History I Never Knew – “The Matrix” and Its Biblical Origin

February 13, 2023

I’m not big on science fiction, so I never saw that Keanu Reeves movie about a dystopian future; Wikipedia calls “The Matrix” “the cyberpunk of science fiction.” Not my thing.  I do vaguely remember matrices from Algebra II. Wasn’t very good at them or that subject, but at least I passed.

King James VI of Scotland at age 19, the future King James I of England.

So, what is a matrix, anyway? Did you know that it is a womb, that wellspring of all life on earth, that precious gift carried by the female of all species?

I didn’t know either, but now I do.  I saw it in my King James Bible, my 2022 Christmas gift to myself. More about that remarkable piece of literature presently.

In Exodus 12, God unleashes the Angel of Death upon the Egyptians, that final plague which will at last persuade Pharaoh to let his people go. The angel passes over and does not enter the houses of the Israelites when he sees the blood on their doorposts lintels.

Near the end of Chapter 12, God lays out the rules of the Passover commemoration. At the beginning of Chapter 13, He tells Moses, “Sanctify unto me all the firstborn, whatsoever openeth the womb among the children of Israel, both of man and beast, it is mine.”

Now here, Exodus 13: 12, 15, when Moses is repeating the Lord’s instructions to the people, is the passage that struck me:

That thou shalt set apart unto the Lord all that openeth the matrix, and every firstling that cometh of a beast which thou hast, the males shall be the Lord’s…And it came to pass, when Pharaoh would hardly let us go, that the Lord slew all of the first born of the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man and the firstborn of beast: therefore I sacrifice to the Lord all that openeth the matrix, being males; but the firstborn of my children I shall redeem.”

I’ve checked several other translations of the Bible, and none that I’ve seen say “matrix” in the above passage. Not even the New King James version.  Why, I wondered, did this happen here, and apparently only here?

Let’s start with an online search. I found several definitions of matrix; most were mathematical or scientific. But here’s one clue. According to the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary, the second, and formal, definition is “the formal social, political, etc. situation from which a society or person grows and develops,” e.g. “the European cultural matrix.”

 Well, if it’s something from which one grows and develops, that seems pretty close to a mother’s womb, does it not? Even the word itself seems quite close to the Latin word for mother: mater.

So how did it get into the King James Bible? For a clue, I suggest God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible, by Adam Nicolson. The King James Bible is regarded, rightly I believe, as Nicolson says in the preface “the greatest work in prose ever written in English.”

And who wrote it? This is the amazing part. It’s the work of a committee. There’s the old joke about a camel’s being a horse designed by a committee. And there’s another saying attributed to G.K. Chesterton: “I’ve searched all the parks in all the cities and never found a statue to a committee.”

But the King James Bible is the exception that proves the rule. Six companies of translators, of whom we know about fifty names, did the job for King James I of England.  They were mostly high-ranking churchmen and academics, all very well connected to the political establishment. And they had to be. Their job wasn’t a religious or theological one. It was profoundly political.

James I had come down the Great North Road from Scotland, where he had been known as James VI. He had been king there since the age of one, when his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, was deposed. She was eventually executed in 1587 for plotting to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I. James succeeded the long-lived Elizabeth in 1603.

To say that he started off rather precariously is an understatement. Liz I had stayed long past her time, and there was a lot of bad stuff going on: a plague, the Gunpowder Plot, Catholic power-grab attempts both real and imagined. James, as king, was head of the Church of England. There were a lot of competing bibles already in circulation, and they were unending sources of trouble.

Just a few examples – William Tyndale, a Lutheran, had to flee to the continent when it looked like his translation was going to offend the authorities. He ended up being murdered – garroted — in Flanders, betrayed by an English spy who was probably working for Thomas More, according to Nicolson. Then there was the Calvinist Geneva Bible, an artfully done book that unfortunately contained many explanatory notes that attacked the idea of unfettered royal power. That was the bible brought to America by the Pilgrims; it wasn’t welcome in England, obviously.

 James needed a bible that would reinforce his power as head of the Church of England and king of the realm.  That’s why he assembled his translators and set them to work. It was politics. Religious doctrine and beliefs took a back seat.

But the finished product wasn’t a propaganda piece, either. It didn’t attempt to beat back the fashionable and controversial Puritan doctrines or to compete with the Catholics’ Douay-Rheims Bible. The translators weren’t shameless political suck-ups. They consulted all available versions of the bible in the course of their work, but they also went back to the sources, poring over ancient Greek and Hebrew texts.  They wanted to produce something universal, rather than contemporary.

They succeeded brilliantly, with a bible worthy of the age of Shakespeare, one whose “subject is majesty, not tyranny, and its political purpose was unifying and enfolding, to elide the kingliness of God with the godliness of kings, to make royal power and divine glory one indivisible garment which could be wrapped around the nation as a whole,” as Nicolson sums it up.

The First Westminster Company of translators took charge of the first twelve books of the King James Bible. It was they who selected “matrix” as the precise word for that rendition of Mosaic Law. Their director, Lancelot Andrewes, had been Royal Chaplain to both Elizabeth and James. He “could look the church’s adversaries in the eye, and he was clever enough to slalom around the complexities of theological dispute; not only a great scholar but also a government man, aware of political realities, able to articulate the correct version of the truth. He was a trusty…and used for his extensive network of connections.”

Lancelot Andrewes, chief translator of the King James Bible

Lancelot Andrewes spent five hours every morning in prayer, much of it as he cried copious tears, weeping for the miserableness of his soul.  Maybe he had a guilty conscience. You could say that Andrewes got a helping hand, albeit indirectly, from whores and hookers. Oops, sorry, I mean “sex workers.” How so?

