Book Review and Reflection: Hillbilly Elegy

February 17, 2017

hillbillyPerhaps the best thing that I can say about J.D. Vance’s bestseller Hillbilly Elegy is that it reminds me of Catherine Marenghi’s Glad Farm.

Both are personal memoirs of people who grew up in dire poverty and “made it” despite the odds that their respective backgrounds had stacked against them. But there are as many differences between the tales as there are similarities.

Marenghi grew up in Milford, Massachusetts, a dreary Boston exurb. Vance was born in Middletown, Ohio. But he considers Jackson, Kentucky, his native town. His great-grandparents had a place in “the holler” of Jackson, in the heart of Appalachia’s coal country. He spent most of his summers there and a lot of other time visiting Jackson, which he called “the one place that belonged to me.”

Shortly before World War II, his grandparents had traveled the “Hillbilly Highway” that brought thousands of hill people to work in the smoky factories and steel mills of Rustbelt America. But those folk brought their hillbilly values and culture out of the hills to wherever they settled.

Glad Farm, which I reviewed here, is an inspiring personal odyssey. So too is Hillbilly Elegy. But Vance frequently steps back and explains what’s going on and why. That’s good, and much needed in America – especially at this time in our history.

The plight of poor white citizens, a virtually forgotten segment of our society, hasn’t been discussed much at all.  Be warned, however. Don’t refer to it as “plight” if you’re talking to one of Vance’s kin. You’ll likely get busted upside your head. Or worse.

Jackson is in Breathitt County, Kentucky. It’s called “Bloody Breathitt” because it was the only county in America to fill its World War I draft quota entirely with volunteers.  There’s much to admire in its rough-hewn people, with their loyalty to family and country topping the list. But hill folk take those loyalties and many other things to extremes.

The stories Vance tells of his family history and his early life bring their share of chuckles. But they are rueful, dread-laced chuckles. You wouldn’t want to be there.

A distant cousin of Vance’s married into a family named Hatfield and joined a band of former Confederate soldiers. He murdered a former Union soldier named Asa McCoy, thereby launching one of the most famous and violent family feuds in American history.

An uncle, called a “son of a bitch” by a truck driver, pulled the man out of the truck, beat him unconscious, and ran an electric saw up and down his body. Somehow, the guy survived.

Author J.D. Vance

Author J.D. Vance

Another uncle, called “Teaberry” because of his fondness for that brand of gum, once heard a young man tell a female relative that he’d like to “eat her panties.” Teaberry drove home, obtained a pair of the woman’s panties, sought out the kid, and forced him at knifepoint to consume them.

After World War II, many poor whites had a choice to make: whether to stay in the hills and work in the coal mines or take the Hillbilly Highway to find work in the industrial Midwest.

The book’s hero is Vance’s grandmother Bonnie “Mamaw” Vance. She was known as the toughest and meanest woman in Jackson, even long after she and her husband had taken the Hillbilly Highway out. She once saw a couple of guys trying to steal the family cow. She fetched her rifle and brought down one of them with a shot to the leg. Mamaw was fixin’ to put the final bullet through his skull when Papaw intervened.

Later on, when Vance was in the seventh grade and teetering close to taking up with weed-smoking peers, she told him blithely that, if she saw him with any of that crowd, she’d run them over in her car.   “No one will ever find out,” she warned.  He stayed away from them.

Still later she was paid a visit by a Marine recruiter.  Not happy with her grandson’s decision to enlist, she greeted the recruiter him from her front porch and said, “Set one foot on my f—- porch, and I’ll blow it off.”

The Marine stayed down on the lawn. I could only think of a deadly serious version of Granny Clampett. Again, a chuckle, but one from a respectable distance, just as that Marine guy sensibly kept.

Vance lived most of his high school years with Mamaw. His mother, one of her three children, was one of the tragic cases who never made it out of the desperate cycles of poverty, addiction, and despair in Appalachia. She went through several husbands and common-law husbands and eventually succumbed to heroin.

In his book, Vance frequently critiques and analyzes what’s going on.  In a cri de coeur about the hillbilly mindset and pathology, he writes,

 

“This was my world; a world of truly irrational behavior. We spend our way to the poorhouse. We buy giant TVs and iPads. Our children wear nice clothes thanks to high-interest credit cards and payday loans…We spend to pretend we’re upper class. And when the dust clears – when bankruptcy hits or a family member bails us out of our stupidity, there’s nothing left over….Our homes are a chaotic mess. We scream and yell at each other like we’re spectators at a football game. At least one member of the family uses drugs – sometimes the father, sometimes the mother, sometimes both. ..We don’t study as children and we don’t make our kids study when we’re parents. We choose not to work when we should be looking for a job. Sometimes we get a job but it won’t last…We talk about the value of hard work  but tell ourselves that the reason we’re not working is some perceived unfairness: Obama shut down the coal mines, or all the jobs went to the Chinese. These are the lies we tell ourselves to solve the cognitive dissonance – the broken connection between the world we see and the values we preach.”

 

But Vance was one of the rare hillbillies who took advantage of the few good cards in the hand he was dealt. Of his grandmother, he states, “Thanks to Mamaw, I never saw only the worst of what our community offered, and I believe that saved me. There was always a safe place and a loving embrace if I ever needed it. Our neighbors’ kids couldn’t say the same.”

