Wednesday, July 20, 2016

TAKING TIME TO SPEAK OUT



            I do not ordinarily write editorials although, hopefully, my regular columns communicate clearly my love of country, respect for history, appreciation of language and the art of communication and an abiding belief that strong homes and families are the backbone of happy lives and strong communities. Much of my life has seen a close personal association with public service at several levels and I am particularly proud to have served my country in uniform in war and in peace. I believe that long after one’s career is no more than the ticking of an engraved gold watch in a bureau drawer, our real accomplishments will be measured over years and generations of time by the solid lives of love and integrity lived by those whom we bring into and train for productive citizenship in the world we leave behind.
            In recent years – and especially in recent weeks – my heart has been made heavy by what I can’t help but view as a growing decline in the very spiritual character of our national consciousness. My mind goes back to a particular moment in my young life when I looked up at the portrait of George Washington and the flag which hung nearby in Miss Ryerson’s first grade classroom in Coytesville, New Jersey and said to myself: How come, out of all the other places in this world, I got to be born here in this country; in America? My young heart swelled in pride within me, and I was filled with an unspeakable sense of belonging to something great and glorious. That realization would become a tessera in my lifelong suit of protective armor.
            Pete Carney was the Irish cop assigned to our small town and a neighbor with whose kids I grew up and shared a pup tent on campouts. He was tall and proud in his dark blue uniform, and I always felt safe when he helped me through highway traffic on my way across route 9W. He really became my hero the day he burst through a glass window to pull the Call kids from their burning home. When I became a military cop years later, I knew I wanted to be like Pete. At a much later date while doing under-cover work while liaising as a military partner to hard-shelled Seattle Vice Squad “professionals”, I was fortunate to come under the mentorship of USAF Master Sergeant Walter Korwevo, an older and dedicated veteran cop who would knock on any door and put himself (and me) in all kinds of danger to carry out his duty. To have experienced myself what it was like to be shot didn’t exactly make it easy to serve with him at first. He was one of the bravest guys I ever knew.
            Like any law enforcement officer I have ever known, the kind of dedication and bravery the nation witnessed last week in Dallas, Texas is anything but uncommon. We see it exemplified week after week and year after year all over our country. In fact it is so common, so expected, that our otherwise vigilant media seldom find it worthy of their touted attention. Much more attractive and headline-worthy is the one-in-ten-thousand instance of a story which seems to extol the possible innocence of some dope-infused miscreant who got himself “abused” by those trying to protect the public from such as he; cases in which unproven grievances get more attention than gratitude for the men and women who don their uniforms every day to make our ever-more-dangerous streets safe for citizens.
            My question is mostly this: Why do we tolerate, even encourage the kind of behavior which is justified because of some notion of 1st amendment consideration when what we are really seeing is the very erosion of constitutional order and the approach of virtual anarchy.
            As for me and my family, we applaud the responders in Dallas (and in other places around the country) and the citizens and community leaders who support them. I wish we could multiply Chief David Brown a hundred fold and distribute him among other U.S. cities.

