Archive for the ‘Events and Society’ Category

People Who’ve Made a Difference: The Ravishing and Brilliant Hedy Lamarr

December 23, 2017

A Beginning in Sex and Scandal

lamarr 1Her early life was scandalous. She appeared naked, on the movie screen, running through the woods and swimming in a lake, the first woman ever shown in the altogether.

That was in Ecstasy, made in Czechoslovakia in 1933. She also acted out sexual climax, writhing and moaning in a bliss that would have made Meg Ryan blush. Her films were luscious cinematic forbidden fruit, banned almost everywhere. Benito Mussolini owned and treasured a personal copy of Ecstasy.

And she was beautiful. Hedwig Kiesler had a perfect face, raven hair, and a slim delicate figure. Men lusted for her. The first man to have her – that’s not the right word, nobody ever truly had her – was Friedrich Mandl, the first of her six husbands.

He was one of the richest men is Austria. She was his trophy wife. His company, Hirtenberger Patronenfabrik, sold ammunition and was the one of the leading arms makers in Europe. He was a Fascist sympathizer, supplying the war machines of anyone who’d buy his wares.

Mandl showcased Hedwig at dinners and banquets with the likes of Mussolini and Adolf Hitler. She acted the part of a brainless beauty. She often said that the secret of glamor was to “stand there and look stupid.” So she did. It was a superb performance, maybe the best acting job of her career.

Hedwig Kiesler was a genius. Daughter of a Jewish banker, she had excelled in school, especially in math and science. She was born in Vienna on November 9, 1914. She quit school at 16 to study acting. In the late 1920’s Hedy was discovered and brought to Berlin by director and acting instructor Max Reinhardt. Following her training in the theater, she returned to Vienna and began to work in the film industry. She married Mandl, who was 30 years older than she, in 1933.

Eavesdropping Inside the Third Reich

When her husband and the evil dictators sat around talking shop, she sat there, looked pretty, and took it all in. She knew what they were talking about, and she knew what they were up to.

A favorite topic of Adolf Hitler was military technology, especially of the type that could control missiles and torpedoes by radio. Wireless control of weapons would be a huge jump from the hard-wired methods then in use. Wireless did come into use during the 1940s, by both Allies and Axis forces. But it was single-frequency radio, easy to monitor, detect, and jam.

According to one account, Mandl and Hitler engaged in a drunken menage à trois after a dinner party. Mandl was desperate to cement a big arms deal. The third party in the threesome was his gorgeous wife. That story is from a widely-panned book, What Almost Happened to Hedy Lamarr, and its truth is in doubt.

Even if it is true, that may or may not have been the final straw for Kiesler. As a Jew, she came to hate Nazis. She despised her husband’s business ambitions, and she did not share her thoughts about science and technology. If anything, she would share her information with the Allies who were fighting against the Nazis.

The radio-controlled guidance system for torpedoes that she heard discussed never got into production because it was too susceptible to disruption. Somewhere along the way she got the idea of distributing the guidance signal over several frequencies. This would protect it from enemy jamming. But she still had to figure out how to synchronize the transmitter and receiver. The solution would come to her later.

Hedy and Mandl

Hedy and Mandl

Mandl came to know how she felt about him, and he kept her locked up in his castle, Schloss Schwarzenau. He had also forbade her to pursue acting, and tried to buy up all copies of Ecstasy.

In 1937, Hedwig escaped by drugging her maid and sneaking out of the castle wearing the maid’s clothes. She sold her jewelry to finance a trip to London.

Hedwig made it out of Austria just in time. Hitler annexed the country in 1938 and took over Mandl’s business. Mandl was half-Jewish, so being an arms supplier to the Third Reich was no help to him. He had to flee to Argentina, where he eventually became an adviser to Juan Peron.

Into the Movies

In London, Kiesler arranged a meeting with the Hollywood film titan Louis B. Mayer. He knew of her, of course, and he too was captivated by her beauty. On the voyage to America she signed a long-term contract and became one of MGM’s biggest stars of the time.

Hedy and Paul Henreid in "The Conspirators"

Hedy and Paul Henreid in “The Conspirators”

She was in more than 20 films, costarring with Clark Gable, Judy Garland, Bob Hope, Paul Henreid, James Stewart, Spencer Tracy and others. Algiers, White Cargo, and Samson and Delilah were among her biggest screen successes. Unfortunately for Hedy, she turned down the lead in both Casablanca and Gaslight.

She made and spent, by some accounts, at least $30 million. The mansion used in filming The Sound of Music in 1965 belonged to her at the time. Her film career went into decline after Samson and Delilah in 1949.

Film fame and the showbiz scene didn’t do it all for Hedy Lamarr. She didn’t care much for the world of glitz, parties, and paparazzi. She wanted more. She wanted use her money, power, and formidable intellect to defeat the Nazis. She found an ally in composer/musician George Antheil.

Her Only True Partner

George Antheil

George Antheil

Antheil was an interesting individual too. His 1945 autobiography, The Bad Boy of Music, was a best seller. He was born in New Jersey in 1900 and showed promise as a musician and composer. He lived in Paris, and then in Berlin, from 1923 to 1933 when he returned to America. He also wrote books and a nationally syndicated advice column, wrote regularly for Music World and Esquire, and was a major figure in American ballet.

Antheil made his way to Hollywood to write musical scores for movies. He thought that the movie industry was hostile to modern music, however, and had little personal regard for Hollywood. He also saw Nazism for what it was. One of his magazine articles, “The Shape of the War to Come,” accurately predicted both the outbreak and eventual outcome of World War II. He joined up with Oscar Hammerstein and others in the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League.

