Monday, July 27, 2015

LIVING WITH A GENERATIONAL PERSPECTIVE



            This past week has been for me one of forced introspection. First I was visited and interviewed in my home by a graduate student from UCLA whom I had met quite by chance at a service station in Mountain Home, Idaho while traveling. He was studying as a Master’s Degree candidate the lifetime activity level and outlook of “special populations” (meaning in my case “seasoned citizens”.) Needless to say, he is still scratching his head realizing he has probably glommed onto a Doctoral subject as well! 
            Five days later I sat for a three-hour interview before the television cameras of Korea’s Global radio/television network, Arrirang with a pair of English language TV producers from Seoul and NYC – six years after delivering myself of unintended but impassioned and widely-quoted remarks when visiting that country with a U.S. Veterans’ group.  July 27, 2015 will mark the 62nd anniversary of the armistice which brought an end to the Korean War, and the two national flags which fly together over my home this week serve to visually define something of the dichotomy of identities which run squarely through my own life.
            In each of these two interviews I found my examination of my very-professional interviewers as revealing as they could have theirs’ of me. Since they were born into and have lived so far in the midst of a time bearing little resemblance to mine it could not be otherwise. And yet so profound is the contrast that it has left me starkly and newly impressed; actually shaken.
            The world I was born into was spawned by world-wide depression and “book-ended” by World Wars and the ongoing conflicts produced by “uncompleted wars” and by politicians who think they can win peace (or buy elections!) by signing vapid and meaningless agreements on paper. Most of my aging fellow-veterans hate war more than anybody, but believe its purpose is to win something of value not otherwise attainable. We tend to believe – along with History’s greatest military leaders – that there is no greater sin a nation can commit than to send its youth into a battle from which it then prevents or withholds their victory – for whatever reason! It is the ultimate betrayal. It even happened in Korea; it REALLY happened in Viet Nam, and now we see it being repeated in spades in the so-called War Against Terror and the related Gulf Conflicts, where once again our best and bravest have been squandered and de-limbed in battles made meaningless by political decisions that are both ambiguous and premature, and which actually fly in the face of real accomplishments so easy to deny the victors when convenient.
            In the world of the l940s, one could walk through the streets of the most ethnically diverse and culturally divided of America’s cities in perfect safety, despite the fact that a large proportion of previous police forces were away fighting a real war. Pete Carney, the Irish street cop I saw every day carried only a billy club and was known mostly for the two Cull family kids he dove through a plate glass window to save from a house fire. Our police forces and firefighters were uniformly respected and even revered by our citizens, and any elected official who dared to display anything less would have been thrown from office by an enraged public! My family lived only three miles from the country’s largest city, but never locked our door. (I think the key was lost back around 1905). In the wonderful world of today, more citizens have been shot or stabbed to death in Chicago than in Iraq and Afghanistan during the same period of time. And the very police we once thought to be our heroes are attacked and undermined by politicians we keep electing. And though I live in one of the most peaceable corners of America, I seldom leave home unarmed.
            My childhood friends were not gifted with such marvels of minute-to-minute communication as today’s 1st graders take for granted, but they quickly learned how to enjoy daily one-on-one conversations in pretty sound English grammar (and even Morse code after dark in whose hours we played all the time!) We called each other by proud ethnic nicknames and laughed about it, but quickly went to the defense of any friend who was REALLY put to injury. Boy! Were we conflicted! And still, we followed and discussed the war news from every theatre every day, and pretty much understood what was going on and what our Dads, brothers, uncles, cousins and friends were facing. We did what we could do; and we loved our flag, our country, its traditions and institutions; and each other.
            Following this week’s two intensely probing interviews in which I was asked to lay bare what I believe, WHY I do, and why I choose to live a life which many seem to think belies my age and the time in which I now live, I found myself filled with a deep and wearying sadness, and feeling more and more LONELY in a strange new world. So much so that my wife Shirley who thought things had gone quite well was surprised to have to ask why I was crying? I answered with my own question:
            “What has happened to my country? Where has the America I used to know gone?”

TASTING THE MEMORY OF “DOG WAGONS” AND “OWL CARS”



