Saturday, June 11, 2011
Monday, May 9, 2011
Baby Boomers, one would think, should know a lot about World War II; after all, our claim to fame is that we are the children of returning veterans of that event, which, despite a lot of competition, is almost certainly the most significant of the 20th century.
Most of the world's nations -- including all of the so-called "great powers" -- were engaged; 100 million served in uniform and, including civilians, at least 50 and perhaps more than 70 million people died. It was the bloodiest conflict in history; and the toll extended far beyond death and destruction as it changed the way individuals, institutions and nations view the world.
Those of us born during the five or 10 years following the war might be expected to have been affected tremendously by its aftermath -- and it's likely that those growing up in Europe and Asia, where the physical impact was obvious and immense, probably were. But American Boomers -- and least this one -- saw very little evidence during our childhood of the horrors so recently ended.
Oh, we were great patriots, of course. Hollywood movies, including some made during the war and many more made in the 10 or 15 years that followed, gave us clarity on who were the good guys and bad guys -- and the Nazis were clearly the bad guys.
But, I don't believe I distinguished the evil deeds and intentions of the SS and Gestapo characters from the "Black Hats" in cowboy films. The fact that the atrocities committed by real-life war criminals were even more horrific -- too gruesome to portray accurately on film -- didn't sink in for me as a child.
Fifty years ago, I was an eighth grader in Mrs. Mowers' social science class at Woodrow Wilson Junior High (San Diego). A trial was getting underway in Israel, a war crimes trial, and I was assigned a term paper on the topic.
Adolph Eichmann was a real-life Nazi -- an SS colonel accused of being a mastermind for the Holocaust. Captured in Argentina in May 1960, Eichmann was put on trial the following April, convicted of crimes against humanity (along with other charges) 14 weeks later and hanged May 31, 1962. Swift justice, some might say, but not as swift as if he'd been gunned down in Argentina, as Osama Bin Laden was in Pakistan.
Doing research for the Eichmann paper finally put me in touch intellectually with the Holocaust and, by obvious extension, with evil. Movies, regardless of whether based on fact or not, are dramatizations. Most of the time, none of what happens on the screen is real, it's acting.
But I knew what I was learning about Eichmann was fact, not fiction. The trial was about finding the truth and seeking justice, not about entertainment. That trial put the war -- and warfare in general -- in a different perspective for me.
The act of killing Eichmann remains the only civil execution in the history of Israel -- a nation born the same year I was. I find it noteworthy that the evil done by Eichmann and others was so intense that it overcame a new nation's obvious rejection of capital punishment (made obvious by fifty years of not doing it again). That Eichmann's inhumanity could lead others to temporarily set aside their own humanity for revenge is discouraging to me.
My investigation of Eichmann and war crimes might not have been life changing alone; but another war movie that was released 50 years ago completed the process. "Judgment at Nuremberg," starring several of my favorite actors (Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Montgomery Clift), was one of the more hard-hitting and disturbing films I've ever seen. The film was an account of the trial of several Germans accused of war crimes following World War II.
The part that has remained with me all my life -- visual evidence that hit me as hard as the 1963 Zapruder film depicting the impact of the fatal bullet on President Kennedy's head -- is from the court proceedings.
Widmark, playing the prosecutor, showed the panel of judges 35-millimeter footage of the "clean up" at German concentration camps. This footage was obviously real, the emaciated prisoners with protruding bones and vacant stares were not actors but were actual victims. And the bodies -- too numerous and toxic to be treated with any degree of dignity and being bulldozed into mass graves -- were also real remnants of human beings who were caught up in the horror of ultimate inhumanity.
Watching those corpses tumble over one another and fall, arms and legs flailing, into huge gaping pits generated an epiphany in me like no other before or since. THIS was what Eichmann -- the small, bookish-looking older man I'd seen in newspaper and magazine photos while writing that paper -- had been part of.
My first reaction to those hundreds of bodies was disbelief. But the synapses fired quickly -- flashes of electricity traveling at the speed of light between stored knowledge about Eichmann and new, incoming visual data from the film. With connections between data sets established, my disbelief quickly gave way to understanding. THIS was World War II. THIS was part of the world I had been born into and where I would spend my life.