Monday, July 18, 2016

THE BIRTHING OF FAMILY KITCHEN TRADITIONS



            At one time when our family was still young and all together, I had Sunday responsibilities which required my attendance with a congregation many miles away from our residence in Vermont’s beautiful and remote “Northeast Kingdom”. Our home was situated a matter of 500 yards from Canada with the international boundary actually dividing our public library in half (marked by a white painted line!) The congregation I mention had ecclesiastical boundaries which drew members from Vermont, New Hampshire and a corner of Maine and everything about my duties posed unique challenges, including a 100+ mile round trip on sometimes-unplowed country roads in winter.
            In addition to the hundreds of miles of old stone walls, rolling green pastureland and century-old barns, part of the journey’s charm lay in the occasional roadside garden-stands, usually unattended but with a cigar-box “cash register” and a latent belief in human honesty. Sometimes we stopped to investigate or more often to give our four restless kids a chance to vent their boredom. On one such autumn occasion I became fascinated with a Ball pint jar of colorful preserves hand-labeled as Old Fashion Corn Relish. Always on the lookout for something which excited my love for anything home-made and evocative of the tradition of farm-and-home gardening and self-reliance, we drove away from that nameless and unremarked farm-stand on that long-ago random and unrecorded Sunday with a discovery which would eventually touch and bring delight to (to date) three generations and more of our expanding family.
            After that first family dinner of roast beef mashed potatoes and gravy with that jar of relish at the table’s center, we knew we had found something special. Always thinking of myself as a “kitchen scientist” at heart, I immediately began the process of reverse-engineering, carefully sorting through the obvious ingredients: tender fresh corn, onions, red pepper, green pepper, vinegar and sugar (probably both white and brown,) an unknown combination and amount of spices and . . . a touch of magic.
            The experiment continued over a period of several years of autumn harvests and kitchen trials, Shirley and I altering ingredient quantities, new spice combinations and cooking technology, my elderly mother sitting at the kitchen table and keeping meticulous notes. Each year we turned out jars of excellent and satisfying relishes; but never a match for the el primo status we were seeking. Something elemental was missing.
            Another such story has its roots in a long-ago family vacation spent at the seaside cottage of old family friends who summered each year at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. We were “breaking in” our new family car, a long black 1937 8-cylinder Oldsmobile. I was 4 years old and was often left in the care of the family maid, a young African-American woman named Dolly whom I followed hand-in-hand wherever she went. Water melons were in great abundance at that time and place and I was curious to note that Dolly carefully set aside the accumulating rinds in a large tin basin. I later watched as she trimmed off the outer green skin turning the soft still pink under-flesh into small cubes which – brined -- emerged from  slow cooking in sweet vinegar as a tantalizing, candy-like table pickle. Water Melon Rind Pickles have been a favorite ever since. Three decades later in a Vermont kitchen, inspiration led me to add a cup of those glowing yellow pickles, now minced small, to our ongoing corn relish experiment. VOILA!  After that impromptu “wedding” our final miracle relish was complete.


            I believe that all of life is made up of stories. Tiny stories, perhaps; but stories just the same. Beside me here as I write is a 79-year-old much-faded photo of a small white boy beside a young black girl as proof.                                                              