Mamaw died at age 72 when Vance was in the Marine Corps.  The Marines were a positive and transforming experience for Vance. After military service he went to Ohio State and Yale Law School. Generous scholarship help as well as the GI Bill enabled Vance to finance his education.  He did well in both schools. But even then, as he was discovering the richer and more prosperous side of America, he was torn between his new life and his hillbilly roots.

One time, on a visit to the old home country, he was wearing a Yale t-shirt while filling up at a gas station. When the attendant asked if he went to Yale, he denied it and said that his girlfriend went there. “I lied to a stranger to avoid feeling like a traitor,” he writes.

So J.D. Vance escaped his past. Or did he? You can decide that, after reading his book.

I can envision a college course built around Hillbilly Elegy and Glad Farm.  Book clubs and discussion groups might also consider taking up the two of them together. These two fine authors, both penning their first book, have much to teach us.

Catherine Marenghi’s writing style is more lyrical and picturesque than Vance’s meat-and-potatoes prose. Glad Farm has a Hallmark ending; it would make a better movie or miniseries than would Hillbilly Elegy.  You feel a nice, admiring glow for its author when you put it down.

You also admire the dickens out of J.D. Vance. But you can’t help but feel a bit depressed when you close his book. At least that’s how I felt.  The intractable problems that he lived through can be overcome, as his story shows. But those problems will always be with us.

What Two Soldiers Can Teach Both Our Political Leaders and All of Us

January 22, 2017

Today I would like to reflect on long-ago wartime deeds of a couple of soldiers. One of them wore the uniform of the United States of America; the other, the uniform of Nazi Germany.

May the actions of both men serve as moral and ethical guideposts for everyone: for those who hold positions of political and personal power and make decisions affecting the lives and fortunes of millions, and for those of us who make our own, seemingly less consequential decisions that affect our fellow human beings as we go about our daily lives.

Lawrence Colburn

Lawrence Colburn

The first of these soldiers is Army Specialist Lawrence Colburn.  I recently read of his passing, which took place on December 13, 2016. Colburn was the gunner in the three-man helicopter crew that passed over the Vietnam hamlet of My Lai in March 1968 and saw a horrific scene of mass slaughter taking place. The chopper landed between the villagers who were being gunned down and the U.S. solders, commanded by Lieutenant William Calley.

Colburn remained in the helicopter along with specialist Glenn Andreotta.  They trained their guns on the clearing, covering their pilot, Hugh Thompson, as he angrily confronted Calley. Thompson ordered Calley and his troops to stop the carnage, and threatened to fire on them if they did not. The killing stopped, but not soon enough to spare the lives of the 500 or more villagers that Calley’s men had murdered.

My Lai is perhaps the darkest chapter in American military history. As the magazine that mentioned the news of Colburn’s death pointed out, the mass killing took more lives than the Nazis’ slaughter of 340 people of the town of Lidice, Czechoslovakia. That mass murder was a reprisal for the assassination of the ruthless Reinhard Heydrich, one of the architects of the Holocaust and Adolf Hitler’s man in charge of that region.

We all know of the policies and practices that drove Nazi Germany to the mass murder of some six million Jewish people. But the Holocaust, or Shoah, also brought forth here and there some tiny glimmers of heroic charity of the kind shown at My Lai.

One Holocaust survivor, my dear and admired friend Mary Wygodski, tells of a German soldier that a friend of hers encountered in a concentration camp. Mary never saw him herself, but she heard of him. He was a young man of short stature, working as a guard and wearing the uniform of the Wehrmacht, the German regular army. He was not a member of the SS, that diabolical rabble that were charged with little more than killing Jews.

With Mary Wygodski at her home in St. Petersburg, Florida in December 2015.

With Mary Wygodski at her home in St. Petersburg, Florida in December 2015.

Somewhere along the way, that guard encountered a young woman known to Mary. He offered to leave his lunch for her every day, stashing it in a place that would be known to just the two of them.  How and why he came to that decision, what motivated him to risk severe punishment if not his very life, we’ll never know. He also admonished her, “You don’t know me. You never saw me. We never spoke.”

So it was, until they had to move on. Mary’s friend shared the lunches – real food like wurst, bread, cheese – with a few others who were being fed starvation diets as they were worked to death. We don’t know if that shared food saved their lives, but it doubtlessly gave them hope and strength to carry on.

I singled our Lawrence Colburn here only because his death was the most recent.  Andreotta died in combat in Vietnam, and Thompson died in 2006. Thompson was probably the one who determined what they did on that awful day, but all three were heroes.

They were initially regarded as traitors for reporting the massacre and testifying against Calley. They all received, belatedly in 1998, the Soldier’s Medal.  Thompson and Colburn were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001, but they were passed over.  No surprise there.

That nameless German lad undoubtedly did not receive a medal for his quiet and unsanctioned heroism from his government.  I only hope that he survived the war and lived a good life. Perhaps, either now or in the hereafter, he can take comfort in knowing that he may have saved the lives of several Jewish girls. Their lives and those of their children and descendants are his gift to all of us.

