slightly larger sliver than the evening before, a little higher in the sky. When so much else around us seems shocking and changing, I welcome the constancy of the skies.

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A few years ago on a sunset cruise in Florida, the first mate on board—who served as “tour guide” for the sunset—had no idea about the skies, even though he sailed every evening at sunset. Sailing on the day after the New Moon, I told him to expect to see a thin crescent of Moon just above the horizon after the Sun had set. I was shocked when he pointed to the east and said, “No, the Moon comes up over there.” I explained that it crosses the sky every month (the word “month” comes from the word “Moon”): from newly waxing crescent in the west just after sunset, to Full Moon rising in the east opposite the sunset, to waning crescent just ahead of sunrise. He thought I was crazy until a few minutes after sunset, the skies darkened to show a slip of crescent Moon above the western horizon. Soon, Venus was visible, then later Mars, then Jupiter. I knew they’d be there…the sky does not disappoint.

Riches

I saw a television commercial last year, only a few times before it disappeared from broadcast, that showed a series of people describing themselves by one word. A talking head appeared and the person said, “Mother”; then another talking head and the person said, “White.” Then “Gay.” Then, “Musician.” And on and on… Each word was so limiting—and often politically charged—that I hated the commercial from the first (I don’t remember what it was for!). In my mind I imagined additional descriptors for each person…after all, I never think of myself as one word. In fact, as I’ve gotten older, I think of myself as more and more words all the time: birthrights, physical attributes, mentality, experiences, interests, habits, knowledge, tastes, etc. I’ve even come to object to my own resumé: I don’t think I can be effectively summarized!

I say the same for people I know: I don’t think they can be effectively summarized. I’ve written in the past of how I see people as “types” just so I can manage all the possibilities, while in reality, I recognize that people one-on-one exhibit an infinite assortment of qualities and values: riches. Humans comprise riches we haven’t learned to understand yet.

  • I have a friend who is artistic, academic, emotional, very politically conservative, intelligent, loyal, loving, shy, talkative, philosophical, pensive, literary, happy, and yet he can be angry, caustic, and melancholy. I’ve seen him on the verbal attack at all kinds of people.
  • I have a friend who is an accountant, a rocker, pugnacious, funny, deeply loyal, conservative, professional, conspiratorial, sports-obsessed, quick-witted, and yet he can be judiciously liberal, ironic, and encouraging. I’ve seen him get emotional over little things.
  • I have a friend who is a psychologist, truly liberal, patient, nonjudgmental, attentive, responsive, very smart, and yet I’ve known him to be foolish, fickle, and guilt-ridden. Once, he nearly cut off his own hand.
  • I have a friend who is technically and interpersonally brilliant, inspiring, welcoming, self-deprecating, patient, very hard-working, dedicated, loving and open, friendly, and yet she can be incisive, demanding, unrelenting, while uninformed. I’ve known her to cut to the heart of a matter while making the offending party feel corrected, not rebuked.
Kenny from  Seinfeld  and Janice from  Friends .

Kenny from Seinfeld and Janice from Friends.

Television shows easily create comedy by using characters who are one-dimensional—caricatures who can be defined by a single word—so that they aren’t really human characters at all. On Seinfeld, for instance, Kenny Bania (Steve Hytner), another comedian, aggravates Jerry over four seasons by his shallowness…it’s easy comedy to maintain Bania as one-dimensional. On Friends, Janice (Maggie Wheeler) is a self-absorbed drama-queen caricature throughout the 10 seasons; the friends are annoyed by her but the audience loves her because she is one-dimensional. If a character becomes more complex/more human, the audience begins to empathize and finds it more difficult to laugh at them.

People we think we know…but don’t.

People we think we know…but don’t.

Which is pretty much where the world is moving today: turn everyone—especially people who aren’t like us—into one-dimensional caricatures, often based on differences…and it’s easy to laugh at them! In the political world, it’s epidemic; in the social world, it’s epidemic; in the racial, religious, economic worlds, it’s epidemic. As if the 140 characters in a tweet can define a topic or a person! Like the commercial, “I’m white,” or “I’m old” or “I’m conservative.” Too many people want to lump me, lump each other into very limited categories. Then no one has to be a real, complicated human and no one has to empathize or sympathize. Except that I know we’re missing the riches that knowing each other brings.