He was also a former Bishop of Winchester. That was one of the most lucrative bishop gigs in the entire Church of England, thanks in large part to the efforts of “Winchester Geese.” Real geese dotted much of the Winchester landscape back in those times, but the area also had a robust and profitable prostitution industry. The busy and popular ladies of the evening were nicknamed after the geese.

The bishop of Winchester had vast land tracts and many properties that housed the dens of iniquity. Much of the bishop’s income came directly from those “Winchester Geese.” Profits from the brothel business also paid for the founding and upkeep of several of Oxford’s most prestigious institutions – New College, Magdalen, and Corpus Christi among them.

You might remember the 1966 pop song “Winchester Cathedral” by the New Vaudeville Band.  If you do, you recall that the singer lamented “Winchester Cathedral, You’re bringing me down. You stood and you watched as my baby left town.”

She probably left town because he didn’t pay his bill.

And now you know the rest of the story – of several stories, actually. I hope I’ve added even a little bit to your worldly wisdom, because

“He that walketh with wise men shall be wise: but a companion of fooles shall be destroyed.”

–Proverbs 13:20

How and When – If Ever – Will the Lives We Lead Be Judged?

January 19, 2023

Today’s post was prompted by a lengthy article titled “A Theology of the Present Moment,” by novelist Marilynne Robinson.  It appeared in the December 22, 2022 issue of the New York Review of Books. Her piece is an intellectually challenging discussion of the interplay between science and religion; I had to read it at least twice in order to begin to understand what she was getting at. It’s been worth the effort.

Marilynne Robinson

But here’s the part that jumped out at me. She sets the stage for it by recounting, from Genesis, the story of Joseph. He is sold into slavery by his brothers, but later on he comes to great power in Egypt and forgives them. They had evil intent. God turned it around and made it good. Robinson sums it up by saying “One cruel prank opened into a major event in the history of the world.”

She goes on to make some grim observations that everybody might do well to keep in mind today:

“Most people in the world would say their lives are insignificant, historically speaking, but it might be prudent to consider whether the relative blamelessness that is assumed to come with insignificance can be relied upon. We are not competent to decide how much we matter in the long term.

“One of my favorite Puritans – the seventeenth-century divine John Flavel – said that we will be judged twice, once when we die and once when everything we have said or done has had its final effect. Whisper a cruel rumor – who knows what force it will acquire if it lives.”

A little later, she quotes the apostle James: “So the tongue is a little member and boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire.”

And from there, she recounts “Over centuries slanders have burned heretics and witches, launched pogroms and inquisitions, inspired lynchings and purges. Now we have grown used to hearing Americans calling Americans demons, Satanists, and pedophiles – utterly damning language, abetted by the Internet but not qualitatively different from the language that fueled the great fires of hatred and fear that mar and disgrace Western history.”

“We can see with our own eyes how exciting this conflagration is to many people in this country, even while it threatens to consume democracy, root and branch. Our children and their children will grow up in a country much changed by this, not for the better. The most effective polemicist of the day is legislating for our descendants. And anyone who gives force to his or her word will be liable to that second judgment. These crimes are collective, and a nod or silence is complicity.”

Whew! There’s a good deal of truthful insight here, and as I noted above it’s good to keep these observations in mind. But talk about a worst-case scenario. Is this the whole story?

Thankfully, it’s not the whole story.

We can’t summarily dismiss Marilynne’s dark vision. She’s right in saying that, while we might think our own lives are insignificant, we just don’t know what effects even our seemingly small deeds and casually-spoken words can have in the immediate moment and very far into the future.  She also seems to be right that we’ll all be liable to that “second judgment.” But that second judgment won’t inevitably damn us all to hell. In fact, the perpetually-revising second judgments will continually boost many of us to ever-higher places in the heavenly spheres. 

I state this with confidence, for two reasons: my work as a Holocaust educator, and my wife Mary Ellen’s work as an elementary school teacher.

Let’s take the more complex one first, the Holocaust. My research for Mary Wygodski’s biography, Evil Must Not Have the Last Word,  led me to develop an adult-education course that I’ve delivered at least a dozen times over the past four years or so. In that course, I devote considerable time to stories of The Righteous Gentiles, those people who risked all they had to shield and save Jewish victims of the Nazis.

The Holocaust, the organized murder of six million Jews, was one of those great fires of hatred and fear that Marilynne Robinson speaks of. But not everyone in the countries where it happened was a participant; not everyone was silently complicit. As of January, 2022, Israel’s Yad Vashem Remembrance Center had identified and documented 28,217 individuals who saved the life of at least one Jewish person. In most cases, it was more than one Jew whose life was saved by each of those righteous folks.

Just think about it. Here we are, three generations later. The descendants of those who were saved now number in the hundreds of thousands. The “second judgment meter” is still running for the rescuers. It will never stop, really. And I can only imagine that it’s running in a positive direction.

There’s one more point to be made about these rescuers and righteous: they were all so ordinary, so unimpressive by any earthly measure.  As Marilynne might describe them, they were “insignificant.”

Here’s just one example.  Poland, the country that lost three million of its 3.3 million Jews, can also claim 7,232 righteous gentiles. That’s more than any other country, by far. Yad Vashem was able to document the professions of around 2,000 of them. The largest category? Peasants and foresters, numbering 1,266. None of the fourteen other categories even had 100 members.

It was the poor, property-less people in Poland who saved at least ten thousand lives, and probably more. Maybe they, too, thought their own lives were insignificant. How wrong they would be to think that.

The other thing that came to mind, the life and 30+-year teaching career of Mary Ellen, brought back a glow of pride in what my son Matthew wrote about her when she died three years ago. I posted the full text on this blog site, and you can read it here.

