Friday, April 18, 2014

THE LATE GREAT

My dad, oldest brother Tommy in uniform, sisters Joan & Irene, Robert, ma, me and Buddy during WWII. Buddy would soon join the Navy before war's end and have that Iwo Jima experience I posted about.
Me & my three brothers (who lived, another died as an infant) after WWII when Tommy became Campion, the Franciscan friar, flanked by Robert to his right and Buddy to his left.
Me in the colorful shirt with my three brothers to my right, Campion, then Buddy then Robert leaning down behind his wife "Sis" next to Buddy's wife Catherine and their firstborn Cathy, my mother behind them and her mother next to her with my sisters Joan, in the pixie cut and Irene and our dad...the only ones still living are Sis, Irene and me, Cathy passed from breast cancer five years ago and her mother was just buried at Arlington cemetery with her husband Jimmy we in the family called Buddy.
My three brothers and me, Robert, Campion (aka Tommy) and Buddy (aka Jimmy) around 1959.
Joan Baribeault, who I lived with in Santa Monica for several years and learned so much from, me in another colorful shirt, my brother Buddy and his wife Catherine the only time they visited me there.
All three gone now, and missed. Life. And the alternative.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

ROBERT A. CARO'S THE PASSAGE OF POWER & WALTER H. EITNER'S WALT WHITMAN'S WESTERN JAUNT

Okay, I'm a history geek. I love reading history, watching documentaries on historic subjects, or even fictional movies based on history, etc. And I realize there aren't many people anymore interested in reading a book that's over six hundred pages. That also happens to be only part of a much bigger project titled THE YEARS OF LYNDON JOHNSON. This one, THE PASSAGE OF POWER being number four in the ongoing series, and covering only the years 1958-64.

But, if you've got the interest and the stamina—and the time (I received this for my birthday last year, eleven months ago)—this is a very rewarding read. Caro's research is so thorough and his perspective so fair (incorporating every major player's memories of events and conversations etc.) that all the books in his massive LBJ biography are worth reading. But if you had to pick just one, it would be this one.

Because as the title suggest, it concerns Johnson moving from the powerful job of Senate leader to the thankless non-job of vice-president to the traumatic transformation of JFK's assassination and his ascendancy to the presidency. Powerful stuff. And for those of us who lived through it, the details, at least in my case, can be not just fascinating but moving. I highly recommend it, even if, like me, you read a little each night and it seems to take forever.

WALT WHITMAN'S WESTERN JAUNT is a different kind of history, and much shorter (just under a hundred pages not counting the end notes etc.) and of interest probably to even fewer readers. I picked it up in a used book store (one of the few left in this part of Jersey) because I read anything to do with Whitman and always have since I was in my teens, and this book I'd never seen before.

It's one of those specialized studies trying to set the record straight. It takes a trip Whitman made with several others from Camden, where he lived at the end of his life, (actually starting from Philadelphia where he joined the others) and examines the details of it. Whitman had written about this journey in my second favorite book of his, SPECIMEN DAYS (one of my all-time favorite books of prose, as LEAVES OF GRASS is for poetry), and Eitner's book is determined to set the record straight by pointing out discrepancies between Whitman's own account(s) (not just in SPECIMEN DAYS but in publicity generated through fake interviews—interviewing himself essentially, but making it look like some reporter was doing it—and newspaper articles seemingly written by nameless reporters etc.) and either what was written in newspaper accounts by others or in letters and other sources.

I found it all totally interesting, though I'm not sure anyone who isn't a Whitmanophile (?!) would, and liked deciding where I felt Eitner might be correct in correcting the record and where perhaps the newspaper accounts or other sources might just as likely have it wrong. In pointing out the discrepancies, Eitner rehashes the history of this railroad trip to Saint Louis and Kansas and Denver in 1879 in that short post-Civil War period that most cowboy movies are set in. I loved reading contemporary takes on what that world looked like, especially to these Easterners, and more especially to Whitman, who had written poetry about the West as if he'd lived there all his life (he'd gone as far as New Orleans once before).