Thursday, July 14, 2016

POLITICAL CORRECTNESS - 1943 STYLE



            Wednesday nights were best. I would carefully disassemble my Dad’s .22 caliber Remington field rifle, remove the violin from its carrying case and replace it with the carbine. A short distance walk to the meeting place where our scout master would be waiting and our car-full of eager boys would be on our way to an adult gathering place known as The Swiss Hall, at whose upstairs bar old men with blonde walrus mustaches and a schnauzer dog drank German beer, but in whose basement a superb rifle range waited. We would each be handed two boxes of .22 long rifle ammo., donated by the NRA and the scored competition would begin.
            It was 1943, and our country was at war; every one of us at the age of ten or twelve was serious about getting ourselves prepared. At school we ran an outdoor obstacle course set up by military advisors, performed close-order drill with make-believe 1903 Springfields and climbed rope ladders tied to the roof girders of the gym. Every school day began with the Lord’s Prayer and a flag pledge. (We had two boys who for religious reasons were excused from the latter, but after a while they changed their own minds and joined in.) Most middle and high school classes in my schools devoted some time to reviewing the latest media coverage of war news and encouraged students to share family letters from the front. Weekly assembly programs often featured combat veterans home from the war, recovering from wounds, ferrying planes, giving advanced training, etc. They were invariably treated like the “heroes” they were.
            A majority of teen age American boys knew how to tune a carburetor, adjust or replace spark plugs, repair a flat tire, diagnose a wide range of automotive problems and drive anything from a soapbox derby entry to a flatbed farm truck. (I had driven a Sherman tank on a test track at a nearby university as a young student!)  Our enemies – despite a militaristic cultural background – were deficient in ways they had not bargained on. When Italy militarized as an Axis partner, it was forced to settle for a horse cavalry as its youth had almost no mechanical skills. My own most prized Christmas gift of the WWII period was a simulated airplane cockpit with a full instrument display, hand throttle, stick and rudder pedals. All I needed was two kitchen chairs to go flying.
            Even more important we were constantly reminded by the people and ethos which surrounded us that we were on “God’s side” and it was okay to hate and mock the evil enemy, and our goal was to defeat them “unconditionally”. We vied for prizes in art class by drawing posters which pictured people like Hitler, Tojo, Hirohito, Mussolini, Himmler and Goering as warthogs and worse; the nastiest and most disgusting image got first prize. We were constantly reminded in artistic detail that Loose lips Sink Ships, the Marines need a Few Good Men and the Enemy Laughs while You Loaf! Beneath a picture of an evil looking and rictus-faced Hitler, a poster urged Destroy This Mad Brute!
            The use of pejorative descriptive terms such as Kraut, Jap, Nip and Meatball were daily fare in the media and in public usage (of course the same license applied in the way we referred to ourselves and each other when it came to ethnic identity anyway – PC had not arrived on our shores yet.) The music which aired on radio and wherever people met also reflected a similar indifference to linguistic niceties when it came to our national enemies, with titles such as “I want that Monster (Hitler) Dead!”and “Right up the Fuehrer’s &#%!” and more. Every movie show began with war films and the National Anthem.
            Our national enemies were pictured with slanted eyes, thick eyeglasses, monocles and with blood dripping from fang-toothed jaws, and described as too stupid to build ships that didn’t roll over when launched.
            And as for a public “outcry” over something as mild as “water-boarding”: I can almost hear the coast-to-coast, border-to-border laughter from here!

Sunday, June 26, 2016

A SATURDAY SERENADE ON MAIN STREET



            In the New Jersey years before World War II I looked forward to Saturdays, knowing we would pile into the Oldsmobile as a family and drive the six miles to the market town of Englewood. I always got a special thrill out of the rippling noise the tires made on the cobblestones of the Seven Sisters hill as we passed the Dwight Morrow estate where my hero Charles Lindbergh (“Lindy”) hung out part of the time. I usually asked Dad to park adjacent to the railroad tracks in case the timing would be right for a freight to come rolling through.
            While Mom did her shopping I would go with my Dad to the Lightning store whose shelves were overflowing with “guy” things from lanterns to axes and hammers tire tools and shovels. Dad would always pull a small 3-ring notebook from his pocket where he would have a list of needed items he had been assembling since last time: nuts, nails, washers, bolts, hangers, paints and more.
            Sooner or later, we would end up in the F.W Woolworth 5 and 10-cent store where I would carefully spend my modest allowance: a cylinder of bee bee’s, a new shooting “agate” for my marble supply or another lead soldier for my growing “army” of accurately-painted miniatures.
            We might meet Mom coming from Smalbein’s Jewish Bakery with one of their signature seven-layer cakes tied up in a white box and weighing a good pound or more. I would ask if she had remembered to pick up a container of their famous dill pickles from the barrel in front, and if it was a good week, she might have a sack of German Cruellers to eat on the way home.
            As deliciously predictable as all of this was the big treat would be the “music man”; the “organ grinder” with his red-capped chimpanzee and tin cup for coins, a colorful duo I would follow and admire for as long as I could. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, we were among a privileged few to still have such an itinerant musician in our nearby community. At one time it was said that New York City had “one for every city block,” but that was before Fiorello LaGuardia became mayor and was swayed by a handful of “dyspeptic complainers” to make the city a quieter place.
            Most of these colorful street performers were Italian immigrants who arrived on our shores penniless and without the prospect of employment. The depression years were particularly hard on new arrivals who spoke a foreign language, had no employable skills and did not know their way around. For a small investment they could buy a portable “barrel organ” which, with a punch-holed cylinder like a player-piano roll, could play up to six tunes with the turning of a hand-crank. Most, like the short man with a black mustache I followed around, carried the instrument on a shoulder strap, while others preferred a larger free-standing version.
            Small monkeys – Chimpanzees – were plentiful at pet emporiums in the early days of the 20th century, and could be purchased for five dollars or so. The entrepreneur-minded emigrant, willing to put in the animal-training time, could put himself in a good paying business in less than a year, while providing musical diversion for an entertainment-hungry public with the help of the uniformed simian with a tin cup to gather coins from appreciative onlookers.
            One organ grinder questioned as to whether he had a business license explained “I’m a musician and my little friend here is a businessman. He doesn’t tell me what music to play and I don’t tell him how to run his business.”
            Shopping on Englewood’s main street all those years ago still replays in my mind from time to time, and I can still hear the “hurdy gurdy” music of the organ grinder in what I can’t help but remember as a simpler, more care-free space of time.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