Americans have always worshipped mobility, and regardless of their mode of travel, food has always been part of that love affair with the open road.
I can still remember the first “hamburger” I ever had.   I must have been all of four years old, and I can still to this day picture the immensity of that juicy sandwich made of oven-fresh buns filled with a steak-like wedge of beef topped with a thick slice of onion and dripping with ketchup like they used to make. We were returning from a week-end outing on a New Jersey lake when my father unexpectedly pulled into the roadside parking lot of a long silver and green “diner”.
Along with that first bite of America’s favorite travel food, I remember well the mystique associated with eating in a real “diner”, filled with the bustle of people on the move, and the smells of food being prepared right before your eyes.
Diners had their genesis more than 100 years ago, and to begin with, they really were mobile, usually lunch wagons which could be moved from one location to another, as the need for their trade changed from day to day or season to season. Because hot dogs made up an important part of their simple menu, they were often called “Dog Wagons”.   Often too, they stayed open at night when other eateries had long since closed their doors, earning them the further appellation of “Owl Cars”.
They happened to come along at a time when the women of America had declared war on alcohol, and the Women’s Temperance League seized upon the roadside “lunch wagon” and its always-hot supply of coffee as an ally in their war.  Getting their spirit-prone men out of the bars and into a late-night diner came to be known as getting “on the wagon”, a term which has been with us ever since.
Sam Jones of Worcester, Massachusetts was apparently the first to get the idea of installing counters and chairs inside his wagon back in the 1880s.  When electric trolley cars were retired, many of them enjoyed a second life anchored beside some busy thoroughfare, and the shape of diners began to assume what would become their almost universal look.  Since railroad dining cars, as introduced by George Pullman, were regarded as the classiest of restaurants, businessman Patrick Tierney built on their romance by manufacturing a line of sleek look-alike cars he dubbed as “diners” in 1905.  With models marketed under such titles as –
The Philadelphia Flyer and The Comet, Tierney promised buyers he would deliver them right to their property, complete with plumbing, booths and “seating for ladies”.
In 1937, these streamlined roadside diners were attracting more than a million patrons every day, actually hitting their height of popularity in the post war year of 1948.
Times have changed, and the age of the golden arches has largely erased these silvery relics of our culinary past.  But here and there in my travels, I know of a few survivors, and every time I contemplate their place in highway history, I can taste that long ago hamburger, and luxuriate in the warmth of dining car heaven.



Tuesday, July 14, 2015

MAKING THE MOST OF CHANCE ENCOUNTERS



                Until a matter of days ago I didn’t even know Lilly; hadn’t met her. I may have seen her working in the background of a retail store where she is employed. She is a supremely attractive young lady of great charm and warmth; one of those people you just know is good inside and out. Among the things I now know about her: like me she is tied to the State of Maine, and looks upon the north coast of Oregon where she now works with a similar love. She was adopted along with her brother as a small child and until recently had never connected with her birth parents. She is a serious, committed and dedicated employee highly valued by friends of mine for and with whom she works. I knew immediately that if I had the power I would adopt (or steal her away) as a granddaughter forthwith. All within the space of a few minutes time and reinforced by that inner voice which whispers a confirmation of “first” impressions’
            Because I am at heart a writer and storyteller, I confess to seeing (or thinking I am seeing) more in the people, places and events around me than might meet the casual traveler. (If this is only a dream, I hope never to awaken, for it is a source of unmitigated pleasure.) Sometimes I even allow myself to believe it is a communicative attribute ­­– that we leave something behind as we “celebrate” brief encounters as we travel and connect meaningfully and thoughtfully when confronted by such fleeting “gifts” of chance.
 There comes to mind an experience I had when returning to one of my favorite haunts in Cannon Beach after an absence of several years. I am fascinated by the art of glass-blowing, and when I have the chance, I pay a visit to ICEFIRE GLASSWORKS. It was late in the day, but I hoped for a few minutes of happy gazing from the viewer’s booth.  The time ended all too soon, and as I headed for the closing door, the owner held me back. “You’re welcome to stay; we are just closing for the public.” I must have looked up questioningly. The two people behind the desk explained: “We remember you from your last visit. You made us all feel good.” I tried to explain that I hadn’t been there in two years. “Could be”, they agreed, “but we haven’t forgotten; you bring something special with you.”  I hope what they were detecting is my love for people and my interest in what makes them tick. But maybe they were just imagining something.
As we traveled westward through the incomparably- beautiful Columbia River Gorge several days ago, we stopped for an evening meal at Pietro’s in Hood River – another favorite way-marker    we staked out a booth amid a Saturday night crowd that filled the popular establishment. Returning from an exploration of the salad bar I found that my thoughtful family had changed my seat to a more comfortable chair. My reaction was immediate as I changed back to the wall-side original selection with the words “This will not do at all; I can’t see the people!” I’m sure that to my loved ones it seemed just another confirmation of my growing eccentricities, but for me it was an important teaching/learning moment. As I travel, food is somewhere down the list when it comes to the magic of everyday adventure. What I noted that evening on the banks of the mighty Columbia were the families enjoying one another; families of many colors and ethnic trajectory. Except for one blonde –haired teen-ager (whom I was quick to forgive) I did not see a single person texting or even holding an electronic device. The diners were too busy talking, looking at each other and having fun; there was a lot of “love” going on. My heart was nourished more by what I was seeing than by one of the best pizzas anywhere around.
 As my family moved toward departure, I scooted over to the nearest booth where an extended family of ten were laughing and sharing a meal honoring octogenarian grand –parents. I asked them if they were seeing what I was seeing. That began a conversation which spanned their three generations 
and a total stranger from another. A two-or-three-year-old grand-daughter with curly hair attached herself to me like an old friend and chattered away while her mother and I shared family genealogy and thoughts on the importance of family. We found much to talk about and she seemed genuinely sorry that I had to leave.
            But there is another side to this attachment to the people “of everyday” we meet by chance.
When still westbound, I suddenly departed at an off-ramp from I-84 along the Columbia River Gorge. We didn’t really “need” fuel, I had never stopped there before and it would slow our journey. The young girl who came to pump gas, (in Oregon you don’t get to do-it-yourself,) had the same kind of friendly glow and “sweetness” as Lilly, but I sensed immediately a deep darkness not quite hidden behind her friendly spirit. She was most certainly underweight and most of her front teeth were so damaged as to need a lot of repair work. I thought about her all week and couldn’t ignore a deep sadness each time I recalled that very brief encounter. One week later to the day when returning homeward our car insisted on getting off at that same unaccustomed exit. The young girl was not on duty, but working my way through some close-mouthed co-workers to the manager who took pity on me, I learned Jennifer’s sad story, left a note to let her know I was not going to forget her and began making plans.
            As I finish this overlong column, tired and glad to be home, I am listening to Louis Armstrong singing “Oh What a Wonderful World” and formulating an email of thanksgiving to Lillie for touching my heart in such a beautiful way, and a letter of hope to another sweet, girl-of-promise named “Jen”.


