Sunday, August 27, 2017

Refuse The Line

To supress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker. Frederick Douglass

America's Civil War is in the headlines again. The purpose, near as I can tell, is to reexamine old animosities in order to gain new political advantage. Such is the confusing, superficial and damaging discourse that passes for collaborative conversation.

But, to quote the Mayor of Chicago - never let a good crisis go to waste. Someone has posted Ken Burns' national treasure onto YouTube!

To watch this masterpiece of historical genius is to be awash in the currents that made America what she was in the middle 1800s. It is lavishly photographed, wonderfully paced and beautiful to behold. No one's understanding of that period is complete without it.

Narrator David McCullough (himself  a highly regarded author, scholar and historian) draws depth from the spoken score. An array of Civil War experts contribute insights accumulated along a lifetime of study. Period photography brings the viewer into the lives of the famous and the ordinary, to places that are familiar and obscure. The faces of those held in bondage are particularly moving - the simmering anger, the helplessness, resignation.

One hears the beauty of the score - the solo piano rendering of "Battle Cry of Freedom" so elegant that it left the recording crew in tears. The period pieces that capture the folly, the sense of adventure and the desperation that war brings. Then, there is Jay Ungar's "Ashokan Farewell."

Visit the places. Read the books. Find the interviews (if for no other reason than to hear the charming, deeply-Southern voice of Shelby Foote). There is no reason not to use this as an opportunity to discover how much more there is to know.

You might just agree with this Churchill quote, repeated by Mr. McCullough in many of his pieces:

"We have not journeyed all this way across the centuries, across the oceans, across the mountains, across the prairies, because we are made of sugar candy."

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Laughing Our Way to Justice

"Once I accept injustice, I become injustice. For example, paper mills give off a terrible stench. But the people who work there don't smell it. Remember, Dr. King was assassinated when he went to work for garbage collectors. To help them as workers to enforce their rights. They couldn't smell the stench of the garbage all around them anymore. They were used to it. They would eat their lunch out of a brown bag sitting on the garbage truck. One day, a worker was sitting inside the back of the truck on top of the garbage, and got crushed to death because no one knew he was there." Dick Gregory.

Noting the passing of comedian and activist Dick Gregory.

For a funny guy, a man who made audiences laugh out loud, he could also make a person uncomfortable. Soul searching does that.

 "Last time I was down South I walked into this restaurant and this white waitress came up to me and said, "We don't serve colored people here." I said, "That's all right. I don't eat colored people. Bring me a whole fried chicken." At the Playboy Club, Chicago, 1961.

Gregory was one of a number of breakthrough black comics in the 1960s, men who used quick wit to help the medicine go down. America was being reminded, sometimes forcefully, that there was a lot of work to be done if she was to mean what she said about equality, freedom and justice. Gregory led from the front, paying the price - literally - in blood. He spent time in jail, mostly for standing up for the things  other Americans take for granted.

It isn't easy, hearing that the comfortable world around you is not open to others merely because of their skin color. Today was a new day - what were you doing to fight injustice? It was a message we in the awakening 1960s didn't always accept. We didn't always laugh.

It wasn't just about race for him. Wherever he found a cause, he found his voice. He was a feminist, an animal rights champion, and something of a truther. His health food gig was unconventional, mostly liquid. He was still on the road, still appearing, when a simple medical issue took him at 84. As doctors fought for his life, he promised his audiences he'd be back. He had an opinion about events in Charlottesville. He wanted to share them.

God speed.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

In Honor of The Ordinary Soldier

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place: and in the sky
The larks still bravely singing fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead: Short days ago,
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved: and now we lie
In Flanders fields!

Take up our quarrel with the foe
To you, from failing hands, we throw
The torch: be yours to hold it high
If ye break faith with us who die,
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields

Flanders Fields, John McCrae, 1915
The site was beautiful, understated, lush. The lawns were trimmed close, monuments in neat rows. Some graves were marked with crosses, others plaques. They were the honored dead, men who had fallen in battle in the service of their country. They agreed, they disagreed - maybe they didn't even understand why their service was necessary. The enemy had killed them, and here they slept, forever.

It was the summer of 1972. I was seventeen, visiting Europe with my aunt, uncle and cousin. We were at the Sandweiler German military cemetery in Luxembourg, a mile from the American military cemetery where George S. Patton is buried. Here approximately eleven thousand men are interred, most killed during the Battle of the Bulge.

In the law, it's called "Neutral principles." That is, are there guidelines that are readily applicable to everyone, regardless of race, nationality or some other status? They are often described as content-neutral.

I wonder, given the uproar about Civil War monuments, graves and remembrances, if a little sanity isn't in order.

Doesn't a country deserve to honor the men and women who fall in its service?