Matt’s mention of a Buddhist religious belief was very close to Marilynne Robinson’s point about the two judgments.   He wrote, “…this concept stipulates that everyone actually dies twice. The first time is when you shuffle off this earthly body. And the second time occurs when the last person who remembers you, passes away. And the reason is that everyone in your life, everyone you meet, carries with them the thoughts, the memories, and the influences that you had on their life.”

Matt wasn’t talking solely about us, the members of the immediate family and Mary Ellen’s close friends. He also wrote of some 770 former grade-school children.  They’re all adults now, or close to adulthood. It will be at least 60 years before the last of them passes away. Probably longer.

So, my beloved wife will be alive in the Buddhist tradition for decades to come. And I’m further comforted in knowing that the second judgment she will face will not come for many years after that, if ever. I know how she shaped so many lives for the better, how she launched innumerable careers in the best way imaginable. That second judgment will be a joyous coronation for her.

Where am I going with all this? I’m finished, so it’s better to ask where I’ve been. I guess I’m happy with the way this piece turned out. I found a silver lining in the dark storm clouds that Marilynne Robinson’s perceptive assessment pointed out. And she wasn’t entirely negative in that assessment. She does point out that “the beauty of this view of things [the idea of two judgments] is that it acknowledges the reach and potency of our lives, for good or for ill.” She’s right in the points she makes. So, I think, am I, in seeking that silver lining.

All those little things that we say and do every day will be echoing down through the years.  Let’s do our best to assure that those echoes are sweet and pleasant ones, and that the second judgment we face will be a favorable one

The Day with Two Noons, and How Eastern Standard Time Came to Be

January 11, 2023

Many years ago, I was listening to a late-night radio show. Up came the topic of how the map of the world got divided up neatly into 24 segments, each of which registered the time on its clocks as different by one hour from the times in the adjacent segments.

                The show host – I believe it was Dick Summer of Boston’s WBZ  – noted that the job of laying out the world into those segments had been done by a little-known Russian cartographer by the name of Alex Andersrag.

                After an appropriate pause, he continued, “And that’s where we got the Alex Andersrag Time Band.”

                Boo! Hiss! My kind of groaner…one of the best I’ve ever heard.

                That sick pun came to mind recently when I read the real story of how time zones and standard times in America came to be. It was the work of a man who deserves to be remembered but whose name is virtually lost to history: Charles Ferdinand Dowd.

Charles Dowd

                Dowd graduated from Yale in 1853. He got married, moved to upstate New York and eventually settled in Saratoga Springs. He and his wife Miriam, a graduate of Mount Holyoke Seminary, bought the Temple Grove Seminary in Saratoga Springs and taught there for 35 years.

                According to one of his biographers, Dowd “liked order, and he disliked confusion.” He was also a frequent railroad traveler, and he knew that there was little order and much confusion that stemmed from the difference between local times and railroad times. It wasn’t only confusing. It was life-threatening.

                In 1853, the year Dowd graduated from Yale, a story in the New York Times laid out the problem that Dowd would eventually solve. Two express trains, speeding in opposite directions, had collided head-on and killed several passengers.

“Our columns groan again with reports of wholesale slaughter by railroad trains…the variation of a time-piece is assigned as the immediate occasion of the meeting…Has human ingenuity been exhausted, in devising the means – or has the power of Society proved unable to enforce by law such regulations as will prevent these horrible holocausts to the Railway demon?”

                What was the problem? There was no uniform standard of time. In every place in the country, they determined noon of the day astronomically. It was 12 noon when the sun was directly overhead. Just as one example, in Connecticut there was eight minutes’ difference registering on town clocks between the Rhode Island border to the east and the New York border to the west.

Every railroad in the country operated on its own sweet time when constructing its timetables. If there were any differences, transfer-seeking passengers had to figure them out. It was a nuisance, but as the case of the 1853 crash sadly proved, it could often be a fatal nuisance. And especially since the end of the Civil War and the driving of the Golden Spike in 1869, thousands of railroad lines crisscrossed the nation. Timely connections and uniform timetables became an even more critical need.

Charles Dowd, the order-obsessed philosophy professor from Saratoga Springs, set out to do it. He already had some technology-based tools at his disposal. In New York, citizens had been able to do away with reliance on sundials in 1877, thanks to Western Union. At noon every day, a telegraph operator at the Naval Observatory in Washington would tap a key. That signaled an electromagnet in New York, tripping a lever that released a large copper ball atop a pole at the Western Union Telegraph Building in New York. The ball descended, and New Yorkers knew that it was noontime.

That was nice for New York. But what about the rest of the country?

Dowd’s first try at an all-encompassing system failed. He made more than eight thousand calculations along five hundred rail lines, and he came up with a uniform national time. It didn’t work. The four-hour time difference between the coasts was too great. So he went back to work and drew up a set of four time zones, each fifteen degrees of longitude in width.

That was in 1863, when he presented it to his students at the seminary. Six years later, he proposed the system to a group of railway executives in New York City. And for the next fourteen years he lobbied and badgered anyone who would listen – engineers, astronomers, college professors, magazine and newspaper edits.  Dowd wasn’t in it for the money. He just wanted to solve the problem.

Fortunately, he’d found a champion. John Toucey was general manager of the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad. His line’s Grand Central Depot was the nation’s busiest. In 1883, a full 20 years after Dowd had devised the system, Toucey introduced it as a resolution before the General Railway Time Convention. The resolution consolidated the 50 existing time zones into four.

The new system became effective on Sunday, November 18, 1883. It helped that New York mayor Franklin Edson was on board, decreeing that all clocks comply with the new railway time. That day became known as “the day with two noons,” because the ball atop the Western Union Telegraph Building would descend twice. First it would signal 12:00 noon local time; then it would signal 12:00 Eastern Standard Time.