Finally, as the writer of the story on Colburn noted, he and his crewmates never forgot that their highest duty was to humanity and to the law.  Nor did the kid from the German army.

There is a new group of people assuming the mantle of power in Washington D.C.  I hope that they too remember that their highest duty is to humanity and to the law. That goes for them and for those who opposed them at every turn, and still do.

It is also a good thing for us all to remember. Our decisions and deeds may not have the grand, widespread impact of those of our leaders.  But they are no less important to those whose lives touch our own.

Looking Back at the 1936 Olympics

January 3, 2017

on-board-ss-manhattanEighty-one years ago today (January 3, 1936), the United States Olympic Ice Hockey team set sail for Europe on the S.S. Manhattan.  They would play several exhibition matches along the way, but their ultimate destination was Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. The coach was my uncle, a 32-year old guy named Walter Brown.

On February 6, 1936, the opening event of the Olympics was a game between the United States and Germany, played despite a heavy snow storm.  The summer Olympics and the heroics of Jesse Owens and the University of Washington crew team (“The Boys in the Boat’) were yet to come.

Our guys won it, 1-0, and eventually finished with the Bronze Medal. In the final round, we tied Great Britain, 0-0, and lost the last game 1-0 to Canada. The winning goal in that one came when a puck eluded U.S. goalie Tom Moone, who was blinded by the bright sun behind the shooter.

Great Britain won its first and only Gold in those games. Canada won the Silver Medal after three consecutive Golds.  The USA team actually never lost to the Brits, tying them in Germany and beating them in another game played in England.

The teams traveled in style.  The S.S. Manhattan, owned by United States Lines, was the largest steamship ever built in America. The line published a book with a passenger list, which was given as a souvenir to all travelers. Its pages are reproduced here.

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History I Never Knew: The First Lighted Christmas Tree

November 29, 2016

According to Smithsonian magazine, strings of Christmas lights brighten up the December evenings of about 80 million homes in America. They account for six percent of the nation’s electrical load during that month.

th-father-christmas-lights-johnson-nmah-ac0069-0000008-v

Edward Hibberd Johnson

Seems like there have always been Christmas tree lights, but that’s not so. For a few years, starting in 1882, there was only one lighted Christmas tree in America. It was at the home of Edward Hibberd Johnson, 136 East 36th Street, New York. This is the rest of the story.

Johnson was the president of the Edison Company for Electric Lighting. That company was founded by Thomas Edison, whose goal was to provide illumination for the streets of New York.  Johnson was a sharp guy and a go-getter – “part businessman, part engineer, part Barnum” as Smithsonian puts it. He had been manager of the Automatic Telegraph Company in the years following the Civil War.

Johnson hired the 24-year-old Edison in 1871. He quickly saw what a brilliant prodigy Edison was, and when Edison left to form his own company, Johnson followed and went to work for him. Johnson’s job was to find ways to market Edison’s inventions. The first of these was the phonograph, invented in 1877. Johnson took the machine on tour and charged people to listen to it.

The Edison Lamp Company was born in 1880 after Edison secured a patent on the light bulb. The two of them along with other investors, launched it after raising $35,000 in seed capital. It would be some years before electrical power was widely available, but Johnson and Edison were on their way.

By the time that the Edison company was founded, Christmas trees were already an established tradition, albeit a relatively new one. In 1841, Queen Victoria’s husband Albert introduced the Christmas tree to Britain – the “tannenbaum” of German origin.  In 1856, a Christmas tree appeared in the White House during the presidency of Franklin Pierce.

The practice of bringing a Christmas tree, decorated with pretty ornaments, spread rapidly. The nicest looking trees were the ones that were lighted – with candles. Real candles. Quite a fire hazard.

Then Johnson had an idea. Why not replace the candles with electric light bulbs? Bingo.

johnsonedward-firstelectrictree1882

The first lighted Christmas tree, 1882

He set up a tree in his front window and hand-wired 80 red, white, and blue light bulbs in six separate strings connected by copper bands. The connections could open and close as the tree rotated on a base that was powered by a small dynamo, also invented by Edison.

Johnson then went out and solicited coverage from the media and got a glowing, effusive article from W.C. Croffut of the Detroit Free Press, who wrote, “..it was brilliantly lighted with…eighty lights all encased in these dainty glass eggs…one can hardly imagine anything prettier.”

Crowds flocked to 36th Street to see Johnson’s tree each year. In 1884, he had 120 lights on the tree. The display wasn’t cheap – $12 for the lights alone, which would be about $350 in today’s money.  In 1894, president Grover Cleveland had the first lighted Christmas tree in the White House.   And the price of the lights rapidly came down to affordable levels. By 1914, a string of lights cost $1.75.

But it all began with that “Miracle on 36th Street.” Now you know the rest of the story.

A View from the Top of the Hill

November 22, 2016

My grandfather George V. Brown, Class of 1898, and my uncle Walter A. Brown, Class of 1923, were inducted into the Hopkinton High School Top of the Hill Class of 2016 this evening. Top of the Hill  honors graduates of the school whose careers were marked by both high achievement and contribution to society.

I had the privilege of accepting the honor in their names and of speaking in their behalf.  The following is my address to the gathering.

nov-22-2016-1In Hopkinton you have a saying. “It all starts here.” That’s true, when you’re talking about the world’s most prestigious road race.

