Archive for the ‘Events and Society’ Category

History I Never Knew: Table Manners

March 14, 2017

In the end, you’ve got to give the credit for the rise of dining etiquette to the Italians. Not surprising. But it wasn’t always that way.

Here’s (some of) the rest of the story, taken from the latest National Geographic  History issue.

Dogaressa Theodora Anna Doukaina

By the end of the first millennium, knives, spoons and cups – usually shared – were available at dinnertime. But the fork had a terrible time getting established as a third utensil. One of the earliest recorded uses of a fork was by Theodora Anna Doukaina, a Byzantine princess who came to Venice in 1070 to marry Doge Domenico Selvo.

Dogaressa Anna brought a two-pronged fork with her, and she used it to put food into her mouth. The horror!  The Venetians, seeing themselves as cultured and sophisticated, were scandalized.  The Vatican’s representative (surprise, surprise) to Venice suggested that the fork was a diabolical instrument.  Maybe it looked like Satan’s pitchfork.  But Anna’s new tool caught on, and its use started to spread through Italy.

The rest of Europe continent was slower on the uptake than were the Italians. Some other Europeans tried to put some class into dining manners. Spanish theologian Francesc Eiximenis  wrote in 1384, “If you have spat or blown your nose, never clean your hands on the tablecloth.”  But if the diner did need to spit during a meal, he advised “do it behind you, never on the table or anyone else.”

Erasmus

Erasmus, the great humanist of Rotterdam, also took a crack at table manners. In his De Civilitate Morum Puerilium (Handbook of Good Manners for Children) he wrote “Some people, no sooner than they have sat down, immediately stick their hands into the dishes of food. This is the manner of wolves…To shove your fingers into dishes with sauce is very rude. You should pick up what you want with a knife or fork. And you should not pick out bits from all over the dish.”

The doyenne of manners was Catherine de Medici of Florence. She went to France to marry King Henry II in 1533. She was appalled by French table manners. An account by the Italian court ladies stated,

“Here in Paris many people still laughed at ‘those Italian neatnesses called forks’ and gulped down great chunks of strongly seasoned meat with their knife-ends or greasy fingers.”

Catherine de Medici

Catherine, the Martha Stewart of her day, mounted a campaign to bring class to French dining. She introduced individual cutlery, plates, napkins, and fine stemware for grand occasions.  The napkins were used to protect delicate, decorative tablecloths and the diners’ clothing. Proper placement of the napkin was over the left shoulder.

The French didn’t accept the fork right away. It took until the 18th century for etiquette guides to recognize the fork as an individual dining implement. Catherine de Medici’s son, King Henry III, was widely mocked for his use of a fork.  He was also regarded as effete and homosexual, and was a favorite target of the local snobs.

French writer Thomas Artus, ridiculing courtly manners in his work Description of the Island of Hermaphrodites, wrote “When dining, they never touch the meat with their fingers but instead with forks, which they put in their mouths by stretching their necks.”

Sheesh.  I guess people have never needed the anonymity of social media to be downright nasty.

Nowadays, I suppose, French cuisine is thought of as the crème dela crème.  But before the French say “Bon appetit,” maybe they should first say “Grazie” to the Italians.  If they don’t, I will.

Grazie!

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 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.

Book Review: Glad Farm, by Catherine Marenghi

August 12, 2016
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Glad Farm Second Edition Front Cover

(Note: Glad Farm’s second edition is now available. The review that follows was done upon the first edition’s release in the summer of 2016.)

It’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.

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.

More History I Never Knew: The Story of Financier Haym Salomon

May 15, 2016
"Star of David" configuration on dollar bill.

“Star of David” configuration on dollar bill.

…and perhaps a little legend in the guise of history.

I’d never heard of Haym Salomon, so when I got an email from a regular correspondent about him, I investigated.

That email said that the configuration of stars (depicted) on the Great Seal of the United States is in the shape of a Star of David, arranged that way by order of George Washington. The story goes that Washington asked Salomon, a wealthy Philadelphia Jew, what he would like as a personal reward for his services to the Continental Army. Solomon said he wanted nothing for himself, but he would like something for his people. The Star of David was the result.

That’s a cool tale and it may well be true. There’s no evidence for it, but it’s certainly plausible. This is the rest of the story.