At 9:00 a.m. New York time on that day, the superintendent of Western Union’s Time Telegraph subsidiary stopped the pendulum of his regulator clock. Time stood still for three minutes and 58 seconds, when the pendulum was reactivated. Ten o’clock came and went, and then twelve noon New York time the ball dropped.  Four minutes later the ball dropped again. It was noon, Eastern Standard Time.

The U.S. Attorney General, Benjamin Brewster, tried to get in on the act. He stated that such a revision that affected the entire nation needed congressional approval. But the superintendent of the Naval Observatory ignored him and adopted the railway standard as the nation’s official timekeeper.

The New York Times covered the story of the new standard time on page five, remarking that “All intelligent persons will ask why the change was not made years ago.” And that very day its front page headline blared “TERRIBLE RAILWAY COLLISION IN ILLINOIS.”

Charles Dowd, the man who had made it all possible, was nearly forgotten. That’s because he didn’t write the history. He tried, but the man who told the story and claimed the credit was William Allen, an engineer and editor of the Travelers’ Official Railway Guide for the United States.  

At least Allen pointed out that Dowd’s original proposal in 1870 to his organization was “the first published proposition of which I have any knowledge.”  And somewhere along the way, Dowd received annual passes from all major railways, in recognition of his claim of designing the country’s time zones.

Dowd’s life ended tragically. At age 80, in November 1904, he went to visit a sick friend. As he was walking home, he was killed by a train as he crossed North Broadway in Saratoga Springs.  Delaware and Hudson train number 6, running late and speeding around a corner at 30 miles an hour just two blocks from the station, ran over him.

Saratoga Springs’ city fathers eventually recognized Charles Dowd’s towering achievement some years later when, near the site of the fatal accident, they placed a monument to his name: a sundial.

(Note: My source for this story is The New Yorkers: 31 Remarkable People, 400 Years, and the Untold Biography of the World’s Greatest City, by Sam Roberts.)

“Our Good Name,” by Catherine Marenghi. Book Review

May 18, 2022

“We are a nation of immigrants.” Now that I have read Catherine Marenghi, I finally know what that means.

Our Good Name is a meticulously researched and sensitively told story of an Italian family who built one little corner of America. We’re with them. We hear their conversations and feel their joy and pain. With a journalist’s ear for dialogue, a poet’s gift for description, and a historian’s perspective for what matters to community and country, the author guides us through the gardens and kitchens and rice fields of their old world; into steerage on the way to their new world; and among the fields and schools and factories and often-unwelcoming towns and courts of law of their adopted land.

But this is not merely the kind of historical fiction that everyone who wishes to understand America should read. In telling their own stories in their own unique voices, seven of Ms Marenghi’s forebears fashion for us an eloquent prequel to her enthralling personal memoir, Glad Farm.

Our Good Name will touch your heart just as Glad Farm did. It is a fitting and welcome addition to the Marenghi canon.

The Silver Wolf, by J.C. Harvey: Review and Reflection

March 4, 2022

William Tecumseh Sherman, the American Civil War general, famously stated to his men, “War is hell.”

J.C. Harvey

He also wrote to John Bell Hood, an opposing general, “You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out.”

That’s right, as far as it goes. But had General Sherman read J.C. Harvey’s The Silver Wolf, he might have suggested to General Hood that “We’ve had it pretty easy here. I’m just glad this isn’t the Thirty Years War.”

Horror and brutality. That’s what I felt about what life must have been like for people like Jack Fiskardo, the hero of The Silver Wolf.  Jacky Colliss Harvey the historian (Red: A History of the  Redhead and The Animal’s Companion, both previously reviewed here) dons her fiction-writer’s hat to tell his tale. As J.C. Harvey, she immerses us in the fog of the Thirty Years War, which ran from the Defenestration of Prague in 1618 to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.

The Thirty Years War was one of history’s most devastating, destructive, complicated conflicts, and Harvey doesn’t intend to explain its broad sweep and its historical significance. Though she gives a concise summary in the introductory author’s note, she states that her book’s events

“stand in much the same relation to the events of the Thirty Years War as a tapestry does to its support: in other words, with just enough points of connection, I hope, to bear the weight…I have played fast and loose with documented history, opening real doors onto landscapes and happenings that never existed until I made them up. Then again, all too often, I would hit the horrid truth that no matter what I might create in my imagination, the actual events of the war would be worse: stranger, crazier, even more hideously comic; more incredible, more appalling.”

Fiskardo seems to be part Achilles, part Ulysses, part Frodo, and even part Harry Potter (without the magic tricks.) Harvey models him on the description of one real-life individual, Carlo Fantom, by 17th-Century biographer John Aubrey in his Brief Lives:

“[he] had such skills in the bearing of arms that it was said he had purchased them of the Devil, in especial, that he was a Hard Man, so could not be put down by bullets nor by steel; and that he carried with him always the silver token of  wolf, such as the Hard Men use, so that one may know another…His father was a gentleman-at-arms under King Henry of France and there was much black work, as the soldiers say, in his father’s death, and in his mother’s too.”

This book, subtitled Fiskardo’s War, is the first of a series. Because there are more books to come, I’m not spoiling it for you when I tell you that Jack Fiskardo lives to fight again, and that he has unfinished business to attend to. But many of those whom we meet do not survive, including Fiskardo’s parents. Like the real-life Carlo Fantom, Jack’s father Jean had once been a cavalry captain in the army of King Henry IV of France.

Along the way, we see Jack fighting for his life and barely surviving as a wharf-rat in the merciless port of Amsterdam; learning swordsmanship and horsemanship; dealing with spies and traitors; negotiating his price as he enlists in armies; narrowly escaping death as a town is sacked and burned; and revenge-killing one foe.