Antheil and Lamarr were ideological soul mates. But that’s not what brought them together initially. He also claimed to be an expert on female endocrinology. He had written a series of articles about how to determine the availability of women based on “glandular effects” on their appearance. They had titles like “The Glandbook for the Questing Male” and another on “glandular criminology” titled “Every Man His Own Detective.”

Lamarr first sought out Antheil for help in “augmenting her upper torso,” as one web site nicely puts it. She had him over for dinner after scrawling her phone number in lipstick on his windshield after leaving a party. He suggested glandular extracts of some sort, but their talk evidently turned to technology and how it might be used to fight Hitler. Perhaps technology talk was unavoidable; she had a drafting table in her living room.

Antheil’s most famous musical work was the thoroughly avant-garde Ballet Mechanique. The work’s orchestration first called for 16 player pianos, along with two regular pianos, xylophones, electric bells, propellers, siren, and bass drums. It was hard to keep so many player pianos synchronized, so he scaled it back to a single set of piano rolls and augmented the regular pianos with several additional instruments. It produced an entirely new brand of stereophonic sound.

The Technological Breakthrough and Patent

Antheil’s expertise with player pianos was just what Hedy Lamarr needed. She wanted to design a system of controlling torpedoes that would also be hard or impossible for the enemy to jam. Single-frequency radio control was vulnerable to jamming, as she knew. If they could find a way to “change the channel” at random intervals, the torpedoes could make their way to the target.

Hedy incorporated Antheil’s method for synchronizing his player pianos. The coordination of frequency signals was done with paper player-piano rolls. Then she was able to synchronize the frequency changes between a weapon’s receiver and its transmitter. This “frequency hopping” used a piano roll to make random changes over 88 frequencies. It was intended to make radio-guided torpedoes harder for enemies to detect or jam.

On August 11, 1942, U.S. Patent No. 2,292,387 for a “Secret Communication diagramSystem” was granted to Antheil and Hedy Kiesler Markey, which was Kiesler’s married name at the time. They turned the patent rights over to the U.S. Navy, and unfortunately they never made any money from their brilliant invention.

The Navy did not end up building radio-controlled torpedoes. They might not have taken the idea seriously; after all, it came from a gorgeous woman and a flaky musician. There were also some big additional hurdles to overcome before such a system could be used with waterborne ordnance. The Navy did ask her to use her good looks to sell War Bonds, though. She agreed, and bestowed kisses for a purchase price of $50,000.

But the Navy did use Lamarr’s system beginning in 1950. It first controlled sonobuoys, the floating listening posts that detect submarines. In the sixties, it was used for secure ship-to-ship communications during the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban missile crisis. Reconnaissance drones used in Vietnam also employed frequency hopping.

Every time you dial your cell phone, take a call on it, or log onto the Internet, you can thank Hedy Lamarr. Her invention, conceived to fight the Nazis and now called “spread spectrum,” is the foundation of all wireless communication.

“Long-term evolution,” or “LTE,” technology, is just an extension of Hedy and George’s frequency-hopping. Spread spectrum is also the key element in anti-jamming devices used in the government’s $25 billion Milstar system. Milstar satellites control all the intercontinental missiles in U.S. weapons arsenal.

Dozens of “citing patents” owned by the likes of Sony, AT&T, and Seagate now appear on the Patent Office page for Hedy Lamarr’s Secret Communication System. The latest of them was filed in 2009.

After the Glamor Fled

Micro Times magazine with coverage of Lamarr's achievements in technology

Micro Times magazine with coverage of Lamarr’s achievements in technology

The last half of this remarkable woman’s life was not happy. True, the Electronic Frontier Foundation gave Lamarr her a long-overdue award for her work in 1996. Her son Anthony Loder accepted it for her because she no longer appeared in public. She also received the prestigious Austrian Academy of Science Award from her native country.

All six of Hedy’s marriages ended in divorce. Some of her quotes about her experiences there are revealing:

“I must quit marrying men who feel inferior to me. Somewhere there must be a man who could be my husband and not feel inferior. I need a superior inferior man.”

“Perhaps my problem in marriage–and it is the problem of many women–was to want both intimacy and independence. It is a difficult line to walk, yet both needs are important to a marriage.”

“I have not been that wise. Health I have taken for granted. Love I have demanded, perhaps too much and too often. As for money, I have only realized its true worth when I didn’t have it.”

Lamarr’s last movie appearance was in 1958. Her eye-candy roles had never required much acting anyway. She was usually cast as the mysterious and ravishing femme fatale. She’d often been called the most beautiful woman in the world. But when other, younger stars came along, she had fewer and fewer opportunities. She underwent plastic surgery that didn’t help. She had money problems and was twice arrested for shoplifting.

She also launched a number of lawsuits. These included going after Mel Brooks for his silly “That’s Hedley Lamarr!” in Blazing Saddles, and suing Corel Draw for using her image on packages. Both suits were settled out of court. She also wrote an autobiography, Ecstasy and Me, in the 1960s, and ended up suing the publisher.

Hedy lived her final years in seclusion in Florida, her eyesight failing and out of touch with the world that her scientific genius has helped immeasurably. She died in 2000 and was cremated. At her request, her ashes were scattered in the Vienna Woods of her native land.