The email also said that Salomon gave $25 million to support Washington’s forces during the dark days of the Revolution. Not exactly true – but there are records that show a combination of Solomon’s personal lending and fund raising resulted in $650,000 for the cause. That’s somewhat north of $16 million in today’s dollars.

For the Record

The Congressional Record of March 25, 1975 reads:

Haym Salomon

Haym Salomon

“When [Robert] Morris was appointed Superintendent of Finance, he turned to Salomon for help in raising the money needed to carry on the war and later to save the emerging nation from financial collapse. Salomon advanced direct loans to the government and also gave generously of his own resources to pay the salaries of government officials and army officers. With frequent entries of “I sent for Haym Salomon”, Morris’ diary for the years 1781–84 records some 75 transactions between the two men.”

George Washington would have good cause to be grateful to Solomon, especially for his efforts before the decisive Battle of Yorktown, where the British finally surrendered.

Financing the Final Blow

It was August 1781. The Continental Army had trapped Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown, a community of the coast of Virginia. Washington and the main army and Count de Rochambeau with his French army decided to march from the Hudson Highlands to Yorktown and deliver the final blow. But Washington’s war chest was completely empty, as was that of Congress. Without food, uniforms and supplies, Washington’s troops were close to mutiny.

Washington determined that he needed at least $20,000 to finance the campaign. When Morris told him there were no funds and no credit available, Washington gave him a simple but eloquent order: “Send for Haym Salomon”. Salomon raised $20,000, through the sale of bills of exchange, and Washington conducted the Yorktown campaign, which proved to be the final battle of the Revolution.

That instrument, the bill of exchange, was Haim Salomon’s thing. It’s similar to a promissory note and is traditionally used to finance trade orders. He had come to New York from England in 1775 and set himself up as a broker for merchants engaged in overseas trade.

Fleeing Persecution and Antisemitism

He was born Chaim Salomon in 1740 to a Sephardic Jewish family. Their forebears had migrated to Poland due to the Spanish Inquisition of 1492. He traveled throughout Europe as a young man, gained expertise in finance and on several languages. He went back to Poland but left in 1772 after the Polish partition.

Salomon sided with the colonists during the revolution and joined the New York branch of the Sons of Liberty. In September of 1776, he was arrested as a spy. The British pardoned him, but only after requiring him to spend 18 months on a British boat as an interpreter for Hessian mercenaries – German soldiers siding with the British. Salomon used his position to help prisoners of the British escape and encouraged the Hessians to desert the war effort. In 1778, he was arrested again and sentenced to death. He escaped and fled to Philadelphia.

He opened up shop as a broker in Philadelphia. He also became the agent to the French consul and paymaster for the French forces in North America. In 1781, he began working extensively with Morris, the newly appointed Superintendent for Finance for the Thirteen Colonies.

Commemorative Postage Stamp, 1974-75

Commemorative Postage Stamp, 1974-75

Salomon negotiated the sale of a majority of the war aid from France and the Dutch Republic, selling bills of exchange to American merchants. Salomon also personally supported various members of the Continental Congress during their stay in Philadelphia, including James Madison and James Wilson. He requested below-market interest rates, and he never asked for repayment.  Madison once confessed that “I have for some time … been a pensioner on the favor of Haym Salomon, a Jew broker.”

Salomon was also an important mover and shaker in the Philadelphia Jewish community.  In 1782 he made the largest individual contribution towards the construction of the Congregation Mikveh Israel’s main building.

In 1783, he was one of the prominent Jews involved in the successful effort to have the Pennsylvania Council of Censors remove the religious test oath required for office-holding under the State Constitution. These test laws were originally written to disenfranchise the Quaker, who objected to taking oaths at all.

Salomon’s friend Robert Morris was the one who introduced legislation to end the test laws in Pennsylvania. In 1784, Salomon answered anti-Semitic slander in the press by stating: “I am a Jew; it is my own nation; I do not despair that we shall obtain every other privilege that we aspire to enjoy along with our fellow-citizens.”

Like Morris, Salomon spent time in prison after the war. Salomon died suddenly and in poverty on January 8, 1785 after contracting tuberculosis in prison. Due to the failure of governments and private lenders to repay the debt incurred by the war, his family was left penniless at his death at age 44.

A Grateful (?) Nation

The hundreds of thousands of dollars of Continental debt Salomon had bought with his own fortune were worth only about 10 cents on the dollar at the time of his passing. When his son petitioned Congress to recover money he claimed his father was owed by the government, various committees refused to recognize the family’s claims.