Perhaps the author played loose with some of the historical facts and dates, as she stated above, but she lets us know what life must have been like in those times. It’s not just in descriptions of the horrors of combat, and it’s even in the argot-infused soldiers’ conversations.

Consider the motivations of those who took up arms back in those days. They weren’t fighting to save the world for democracy or to rid us of the scourge of slavery. They were in it for the bucks, both their soldier’s pay and whatever they could carry away from villages, cities, and individual homes and farms that ever stood in their path.

The real-life Carlo Fantom fought in the Thirty Years War, then made his way to England to fight in the Civil War.  Here’s Harvey’s description of Fiskardo, showing up as a new recruit in the army of the Empire. Asked what action he’s seen, he replies

“Joined up at Heidelberg in twenty-two. I was a scout.”

“A scout, eh? That’s good enough for me. I pay eight gulden a month—“

“I get fifteen.”

“[The captain] is paid one hundred and fifty gulden a month – as much as any captain in the regiment. But out of that he has to find for his kit, his horses, his four boys, not to mention his pleasures, none of which come cheap…never mind. There’s always some new ruse, to keep his crew’s wages in his hands.  ‘All right, fifteen then, fifteen gulden a month, and you’d better be worth it.’”

I can’t imagine soldiers and officers in a modern army acting this way. But I think that is a good example of one of those real doors that Harvey said she has opened up into landscapes of that hard and brutal world.  We see many more of them.

Here’s a description of a meal at a tavern called The Carpenter’s Hat. “The meal is house-pot, a type of stew – potatoes, onion, shredded cabbage, flakes of fish (today it is salmon, both plentiful and cheap; Zoot runs a thrifty kitchen, as one might expect) – enriched with chicken livers and ground pork sausage, thickened with egg yolks, spiced with mace and sharpened up with vinegar.”

Eww. But I guess a man’s gotta eat. Especially a freebooting soldier of fortune.

How to become a gentleman-at-arms? Harvey covers that too. Jack comes under the tutelage of a Master Nicholas, who “offers tuition in rapier, fauchon, hanger, glaive. The smallest weapon in his armoury, all of which hangs neatly from racks on the classroom walls, is a novelty that fits between the knuckles of the fourth and middle finger; the largest, a Swiss broadsword, has a blade of four feet. Armed with such a weapon, at the height of his stroke a man can attain the velocity of a slash with a throat-cut razor.”

And what about that horror and brutality I mentioned earlier? Just a few examples.

Early in the book, Jack nearly dies at the hands of the gang on the Amsterdam docks. He’s found just in time with “a wound below the arc of his ribs, crusted with pus, like a fissure in a geode.” But he survives.

He also survives a climactic battle when the Swedish army of King Gustavus Adolphus attacks and destroys the town which the Imperial army is occupying.  Harvey’s meticulously researched description of the weaponry is masterful. Her telling of the up-close-and-personal nature of the killing is mesmerizing. Sickening, but mesmerizing.

A colonel Bronheim, already wounded, shouts in despair at his fleeing men. Then,

“At a window fifty feet away, a Swedish musketeer, less hurried than his fellows, takes a paper cartridge from his belt (another innovation, this), opens it with his teeth, tips powder and cartridge straight down the barrel of his musket and thinks, Now then. Let’s see what this can do. There. That fellow, that one bellowing and roaring – how could he miss?

“Kneeling, he balances its barrel on the windowsill. Squeezes the trigger, back, back, ba-a-ack…they’re a novelty, firelock muskets, and none of them quite trusts that the burning fuse, coiled in its iron pincer by the stock, coiled like the smallest, deadliest of snakes, will somehow every time find the touch-hole – and fires. A single shot, a calligraphic flourish of smoke.

“Bronheim, still bellowing, hears the shot that takes him; hears it come in like a hornet for the attack. Feels the course of fire it ploughs through his chest, feels those organs in its path implode.”

I’ll leave it to you to read the book and Harvey’s ever more graphic and gruesome account of Jack dispatching a foe with sword and dagger. But suffice it to say that it might just be enough to turn a guy like General Sherman into a peacenik.

Yes, war is hell. Always was.  

So we know what kind of guy Fiskardo is. He is a Hard Man. He has a silver wolf token.  Whoever it was that killed his mother lost it in the doing of that “black work.” The killer is still at large, and at the end of the book, when Jack is with the Swedish army, he tells his second-in-command as they march into Germany, “He’s there. Trust me. I can feel it in my blood.”

There’s another Fiskardo book coming, and then another. So move over, J.K. Rowling. Here’s J.C. Harvey.

Book Review and Reflection – “American Girl: Memories that Made Me” by Georgia Scott

February 28, 2022

Over the years I’ve become an enthusiastic reader of biography and memoir. Everybody, from the “great” people of history to the utterly on-the-surface-ordinary Joes and Janes, has a story.

There are different kinds of memoir. If I seek out one by, say, Winston Churchill, I’m less interested in the events of his childhood than in getting his take on how he changed the world. It’s a slanted, autobiographical view of history, but still one worth knowing. As Winston once cracked, “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.”

But as author Marion Roach Smith points out in The Memoir Project, memoirs are not autobiographies. Rather, she suggests that memoir is “the single greatest portal to self-awareness…writing about how you grew up to be who you are…little moments, revelatory real events, are what turn and shape our lives.”

That’s what I saw – no, it was actually what I nearly experienced – as I read and then re-read American Girl: Memories that Made Me, by Georgia Scott.

We don’t learn a lot about the author’s life as an adult or about her distinguished academic career. All the book says about her is that she is an author and a poet, whose work includes two collections of poetry and books on British and American literature. It doesn’t mention her three degrees, topped by a doctorate in Jewish studies, her faculty appointments in Michigan, Japan, and Poland, or her nine years of study and writing in London.