Easter

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For many of us, Easter season includes the annual ritual of dyeing Easter eggs. But a few years ago, our family began to “color” Easter eggs, which included traditional dyeing, but expanded to include painting them with food color. The variety of colors available by dyeing is significant—colors changed by length of time in the dye, number of colors applied to an egg, assorted shapes of the color applied (e.g., half the egg one color lengthwise or heightwise or diagonally), and the dynamic wax pencil used to write on the undyed egg), but by using Q-tips or paint brushes with undiluted food coloring, the possibilities seemed infinite!

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When I was a child, PAAS made the obligatory egg dyeing kits: color tablets, wire egg holders, and punch-outs in the box to hold the eggs as they dried. We cobbled together assorted teacups, dropped each tablet into a mixture of vinegar and boiling water, and the dyeing began. Even though I was proud of my own creations, my father or mother always seemed to create the year’s best egg. Over time, PAAS expanded their dyeing options—marble, egg stamps, and overlays…moving the whole tradition further away from the religious symbolism it first offered. Originally, egg dyeing was limited to red—to symbolize the blood of Christ; on the hard shell—to symbolize the tomb; and, of course, the egg inside—to symbolize rebirth. Like most religious traditions, it lost its religious significance and devolved into a secular entertainment.

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Once my family began coloring eggs—creating designs well beyond even the newest PAAS product—suddenly my imagination burst wide open. Easter eggs could be as varied and exciting as my talent and patience would allow.

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We created patchwork eggs, polka-dot eggs, striped eggs (up-and-down or side-to-side), graphic designs, disguised eggs (e.g., globe or watermelon), even eggs that became characters! Our experience of Easter changed. Hiding the eggs and finding them on Easter morning adopted a kind of specificity, because they were no longer just blue or red or yellow eggs: “Where’s the globe egg?” “Where’s Mr. Egghead?” “Where’s the kitty egg?”

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Each Easter egg became a kind of self-expression, a nexus of imagination and talent and patience. First, we had to imagine what the egg could become; next, we had to plan the design; and lastly, we had to produce carefully, patiently, precisely to make it work. It was always great fun to spend the evening as a family, each of us delving into his/her psyche to find a new self-expression.

But even with all this fun and self-expression and change, I miss the Easters of my youth, when religious ritual reinforced my faith. I was an altar boy and served Mass on Easter mornings, which meant lighting lots of candles on an altar overflowing with lilies. The weeks before had included the Stations of the Cross each Friday…for my young self, it was actually awesome: stopping in front of each of the 14 stations; incense swirling; struggling to hold the cross correctly when I was the crucifer or to hand the thurible to the priest and take it back at the right moments; the priest reciting prayers at each station, creating a kind of reverie of repetition. I looked forward to Palm Sunday with the reading of The Passion, even in all its length and graphicness, except when Easter came late in the calendar—back then, the church was not air conditioned so it could be stifling and standing for the whole story became a kind of suffering all my own.

For me, the tactics have changed, but Easter remains a time of expressed faith.

Lies

© Disney

© Disney

What if we recognized a lie when we heard it? Like in Disney’s 1940 classic, Pinocchio: Pinocchio’s nose grows when he lies and the Good Fairy knows right away! She says, “A lie keeps growing and growing until it’s as plain as the nose on your face.” In reality, lies—even small lies—are secret, insidious, treacherous, designed and executed to fool us. They undermine our very ability to live: what if we couldn’t trust anything or anyone, if we needed proof for everything we do? Trust is such an essential part of living and every lie undercuts that.

Yet if you challenge someone about a lie, the daring response is, “Are you calling me a liar?” Lying is a fundamental failing that no one wants to admit…liars easily lie to deny! We instinctively find it hard to answer, “Yes, you’re a liar!” And so the lie and the liar live on!

The terror is that liars and lies are everywhere; today, people use the euphemism, “fake news,” but it’s really institutionalized lies. Now I question everything I read; even once-respected news sources report things that turn out to be lies because instant news is more valued than facts!

Of course, it’s an old story:

"A lie told a thousand times."

"A lie told a thousand times."

  • In the 1940s, Hitler and the Nazis rose to power based on promises and treaties they never intended to live up to: lies. They “relocated” millions of people into death camps: lies. Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, understood when he professed, “A lie told once remains a lie but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth.” Their lies, of course, led to mass murder and dragged the world into war.
Joseph Welch of Hale & Dorr (l) to Joseph McCarthy (r), “Have you no sense of decency?”