Maybe those few seconds, while I processed two streams of information and accepted the truth they belied, constituted my loss of innocence or my coming of age.
Fifty years later, I'm still affected. I oppose the death penalty and torture, believing they are forms of inhumanity that could lead to more and more evil. I believe in justice, but justice tempered with mercy. And I'm painfully ambivalent about the fact that our forces, unlike the Israeli Mossad 50 years ago, killed rather than captured Osama Bin Laden in his foreign hiding place.
Eichmann went to the gallows believing that he was "only following orders" and that he was not an evil person. I can't get my head around that kind of logic -- and, on any given day, I believe some people really are evil.
I don't morn the death of Bin Laden nor judge those who killed him. But I am more than ambivalent about the possibility that, in the calm and deliberate process of planning the raid, a decision might have been made to kill and not capture.
I worry about the slippery slope, not about the demise of the Eichmanns and Bin Ladens of the world. No weeping for them: let the evil that such men do live after them, and the good, if any, be interred with their bones (to paraphrase the Bard).
My main concern and hope is that any 12- and 13-year-old scholars tasked with researching the demise of tyrants not conclude that evil trumps due process or that killing killers is likely to put an end to murder.
Friday, May 6, 2011
Until I was 17, I believed that the President of the United States could not tell a lie. That conclusion, I decided later, came from my innocent acceptance of the old George Washington and the Cherry Tree myth wherein the father of our country exclaimed, "Father, I cannot tell a lie."
As part of the "Leave it to Beaver" and "Father Knows Best" generation (AKA the "Baby Boomers), I grew up with the notion that lying was a very serious offense that nearly always ended badly. Of course, like everyone I knew, I did my share of fibbing -- and sometimes managed, through prevarication, to avoid trouble or gain benefits -- but I knew in my heart that, when the stakes are high and one's personal honor is at stake, telling the truth was the ultimate right thing to do.
It was Spring Break, 1966, my senior year in high school. I was struggling to complete the seminal term paper of my life: "Opposition to the War in Vietnam." I had completed very extensive research. What I had not completed, however, was my assessment of the evidence and a determination of my point of view. I knew all about the opposition to the war in Vietnam; but I wasn't sure whether I opposed it.
Public support for the war was still high in 1966. This was two years before the Tet Offensive and before the Most Trusted Man in America (Walter Cronkite) first expressed his doubts about our involvement in that conflict. It was less than two years after the Gulf of Tonkin incident where American warships had allegedly been attacked by North Vietnamese gunboats.
I say "allegedly" because the truth of President Lyndon Johnson's report to Congress and the American people regarding the event had come into question. Johnson claimed that North Vietnamese aggression was justification for air strikes against that nation -- and ultimately for a widely expanded war that dragged on for more than a decade and cost the lives of 58,220 U.S. servicemembers and some estimate as many as three million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians.
So the stakes were high in the Spring of 1966 as I sat in the front seat of our family's suburban, bouncing up and down and from side to side as we traversed a dusty and uneven road in Baja California. My father sat to my left, Mom was on the right and, leaning over the back of my seat, Bill Knight completed the chorus. All three grownups were fervently anti-war and though I knew the facts, I was struggling to sort them from opinion -- and struggling to form my own opinions at the same time.
We argued back and fort about the legitimacy of our actions in the context of the 1954 Geneva Accords and about whether we were really invited by leaders who were chosen by the people or those we propped up and controlled. But the sticking point came down to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution which was passed by Congress based on the president's account of a real or imagined sea battle in international waters off the coast of North Vietnam.
Finally, after what seemed like hours of taking a pounding from the road and a harranguing coming through both ears and the back of my head, I half-whimpered and half-shouted my ultimate argument in support of the government position...
"But," I croaked. "The President of the United States wouldn't lie!"
That exclamation actually silenced my loquatious interlocutors -- but only for two or three seconds. Then...