You also have to dig around to find that she had a Fulbright Scholarship to teach African American literature in Poland, and that Lech Walesa endorsed her poetry book, The Good Wife, as “a brave and beautiful book.” She read her first published poem for the preliminary talent competition in her state’s Miss America pageant, where she finished runner-up.  She’s done more than sixty poetry readings and performances throughout Europe and America. She lives in Gdansk, Poland.

But if we don’t get Scott’s life story from this book, we do learn what makes her tick, what shaped her life and brought her in Roach Smith’s terms “from what you once did not know (Act One) and what you now know after you’ve been through it (Act Three.)”

Scott grew up in a seaside town near Boston. She dubs it with the pseudonym “Belle Isle.”  The town, the busy street she calls “Wisteria Drive,” and all of the neighbors, family members and acquaintances who segue in and out of her young life are also given pseudonyms.  Local businesses, public figures, and other places retain their real names, so anyone who grew up in “Belle Isle” will instantly recognize them.

Georgia Scott

Reading this memoir is much like reading a collection of poems. The chapters are short; there are 138   of them in the 268-page printed edition.  Actually, there are many echoes from Scott’s previously-published books of poetry sprinkled throughout. She has that knack for observation and turn of phrase that only gifted poets seem to have.

In this way, her book reminds me of Glad Farm by Catherine Marenghi, which I consider the gold standard in memoir-writing. I reviewed it here a few years ago. Its chapters are also short, with 35 of them over 281 pages. Marenghi, like Scott, is an acclaimed and frequently-published poet. Both women, I suspect, would tell you that they prefer writing poetry to writing prose; their love poetry is as provocatively erotic as anything you’ll find in the Bible’s Song of Songs. But when they do write prose, the clever images, similes, and metaphors crop up on almost every page.

For Scott’s writing style alone, her book is a treat.  Here are just a couple of examples of her poetry-in-prose: 

Recalling trips to the beach with her older sister, she writes, “The rules were simple. Never turn your back on the water. Know which way the tide is headed. In or out…When I think back, those tides were like women with different scents and different demands. Low tide was fruity and cool. It took a while to get to her edge. Low tide held back. The onus was on you to go over to her. High tide smelled of heat that built up. It was Chanel No. 5 to her drugstore opposite. She went after you in no uncertain terms.”

In describing her house, Scott takes a single sentence that runs on for 20 printed lines to tell us of all the unique aspects – white columns, hand-painted Dutch tiles, intricate parquet floors, and so on – that were not the reasons that her mother fell in love with the place. Then she pivots to write “No” with three more sentences spanning just two lines. They land like jabs in a boxing ring to tell us why her mother liked the window seat in the front hall most of all.

Severe physical setbacks played a big role in shaping Scott’s attitude towards life and in honing her powers of observation. Relegated to the sidelines for a few years – on crutches, with rheumatoid arthritis as a schoolgirl and six months in a full body cast after back surgery as a college student – she learned some hard lessons and developed a gimlet eye on everyone who crossed her path.

In a blurb on the back cover of the book, she states, “Long periods of convalescence don’t make for an endearing child…your best skills are as transferable as soldier’s ability to kill.”

Sheesh! Here I want to make a side remark. I have to take issue with another thing that she wrote for the book’s back cover. I’ll quote it here first.

“My stillness is not surrender anymore than my silences are. If you think I acquiesce, think again. I am watching. I am listening. I am noting everything down. The transformation of my right middle finger began in those months. The protrusion in the first joint resulted from the pressure of pencils and pens in my hand. Typewriter and computer use have reduced it somewhat in recent years, though not entirely. See. My middle finger is still raised.”

I don’t see that here. Yes, she’s “on” to everybody, and her assessments along the way are appropriately critical. But I don’t see her flipping us all the bird. I see an understanding instead, a willingness to forgive. It may be coming at long last, but it’s there. Maybe you won’t agree with me. But read the book before you decide.

 As the book moves along, Scott’s perspective widens. She becomes more and more perceptive. We see her growing into a worldly-wise adult, from Act One to Act Three, as Marion Roach Smith describes. As a child, she wondered how Perry Mason could be so smart and never see how madly in love with him that Della Street was.  At school, trying to get around in her crutches, she was labeled “diseased” by an older girl. “I learned that a smiling face could carry an insult…she left me with a wariness of my peers. Girls, that is. The boys didn’t bother me at all.”

Her widowed mother became romantically involved with a neighbor, also widowed, and there was one time she saw them kissing, “in an embrace worthy of Rodin.” She’d never seen her mother and father kissing, though. She ran upstairs, cried into her pillow, and rubbed her eyes, “wishing I could erase what I saw.”  

Later, when her mother’s romance ends unhappily, she writes “I don’t remember the last time [he] visited. That’s the problem with real life as opposed to what is made up. You don’t know until after things happen what is important. Sometimes you spot it after. More often not. The domino that topples the rest is lost…The house got quieter without their laughter. Tarantellas became a memory.”

The author’s most distressing memory, the one that “marked my entry into that club of adults that I had wanted to join for so long,” still bothers her. One of the adult children who lived next door, a Korean War veteran, apparently cut himself late one night and bled to death. One of the neighbors came in to help and “did what she could. He seemed alright when she left. But in the morning he was dead.”

Scott tries to make sense of that incident, and can’t. “What was done was done and what wasn’t was never spoken of again. Yet, I never forgot. It was the death that no one could know about. It became ours alone. Like a chocolate heart that is crushed but kept in a drawer because it is all that a lover could give it has been my secret until now. No one is left who can be hurt, I don’t think…The question that has haunted me for years is not to him but to those others who were there with him. One who amused me and one whom I loved. Why wasn’t an ambulance called?”