Eitner's book was published in 1981, so it's probably out of print. But if you're a history buff who digs the post-Civil War period in the USA, or a Whitman fan, you might find some of this book, or at least the contemporaneous photos in it, enjoyable. I did.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Monday, April 14, 2014

WHAT CAN WE SAY

That anti-Semitic racist rightwing gun nut murderer who shot and killed those three innocent people in Kansas, thought he was striking a blow against "Jews" by shooting people outside two Jewish establishments.

But as we now know, and he does too, two of those people, the fourteen-year-old boy and his grandfather, were Methodists. And the middle aged female victim was a Catholic. Evil is evil, and this man's heinous act embodies that.

But his ending up harming not one Jewish person but three "white" Christians instead is more than ironic, it's emblematic of the reality that the divisions others would create among us are not "real" in the ways those who support those divisions think they are or might be.

The right-wing gun nut who killed the six people in that Sikh temple and thought he was murdering Muslims is another example of this. And those rightwing racist descendants of Europeans who rant against Obama and attack "blacks" might discover with a simple DNA test that their victims had ancestors who came from their own ancestors' homelands and even clans and extended families, as they themselves most likely carry the DNA of African ancestors.

It is estimated that six million Jews were slaughtered by the Nazis in their attempt to eliminate all Jews, but using those same mass murder techniques, the Nazis also murdered six million others, including "gays" and "Gypsies" and "communists" and so many more.

There are no innocent victims of evil we all cannot identify with. This sociopath proved that once again.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

SPRING HAS SPRUNG, SORT OF, LATE NIGHT MINI-RANT

As the U.N. releases another report on climate change warning of dire consequences if we don't stop using carbon based sources of energy, and others make clear if we had only adopted the cap and trade tax that's been on the political agenda since Jimmy Carter, or adopt it now, it would barely dent the mega billions the oil companies, and Koch brothers behind some of them, make every year but would eliminate our deficit and cut pollution by at least ten percent rather than increasing it by even more as without it continues to happen (let's not even get into how the Congress, led by the rightwing Republican dominated House, has extended the enormous tax breaks and corporate welfare for big oil paid for by us taxpayers but ended tax incentives for alternative energy!!!!!), and maybe then we wouldn't have temperature swings of forty degrees in a day or two as we did all Winter and are about to have for what we used to call Spring, but this Spring was initially still Winter and today was Summer (in the 80s here) and in a few days will be Fall again...et-endlessly-cetera...when will massive protests descend on Congress demanding action to END THE DESTRUCTION OF THE EARTH BY BIG OIL!!!!!!!.....

Saturday, April 12, 2014

ANOTHER OLD FAVORITE QUOTE

"I and the public know
What all school children learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return."

—W. H. Auden (from "September 1, 1939")

Thursday, April 10, 2014

AT ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY

I just got back from DC on the train, where I tried to write this from, but the Wifi on Amtrak isn't what they promise. I was down there for the funeral of my sister-in-law I posted about weeks ago. The service and burial took several weeks because she was interred at Arlington National Cemetery as the widow of a WWII veteran.

I had flown in from L.A. for that brother's funeral and burial in 1994 and was thoroughly impressed by the ceremony. Because he was a WWII vet who had served on Okinawa when combat was still occurring, the ceremony had more pomp than usual. The 21-gun salute and precision, by-the-numbers, short step ritual of carrying the coffin down a hillside to the grave with the coffin held steady and level despite the incline seemed almost like great theater.

As I remember that ritual, there were members of all the services represented, but maybe I'm not remembering correctly. At any rate, they were in their dress uniforms and were the best I'd ever seen. When the bugler began taps from within a few nearby trees that took a moment to locate at the very bottom of the hill, I gave it up. In the car back with my two still living brothers, now gone, I turned to them and said "Well, Buddy obviously wins." And we all laughed.

We called that brother "Buddy" because his name was James, like our father's. He was a hip swing musician when I was a kid, an amazing talent, capable of playing any instrument, though he started out on the reeds: sax and clarinet. When I went in the service after a short stint playing upright acoustic jazz bass, not very well, having been a piano player since I was little, he bought the bass from me and was playing gigs on it within weeks.