It was horrible. Humiliating. It wasn't a matter of one starting to laugh and the others joining in; all three simply burst into spontaneous, uncontrolled hysterics. A few seconds earlier, I had been treated with respect in an adult conversation; suddenly, I was being ridiculed and viewed as a naieve babe in the woods. It proved to be about the worst argument I could have possibly offered -- and it ended the conversation (no doubt on a high note for my tormentors, but with me sitting in a despondent pool of embarrassed discomfiture.
Please note that my Pollyanna-like view of great leaders came eight years before President Nixon (of "I am not a crook," dirty tricks and resigned-in-disgrace fame) waved goodbye and climbed into that helicopter in 1974. These days I'm afraid we'd be hard pressed to find a 7-year-old who believes presidents are always truthful, let alone a 17-year-old.
Oh, I'm sure we're better off, in the scheme of things, to not blindly trust our leaders. In a democracy, the people must judge what is true and just, not their servants. Perhaps it's wise, when erring, to err on the side of distrust and to view presidents and other politicians with skepticism. I know I do, now -- as a journalist, but also as a citizen.
By the time I got back home and hurried to complete that term paper, I was a different person. The seeds were planted and germinated and had begun to grow for a lifetime filled with challenging authority and common wisdom. By late Sunday night, I was not just the author of a pretty good paper about the opposition to the war in Vietnam; I was a well-informed citizen who was opposed to the war in Vietnam.
Still, when I saw the fresh, young, innocent face of a 10-year old boy (whose father was killed on 9-11) in this morning's New York Times, I yearned for the days when it seemed that we all looked up to our President with reverence and absolute trust.
Naive? Absolutely. A passing fancy? Of course.
But, the emotion that brought tears to my eyes as I contemplated the loss of innocence seems to be regret. One can't unring a bell. It's possible to nostalgically get in touch with sensibilities from childhood and youth; but one can't truly set aside life's lessons and return to those halcyon days when it was possible to believe that all the world was as pure and good and benign as we were.
It would be nice to be able to put the cork back in that bottle. I guess I'll have to settle for a bit of vicarious hero-worship captured by Mr. Muhammud yesterday afternoon at Ground Zero.
Tuesday, April 26, 2011
The late night star, of course, then corrected his pal and presented another list of items that the Tonight Show staff had generated -- a list intended, naturally, to put the audience in stitches.
In this information age, we're able to find just about everything -- if we phrase our search criteria carefully. But we have to sort through a lot of chaff to get to the wheat -- and even the best information isn't always made clear.
But the "Grey Lady," as newspaper lovers sometimes refer to the New York Times comes through seven days a week with clear, concise and in-depth coverage of "all the news that's fit to print."
With most stories, readers know they can read just the first few paragraphs and move on, confident that they've been given the "nuts" of the story. Those with more interest are offered more and more and more until even those few with huge appetites are satiated as talented writers squeeze just about EVERYTHING that is known about the topic.
I grew up reading the San Diego Union/Tribune, which is a pretty classy -- though clearly (at least at the time) biased paper. I remember the front page photos that appeared following the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon presidential debates. The caption below the Nixon frame read, "Vice-President Nixon makes a point during last nights debate;" while the Kennedy cutline was, "Senator Kennedy shuffles through his notes."
When I ended up in Los Angeles County about 20 years later, I began a love affair with the Los Angeles Times. It's a world-class publication -- unarguably the newspaper of record for the west coast (as the NY Times is for the east). I'm proud as can be of the unlikely fact that my first paid job as a journalist was working as a stringer for the Times' Orange County edition.
Another 20-some years later, I arrived in Merced, California and subscribed to the local newspaper -- best described, perhaps, as "light" (so light that Nolan Ryan couldn't throw it from the curb to my porch). I eventually wrote for that paper as well -- received better billing as a columnist, but didn't hold my head quite as high when telling strangers about my employer.
One fateful morning, as I searched the high grass for my little sliver of a newspaper, I heard the THWUMP of a major daily hit the pavement next door. My neighbor appeared in his bathrobe and scooped up what seemed to be too much newsprint for any central California publication.
"Is that the New York Times?" I shouted.
My neighbor confirmed my guess and, when he noticed that I was salivating and weak in the knees, offered to share each day's paper with me once he was done with it.