Act Three, indeed.

Another similarity to Catherine Marenghi’s story is that Georgia, like Catherine, did not come to know “the whole truth” about herself and her family until relatively late in life.  In Glad Farm, we read of Catherine’s discovery of family correspondence and newspaper clippings in an old cedar chest that revealed the details of her parents’ dreams and ambitions, as well as a tragic death that no one ever spoke of.

In Georgia’s case, it takes until the end of the book for us to find out just what she meant to her father, who died suddenly when he was just forty-five.  Fifty years later, one of her sisters told her of the family’s situation and where they had lived in the city, not in the town of Belle Isle, when Georgia was born.  She had never known just how her arrival changed everything. She then, at long last, realizes why her mother had always said, “He loved you all, but you were special.” And that revelation inspired her to write this book.

In an early chapter, Georgia writes, “I didn’t miss my father. That was the awful truth.  A source of guilt, I let no one know and I only realized as a person realizes a staircase is steep. Step by step or in my case, year by year.”

But near the book’s end she is recounting her dreams of her father, dreams in which she never saw his face. It never came into view but stayed a whitish-grey, and, “His voice gave no reassurance. It remained mournful as a foghorn for years. Now he sings. It wasn’t my time to go then, but when it comes, I hope he’s there.”

That brought tears to my eyes.

Never Forget

January 27, 2022

Today, January 27, is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It is the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the massive murder factory where more than a million Jews were put to death as part of Adolf Hitler’s Final Solution.

We must never forget those innocent victims of the Nazis’ insane crusade. Nor must we forget the five million other Jews and the five or six million other people who were killed by a nation that had gone mad. These numbers are estimates, educated guesses. No one really knows for sure just how many lives were snuffed out, how many life stories will never be told.

But some people lived to tell about it. I have been most privileged to help one of them, Mary Wygodski, to tell her story in book form. Evil Must Not Have the Last Word is the fruit of almost six years of research. It was released for publication on December 31, 2021.

The book is written in the first person. Mary is the principal narrator, but we hear the voices of several others: her husband Mort; her girlfriends Bella and Edith, who also survived the three concentration camps where Mary was imprisoned; her cousin, Genia Kovner; and her children and grandchildren, son Avi, daughter Charlene, and grandsons Matthew, Jeremy, and Elan.

The book took much longer to write than I had ever imagined. Once I had done several interviews with Mary, I realized that I needed to learn much more about the Holocaust and its aftermath, as least as it had directly affected her, in order to place her story in the proper context and to do it full justice. So I undertook the research that gave me an appreciation of, inter alia: the history and culture of her native city of Vilna, the wonderful “Jerusalem of Europe;” how the Nazis used people of the conquered lands to carry out much of their diabolical work; the particular history of the concentration camps at Kaiserwald, Stutthof, and Magdeburg; the Jews’ difficulties in escaping from post-war Europe to Palestine, America, and other places; and the emergence, through the crucible of war, of the new state of Israel.

So, to mark this Holocaust Remembrance Day, I am pleased to inform you that the book is available on all of the major online sites – Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Goodreads etc. – and that it can be ordered through your local bookstore.

If you wish to contact me directly about the book or would like to purchase a signed copy, please email me at tjburke@veteranscribe.com.

I will close this blog post with the book’s epigraph. It ends another Holocaust memoir, I Was a Boy in Belsen, and it sums up perfectly my own beliefs and feelings.

“Go home from this place and tell your children and your grandchildren that you have looked into the eyes and have shaken hands with people who have survived the greatest cataclysm mankind has unleashed on mankind. Tell them to tell their children and their children’s children, because these people will be mourned and spoken about and wept over for 10,000 years. For if they aren’t, we are all done for.”

— Paddy Fitzgibbon, On the Occasion of the Dedication of Irish Shoah Memorial, Listowel, Ireland, 2010

A Year (and a Drink) of Godly Prosperity to You

December 31, 2021

It’s the last day of 2021. The old year and its spirits, both good and evil, take their leave. We celebrate, give our thanks, and wish our fellow human beings well in coming twelve months. If we’re in America we’ll have our weary eyes glued to the big ball that descends on the stroke of midnight.  If we’re residents of other countries, we’ll be observing the turning of the year in some other quaint – and quite frankly, nicer and more tradition-suffused ways.

Pope Sylvester baptizing Emperor Constantine

We’ll all be raising glasses of various types this evening too, and I’ll suggest two appropriate libations.  The first of these is Maria von Trapp’s Sylvester Punch: take a 750 ml bottle of burgundy, mix in 12 cloves, I lemon rind, 2 tbsp sugar, and 2 cinnamon sticks. Heat it over a low flame but don’t let it boil. Add 750 ml of hot tea and serve – about 12 of your guests can partake.

Why the name Sylvester Punch? Today is the feat of Saint Sylvester. In Germany, this evening is called Silvesterabend or Silvesternacht in honor of the man who was pope during the reign of Emperor Constantine. Legend also has it that Sylvester baptized Constantine after the emperor, who ended the persecution of Christians, was cured of leprosy.

Whether or not that story is true, we don’t know. But we do know that Sylvester, who was pope for 21 years and died on December 31 in the year 335, was the first man to assume the throne of Peter during a time of civic peace. That peace was welcomed, and had been a long time coming. So it’s especially appropriate to remember and honor Sylvester at this time of year, when we all wish and hope for “peace on earth.”

Thanksgiving and ritual purifications to cast out demons are popular December 31 traditions beyond our borders. In central Europe, in times that pre-dated organized religion, fireworks and artillery salutes took place to scare away demons. In France, the father of the family would bless the children, and the children would thank the parents for their love and care. In Austria, December 31 was Rauchnacht,or “Incense Night,” when the father would purify all the rooms of the house with incense and holy water. In Spain and Spanish-speaking countries, it was considered good luck to eat twelve grapes at the stoke of midnight.