Tuesday, June 30, 2015

REMEMBERING THE MEN WHO INVENTED AMERICA



            The word “miracle” comes easily to mind whenever we think or speak of the events which led to the Declaration of Independence and the resulting Constitution we celebrate each July. If there is an underlying truism associated with such a view, I believe it is especially manifest when examining the sheer likelihood that such a uniquely qualified group of spirits should be present at one time and in one place in the entire story of human events. Of the original 58 who pledged to each other their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor, hardly a one failed to lose his wealth, his property, his family or very life in the Revolution that followed. And those who gathered in Philadelphia to draft our empowering document were not some obscure or random collection of theoretical zealots. All were professional politicians – in the highest sense of that calling – rather than amateur theorists. 42 had served in Congress, 10 were serving judges, 30 were then state legislators, 7 had served as state governors and 20 had helped draft their own state’s constitution; 21 had fought in the Revolution and ALL had been born British subjects. The oldest was Benjamin Franklin at 81, the youngest Jonathan Dayton of New Jersey at 26; Alexander Hamilton the committed Centrist from New York, only 30. The average age was 42.
            Nor were they uneducated “frontiersmen”. Thomas Jefferson had studied law, languages, physics, agriculture, mathematics, philosophy, chemistry, anatomy, zoology, botany, religion, politics, history, literature and rhetoric. He was conversant in Latin, Greek, Spanish, Italian, Hebrew and he was a Master of French. Not yet satisfied he dabbled in Anglo Saxon, and he chartered the University of Virginia.
            Though one of the lesser-known of the “great men” of U.S. history, George Wythe of Virginia was a life-long classical scholar, learning one more foreign language at the age of 80. He helped to educate and polish such men as Thomas Jefferson, John Marshal, James Monroe, Henry Clay and scores of other prominent shapers. He was America’s first professor of law and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. He was an undying advocate of emancipation, freeing his own slaves and providing for them in his will.
            Alexander Hamilton, born in the West Indies, became an ardent supporter of America’s patriotic cause earning Washington’s admiration and trust as a military leader in the field, and then as a self-educated expert in designing a system of banking and a national monetary direction capable of bridging a wide disparity of regional opinions.
            If Washington was the “Man of Order” and “Little Jimmy” Madison the “Man of History” at Philadelphia, then Benjamin Franklin was the “Man of the People”. After years of loving and reading U.S. Constitutional History, I have a deeply-held affection for this “senior apostle” of Representative Republicanism. Always affable and approachable, universally and genuinely held in fatherly esteem by his countrymen, he was as much at home before the courts and palaces of Europe as under the branches of his favorite backyard Mulberry tree. Without apology or pretense, he was a shameless materialist, taking unabashed delight in flouting convention and unproductive polity. He was an enthusiastic “citizen of the world”, possessing a depth and breadth of self-acquired knowledge and material wealth rare at any time and in any place.  He maintained an eclectic personal library of nearly 5,000 volumes and whatever device he couldn’t find or purchase somewhere, he invented and produced himself. Skeptical of a strong central government, he brought to the Convention a sense of democracy few others could match.  Most of all, Franklin was unflinching in his belief in THE PEOPLE.
                                      Speaking of our Constitution in 1792, James Madison warned us:
                        “Every word of it decides a question between power and liberty”  If we remember nothing else about who we once were and who we are this July 4th, this is worth giving thought to.