But that’s not the entire story of Hopkinton and sports. Not at all. Hopkinton has given much more to the world of sport, both in America and abroad. Better to say “It all started here.”

It all started with two of the men that Hopkinton honors this evening for achievements and contributions to society. George V. Brown, my grandfather, and Walter A. Brown, my uncle, were two of our country’s finest sportsmen. They were founding fathers and pioneers.

So much that was good in the world of sport, over more than 60 years of the 20th century, came about because of them.

Regarding their achievements – it would take a long time to list them all. I will mention just a few. But before doing so I want to point out that these gentlemen were not sportsmen as we understand the term today. They didn’t enter their professions as wealthy men. Sports were their livelihood, not their hobby. They were very good at what they did. But more importantly, they were good people. They were men of their times, but they were men for all seasons and for all time.

George Brown went into sports coaching and administration right after Bryant and Stratton Business School. By 1899 he was working at the Boston Athletic Association, and became its Athletic Manager in 1904. The BAA was a prime source of athletes for America’s Olympic teams. George was at the 1904 St Louis Olympics and at every Olympic games until his death, as a coach or an official.

He also was hired to run the rebuilt Boston Arena in 1919. Hockey flourished at all levels in Boston. The Bruins played there. He launched Boston University’s program. He started the CanAm games. His son Walter was his right-hand man.

In 1933, the BAA’s financial leader Henry Lapham took over the Boston Madison Square Garden and made George general manager. When George died at the age of 57, in 1937, Walter succeeded him. George is enshrined in both the United States and the National Hockey League Halls of Fame.

Walter was already a leader of American ice hockey when he became the Garden’s general manager at age 32. He had coached the first American team to win the World Championship: the Massachusetts Rangers, in 1933. They defeated Canada in the championship game in Prague – the first time anyone had ever beaten Canada in international play.

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With Boston College-bound Hopkinton High senior Olivia Sparr, whose class co-hosted this evening’s ceremony.

Walter coached the Bronze medal winning Americans in the 1936 Olympics. The opening event of those Winter Games was hockey: the United States 1, Germany 0, played in a snowstorm before a crowd that included all the high-ranking members of the Third Reich. That was the first time the Americans would defeat and disappoint their hosts. It wouldn’t be the last. A few months later, Jesse Owens and the track team – with George V. Brown as one of the coaches – would do it again.

Walter stayed a leader of American and International hockey up until his death – including running US Hockey when we won the Gold Medal at Squaw Valley in 1960. The Walter Brown Award goes to the best American-born college player in New England.

The BAA fell on hard times in the 1930s. Walter took over as president and ran the organization from the Garden. He kept the race alive in Boston. Nowadays, the BAA is back. It’s a superb, professionally administered operation that more than pays its own way and does many great things for the community. But it wasn’t always like this.

There’s another wonderful tradition around the Marathon that I must mention. I and all of my family members are most grateful to the BAA and Hopkinton for it. Every year since 1908, except for one, a descendant of George V. Brown has fired off the gun to start the Boston Marathon. And since 2008, George, in his statue, has been right there to watch.

Walter is probably best known in Boston as the owner of the Celtics. He bought them from the Garden in 1949 for $2000. In 1950, he was responsible for breaking the color line in the NBA when he drafted Chuck Cooper of Duquesne…and he told those present, those who objected, “I don’t care if he’s striped, plaid, or polka-dot. Boston drafts Chuck Cooper.”

The Celtics, as we know, became a dynasty with Red Auerbach, Bob Cousy, Bill Russell and all the rest. But it took a while, and it took a total personal commitment from Walter. In 1952, he took out a $20,000 mortgage on his house in Newton to keep them afloat.

Like his father, Walter died much too young. He was 59 when he had a massive coronary and passed away in 1964. As the newspapers stated, “Grown men cried that day.” Walter is enshrined in the National Basketball Hall of Fame and three hockey halls of fame.

What I’ve just told you is only the beginning of their achievements and contributions to society. I hope it suffices to say here that these two sons of Hopkinton were overachievers and substantial contributors.

But I’ve just recited a list of things. I don’t think these achievements are the true measure of George and Walter Brown.  Please let me point out what some people who knew them wrote or said.

Of George V. Brown:

“No other Boston man, excepting the late George Wright and Dr. Walter Kendall, has framed so many sport scenes with his personality.  He refereed football games before Jim Thorpe came as an unknown novice on his first visit to the Harvard stadium. He made the B. A. A. Winter Games a winter mecca for indoor athletes of the country and made the Boston Marathon the criterion of the world.”

“Hopkinton’s George Brown and the citizens of Milford were among the relatively few Americans to honor native American Olympic Games winner Jim Thorpe before he was unjustly stripped of his medals…George Brown felt none of the animosity toward Native Americans which other U.S. citizens harbored in those days…As far as Brown was concerned, the measure of a man was not his nationality or race. Rather, Brown expected an athlete to do the best he could in the Olympic Games competition, nothing more, and nothing less.”

“He held his friends through life. What better epitaph.  His word was unfailing. What better wreath to lay on his tomb. He helped the young. What better memorial to hang in his halls.”