I Wish I’d Known Her

Anthony Loder once said that his mother never got the chance to grow old gracefully. He also stated that he wished she had talked more to him. There was so much he never was able to ask her. She was frequently on the phone with show-business people, he remarked – Greta Garbo, Bob Hope, Barbara Stanwyck, Louis Mayer, and many others. I wonder, though, if she ever truly revealed herself to another person. Much of what ought to be known about her remains hidden.

One of the greatest satisfactions I get in my work is to hear someone say, “You captured him (or her) in that article.” When I can discover and tell of things that should be known about people, I feel that I’ve done a good deed, both for my subject and for posterity.

How I wish I’d had the opportunity to capture the fabulous Hedy Lamarr. Yes, she was a rich and pampered glamor girl, and we have too many of them. Much of her biography reads like a supermarket tabloid.

But there was so much more to Hedy. She saw monstrous evil. She looked it in the face and escaped its clutches. She made it out of Adolf Hitler’s world, and could have lived an opulent and decadent life. But she decided to do something about the evil she’d seen.

There had to be enormous goodness in her soul, enormous strength in her character. I doubt that anyone was ever allowed to see that goodness and strength for what they were, and then to tell her entire story. We’re the poorer for it.

This blog post is the best I can do for her and for you, dear reader. Danke schoen, Hedwig Kiesler. Sie möge in Frieden ruhen.

History I Never Knew: “Dixie”

November 19, 2017

Daniel Decatur Emmett (1815-1904)

It was a cold and rainy evening in New York, back in 1859, and Daniel Decatur Emmet was feeling lousy.  The Ohio-born Emmet, an abolitionist and a songwriter for minstrel shows, was warming himself by the wood stove and wishing he were somewhere else – preferably someplace that was warm, like the states of the American South.

Legend has that his wife sympathetically suggested, “Well, why don’t you write a song about it?”

A good idea, especially because Emmett had recently been hired by a company named Bryant’s Minstrels, and he had to come up with a new song, a “walkaround” for the minstrel show, within a couple of days.

Emmet sat down and wrote, “I wish I was in the land of cotton…”

Bryant’s Minstrels premiered “Dixie” on April 4, 1959. It was the second-to-last song in the show, billed as a “plantation song and dance” and placed there because they didn’t think it was going to be good enough to serve as the show’s finale. They were wrong. It was an immediate smash hit, as soon became the standard closing number for the Bryan minstrel shows.

You know what happened. “Dixie” became the anthem and rallying song of the Confederacy. It was played at the inauguration of Jefferson Davis and by General Pickett before his disastrous charge at Gettysburg.

But the song also was a favorite of President Abraham Lincoln. It was played at many of his campaign rallies for the 1860 election.

Not all Southerners liked it because they knew of its Yankee origin. They inserted lyrics of their own to make it more martial, such as “In Dixie Land I’ll take my stand / To live and die in Dixie.”

In 1861, a Swiss-American Confederate propagandist named Henry Hotze wrote,

“It is marvellous with what wild-fire rapidity this tune “Dixie” has spread over the whole South. Considered as an intolerable nuisance when first the streets re-echoed it from the repertoire of wandering minstrels, it now bids fair to become the musical symbol of a new nationality, and we shall be fortunate if it does not impose its very name on our country.”

Emmet, the abolitionist, expressed regret for not having worked a little harder on the song’s original composition after he saw what a success it was. He also regretted that it became the Confederate Anthem. And he never made much money from it. Had he not sold it outright for $300 to Firth, Pond and Company in 1861, he could have lived a life of luxury on the royalties.

On April 10, 1865, one day after the surrender of General Robert E. Lee, Lincoln addressed a White House crowd:

“I propose now closing up by requesting you play a certain piece of music or a tune. I thought ‘Dixie’ one of the best tunes I ever heard … I had heard that our adversaries over the way had attempted to appropriate it. I insisted yesterday that we had fairly captured it … I presented the question to the Attorney-General, and he gave his opinion that it is our lawful prize … I ask the Band to give us a good turn upon it.”

This was one way in which Lincoln showed his willingness to be conciliatory to the South – to “bind up the nation’s wounds” – and allow formerly rebellious Americans to rejoin the Union.

So next time you visit a Waffle House, remember:

“There’s buckwheat cakes and Injun batter,

Makes you fat or a little fatter.

Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie Land.”

And there you have it. A song that, nowadays, is seen as hateful, racist and discriminatory was written by a man who was committed to the abolition of slavery. It was also a favorite of the man who freed the slaves.

And now you know the rest of the story.

How to Think: Book Review and Reflection

November 17, 2017

Alan Jacobs

Well, I guess that a book with such a title would strive to be that most-clichéd of written works: one that is “thought-provoking.”

Okay, mission accomplished, Alan Jacobs.  But for me, the book is better described as “introspection-inspiring.”

The book’s subtitle is “A Survival Guide for a World at Odds.” I read a Wall Street Journal review of it a few weeks ago and was intrigued. The review didn’t lead me to believe that it was a self-help book. Rather, it held out the promise that How to Think would give the reader a measured and sober understanding of the causes and cures for the vast chasm that divides the left and the right in America’s body politic.

You can get a good deal of that understanding from this compact (156 pages) book by Jacobs, a professor of humanities at Baylor University. You’ll probably recognize attitudes and tactics from both your side of the political divide and the other side. You might even acknowledge the existence of your side’s version of the “RCO” — the “Repugnant Cultural Other” who inhabits the far shore (but who actually might be your next-door neighbor or long-time friend.)