Sinners got a chance to lighten their sentences in Purgatory too. The Church granted a plenary indulgence – yes, a wiped-clean slate – for those who recited the Latin “Te Deum” prayer in public. Those who recited the prayer in thanksgiving would get a partial indulgence. Not a bad deal either way, for us sinners.

But in any case, we really ought to be thankful as we toast in the New Year. And that brings us to our second drink. Unfortunately, we can no longer order the liqueur known as Sansilvestro, which was made with suspended flakes of silver. People used to put flakes of gold or silver into their beverages. These flakes didn’t affect the drink’s tastes and they weren’t harmful; in fact, they were thought to aid circulation and digestion.

So here’s what we’ll use to toast in the New Year: The Godly Prosperity. It’s .5 oz cinnamon schnapps with gold flakes, .25 oz lemon juice, 3 oz chilled sparkling wine, a dash of orange bitters, and a cranberry garnish.

The drink’s name comes from Saint Thomas More. One New Year’s Eve he lifted a glass and wished his friends “a year of godly prosperity, one that sees a happy continuation and gracious increase of virtue” in their souls.

I’ve already recited my “Te Deum.” You may read the words here, if you wish.  Yes, I am most thankful for all the blessings I’ve received, and for the family and friends whom God has sent to me.

And tonight I echo the words of Thomas More. May 2002 be for you a year of godly prosperity.

What John Steinbeck Really Saw and Thought

November 18, 2021

Like me, you likely read John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley when you were in high school. If so, you probably don’t recall anything like the following excerpt from a letter to his long-time friend and publisher, Pascal Covici. The letter was written in July, 1961. Steinbeck was in the process of writing his travelogue at that time. The book was published in 1962.

His trip around the country had taken place in 1960 – the beginning of the decade of “The Sixties,” – don’t forget. He was already in declining health, and he wanted to see his country one last time. He died in 1968, at the age of 66.

I wonder what Mr. Steinbeck would have to say if he took a similar trip today. Here is the passage, today’s food for thought.

“Thinking and thinking for a word to describe decay. Not disruption, not explosion but simply rotting. It seemed to carry on with a weary inertia. No one was for anything and nearly everyone was against many things. Negro hating white. White hating negroes. Republicans hating Democrats although there is little difference.

“In all my travels I saw very little real poverty. I mean the grinding terrifying poorness of the Thirties. That at least was real and tangible. No it was a sickness, a kind of wasting disease. There were wishes but no wants. And underneath it all the building energy like gasses in a corpse. When that explodes, I tremble to think what will be the result. Over and over I thought we lack the pressures that make men strong and the anguish that makes men great. The pressures are debts, the desired for more material toys and the anguish is boredom. Through time, the nation has become a discontented land. I’ve sought for an out on this – saying it is my aging eyes seeing it, my waning energy feeling it, my warped vision that is distorting it, but it is only partly true. The thing I have described is really there. I did not create it. It’s very well for me to write jokes and anecdotes but the haunting decay is there under it.

“Well, there was once a man named Isaiah – and what he saw in his time was not unlike what I have seen, but he was shored up by a hard and durable prophecy that nothing could disturb. We have no prophecy now, nor any prophets.”

I offer this passage to you, dear reader. I offer it without comment. However, I commend for your reading my source for this: Steinbeck: A Life in Letters. John Steinbeck didn’t care much for the telephone, and he didn’t have email or social media. So he wrote, longhand. And this collection of his letters is superb.

Finally, I also suggest that it would be nice if we all could take up, once again, the nearly lost art of letter-writing. What was the last time received a letter, one composed especially and only for you?  Wasn’t it a nice feeling to get it? Maybe, as 2021 wanes and the New Year approaches, you could take the time to write one to someone you’ve not seen or spoken to lately. I assure you, it will be appreciated.

Mud in Your Eye for Mid-November

November 15, 2021

Today is November 15, the feast of Saint Albert the Great (Albertus Magnus), who died in the year 1280.

The cocktail of the day is the Mud Pie: 1.5 oz rye or bourbon, .5 oz orange curacao, .5 tsp sugar, 2 dashed Peychaud’s bitters, on orange slice, cherry, lemon twist.

And when we raise a toast with that drink, it’s “Here’s mud in your eye.

You’ve heard that one, I’m sure. Where did it come from? If you guessed The Bible, you’re right.  Here’s the rest of the story, from John, Chapter 1.

“And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him. I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.

“When he had thus spoken, he spat on the ground, and made clay of the spittle, and he anointed the eyes of the blind man with the clay,  And said unto him, Go, wash in the pool of Siloam, (which is by interpretation, Sent.) He went his way therefore, and washed, and came seeing.”

So, “Here’s mud in your eye” is a toast to your health – especially to your precious gift of eyesight. It’s also a wish for you to “see the light” in many other ways. A goodly benediction, indeed.

And what does this have to do with Albertus Magnus, honored as a doctor of the church and a brilliant natural scientist? Perhaps, though it’s all speculative, it has to do with his musings on the birds of the air. Albert wrote that the heron, whose Latin name is “ardea,” was probably named thusly because its excrement burns (“ardet”) whatever it touches.

The heron is said to defend itself from hawks by aiming its anus at it and shooting excrement. It may not mud in the hawk’s eye, but all that the projectile has to do is hit the hawk’s wings. The attacker’s feathers burn away, and the heron escapes.

The heron’s name is found in a royal decree of James VI of Scotland (1566-1625.) The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that the name is a shortening of “shiteheron.”

So there’s some more history I never knew. The heron was officially the world’s first “hot shit.”

Now you know the rest of the story.