Well, nobody can actually read the entire New York Times in a single day (a slight exageration, but only a little), but my new best friend began depositing his only slightly disturbed treasure on my drive every day.
Then he moved across town and my halcyon days were ended ... until now.
I've decided to cancel my cable television and am replacing it with a daily subscription to the New York Times!
The New York Times is an American daily newspaper founded, and continuously published in New York City, since 1851. The New York Times has won 106 Pulitzer Prizes, the most of any news organization. Its website is the most popular American online newspaper website, receiving more than 30 million unique visitors per month.—Wikipedia
Monday, April 25, 2011
As a non-violent iconoclast, I tend to steer clear of rituals and ceremonies. But I know they have great meaning for many and certainly help a lot of good people deal with momentous events like the loss of a friend or family member.
Frank Pelatowski was a resident at The Hampshire in Merced, California. I moved in so I could take advantage of the parent company’s travel program and eventually embarked on a year-long circumnavigation of the U.S. and Canada during which I stayed in about 80 different facilities – usually for five days each.
I actually met Frank before I moved in. I needed some furniture and was introduced to him. He was downsizing for a move into smaller quarters as his resources diminished. I still have his couch, and sleep on it from time to time.
Within a minute or two, we discovered a common interest: writing. This led to a rather intense and intimate relationship that largely featured Frank dictating stories while I pounded my keyboard, often pleading with my friend to slow down or stop entirely so I could catch up.
We also took a few road trips together. We drove into the Sierra on two or three occasions to visit Frank’s old stomping grounds in Mariposa. We traveled to Fresno so my friend could appear on a Public Radio talk show. And we made a number of cross-town jaunts to the senior center in South Merced to attend meetings of a writing group, many members of which attended lunch on a few occasions back at The Hampshire to honor Frank – and, once, to celebrate the beginning of my long trip.
I was away when Frank turned 100. When I returned, he chided me for abandoning him and we went back to work. For a while, we tried to market weekly stories, touting my friend as “the world’s oldest newspaper columnist.” Together, we generated dozens of pieces and – in that context – I imagine I got to know Frank about as well as anyone.
He was what I call “good to go.” Every day, he got out of bed with the clear intention of doing something worthwhile. He’d often call me or greet me by announcing that we had to get to work or by asking me to suggest a project. Frank was rarely interested in planning an event for tomorrow; his philosophy was to get started.
My fondest memory is of Frank, seated on the couch in the lobby near his third-floor apartment, balancing a legal pad on his lap – writing. Like others of our ilk, Frank had to write; it reminded him that he was alive.
When his eyesight began to fail, Frank could no longer read or write for himself. As his world moved into the shadows, he became more dependent on my services. He was sad, frustrated and angry. The loss of sight was a cruel disability for this man who wrote to remind himself that he was still alive.
Having taken my trip, it was time for me to leave The Hampshire. Though I only moved a few blocks away, my friendship with Frank became increasingly distant. No longer eating nearly every meal together and spending time writing on an almost daily basis, we were both forced to find other ways to fill the day.
Frank’s health continued to deteriorate and, over time, that was increasingly manifested by problems with memory and difficulty with clear thinking. He seemed to resent my having moved away, feeling that I had abandoned him. Eventually, that sense evolved into distrust and, finally, it soured our friendship.
Finally, a crisis emerged and it became obvious that our stop-and-go relationship was causing my friend more angst than comfort. We discontinued writing together and I only saw Frank a few more times before he was moved into a more intense care-giving facility.
I’m not sure what to make of all this. It is certain that I gained much from knowing Frank Pelatowski and I’m also certain that the net impact on him of our friendship was very positive. I regret not having said goodbye to him; but our last encounter was positive and friendly and I’m happy to have that as my final recollection.
Sitting (and, alternatively, standing) in the church pew, I reflected on the few years that I knew Frank and on the rest of his life – which he had detailed to me so wonderfully that I truly feel as if I had known him all of his life.