Corollary to that will likely be a realization that you and those on your side are somebody else’s RCOs. It is, as he puts it, a “profoundly unhealthy situation.” Duh.

So, why is it this way nowadays? And is there anything we, as individuals, can do about it? If not to change the world (we can’t), then at least to chart a course through calmer waters and steer between the Scylla of the alt-left and the Charybdis of the alt-right? That we can do, and this book is a helpful guide.

Groupthink

Early in the book, Jacobs gives the example of people’s attitudes towards “The Puritans.” For the most part, to be called “puritanical” is to be insulted. Puritans are rigid, authoritarian, judgmental—right? Jacobs cites writer Marilynne Robinson, who states that this easy characterization is a “great example of our collective eagerness to disparage without the knowledge or information about the thing being disparaged, when the reward is the pleasure of sharing an attitude one knows is socially approved.”

Emphasis mine in that last sentence. I think Jacobs gets it about something, a phenomenon that’s common in these days of social media, the era of the knee-jerk retweet and the forwarded-without-thinking disparagement.

We all want to belong to a group or a community, and that’s usually a positive thing. No man is an island, and so on. But a problem crops up when the group exists primarily to exclude and denigrate others. Those who belong get their comfort and feelings of safety and power from belonging. But that belonging exacts a price, both from the individual person and from the wider society.

Jacobs mentions the case of Megan Phelps-Roper, who was a card-carrying, insult-hurling member of the Westboro Baptist Church. She goes through a gradual and wrenching transformation when she encounters and is willing to talk to one of those RCOs. In the case of the Westboro crowd, the RCO is a gay guy – and she eventually sees his humanity and leaves the Westboro cocoon and her old comrades-in-arms behind.

This is an unusual example, but it’s proof that the battle lines in today’s culture wars aren’t permanent, that there’s hope. Jodi Picoult tells a story of such a transformation in her novel Small Great Things.  In that fictional account, the convert is a pickup-driving, tobacco-chawing racist who eventually come to see the loving decency and professional competence of a black nurse who has cared for his child. The guy sees the light; his wife remains behind.

Both the real person and the fictional person cited here experienced a loss: of group security, of friends, and of family members. Whether it was truly a net loss, in either case, seems unlikely, because new affiliations await those who are willing to change their minds and evolve.

These experiences also both predict the final words of Jacobs’s book, Item 12 on his “Thinking Person’s Checklist.” He writes, “Be Brave. “

Yes, it does take more than a little courage to be open to the possibility of modifying your views at the risk of distancing yourself from your fellow travelers. Not everybody is up to it. Jacobs says as much near the end of the book:

“You have to be a certain kind of person to make this book work for you: the kind of person who, at least some of the time, cares more about working toward the truth than about one’s current social position.”

There are many pithy examples and light-bulb-inducing “Oh, of course” explanations sprinkled throughout the book.  I’d like to cite just a couple that struck me as particularly relevant.

C.S. Lewis and the Inner Ring

It’s not surprising that Jacobs turns to C.S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia and many other works of Christian humanism, for an erudite and prescient look at what’s become of much of our society. Lewis delivered a lecture titled The Inner Ring at King’s College, London, in 1944. I remember reading and re-reading it a few years ago, and I thought it was spot-on even then.

“…you have met the phenomenon of an Inner Ring… And I can assure you that in whatever hospital, inn of court, diocese, school, business, or college you arrive after going down, you will find the Rings—what Tolstoy calls the second or unwritten systems,” Lewis told students more than 70 years ago.

And he continued,

“And you will be drawn in, if you are drawn in, not by desire for gain or ease, but simply because at that moment, when the cup was so near your lips, you cannot bear to be thrust back again into the cold outer world…I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside. ..of all passions the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.”

In applying the notion of the Inner Ring to present-day social affiliations and communities of interest, Jacobs offers the following observations and advice:

“…once we’re part of an Inner Ring, we maintain our status in part by coming up with those post-hoc rationalizations that confirm our identity and, equally important, confirm the nastiness of those Outside…Smart people have a problem, especially (though not only) when you put them in large groups. That problem is an ability to convincingly rationalize anything.”

But he does offer some hope to those who try to do better, suggesting,

“You can know whether your social environment is healthy for thinking by its attitude toward ideas from the outgroup…If you have to respond to what everyone else is responding to in order to signal your virtue and right-mindedness, or else lose your status in your community, then you should realize that it’s not a community but rather an Inner Ring.”

And Now for Some of my Most-Admired Friends

As for the “introspection-inspiring” that I mentioned up front, I‘ll give this last example because I can relate entirely to Prof. Jacobs’s feelings.  I, like him, hold rather passionately to a set of beliefs and attitudes. Not all of those who are dear to me and whose friendship I treasure share those beliefs. In fact, we’re at opposite ends of the spectrum on some important cultural and political matters.

Of his friends, Jacobs writes,

“Over the years, I’ve had to acknowledge that some of the people whose views on education appall me are more devoted to their students than I am to mine; and that some of the people whose theological positions strike me as immensely damaging to the health of the church are nevertheless more prayerful and charitable, more Christian, than I will ever be. This is immensely disconcerting…Being around those people forces me to confront certain truths about myself that I would rather avoid; and that alone is the reason to seek every means possible to constrain the energies of animus.”

Bingo there, Alan. I’m glad you brought that up, and put it as you did. It’s nice to know that someone else feels as I do.