And of Walter Brown:

“If none could enter the Boston Garden except by presenting a personal account of a gift of this man’s time, talent, counsel or money to some person or some cause in need of human kindness and help, not a seat in the Garden would be empty.

“And many such there will be in every audience that ever gathers, and they will all remember. And they will pass on to their children the memory of a man who felt that every charity or worthy cause had a claim upon him.  He was the embodiment of civic responsibility in the city where there are many common virtues. He was the exemplar of civic duty in a community where it is sometimes appealed to in vain. To these public virtues were added the virtues of gentleness, kindness, thoughtfulness, humility, and love for his family.

“In a city that had only residents, he was a first citizen. In a life that was crowded with conflicting claims, he was a citizen first.

“What he was, what he did, what he said, and what he thought for the good of his fellow man, each time the lights go up in the Boston Garden down through the years, he will be freshly remembered.”

I thank you for the privilege of addressing to you on behalf of my grandfather and my uncle.  I speak in gratitude for my mother Margaret, for the rest of Walter’s siblings, and for their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

Tonight I can’t help but recall the words of President John F. Kennedy – “We must judge a country not only by the men it produces. But by the men it honors. By the men it remembers.”

In remembering George V. Brown and Walter A. Brown as you have, along with our other distinguished honorees Fred Harris, Michael Shepard, Kelly Grill, Sunni Beville, and Libby Bischoff, Hopkinton tells the world, “These are our beloved sons and daughters. We nurtured them. We sent them forth. By honoring them, we bring honor to ourselves and all that we stand for.”

“Those Who Do Not Learn the Lessons of History…”

October 31, 2016

October 31, 2016

A History Note — written as we approach the end of one of the most contentious, divisive, and damaging presidential election campaigns of all time.

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Frances Perkins

November 9, the day after Election Day, is the 78th anniversary of Kristallnacht – “Night of the Broken Glass.” On November 9, 1938, all across Germany, Jewish-owned businesses were trashed and looted, 1,000 synagogues were destroyed, and some 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to concentration camps.  The excuse for this Nazi-sponsored pogrom was the killing, in Paris, of a minor German diplomat by a Jewish youth.

This horrific event, too large and widespread to be hidden, demonstrated to the world that negotiations with Adolf Hitler and the Nazis were futile. To engage in diplomacy with such a regime is a cruel charade – always has been.

Germany’s intentions with regard to Jewish people were laid bare.  The world saw what was happening and was shocked – shocked. But only America took the step of recalling its ambassador. That was one good and worthy step by Franklin Roosevelt, but he couldn’t bring himself to speak the entire truth. He said that the news from Germany was scarcely believable in a 20th-century civilization, but still he would not use the word “Jews.”

Nor did FDR propose any additional measure for helping the hundreds of thousands of European refugees, and he caved in to fear of provoking anti-Semites in Congress by affirming existing immigration quota limits.

One of the few truly “good guys” in the American government during this horrible era was Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins (depicted), the first woman to be appointed to a Cabinet position.  She saw through Hitler right from the start and fought the good fight, often futilely, as FDR bobbed and weaved and split differences to protect his precious New Deal.

After Kristallnacht, finally, Perkins had a minor triumph when she met with FDR and persuaded him to extend indefinitely the visas of thousands of German Jews who were already in the U.S.  One of the few world leaders who endorsed FDR’s move and who took positive steps to help Jewish refugees was Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King.

Roosevelt agreed to do so over the objections of the State Department, saying that it would be inhuman to force Jews to return to Germany.  He had an opening and took it, because the laws were unclear on whether or not he had the authority. But he declined to press Congress to raise the quota for immigrants.

Two months later, a Roper poll showed that 83% of respondents opposed opening America’s doors to European refugees; only 9% supported such a bill.

Not a “Profile in Courage,” that FDR.  His heart was probably in the right place, but he would never risk any of his political capital.

Not a shining moment for America, either.

Let’s see – covering our political derriere; refusing to “speak truth to power;” ignoring the plight of people “over there”… have we learned anything at all from Kristallnacht?

Book Review: Glad Farm, by Catherine Marenghi

August 12, 2016

Glad FarmIt’s tempting, and too easy, to describe Catherine Marenghi’s memoir, Glad Farm, as a great American success story.  It is that, to be sure. She lived her first 17 years with her parents and four siblings in a ramshackle home in Milford, Massachusetts.  The grinding poverty of her childhood reminds one of Jeannette Walls’s early years in her 2005 memoir Glass Castle.

Like Ms Walls, Ms Marenghi set herself free through her education.  She earned a full scholarship to Tufts and went on to a prosperous career in writing and public relations.  That’s the bare outline; that’s the American success story.  That’s not enough, however. It doesn’t do justice to this elegantly written but searingly honest tale.

The Glad Farm that gave the book its title was the plot of land where she was raised. Her parents had grown and sold gladiolus flowers. The business did well for a time but failed before Catherine, the fourth of their five children, was born.

The family remained on the land and barely eked out an existence.  The author is unsparingly frank in describing it all, including her inability to have school friends come to visit, her dealings with thoughtless peers and adults, and her often-contentious relations with mother and sisters.  We also read of her coming of age on the outskirts of hippiedom in college, of her happy junior year abroad in Italy, and of a unique job as one of America’s first telecommuters.