It doesn't matter if that country won or lost. The reason for the war, and its prosecution, might have been of the noblest moral purpose, or the foulest depths of depravity. The lost might have been a great person, or a fool.

 But you're gambling with those boys' lives. . .
. . .just to beat Montgomery into Messina.
lf you pull it off, you're a hero, but if you don't. . . .
What happens to them? The ordinary combat soldier.
He doesn't share in your dreams of glory, he's stuck here.
He's living out every day, day-to-day, with death tugging at his elbow
. General Omar Bradley to General George Patton, Sicily, 1943.

Recently, a man traveled to Japan. He had in his possession a flag he had taken from the body of a fallen Japanese soldier on the Marianas island of Saipan. It had been signed by friends of the fallen, wishing him well. He was an ordinary soldier, called to duty by his country.

This is not to say that ostentatious monuments to generals and politicians who intentionally fought to preserve the savage, hateful institution of slavery are beyond scrutiny. Each should be evaluated individually, not only for its intent at the time it was placed, but for the things for which it has come to stand. This doesn't erase history. It merely applies a bit of perspective.

Colonel Robert Gould Shaw led his Union troops into battle in 1863. He was killed, along with most of his troops. He was buried in a common grave with them, an intended slight on the part of the enemy troops who saw to the burial. Shaw's father saw it differently:

 We would not have his body removed from where it lies surrounded by his brave and devoted soldiers....We can imagine no holier place than that in which he lies, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company. – what a body-guard he has.

God bless the fallen, that their memory survives the petty politics of the moment.

Before the Fall

It is said that one needs to remember the past, so as not to repeat it. Of course, that only applies to the errors.

In July 2016, members of the Black Lives Matter movement engaged in a peaceful protest in Dallas, TX. They accused law enforcement officers of targeting blacks, in unlawfully killing African-Americans merely for the color of their skin. Protesters, and officers, posed for pictures.

Some hours later, fourteen Dallas officers were shot. Five died of their wounds. While the sniper was still selecting target officers, officers shielded, protected and evacuated some of the same marchers.

 This is a bit of history we might want to remember.

Monday, August 14, 2017

A Keen Eye For People

This is how it starts.

A friend sees someone at a bar, and gets my attention on FB. He tells me the fellow is different, not speaking to anyone. Fixated on a book, and a laptop. Animated. A mop of disheveled brown hair, though which he runs his fingers from time to time. Occasionally, he strokes his month-old stubble.

He's drinking beer,and eating a burrito. It is "plain" in the sense that it is not smothered with awesomesauce. He picks up a salt shaker and sprinkles his meal liberally. It seems to bother him not at all that burritos are just not consumed that way in Denver.

We conclude he's a former Tier One operator. He learned to eat food that way in the jungles of Columbia, chasing the FARC. He's out of the service, but remains tied to his friends through a company selling the skills of former SpecOp officers. He stares at his computer, sends a text to his current girlfriend ("Going fishing. Need my pole.") Her reply suggests this is going to be one deployment too many. He'll have to get his M4 and Sig after she's gone.

Cici 2 - the sequel to A More Perfect Union - needed the antagonist, as it were, to have a face. Game on.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Gentle on my Mind

Things ain't what they used to be...and probably never was. Will Rogers.

Many people look back on the early years of their lives and yearn for those simpler times. They did not grow up in the 60's.

The late Sixties and early Seventies were an amazing amalgamation of conflicting social influences. Rock music's expressions were sometimes angrily political, occasionally drug-celebratory, presenting a hard edge. At the movies, one might walk in to a double feature - one being Patton, the other MASH - where the American military is celebrated and skewered. Onto this stage strode Glen Travis Campbell.

He'd had a big hit - "Gentle on my Mind." It was an unconventional love song by any account, a loner on the road, something of a hobo, who remembers someone not because he has to, but because he can't stop himself.

It struck a chord. Doesn't everyone have someone in their past, the memory of whom lingers through the years? Millions of people from around the world answered yes by the simple mechanism of purchasing the record, or listening to it on the radio. Or both.

Campbell grew up in Arkansas, and moved to LA to pursue a music career. He was a session musician, that is, an excellent player who sits in with better known stars and does the heavy lifting. He was an exceptional guitar player. The list of groups with whom he'd associated was a who's who of headliners.

A string of hits helped land him a movie role, and a variety show on TV - a popular genre during that period. My parents loved the show, watched it every week. My mom especially loved Campbell's wholesome appeal, his clear tones and easy manner.

His career was not to be a fairy tale. Drinking and drugs took their toll. Music tastes moved on.

It's easy to dismiss him as a phony, his career brief and inconsequential. But, when he passed away yesterday at 81 there were millions of young men and women my age, remembering the nights when they huddled around a TV with their now-late parents and sang along.  May those memories sit gentle on their minds.