I can think of several people whom I respect and admire greatly, for things like their love for others, their worldly wisdom, and their just plain personal class. I wish I were more like them. But I know I’ll not be voting like them either, or trying to bring them around to my points of view. Not long ago, I was reminiscing with one of them about our many years of friendship. She remarked that it was good that we never tried to make it as a couple because we’d probably have ended up trying to kill each other.

Anyway, I liked this book. And perhaps I’m flattering myself, but I also like to think that I’m the type of person for whom the book will work. If you do decide to read it, please let me know if you think the same way.

Remembering the American Football League

October 20, 2017

On October 18, 2017, the Gridiron Club of Greater Boston honored Larry Eisenhauer of the Boston Patriots as its Man of the Year. Larry was a superb defensive end for the Pats; he played from 1961 to 1969 and retired just before the American Football League merged with the National Football League.

I served as Master of Ceremonies for the evening. My welcoming remarks follow.

Joe Foss, American Football League Commissioner

Good evening, and welcome to the 22nd annual “Legends Night” of the Gridiron Club of Greater Boston.

We usually call this “NFL Legends Night,” but that’s not true this evening. We’re honoring a hero of the American Football League, so welcome to AFL Legends Night for 2017.

The AFL, born in 1960. With commissioner Joe Foss. Let me tell you about Joe Foss.

He was governor of South Dakota at the time he was asked to be AFL Commissioner.  Joe was a Greatest Generation member. In World War II, he was Marine fighter pilot in the Guadalcanal campaign.  He was launched off an aircraft carrier, by catapult, and flew 350 miles to that island in the South Pacific.

The Marines had already landed there. They were in desperate straits, surrounded by the Japanese, hemmed into a small perimeter that fortunately had an airfield.

Joe Foss became head of what they called the Cactus Air Force. Guadalcanal was code named Cactus.

The fight for that island, and in fact the fight for the Pacific, was decided largely in the skies. The Japanese fought with Mitsubishi Zero fighters; there were 72 of them shot down in the skies over the Solomon Islands. Joe Foss shot down 26 of them.  He received the Congressional Medal of Honor from President Roosevelt. Joe Foss’s total victories matched those of Eddie Rickenbacker, the “Ace of Aces,” in World War One.

What better guy to lead the American Football League – to lead a revolution against the establishment National Football league – than Joe Foss?

Joe Foss receiving the Medal of Honor from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, as his wife and mother look on.

He would have been a great president of the United States of America.

Joe came to mind when I was thinking about how we might begin this evening’s program. But something else that kept coming up was a television show about early America.  I’m sure some of you remember it.  The HBO series about John Adams, starring Paul Giamatti, back in 2008.

Now, John Adams is a guy I’ve always felt a little sorry for. He was a one term president, between Washington and Jefferson, and the history books have always given him short shrift. The HBO series and the biography by David McCullough changed that. That’s a good thing.

Adams made a lot of mistakes and made a lot of enemies. But he was a true patriot, devoted to his country and his cause, and he was right on all the big questions.

What brought the series to mind, as I was thinking about tonight, was an interview with the producer. He talked about how they did not sugarcoat the portrayal of colonial times.  There was hardship always – worried about money – violence, brutality and unfairness. It was hard, just to survive. They wanted to show just how hard it was.

Boston Patriots’ founding owner Billy Sullivan

Well, it wasn’t easy for the American Football League to survive, back in those early days. In fact, it was pretty darn hard. The money? Well, let’s just say that an AFL salary might pay for a couple of practice sessions of NFL players today. The playing and practice conditions? Maybe we’ll hear something of them later in the program.

But like John Adams as president, the AFL with Joe Foss at the head, got one thing right. One very big thing, that the NFL did not get right.

When President Kennedy was assassinated on that Friday afternoon, Foss and the guys he worked for, Billy Sullivan and his fellow owners, cancelled the games for that coming Sunday. Billy, if memory serves, was the league owners’ representative at JFK’s funeral.

Pete Rozelle ordered that the NFL play its games anyway. And to Pete’s everlasting credit, he always maintained thereafter that the decision was the biggest mistake he made in his illustrious career as NFL commissioner.

But the AFL got it right the first time.

The Gridiron Club of Greater Boston’s 2017 Man of the Year, Larry Eisenhauer.

In drawing analogies between the birth of the American football league with the American nation – I really don’t mean to say that they are remotely comparable in importance. Pro sports are society’s toy department, and the AFL owners were building another section of that department. Our Founding Fathers were building a new country.

And it was a whole lot harder for General Washington, John Adams, and all of the founders of that day, to take on the British Redcoats than it was for Billy Sullivan and his motley band of revolutionaries to take on the mighty National Football League.

But take on the NFL they did. They prevailed. And unlike the Founding Fathers and the people of those colonies that became the United States of America, they had one helluva lot of fun along the way.

And so did we who watched them and cheered for them.

Let’s hear about those days now, and begin our speaking program.

 

Farewell to The “Sweet Kentucky Babe”

July 16, 2017

Vito “Babe” Parilli, the first of the truly great quarterbacks to play professional football for the Boston/New England Patriots,  lost his battle with cancer and passed away on July 14, 2017 at the age of 87.  The Gridiron Club of Greater Boston honored Babe as its Man of the Year in 2006.  I was Master of Ceremonies and program editor for the Man of the Year Dinner. Before the dinner, I spent some time with Babe and learned the story of his life in football, which is appears below.  If you’re a fan of football, especially of Patriots football, you’ll enjoy getting to know Babe. He was one of a kind. 