Biography and memoir are best writ small. How well we experience the fine details – the colors, the smells, the images – are usually the difference between an average read and a superior one. Glad Farm is the latter.

Catherine Marenghi has a delightful knack of painting pictures with her words, of crafting similes and metaphors and of employing all those rhetorical devices that we’ve heard about but never could do ourselves.

It’s impossible not to feel the chill in that unheated home in the woods of Milford, or the cold wind on the slushy, ash-strewn pathway to the outhouse.   We can see the streets, the artworks, and the people of Florence and Perugia, Italy. We can also feel her joy in motherhood and the swirling emotions that accompanied her divorce proceedings.

Author Catherine Marenghi

Author Catherine Marenghi

It takes the author almost a full lifetime to discover all that she, and we readers, need to know about her parents and about her extended family’s past.  Her discovery of family correspondence and clippings in an old cedar chest reveal the details of her parents’ dreams and ambitions.  She also learns of a betrayal, by relatives, that kept her family out of a much better house that was rightfully theirs.

Finally, she and we learn of another family tragedy that had proved too much for her father to overcome. It wasn’t just the failure of the gladiolus farm that crushed his spirit.

As she puts it, after first seeing a picture of her father in his younger days, “He was a good-looking man – not at all like the world-weary, gray haired father I remembered. I could see what my mother saw in him.”

To endure and prevail through the hardships and injustice that Catherine Marenghi experienced is remarkable enough.  To endure and prevail without allowing bitterness to take hold would be much, much harder for most human beings.

I don’t think I’m revealing too much to report that that’s not what happens here.  Catherine’s final words are a precise and eloquent summation, the essential message that readers should remember.

“Life, precious life, always wins over death. Life gets the last word.”

Yes, it does. And this wonderful book shows why.

 

Media Bias – and a Book Review, Sort Of

July 29, 2016

city roomDo you suppose that “media bias” is a new thing in America? It’s a familiar topic nowadays, so familiar that it’s almost a throwaway line in what passes for political discourse. Whatever side you’re on, there’s “media bias” against your candidate. Right?

Now that that’s out of the way, let me retell a story on that topic. I just read it in “City Room,” a memoir by Arthur Gelb, the former managing editor of the New York Times.

I haven’t finished the book yet. There’s no need to, in order to make the point that I hope to make. But I will say it’s been an enjoyable and informative read thus far, especially for someone like me who is interested in history and who has seen his own byline in print.

I hope that Mr. Gelb’s story gives you, dear reader, a little more food for thought. Before I do, though, two items for digression and full disclosure.

I Bring My Own Biases to this Post

The Times: I once wrote for the New York Times. For seven years, I was a correspondent on the college hockey beat, usually filing short pieces for the Sunday paper. I loved the affiliation. I reveled in being “the gentleman from The Times.” Everybody returned my calls – pronto.

NYT-logoOnce I overdid the schtick when covering a national tournament in Detroit. I wore my best business suit with a bright red tie and matching handkerchief sticking out of my breast pocket. Reporters just don’t dress that way – but what the hell.

When my gig ended, the editor explained that staff reporters had been complaining that there were too many stories being assigned to stringers. One of those who didn’t complain, I’m sure, was the late William N. Wallace.

Bill took over all of the college hockey coverage and was sheepish and apologetic to me. I loved the man. He’d been a contact and mentor, and we stayed friends until his death. Bill had been a college baseball buddy (and drinking pal) of George H.W. “Pepper” Bush at Yale.

So I’m not totally objective about The New York Times – especially about what it used to be, the national paper of record. That was before the Internet changed everything.

The Holocaust: I’m not objective about the Holocaust either. How could anyone be? It was the largest and most methodical organized crime in history. I never had an inkling of it until reading Primo Levi in college. Almost everything I’ve learned about it, I’ve had to learn on my own. Even today, it is downplayed, short-shrifted, and still denied by some.

Arthur Gelb

Arthur Gelb

I’m one of those people who believes that we must continue to tell the story of the Holocaust and its survivors “unto the Tenth Generation,” as Deuteronomy warns. If we don’t, and if we don’t remember the larger lessons of history, then Winston Churchill’s immortal words may well come true. He said, as Britain took up the battle against Adolf Hitler,

“…if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age, made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.”

I don’t think that’s overstating it. If I’m biased on the subject of The Holocaust, so be it.

Burying and Bowdlerizing

Arthur Gelb began working as a copyboy at The Times during World War II. When Germany finally fell, and the stories of concentration camp atrocities began to trickle in, the paper all but ignored them. That was serious business.

If something was not in the national paper of record, either it didn’t happen, or it wasn’t important. Every newspaper in America emulated The New York Times.

Some excerpts from Chapter Six of Gelb’s book. They are worth quoting at some length:

Arthur Hays Sulzberger

Arthur Hays Sulzberger

On when the Russians liberated Majdanek and Auschwitz in 1944, Gelb writes, “while the Jews were predominant among the inmates, they weren’t singled out until the story jumped to an inside page.”

Notice this technique – “burying” the important details. Sound familiar? There’s more.