Memorial Marker in Philadelphia

Memorial Marker in Philadelphia

In 1936, Congress voted to erect a monument to Salomon in the District of Columbia, but funds for the actual construction were never appropriated. In 1974-75, the country did issue a commemorative postage stamp for him, as one of the “Contributors to the Cause.”

Next time you hear some candidate for political office bellowing about “Wall Street,” try to imagine if we’d even have a country, had we not been able to call upon people with financial acumen like Haym Salomon.

And next time you hear talk of the Founding Fathers of our nation, remember Haym Salomon. This was a man who, within five years of his arrival in Philadelphia, advanced from penniless fugitive to respected businessman, philanthropist and defender of his people.

He risked his fortune, pledged his good name and credit on behalf of the Revolution, and stood up for religious liberty. A true American patriot, indeed. It’s too bad he’s not better known through the teaching of American history.

I finally know about him. And so do you. We both now know the rest of the story.

Book Review and Reflection: “The Chestry Oak”

April 22, 2016

chestryA while back I read that Albert Einstein supposedly said, “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be very intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”

As it turns out, that’s not a direct quote, but it comes close to his message. One day, a mother of young children sought out the good doctor and asked what kind of books her kids should read in order to prepare for careers in science.

His reply was “Fairy tales and more fairy tales” because, he explained, a creative imagination is the essential element in the intellectual equipment of the true scientist. Fairy tales, in his opinion, are the childhood stimulus to this quality.

There’s more. Bulgarian-born Maria Popova, author behind the superb blog “Brain Pickings,” maintains that “Fairy tales — the proper kind, those original Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen tales I recall from my Eastern European childhood, unsanitized by censorship and unsweetened by American retellings — affirm what children intuitively know to be true but are gradually taught to forget, then to dread: that the terrible and the terrific spring from the same source, and that what grants life its beauty and magic is not the absence of terror and tumult but the grace and elegance with which we navigate the gauntlet.”

The Chestry Oak” by Kate Seredy was written for children. But is not a fairy tale. There are no ghosts, dragons, or evil witches. It is historical fiction, the story of young Prince Michael of the Chestry Valley in Hungary – the same part or the world that gave us Maria Popova.  The story has much of the terrible and the terrific. But the terror and tumult of the gauntlet that Michael navigates, as do his father, his nanny, and others in the tale, is all too real.

Michael is six years old when World War II breaks out and the Nazis conquer Chestry Valley. That kind of evil, National Socialism — and its accomplice and jackal Communism – actually existed, and not all that long ago. Moreover, it seems, we’ve been gradually taught to forget them and to dread them.  They can’t happen here, can they?

Michael’s home, Chestry Castle, becomes the local headquarters for the Nazi military. The vile Herman Goering’s presence is felt, though he doesn’t make an appearance. Michael’s father, the Prince of Chestry, does not actively resist or defy them, and many of his countrymen consider him a traitor.

Michael’s life, and that of the realm’s mighty stallion Midnight, is spared when an Allied bombing raid destroys the castle and kills almost everyone in the valley. He carries with him an acorn that had previously dropped from the thousand-year-old Chestry Oak. The tree had once sheltered Saint Stephen, patron saint of Hungary, as he led the people of the valley in battle against heathen hordes.

Every prince of Chestry would, on his seventh birthday plant, plant a seed from that oak.  Michael cannot plant the acorn on that day, however, and the tree is destroyed by bombs.  The story tells how he eventually learns the whole truth about what happened and how he keeps his solemn promise to his father. He eventually does plant the last acorn. He fulfills his mission as the bearer and custodian of his people’s history and collective memory.

Though “The Chestry Oak,” written in 1948, is based on actual events, it has many of the desirable qualities and lessons that Popova identifies in fairy tales.  It is unsanitized and unsweetened. It tells of both soaring goodness and monstrous evil springing from the same source – members of the human race. It tells of our need to preserve the ancient values, of the gallantry and nobility of ordinary people, of the precious worth of personal honor and fidelity to promises.

Also, even with its historical grounding, the story feels a little like both J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” and C.S. Lewis’s “Chronicles of Narnia.” There’s a bit of the film “War Horse” in there too; my equestrian friends will like the descriptions of Prince Michael’s horsemanship.