By Tom Burke

Vito “Babe” Parilli, Boston Patriots’ quarterback

Back when he was in college, lunch hour was always a singular experience for Vito Parilli.

Rather than sipping sarsaparilla and munching burgoo with fellow students on the campus green at Lexington, Kentucky, Vito would report to the office of the university’s head football coach, Paul “Bear” Bryant. They would sit across from each other and engage in a nerve-wracking board game of the Bear’s personal design, a daily test that made organic chemistry look like basket weaving.

“It was a simulated football game. He’d say ‘I’ll give you a down and distance. What play do you call?’ Then after I answered, he’d say, ‘Okay, you gained three yards. Now what do you call?’” explained Babe recently.

“Sometimes I’d even stay over to his house and play it. The Bear programmed me.  He never sent in the plays, but I always knew what he wanted. In every situation. In four years there, I don’t think I ever got a delay of game penalty either,” he adds proudly.

 

Babe led the Wildcats to the most successful three-year stretch in the school’s football history.  They rolled up a 28-8 record and appeared in the 1950 Orange Bowl, the 1951 Cotton Bowl, and the 1952 Sugar Bowl. In the Wildcats’ 13-7 Cotton Bowl upset of mighty Oklahoma, Babe completed nine of 12 passes for 105 yards and was named the game’s top offensive player. In the Sugar Bowl his senior year, Babe had two TD passes and was MVP in a 20-7 win over TCU.

The Rochester Rifle

Babe in action at Kentucky

Parilli’s father August emigrated to America early in the 20th century, just in time to don an American army uniform and head back to Europe to fight the Kaiser. He was wounded in the Argonne Forest but made it home and went to work for the Phoenix Glass Company in Rochester, Pennsylvania just north of Pittsburgh.

Vito was the youngest of three kids in the Parilli family. There was no television in those days, and every high school boy lived for Friday nights and football. Vito was a fullback in a single-wing backfield. Bryant did not recruit him, but he had always wanted to be a Wildcat. He tagged along on a couple of campus visits to Kentucky with a high school friend who eventually enrolled in a Big Ten school.

After seeing Parilli in a high school all-star game, though, the Kentucky coaches got interested and invited him back down to Lexington for a workout.  They decided that he could become the quarterback to follow George Blanda.

Babe worked out all summer long in Lexington before enrolling, taking in strategy sessions in the morning, field drills in the afternoon, and practicing faking and ball handling in front of a mirror at night. By the time sophomore year rolled around, he was more than ready.

Babe as a Kentucky Wildcat

Known as the “Rochester Rifle” after his home steel country, Parilli set four NCAA passing records – for touchdown passes in a season and a career, and most passes competed and passing yards in three varsity seasons. He was twice a first team All-America selection and finished third and fourth in Heisman Trophy balloting.

Bryant called Parilli the best fake-and-throw passer he’d ever seen, with hand strength so formidable that he could pump three times before releasing the ball.  One sportswriter said “Parilli could take an elephant out on the field and, told it was a football, hide it.”  Another opined, “He handled the ball with the skill of a trans-Atlantic card shark, and can dot a receiver’s eye (right or left as the occasion demands) at 80 yards.”

Parilli was in Army ROTC at college, but he did not have to go into the service upon graduation. Drafted by Green Bay and its new coach Vince Lombardi, he split the quarterbacking with Tobin Rote for two years. Then came the call to military duty.

“I think we were called up because of Senator Joe McCarthy. One of the things kept saying was that the country was not going to give any special privileges to professional athletes,” said Parilli.

Babe spent an uneventful two years in Rabat, Morocco as a traffic controller at an air defense command center. He was able to cross the Mediterranean while on leave and see his grandmother for the first time at her little village near Naples. One poignant memory of that visit was a sign that simply read “October 17,” commemorating a day late in World War II when Nazis bent on retribution stormed into the village and killed all the young men they could find.

Babe returned to pro football in 1956, but his full brilliance as a passer and field general did not emerge until 1962, the third year of the American Football League and Babe’s second campaign with the Boston Patriots. It was a lengthy and sometimes painful route to stardom for the kid from Beaver County.

The first stop was Cleveland, who had traded for his rights when Babe was in the service, hoping that Parilli would take the mantle of the retiring Otto Graham. Five games into the 1955 season, however, Colts’ defensive end Gino Marchetti blindsided Parilli and battered his throwing shoulder so badly that Babe could hardly move the arm.  Six months of convalescence and little response followed.

“I went to a doctor in Kentucky who gave me a cortisone shot and just said to go out there and throw as hard as I could.  That was the way to break it up,” said Parilli.

The straightforward remedy worked, and 1957 found Parilli back in Green Bay. He shared the quarterback job with Bart Starr for two years. The 1959 season rolled around, and Parilli got word that he’d been traded to Philadelphia to be Norm van Brocklin’s understudy. Sick of playing second fiddle, Babe went to Canada instead where he put in a season with the Ottawa Roughriders.

In 1960, the American Football League was born, and Parilli went to Oakland where he and Tom Flores divided the qb duties. Traded from Oakland to Boston after the 1960 season along with Billy Lott for Dick Christy and Hal Smith, Babe shared the quarterbacking duties with Butch Songin in 1961.

Holovak Puts Babe in Charge – at Last

Babe in action as a Boston Patriot

The Pats sent Butch to the New York Titans for 1962, and Babe took over the number one slot. Ably backed up by Tom Yewcic, Babe at last had a team he could call entirely his own.