More from Gelb, on the coverage in April of 1945 when American soldiers liberated Buchenwald:

“…descriptions of barbarism trickled out day by day, one horrifying revelation following upon another. Many Americans began to feel that they had not been adequately informed over the years by their newspapers about the torture and slaughter of innocent people who, as it turned out, were mostly Jews.”

“Unfortunately, the country’s mainstream press generally followed the Times’ lead. To my dismay and that of many of my colleagues, the stories about the American liberation…were not displayed on the front page. And there was scarcely any attempt early on to put into perspective what was emerging as the genocidal epic of modern times.”

“Among the most egregious examples of news misjudgment by The Times was the story it ran on April 13 that American troops had freed the inmates at Buchenwald. The Times used only three brief paragraphs from the AP dispatch, which was placed at the bottom of page 11 among several other short items, including one headed ‘War Dog Honored Here.’”

Arthur Ochs "Punch" Sulzberger

Arthur Ochs “Punch” Sulzberger

“It was as though the top editors, in the beginning at least, simply could not bring themselves to entirely accept the reports filed by seasoned war correspondents. Since the stories tended to describe the liberated inmates as “victims” and “prisoners,” rarely as “Jews,” many of us in the city room simply couldn’t fathom what was on the minds of the editors.”

The editors finally began moving coverage to page one in response to readers’ outrage, but even then they fudged and obfuscated. Details about Buchenwald, such as gallows, torture rooms, and crematoria made it into a page one story – below the fold, so rendered less important – and none of the victims were identified as Jews until, far down in the story, it told of a nine-year-old boy who had survived a medical experiment.

One more distressing example. Again, Gelb’s words:

“What I found incomprehensible was…the hollow editorial, third in sequence on the page, with no mention of Jewish victims…Equally disturbing was the reserved manner in which the paper, two weeks later (April 26) handled its second account of Nazi extermination tactics at Buchenwald…The gruesome facts obviously belonged on page one, but they appeared instead under a constrained single-column headline on page six that read, “Buchenwald Worse Than Battlefield.”

“As the Twig is Bent…”

Adolph Ochs

Adolph Ochs

What the devil was going on here? The paper’s publisher was Arthur Hays Sulzberger. His father-in-law Adolph Ochs had been publisher before him.  Why did the paper under the second-generation Jew who was running it do such a shameful job with such an important story?

Gelb tells of his conversation with the third-generation publisher Arthur Ochs “Punch” Sulzberger, in 1993, shortly after the opening of the National Holocaust Museum.  In this telling – which sounds most plausible – Arthur Hays Sulzberger had been following the lead of his father-in-law who had been adamantly determined that The Times never be regarded as a  “Jewish paper.”  And why was that?

Well, Adolph Ochs had once suffered a nervous breakdown over the issue. He had always been wary of “calling attention to his ethnic origins” anyway, believing that it would undermine the paper’s image of objectivity as a source of news.

But there was one instance when he let The Times take a stand. In 1913, there was a murder trial in Atlanta that became a cause célèbre. The accused was a Jewish factory manager named Leo Frank. Frank was convicted and sentenced to death.

Ochs thought Frank had been railroaded, and he used The Times’s influence to advocate for an appeal. Georgia’s governor commuted the sentence to life imprisonment, and Frank was subsequently hanged by a lynch mob. According to Gelb,

“Ochs’s worst nightmare became reality. The Times was widely accused of taking up Frank’s cause because he was Jewish and because The Times, indeed, was a ‘Jewish paper.’ Clearly, Arthur Hays Sulzberger wanted no such reprise.”

Fear of “What They’ll Think”

So there you have it. I believe this account, and Gelb’s take on it.

One little incident, followed by one barrage of criticism many years in the past, turned the world’s greatest newspaper into a quaking, fearful rag.  The New York Times choked on one of the most important stories of all time, and all because one man couldn’t take the heat.

The consequences of Holocaust non-coverage were tragic then, and we’re still feeling them today.

Two takeaways:

  • History so often turns on seemingly insignificant happenings. What would have happened if the author of the Holocaust, Adolf Hitler, had not been twice rejected for admission to the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna?

In the “whole vast configuration of things,” the Ochs position on the Atlanta murder trial was just one more sad little incident. What followed from that position was enormous.

  • Adolph Ochs didn’t have the courage of his convictions. Nor did his son-in-law. Or maybe they had no convictions. Or they had the wrong ones. Whatever, it was fear that drove them. Fear of being labeled. Fear of being accused of bias. Fear of doing something that was right – in this case, using the enormous power of the New York Times – to print “All the News That’s Fit to Print.”

Fear of being labeled. Fear of being accused of bias. Now does any of that sound familiar?

I suggest that we still feel, and see, and experience, the consequences of such fear today.

Why I Do What I Do

June 30, 2016

Cover front2Charlie Sullivan, Boston College ’42, passed away a few months ago at the age of 97. He was the oldest man whom I interviewed for Tales from the Boston College Hockey Locker Room.

I’ve already posted a message in this space about how much Charlie enjoyed reading the book and recalling the old-timers who were his contemporaries from pre-World War II days.  His daughter Shauna had given it to him for a 97th birthday present. She quoted him as saying “If I had a son, I would want on just like [BC coach] Jerry York.”

That original message gave me a nice feeling – so nice that I wanted to share it with you. But it wasn’t the end of the story for me.