Joseph Welch of Hale & Dorr (l) to Joseph McCarthy (r), “Have you no sense of decency?”

  • In the 1950s, Sen Joseph McCarthy built his power on lies, even producing false evidence. His lies ruined careers and lives and it took years—and Edward R. Murrow—to prove him a liar: his smear campaign began in 1950 and continued until he was censured by the US Senate in 1954.
"I said things that were not true," said Richard Nixon.

"I said things that were not true," said Richard Nixon.

  • In the 1970s, President Richard Nixon perverted the election process, lying repeatedly to the American people and proving the Good Fairy correct. It took 783 days for Nixon’s lies to lead to his resignation. In 1977 when Nixon was interviewed by David Frost, he admitted that, “I said things that were not true,” but he admitted to neither “lies” nor being a “liar.”
"I misled people," said Bill Clinton.

"I misled people," said Bill Clinton.

  • In the late 1990s, President Bill Clinton was charged with perjury—lying under oath, an elevated form of lying—regarding a sexual relationship he had had with an intern. The lies continued and expanded until he went on national TV to announce, “I want to say one thing to the American people…I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”  A plain, public, prominent lie.  It took 212 days for Clinton finally to admit the truth. “I know that my public comments and my silence about this matter gave a false impression. I misled people,” he said. His admission focused on the “inappropriate” relationship, and never really addressed his easy ability to lie.
  • In 2008, Bernie Madoff and his Madoff Investment Securities LLC were charged with massive fraud, whereby they lied to more than 13,000 clients and stole an estimated $10 billion to $20 billion. Clients had paperwork and records to “prove” their claims, but in the end, everything was based on elaborate lies, lies that grew from the early 1970s until 2008.

The devastation that grows from lies is really a reflection of our need and willingness to trust. Nations grow, businesses are built, relationships deepen based on trust. But when liars and their lies break that trust, there is no going back. A lie may steal our money or pervert our election or even lead us to war, but worse: it makes us doubt our nature to trust. Conor Oberst in “Ladder Song” writes (even he can’t call them “lies” and “liars”),

Don't hang around once the promise breaks
Or you'll be there when the next one's made.
Kiss the feet of a charlatan.

I think that’s the right image: don’t hang around after the lie. I have known and worked with liars and been victimized by their lies; they deny them. Yet I’ve moved on with those I trust. It isn’t easy to recognize a lie, it isn’t easy to spot fake news, but I don’t forget liars once I’ve recognized them. I pay no more attention to Trump’s tweets than to Joy Behar’s comments on The View. Leaving the lies and liars behind, I’ll struggle to recognize truths…that’s where I want to be.

Greatness

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I have a complaint…it centers around an innocuous television commercial for the iPhone X by Apple—innocuous except that it plays about a thousand times a day. To me, television commercials are both a reflection of public opinion and formative of public opinion. When Apple or Coke or Ford designs a commercial, they often pick up on a small idea that we all recognize and inflate it into a “truth.” My complaint is about this commercial’s “truth,” which I believe is mistaken.

In the commercial, the voiceover is Muhammad Ali in one of his monologues/rants about being “the Greatest.” When Ali entered the sports scene, he was one of the first—if not the first—athletes to profess his greatness. Prior superstars had usually offered a kind of humility as one of their attributes. (Listen to Lou Gehrig’s humility in the face of tragedy.) Ali added a sense of showmanship to his stardom, usually bragging about his greatness and taunting his opponents. But Muhammad Ali delivered on his claim of greatness (“It’s not bragging if you can back it up,” he said.): he won boxing’s heavyweight championship three times; compiled an amateur record of 100 wins/5 losses and a professional record of 56 wins/5 losses; won a gold medal at the 1960 Summer Olympics; endured/overcame a ban from boxing for refusing, as a conscientious objector, to be inducted into the armed forces for the Vietnam War; was crowned “Sportsman of the Century” by Sports Illustrated.

Under Ali’s voiceover in the commercial is a parade of selfies: young, old; male, female; black, white, Asian. The commercial suggests that the selfies are each person’s announcement of their being  “the Greatest.” At one point, one of the selfies appears to wink at the viewer in time with Ali’s saying ironically, “I am modest.”

© Apple Inc.

© Apple Inc.