My grandsons, ages three and one, are too young for “The Chestry Oak.” I’ll save it for them, maybe until the day when they’ve learned at least a bit of history of our world. In the meantime, I’ll try to share with them those wonderful stories and characters that you and I got to know when we were children.

That’s the least I can do, and I thank Dr. Einstein and Maria Popova for reminding me why those stories are so important.

Fixing Up Society’s Toy Department: Two Modest Proposals

April 10, 2016

Is it a one-way journey, or will the train some day return to the station? Is this one of those times when I must hope for the wisdom to know the difference between things that can and cannot be changed?

No, I’m not thinking of weighty matters, like the way so much of the world seems to be sliding into chaos and towards perdition. I’m not musing on the sorry state of American politics, not pondering how the country has allowed itself to get into the mess it’s in.

That’s for another time, and for another forum. I’m thinking about fun and games, about the Toy Department of society. I’m thinking about college sports and Olympic sports. I see some things about them that I don’t particularly like, and that I wish I could fix. They probably can’t be fixed, and that’s too bad. But I don’t have to like them, and I were king I’d try something different.

Make College Sports an Educational, College Experience First: Get the Players from High Schools, not from Semi-Pro Leagues

Let’s take college sports first. Hockey season is ended, and the annual exodus of still-eligible players is well underway.  Last year, a total of 31 players left school early to play at some level of professional hockey. It will likely be similar in 2016.

Good luck to them all.  I hope they do well, although I think most of them are making a mistake. They’re not all Jack Eichel or Chris Kreider.

I know that this is reality. But for many of these exceptionally talented young adults, reality will bite.

It’s the same in the other big-money sports. In college football, some 125 underclassmen have declared their intentions to be drafted by the National Football League. And don’t even talk to me about college basketball and the “one-and-done” Wildcats of Kentucky. Players who are good enough, or who have been persuaded that they’re good enough, leave their schools, teams, and fans behind.

College scholarship athletes enter school with a five-year time span in which they may play four years of varsity sports. If they have a serious injury, they may get a “medical red-shirt” ruling and have an additional year.

Freshmen are eligible to play immediately. In football, very few “true freshmen” actually do play. Instead, they work out and bulk up for a year while learning “the system.”

At the end of their senior year, they might get to come back for a fifth year if they’re good enough. That’s if the coach wants or needs them, and if they’re not so good that the NFL doesn’t lure them away. And nowadays, a fifth-year player can also go to a different school and play a single season if he has only played three years at his first school.

Five years to play four is too long.  Make it four years to play three.

I suggest that if a scholarship player leaves after his first or second year of varsity participation, the school owes him nothing. If he goes pro after his third year of varsity participation, great. The school must allow him to come back and finish his degree.

If he’s not good enough to play professionally or get a pro tryout, but he’s had three years of college sport, that’s enough.  He’s there for an education – right? So give some other student-athlete a chance to show what he can do on the field of play.

Freshman eligibility for varsity play returned in the 1970s. We’re not going to go back to the days of freshman teams and jayvee teams. So let’s live with it. But let’s adapt to it in this way.

And while we’re at it – an even more importantly — let’s go back to bringing in college-age kids to play in college. We can do that. The four-years-to-play-three eligibility clock should start 12 months after a player’s high school graduation. Allow for one year of post-graduate preparation only.

In hockey, especially, we’re bringing in players who have played one to three years of junior hockey after high school. The best ones are almost fully baked as college freshmen. They’ve gone through a cycle of development and maturation that they should go through in college. They won’t need four years of college competition to get ready for the next level.  So most of them leave early.

Sure, with what I propose the college coaches would have to do more teaching.  They’d have to evaluate and make scholarship decisions more on potential than on accomplishment. So what? That’s their job.  There would be more busts, but more pleasant surprises too. “Walk-ons” and late bloomers would stand a better chance of making a team. And overall, more young people would have a chance to earn a college education with their athletic talent.

hc-ncaa-hockey-championship-quinnipiac-vs-north-dakota-20160409

North Dakota defeated Quinnipiac 5-1 in Tampa to win the NCAA Championship (Hartford Courant photo)

That was a helluva game, that NCAA hockey final, wasn’t it?  It’ll only be a couple of years until a lot of those who played in it can join AARP.

Champion North Dakota is a “young” team with 11 freshmen. Four of those freshmen are either 21 or 22.  Quinnipiac has fifteen players older than 21; four players who are 23; three who are 24; and one who is 25. In contrast, Boston College, Quinnipiac’s NCAA semifinal opponent, had just four players older than 21.