He lived in DC and then Maryland and backed all the stars when they played the Capital. As I remember it he was the godfather to Pearl Baily and Louie Belson's child. I know he backed Pearl several times, as well as Sammy Davis Jr. and others. He went to college in DC after the war on the G.I. Bill and then married my sister-in-law, an accordion player in a WWII all-girl band and they toured still partly war-torn Europe (picture THE THIRD MAN) with some sort of traveling show to return home and settle down.

He became the music director for poor high schools, and turned his kids into the best in the country, marching in Miami in The Orange Bowl New Years Parade and New York in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. All the time playing gigs at night when he wasn't going to night school, which he did for many many years, earning an MA and PhD in education, moving on from his Mister Holland period to being a high school principal in the '70s and beyond, still calling teenage girls "bobbysoxers."

He and his wife Catherine had many children, but lost one little boy, Tommy, as an infant. At Catherine's burial yesterday there was no 21-gun salute or bugler, and the eight sailors (in classic sailor uniforms, those hats etc.) laid her coffin at the top of the hill to be carried down after we left for the actual burial. But the lady running the show said we could walk down the hillside to the grave site if we wanted to.


I wanted to. And once there was surprised to see on one side of the typical Arlington headstone (at least typical in the 20th Century, not before) the name of the infant my brother and his young bride had lost. I remembered being at that burial too, and the dramatic grief my sister-in-law expressed. But did not remember it being at Arlington. It moved me that my brother had thought to bury him where he too would end up, and that his wife would now be with them both.

Then I walked around to the other side of the gravestone, and there was my brother's name and dates. I was stricken with grief myself then. And surprised by how deep it was. "Buddy," had been gone for twenty years. But though I was at his burial, the gravestone obviously hadn't been carved yet. Yesterday had been emotional enough already, including the funeral service and on the way from the chapel to the grave site passing two Marines in dress blues holding a saddled horse with no one on it and the boots turned backward in the stirrups. It was for a stranger's burial, and we passed the four horse open carriage with the coffin a little way beyond the lone riderless horse, but nonetheless, I choked up as if it had been for my sister-in-law or brother or their little boy Tommy.

I'm not crazy about the ways the military has become less democratic and universal but more mercenary and rightwing, or the ways in which the mostly chicken hawk Republican politicians who never served have identified themselves with being the military's champions, despite their record that proves the opposite. But I have to admit, the military's rituals, especially honoring the deceased (they're obviously often terrible at honoring the survivors who still suffer) are impressive.

My brother "Buddy"was the second oldest and followed the oldest (originally called Tommy but after the war he became a Franciscan friar and missionary to Japan renamed Campion) into WWII. But whereas Tommy had graduated high school, Buddy joined out of high school toward the end of the war, when the country needed men so badly it offered instant high school diplomas to juniors and seniors who joined the service. Buddy entered the Navy and was immediately assigned to a Navy band because of his great musician's chops. But his little band joined the armada sailing to Okinawa to finish taking over that island and prepare for the invasion of Japan.

He told me stories about his experiences when I was young, including being cured of sleep walking when he did it one night on board ship and was jumped and beaten by men who'd been frightened out of their fearful sleep by it, worried about Japanese torpedoes or Kamikaze pilots. One incident he recounted involved a young sailor who shot craps with some city sharpies and couldn't make good on his debts so they threw him overboard.

I always wanted to include that scene in a movie, and then Clint Eastwood did it in his IWO JIMA flick. My brother played for officers and for ceremonies right behind the front lines. He heard the sounds of warfare and saw the dead and wounded, but the closest he got to the active violence was when two guys in the tent next to his tried to make a souvenir ashtray out of a mortar shell they thought was a dud but it exploded and left my brother cleaning human remains off his tent.

He shared other things that weren't as bad as relatives who were at The Battle of the Bulge or other WWII struggles (or in combat in other wars for that matter). But they were still pretty traumatic, I would think, for a 17-year-old to experience. I guess all those stories, and the years when I was a boy and he was the hippest and funniest person I knew, crystallized in my heart when I saw his tombstone.
Whether it was "the best" or not I'll leave to others (as some Roman said, "Comparisons are odious"—only he said it in Latin) but it's clear that WWII generation is disappearing. Here's to them.