And therein lies my complaint…the mistaken modern idea, exploited and reinforced by the commercial, that simply being alive makes each of us great! “Because I exist, I am great!” It is a pervasive attitude: everyone feels entitled to assert themselves, bemoan their problems, insist on their opinions, criticize others, post pictures of themselves, recount every activity…but I find so little evidence of actual greatness! I am not cynical enough to think that people are worthless; we all and each have rights and opinions and value, but only one can be the greatest. We all and each can post our pictures or tell our stories, but only one can be the greatest. I feel that much of the discontent in today’s world is related to people’s almost instant and grossly inflated sense of their own greatness.

Which leads me to an overwhelming question: What is greatness? Merriam-Webster says that it’s “exceptionally high quality” with synonyms including: excellence, perfection, preeminence, superiority, and supremacy. All very high targets! Greatness is a quality of being, an achievement, a goal.

I like the stream of selfies in the commercial—many of the faces are charming or beautiful or intriguing. But taking one’s pictures does not equate to greatness; work, effort, dedication, endurance, even suffering for achievement is greatness. As Ali once said, “I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don't quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.’” Maybe if the images were of people striving toward a goal, Ali’s voiceover would have worked. Or if the voiceover had been Sinatra’s “My Way” at least there would have been a tinge of realism—planning, effort, care, tears, and even regret.

If there really are 7.5 billion people in the world, then I assume that there is an equal number of ways—unrelated to selfies—to live a life, and maybe to achieve one’s own greatness.

Auvers-sur-Oise

“There are vast fields of wheat under troubled skies, and I did not need to go out of my way to try to express sadness and extreme loneliness.” (Vincent in a letter to his brother, Theo, July 1890)

“There are vast fields of wheat under troubled skies, and I did not need to go out of my way to try to express sadness and extreme loneliness.” (Vincent in a letter to his brother, Theo, July 1890)

It doesn’t qualify as a city—the French officially call it a “commune” and its maximum population is only 7000—but Auvers-sur-Oise still overflows with the beauty and serenity that attracted its most famous resident, Vincent van Gogh in 1890. I traveled the 20+ miles northwest of Paris just for the day to enter a village that presents so much of its van Gogh history without overdoing it…I enjoyed a quiet stroll through the village and found—neither confronted nor attacked by—many of its van Gogh treasures. Van Gogh spent his last months there, where he painted nearly 80 paintings in 70 days, where he died, where he was laid out on a pool table, and where he is buried.

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I left Paris from the Gare Saint Lazare and changed trains in Pontoise (realizing halfway through the trainride that the name means Bridge [Pont] on the Oise, the same river that gives Auvers-sur-Oise its full name). Within an hour, I was standing in Auvers across the street from the Auberg Ravoux where van Gogh lived, worked, and died.  The day was sunny and hot, but the town was empty of the tourists I’d been warned about. I started at the Hotel, which manages its fame very carefully, very graciously; a young lady at the Fenetre de Billet (ticket window) told me all about the hotel and how to find other sites around town that would suit my interest.

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Soon I was climbing the austere spiral stairs to the attic space that served as his room; as plain and empty as they show it, I imagined the room with stacked, still-drying canvases as it may have been when his brother, Theo, came to Vincent’s death bed in 1890: portraits of Dr. Gachet, Daubigny’s Garden, the Auvers Town Hall, a field of poppies, so many visions of the world that would become treasures.

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I wandered the town to find sites I knew from the paintings: the Daubigny house and garden, and house of Dr. Gachet, and the church of Notre-Dame-de-l'Assomption. Soon after arriving in Auvers, van Gogh wrote to Theo, “Auvers is very beautiful…it is profoundly beautiful, it is the real country, characteristic and picturesque.” I  am no van Gogh, but neither am I Caliban—I could appreciate why he was moved in Auvers to paint and paint everything. Maybe because I knew his paintings and had read his letters, I was sensitive to the shapes, colors, lighting, and elements of the area. Lost at one point on a back road, I felt I recognized a place where the forest is thick with twilight dark except that a shaft of midday sun pierced down deep within the trees and lighted the background undergrowth; the countryside was filled with tiny pink flowers atop sturdy carnation-like stalks, purple ferns, poison ivy everywhere, and rows of yellow iris; winding lanes lined by stone walls or trees invited me in by virtue of their cool shade on such a hot day and twisted right or left out of sight, beckoning, “What’s just around that bend?”