“It was really the first time in my career that I didn’t have to split the top job with someone.  Mike Holovak was the first coach who gave me that opportunity, and I’ll always be grateful to Mike for that,” said Babe recently.

For the next six seasons, Parilli’s schooling under Bryant paid back all the accrued dividends that Babe’s previous coaches in Green Bay, Cleveland, Oakland, and Ottawa might have collected for their respective teams.  With a talented receiving corps that included Gino Cappelletti, Jim Colclough, Artie Graham, Tony Romeo, and Larry Garron out of the backfield, Babe directed an exciting offensive show in virtually every game.

Parilli set every passing record in the young club’s history during over seven seasons, and his stats have endured in the Pats’ record books where he is now fourth all-time behind Drew Bledsoe, Steve Grogan, and Tom Brady. Babe threw 2,410 times as a Patriot and completed 1,140 passes for 16,747 yards and 132 touchdowns.  His 31 TD tosses in 1964 was the team’s single-season record until Tom Brady surpassed it with 50 in 2007.

The Patriots had a winning record in five of Parilli’s seven seasons and posted an overall mark of went 50-39-9. Babe was a three-time league all-star and the comeback player of they year in 1966 when he led the team to a record of 8-4-2 after a 4-8-2 campaign the previous season.

“He was just a very smart quarterback. Not a scrambler. It was the way he conducted himself out there, and way he called the games,” said Gerry Philbin, a defensive tackle and member of the AFL all-time team who played against Parilli as a member of the New York Jets. The two became teammates for 1968 and 1969, the final two years of Babe’s career when he served as backup and mentor to the Jets’ young quarterback, another Bear Bryant protégé from Pennsylvania named Joe Namath.

“Babe was a tremendous athlete. He ought to be in the Hall of Fame. He was a good punter, and he was the holder for Don Maynard, our kicker. It was very comforting to us, knowing that Babe was there if we needed him,” said Philbin.

The Jets, of course, made football history by upsetting the Baltimore Colts 16-7 in the 1969 AFL-NFL championship game, the first such contest to be dubbed “Super Bowl.” Namath’s brash guarantee of an upset was the most memorable episode of Joe Willie’s entire career. But the prediction and outcome of the game did not surprise Parilli.

“We were lucky to beat Oakland [27-23] in the AFL championship game. But I remember watching films of the Colts along with Joe. We turned to each other and agreed, “Hey, the Raiders are better than these guys. We can beat ‘em,’” recalls Babe.

One other title game in Parilli’s career is not such a good memory for long-time Pats’ fans. The San Diego Chargers won the 1963 AFL West division outright. The Pats and Bills tied atop the East and had a playoff game in snowy Buffalo. The Patriots won 26-8, but then had only three days to prepare and fly cross-country to meet a well-rested foe. San Diego had had two close wins over Boston, 17-13 and 7-6, during the season. It should have been a good match up, but the Patriots were at a hopeless disadvantage and lost 51-10.

Babe and Gridiron Club of Greater Boston president Dave O’Brien in 2006

After his playing days ended, Parilli remained with his beloved game as a coach and front office executive. Babe tutored Terry Bradshaw for three years as a member of the Steelers’ staff.  He also put in three years at Denver and one with the Patriots before casting his lot with the World Football League.

Gridiron Club historian Ned Cully points out that Parilli is the answer to the trivia question, “Who was the first coach of the Charlotte Hornets?” The Hornets were a reincarnation of the New York Stars of the short-lived WFL. Babe was coach of the Boston Bulls, Stars, Hornets, and Chicago Fire of that league. Later on, he got into arena football in venues that included New England, Denver, Las Vegas, Anaheim, and Palm Beach.  He has also worked in real estate, public relations, and as owner of a golf course. He now resides in Denver.

“I really liked working with the arena ball players. They’d play for $500 a game, and they were looking to make their mark. It was just like us, back in the old days,” he smiles.

 

Book Review and Reflection: Disturbance of the Inner Ear

June 6, 2017

disturbanceWhen a best-selling author recommends someone else’s book, you listen. That’s what happened to me recently, and I’m glad it did.

The book is Disturbance of the Inner Ear by Joyce Hackett. I was surprised to learn that it was Hackett’s first book; it’s so beautifully written and masterfully crafted. I enjoyed Hackett’s writing style and learned a great deal about music, about human nature, and about a subject that’s of particular interest to me, The Holocaust. Hackett is both a gifted writer and a thorough, meticulous researcher.  This book won her the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize when it appeared in 2002.

The author who made the recommendation to me was Jacky Collis Harvey, whose smashing debut book Red: A History of the Redhead, came out two years ago. My review of that book is here. Jacky, with whom I’m connected on Facebook, made the suggestion after learning of my interest in The Holocaust.

Jacky didn’t know that I’ve also been trying to learn a little bit more about music – its history, its techniques, its people. I’m totally ignorant about all things musical, but even I know how important that music has always been and will always be to humanity. Disturbance gives deep and informed insight into the motivations and mindset of the musically gifted and into the instruments that they play.

Joyce Hackett

Author Joyce Hackett

The protagonist of Disturbance is Isabel Masurovsky, daughter of Yuri, who was a survivor of the Nazi concentration camp at Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia. That camp was smaller and somewhat less well known than the giant complexes like Auschwitz, Dachau, and Buchenwald. It was a Potemkin Village, a “model ghetto” that the Nazis spiffed up on the surface for visits by the International Red Cross. The Nazis had promoted the place as a resort or spa; they even conned many elderly Jews into paying large sums of money for “lakefront” locations that did not exist. Yuri’s parents were among those that paid up in this manner.