I recently received an email from Charlie’s daughter Shauna. She said that, during his final week when they knew the end was approaching, he admonished her, “Keep that book in the family.”

She went on to write, “… again just letting you know how much your book meant to him and how important he felt it was to keep the memories of his life with his grandchildren. Dad lived a great life and was an amazing father and grandfather. I am lucky my children were close to him and hopefully his life will influence who they become as adults…Thank you for making Dad’s humble memories immortal.”

That’s why I’m a writer. If I can change things or preserve memories in some small way that will benefit others, I’ll consider myself a success. I don’t have to write a best-seller or win a Pulitzer.  This is enough.

Professionally, I’m a disciple of William Zinsser. His book On Writing Well is as good a guide as you’ll ever find. He states, “I always write to affirm.  I choose to write about people whose values I respect; my pleasure is to bear witness to their lives.”

I realized, after getting Shauna Sullivan’s second message, that my work of bearing witness will never be complete. There’s always more to tell.

Some BC-related stories from Charlie didn’t make it into the book. One of them was about how he passed his final exams and earned his bachelor degree.  Like many member of the Greatest Generation, Charlie went off to war before completing all of his courses. He returned to campus in 1946 and met with Father Long, the priest who’d kept him in school back in 1941 by giving him a hockey scholarship.

The good father asked Charlie if he was ready to take his oral exams.  When Charlie replied in the affirmative, the priest said “Recite the Our Father in Latin.”  Charlie promptly prayed the Pater Noster. That was the final exam for all of his courses. He aced it to earn his bachelor degree.

That’s a nice little anecdote, but it’s not what I want the world to know about Charlie Sullivan. I want, instead, to be sure that everyone knows about the quietly heroic life he led after college.

I never realized, until hearing from Shauna, that Charlie’s wife had died of breast cancer at the age of 31. Charlie, then 42, was left with three daughters. They were 5, 4, and 20 months old, respectively. Charlie raised them and never remarried.

Charlie Sullivan was a true hero.  I didn’t tell his family story in the book, but I’m telling it now. I’m still bearing witness to his life. That’s my job. That’s what I do.

Some Thoughts for This Memorial Day Weekend

May 27, 2016

A couple of items that I read recently set me to pondering just what it is that ought to make Memorial Day special to us as Americans.   I agree that the Memorial Day weekend, traditionally regarded as the beginning of summer, is more than an opportunity to sell cars or to cook hamburgers.  But it’s an occasion to do what, exactly?

I’m reflecting on the tribute to her husband Walter Brown, who was also my cousin, by Candace Smith Brown. I shared that tribute on my Facebook page yesterday.

I’m also reflecting on an op-ed piece in today’s (May 27, 2016) Wall Street Journal by rabbi Meir Soloveichik. He writes of an annual pre-Memorial Day service, held at a small cemetery in lower Manhattan, by members of his temple.

Candace’s husband Walter devoted his adult life to service to his country; he did not die in combat.  He was an army ranger who survived the Vietnam War but lost many friends there. After that war he waged a long personal battle, and ultimately triumphed, over demon rum. He counseled and supported many others in that same fight. He kept bright the memory of those who did not return from Vietnam and who did not, in the words of Joyce Kilmer, “laugh or love again, or taste the Summertime.”

Candace wrote of an American hero of recent years. Rabbi Soloveichik wrote of the 20 or so Jews, buried that New York cemetery, who were heroes of more than two centuries past.  They served in the American Revolution. Memorial Day is for them, as it is for my cousin Walter, and for all those who gave their lives for our country in the many years between then and now.

One of the greatest strengths of Jewish folk of all nations, one of the secrets to their endurance through the agmemorial_dayes, is that they never forget who they are or whence they came. The rabbi, in his op-ed piece, goes on to say,

“For many Americans, Memorial Day obligates us once a year to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation. Yet for Jews, memory, bridging the gap between past and present, is a constant duty. ..‘bygones turn into facts, pale memories into living experiences and archaeological history into a vibrant realty.’

“I am reminded of this every spring, when, in a small cemetery in downtown Manhattan, patriotic Jews, buried for centuries, are given the chance to live again.”

Does Candace not also give Walter, who lived and died centuries later, that same chance to live again? After recounting what he and she used to do on Memorial Day, raising the flag, tending the flowers, cleaning and tending his personal memorial to a fallen comrade, she writes,

“And then, we got out the barbecue and planned our menu and decided what and if we wanted to do anything other than what was most important to us. I will lower the flag and play taps for you and all the others that fought for what we all take for granted.”

That Walter and Candace did, and that all of us may still, decide what and if we want to do anything other than what is more important to us, answers the question I posed at the beginning of this piece: Memorial Day is an occasion to do what, exactly?

Memorial Day is an occasion, first, to make that decision of which Candace writes. We are free to make it because they died to give us that freedom.

Those who died would want us to plan our menus, to be with our loved ones, to associate with whom we please. In short, to laugh and love and taste the Summertime, which begins now. So let us do so, and thereby give all our departed heroes a chance to live again.

We take all those freedoms for granted.  We should enjoy our freedoms on this lovely weekend. But only after we also remember all those, from the founding of our nation to the present day, who died to make us free.