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On my way to the cemetery, I passed the Notre Dame church on the edge of town (the sky was as blue as in his painting but the stone was not at all the same purple-blue). I was happy to find an unlocked door (the piano tuner was at work and had left the door unlocked), so I walked in where it was cool and sat quietly cooling myself. Only the piano tuner and I were there, but he paid me no mind and kept banging C-C-C D-D-D E-E-E as he finished the tuning.

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I continued uphill to find the cemetery across from a picturesque hayfield dotted with orange poppies under the same blue sky. I’ve written before about the graves and how beautifully simple they are…as van Gogh once wrote to his brother, “How difficult it is to be so simple.” I used my broken French to ask the groundskeeper to take my picture, which he did, and he art-directed me in his broken English.

 

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I saw not even a single painting in Auvers-sur-Oise, but I did see many of the places and things that became van Gogh’s paintings. I got to enjoy my little knowledge of him and certainly got to add to it, but clearly added to my understanding of the beauty of van Gogh's art.

Tangier

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My visits to the cities I’ve described over the past few weeks have been short two- or three-day jaunts, usually tacked onto the end of a business trip. Rarely have I gotten to know a city, although I’ve squeezed as much as I could into very little time in each place. My most compact experience of a city was in Tangier, Morocco: little more than 5 hours from when we disembarked until we re-embarked the ferry.

The full trip—a true odyssey—began with an 8:30 a.m. train from Madrid to Algeciras/Gibraltar, on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea. From the train window, Spanish cityscape quickly turned to Spanish countryside: mountains, orchards, farms, and old crumbling buildings long abandoned. Arriving on time in Algeciras, we dropped our bags at the hotel and headed to the docks for the ferry, which departed nearly two hours late, forcing us to rethink our plans…little sunlight would be left on arrival.

Jebel Musa in the Rif Mountain range, Morocco.

Jebel Musa in the Rif Mountain range, Morocco.

The hour-long ferry ride across the Mediterranean was visually beautiful: the Rock of Gibraltar to the north, Jebel Musa to the south, and the moon was up…adding to the mystique as my two traveling companions and I approached Africa for the first time. We arrived at the docks of Tangier-Med, to realize that we were about 30 miles from the city. Through the border offices, we negotiated a taxi fare into the city and climbed into an old Mercedes cab: no carpets and lots of squeaking parts. The driver navigated the N16—a coast road that wound past new hotels and condos that enjoyed beautiful views of the Mediterranean, the mountains of Spain, and the setting Sun. More abundant were dilapidated houses, ramshackle garages and warehouses, and lines of people carrying loads by the edge of the road. We tried not to be terrified— the driver paid no heed to pedestrians, traffic, signs, nor double yellow lines.

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Having abandoned our plans to visit the Medina—it would be closed or closing, we went directly to the Hotel El Minzah, tucked into a busy neighborhood a block from the Medina. The Hotel El Minzah is perfectly Moroccan, the front desk clerks were fawning, the décor exotic and distant, all with a feeling of colonial France overlaid on Moroccan/Berber/Moorish elements. The lobby opens from Moorish arched doorways, and is laid with oriental carpets over marble floors.

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We were directed down into the central Andalusian patio—the heart of the hotel—and the Wine Bar, where we waited until the restaurant opened. A very talkative and enthusiastic sommelier opened a bottle of Moroccan wine that we were surprised to enjoy…similar to a merlot, but not so good as the Spanish and French wines that he had steered us away from.

Soon our dinner reservation was ready and we were sprawled at table on low couches, attended by servers in traditional Moroccan uniforms, complete with fezzes. We were entertained by a four-piece Moroccan band and treated to a belly dance: maybe it was no more than their version of Disney-does-Morocco, but the food was good and plentiful, the music was good, and the dancer had a certain Old-World charm.

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The return taxi ride to the ferry was more civilized and less dramatic. The driver took us through the edges of the Medina, most of which was closed, except some fruit vendors who, the cab driver explained, stayed open longest to sell their perishable goods. We were satisfied that we’d seen something Moroccan, even though we’d missed the Medina. We’d met and talked with several Moroccans who were proud to tell about their country and city, happy to befriend us tourists. The ferry back to Algeciras was again an hour late, but a moonlit cruise across a misty Mediterranean completed our exotic adventure.