Dakota-Quinnipiac is rather like Cornell-Denver in the days of Ned Harkness and Murray Armstrong.  Ned’s 1970 tri-captain Dick Bertrand was 28 when he graduated. But at least they didn’t allow him to play in the NCAA tournament that year.

Yes, that was a great game in Tampa. The two best teams got to the mountain top, and the best one won. The teams played by the rules. However, the rules of eligibility need a rewrite. Maybe they’re too far along, too embedded and encrusted, to be changed.  But they should.

College hockey is the best of all sports, as far as I’m concerned. But I’d rather watch teams that develop and blossom, rather than plug-and-play.

Change the Olympic Business Model: No More Hosting by Cities. Make the Whole Country the Host.

This one is easier. The recent Boston flirtation with the Summer Olympics is all you need for an example of why a “host city” is no longer the right venue for the Olympic Games.

I am fond of the Olympics, despite their obvious faults and hypocrisies. I usually look forward to them. But I was glad that the Boston bid didn’t succeed. The games are too big and too expensive for a single city.  Nor is there any need to bring all the teams and athletes together, in one place, for the duration of the competition.

Why the International Olympic Committee hasn’t gotten that message, I just can’t understand. They should negotiate with entire countries, rather than with individual cities, to host the games. Bring everybody in for opening and closing ceremonies so as to preserve the pageantry. But hold each of the events in an existing facility, anywhere in the host country, that is best suited for said events.

Nobody does marathons better than the BAA. Hold the Olympic Marathon here. Yachting and rowing? Here too, in Marblehead and on the Charles.  Swimming? Harvard would be a good place, but so would many others around the country.

Gymnastics can go just about anywhere. So can track and field. And somewhere in America, there’s got to be a velodrome for cycling.

Give individual cities and states a chance to bid on a limited number of events, or on just one. They can do a good job at “their thing” when the spotlight is on them, and they won’t go broke. And wherever the athletes are, the TV cameras will be there too.

College sports for college-age kids.  Countries, not cities, for the Olympic Games. That’s all I have to say about that.

What Writers Live For

February 24, 2016

Cover front2Our book was published a little over a year ago. I just have to share the email (below) that I received from Shauna Sullivan McDonald. She is the daughter of Charlie Sullivan, Boston College Class of 1942.

This is why I love writing stories about people – whether they are athletes or not.

Charlie was the oldest former player whom I interviewed during the course of my research. He is, I am quite sure, the oldest living BC hockey alumnus. My co-author Reid Oslin interviewed Bill Hogan, Class of 1933, who lived to the age of 100 and who, unfortunately, did not live to see the book published.

Bill Hogan was the true founding father of Boston College hockey. He was class president in 1932-33. Hockey had been curtailed at the school due to the Great Depression. He persuaded the administration to revive the sport, and he recruited John “Snooks” Kelley to be the coach.

Charlie Sullivan came along a few years later. He was on a team that had three great players — Ray Chaisson, Fishy Dumond, and Johnny Pryor — and a bunch of scrubs including Charlie. In 1941, with World War II looming and knowing that he’d be called to service, Charlie didn’t come back to school in the fall. He waited around, but wasn’t drafted right away.

He happened to be on the campus one day when one of the priests saw him and asked why he was not in school. Charlie told him, and the good father promptly ordered him to report to the dean and to the athletic department.

Charlie played most of that 1941-42 season before the army came calling. His last game was on February 7 when the Eagles lost 7-2 to Dartmouth. Charlie wasn’t around at season’s end for BC’s first national championship. They won the George V. Brown Memorial Trophy as the top amateur hockey team in the country, besting the High Standard, Massena, and Saint Nick’s Hockey Clubs in the National AAU Tournament.

Charlie was just full of stories about his BC days. The team practiced only a few times a week, very early in the mornings at Boston Arena. Frequently, the practices were scrimmages against BU or Northeastern. The players would pitch a quarter each into a pot. The winners would use their money to buy breakfast at the White Tower restaurant on the way back to class.

The all had jobs on the side — usually at the Post Office or in supermarkets — while playing hockey and studying full time. For extra money, they’d sell pints of blood to the Red Cross.

Yes, times were different then. It was a privilege to be able to tell the stories after speaking with someone who lived through them.

Shauna Sullivan email