The context of the afternoon – the promise that Frank was now enjoying eternal life – wasn’t as comforting to me as it seemed to be to others in the sanctuary. But, both my direct memories of time spent with Frank and memories he shared dating back nearly 100 years will be with me for all the rest of my years. And recognizing that a part of one person can endure in the memory of another does seem to offer a sense of eternity.
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumphs of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.
Of course I'm aware that there is a whole other school of thought -- where "warm and fuzzy" folks matriculate and where process is considered far more important than product. This approach has grown in popularity during my lifetime and has turned "cranky," "cantankerous" and "contentious" into adjectives describing character flaws.
Today, folks believe human enterprise is more about relationships than results; they prefer "win-win" outcomes and put a premium on sensitivity, tolerance, inclusion and collaboration.
In some extreme circumstances -- war, for example -- where sensitivity and collaboration between competing parties doesn't work (until it comes time for ending war).
In other circumstances -- marriage, for example -- winning a skirmish by all means necessary can almost guarantee losing the more important battle and in some cases, the war.
Most folks fall somewhere in between being cooperative and adversarial. Much of the time, the best path toward success probably includes both conflict and some collaberation.
It would be a rotten world if most people were constantly seeking an advantage over others with a sociopathic lack of regard for those others' needs and interests; and progress might be very slow if always getting along well were the prime objective of all enterprises.
In my life, finding a comfort zone between CONtest and conTEST has often proved to be problematic. My temperament -- which I believe is similar to that of a "Mastermind" as described at Kiersey.com -- makes me hard to understand, and hard to be around. Only about one in 100 people fall into my personality type category; and I believe I'm a fairly extreme example -- an outlier member of an outlier group.
The description provided, in part:
than other Rationals, having usually developed a very strong will.
Decisions come easily to them; in fact, they can hardly rest until
they have things settled and decided. But before they decide
anything, they must do the research. Masterminds are highly theoretical,
but they insist on looking at all available data before they embrace
an idea, and they are suspicious of any statement that is based on shoddy research, or that is not checked against reality.
Part of my nature is to accept diversity and to embrace change. Not all people (no, I'll be honest and say VERY FEW people) are as comfortable with unfamiliar ideas and new ways of life. I'm uncomfortable standing still -- which means I'm uncomfortable being in a group that's not on the move.
Thursday, April 21, 2011
The video was titled What You Are Is Where You Were When; it made sense to me then and makes even more sense now.
My parents became seven during the Roaring Twenties and then turned 13 during the Great Depression. Their values (and those of all of their generation) are colored by that transition and nothing that happened later (including their involvement in WWII) was likely to fundamentally change their base values.
Another group "came of age" during the War years and was impacted by a very different life experience that makes them a (fairly small) rather unique group. I've known only a few who were born during the '30s -- they're the Korean War era folks who REALLY meant it when they said, "I like Ike!"
My group, of course, is the biggest, baddest and most important group ever to inhabit the Earth (or so we think). We're the Baby Boomers and we came of age during the transition from the very "settled" '50s and the UNsettled (almost always referred to as the "turbulent") '60s.
And then, during those '60s, a new generation was born -- later, another came on the scene ... and yet another.
Though I helped raise two children -- one coming of age in the '70s and the other in the '80s -- and though I supervised and taught more young people who were aged 7-13 in the '90s (and a few from the '00s), I really don't "get" the post-boomers. It's mostly because, like most of my generation, they seem to have less gravitas than we possess -- they just don't bear scrutiny.
I'm kidding, of course -- well, I should say I know I'm wrong -- and I'd like to become acquainted with the groups that will be running things for most of the rest of my life. We Boomers are (finally) moving into what I have long referred to as "the check-out gang" -- a moniker that may actually come from Morris Massey: folks who have retired and are waiting for what comes next.
Several threads are likely to become woven into upcoming entries here: the aforementioned study of generational values; planning for my upcoming road trip; observations based on my recent experience with community organizing (as an AmeriCorps member); my search for (spiritual) meaning in life; my slow-but-sure progress toward better health and fitness; my reactions to political matters as the 2012 elections approach; and (as I almost NEVER say) much MUCH more!
How's that for a pile of BurkeDroppings?