Yuri makes it out of the camp, aided by his musical talent and by the several favorable twists and turns of fate that we hear in many survivors’ stories.  He settles in Brooklyn, where Isabella is born. She becomes a child prodigy on the cello, making her debut at Carnegie Hall at age 14. But her parents get killed in a car accident and she gives up playing.

Ten years later, she’s adrift in Milan, Italy.  The elderly Signor Perso, her teacher, guardian, and the last person on earth who knows her story, suddenly dies.  Isabel takes up with the smooth and seductive Giulio Salvagente, a surgeon and a part-time male prostitute who is carrying his own heavy load of emotional baggage.  She also gets a gig teaching the viola to the American teenager Clayton Pettyward, whose father happens to own a priceless cello that she calls The Savant.

In an article in Bella Online, Hackett said that she interviewed about 400 cellists before writing.  She also visited the city of Terezin, where Theresienstadt is located, and spoke with many Holocaust survivors. That’s the type of research that I imagine is done by another of my favorite fiction writers, Jodi Picoult. An author who works that hard obviously has great respect for her readers as well as for her subject.  Hackett, who doesn’t play an instrument, stated

“I think research is mostly about, not being ‘right,’ but about being ‘not wrong.’ So often it introduces a vocabulary for a life and a set of concerns and a way of perceiving, but once a writer knows everything, she is able to write very little on a topic.

“…While I was doing my research, at a certain point a cellist I was interviewing, Gary Hoffman, quoted a sentence to me almost word for word that I had written the week before in the voice of my narrator. He said: ‘When you are playing in that perfect zone, the notes come in slow motion, like a series of home run pitches you can smack–one after the other.’ Well, my narrator knew nothing about baseball, but I’d written in a line about how in a perfect performance the notes come in slow motion, and time stops.”

Giulio and Isabel need each other, but it takes a while for them and us to realize it. Hackett’s descriptions of their erotic encounters are alone worth the price of the book. They’re refresher courses in the facts of life, imparting new insights into lovemaking while giving the reader palmar hyperhidrosis and tachycardia.

Isabel neatly links Giulio’s sexual performances with her own musical performances, musing, “I wondered about the sex he had with the women he hung around with. Having to sweep away one rich, dead-bored woman after another seemed to me like having to perform the same program, over and over, to one tone-deaf music hater at a time.”

She brings in another musician-analogy when she jumps into the driver’s seat of Giulio’s new standard-shift automobile and teaches herself, on the spot, to drive it so that she can make a climactic escape to Theresienstadt with the precious cello:

“But I was not about to hand myself over to Giulio. Driving a car, I told myself, could hardly be more difficult than playing the Rococo Variations. I occurred to me to listen for the sound I wanted, the smooth, rhythmic groan from the groin of the engine that Giulio had made, and work back toward the movements. This was the secret: in second, my limbs had molded themselves to the needs of the machine. I managed to circle the parking lot without chugging, and then I was coasting up the exit ramp as if I’d always known how.”

We see more of Hackett’s elegant descriptions in Isabel’s climactic escape. She steals Giulio’s car and dashes from Italy through Austria and Germany into Czechoslovakia. She has no papers or passport, but manages to get through the border crossings with luck and guile. With the tension of the chase building, she approaches the Brenner Pass into Austria and says

“I was approaching the border with no passport but Clayton’s…There was no break in the rail, no exit to make a U-turn.  The slopes beside the highway were thickly covered with sharp, spiky evergreens that looked as if they’d impale you if you pulled over and jumped. “

But she makes it to Czechoslovakia. In the grimy town of Litomerice, adjacent to Terezin, she muses,

“I wandered around the won for what seemed like hours. Litomerice looked as if it had aspired to charm for fifteen minutes during the Hapsburg reign, then gotten drunk and let its face go to hell. Most of the buildings were decrepit and peeling: a few had been refaced in gooey apricot. There was not one tree in town.”

This is great writing. It not only paints pictures; it evokes strong, visceral reactions. You’re there, and you feel what she must have felt.  Hackett’s style here reminded me of Catherine Marenghi’s elegant yet gripping descriptions of everyday phenomena in her superb 2016 memoir Glad Farm – which, like Disturbance of the Inner Ear, was also its author’s first book.

Isabel and Giulio do exorcise their respective demons. She makes peace with her past. As she does so, Hackett gives the reader much food for thought about The Holocaust, about the people who survived it, and about their descendants who keep memories alive.

Of her own experience in the research and writing of the book, Hackett later wrote in Boston Review,

“More than anything else my book turned out to be about the task of living after trauma, about accepting that there is no mastery of the past, or another’s experience, while also facing the stark ethical imperative that is adulthood: to extricate ourselves from the warped narratives we inherit in order to avoid doing damage to others in the present. I wrote my way out of a past that was not my own by hurling myself back into its reality…”

She cites Holocaust survivor/author Imre Kertesz’s writing of the prisoners’ greatest fear, that the truth of history would not be told and recorded.  She also points out that when she took her trip to Terezin, “Still, all over Europe, the battle for the story was still being waged.”

That would have been close to 20 years ago, and I’m afraid that the battle for the story of The Holocaust is still being waged. Maybe the battle will never be over. That’s why books like this will always be important.

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.