MEASURING THE HEIGHT OF LIFE’S “GIANTS”



            Anyone seeking to do an autobiographical sketch of one’s life cannot help but discover the convenience of breaking the passage of time down into bite-size chunks – or “chapters.” In doing this it may come as a surprise to find that some of those significant course changes worthy of a time mark may not become historically visible until a certain number of years have flown by. Our perspectives change with the passage of time and the maturing of our outlook and sense of self-awareness; just one of many reasons why I believe any meaningful personal history is a continuous project and is never really “almost done.”
            In 1953 for instance, there was an extraordinary confluence of events in my life – perhaps more life-changing than I was even capable of comprehending at the time but which are emotionally exhausting even to think about now, so many years after. A year in a combat zone where gunfire, death and dying had been seen, and smelled, and heard and felt, and where young men died every day; where I lived in a canvas tent with ten other men (most of us still “boys” in our teens) had just suddenly come to an end. I was alive but I was somehow different.
            In 17 hours flying time I was back home in the U.S.A..There were no bugles and marching bands; no thank you’s and well done’s as there had been with our older brothers. The “cool” thing was to shut up and not say anything about the 39,000 dead, 8000 M.I.A. and thousands of guys with missing parts and scarred souls. (We didn’t even talk about it with each other – for about 40 years.)
            Two weeks after getting home I was married and off to a new life in the “peace-time” Air Force, 3,000  miles from home, in a strange civilian world where I didn’t know how to fit in; a young wife, a home to fill, groceries to buy and bills to pay and my first car to fix and keep in gasoline. Even scarier, I was now a senior non-commissioned officer in need of fitting into an established, rather complicated and highly structured military society, living “off-base” in the midst of but not a part of a civilian community; no more familiar barracks life, mess hall dining and fixed routine.
            While checking into my new base on day one, my welcoming experience was to be braced and chewed up one side and down the other for wearing an “illegal” shoulder patch, by the biggest, meanest Master Sergeant I had ever met. His name was Mike Rathsack, and he is the subject of this story.
            My stateside assignment was to the 529th Air Police Section at Paine A.F.B. near Everett, Washington, and the last stop on my list of things to do that day was to sign in at A.P. headquarters. When I reported to my new boss – the Provost Sergeant – there was 6 foot 6 inches tall, square-jawed Master Sergeant Sterling (Mike) Rathsack sitting behind the big desk! I immediately saw my new career assignment going down-hill right there. I knew there was no way I was going to hit it off with this guy after such an illustrious first meeting on the base Main Street an hour earlier. The 5th Air Force patch on my left shoulder weighed 5 pounds and seemed illuminated in neon. I never could have guessed in those moments that this rough-as-a-cob WWII veteran was about to become one of those “giants” that bless our lives at times of special need.
            Within a month, I was called before a promotion board, and found myself assigned as “Operations Sergeant” – essentially “number two” to the Provost Sergeant himself – and a regular companion to a father-like figure who saw something in me I was too immature to appreciate. Off base, the Rathsak family adopted us and soon found us a better living space in a duplex house close to their own in the ferry town of Mukilteo; an old house which we shared with the friendly Coast Guard couple manning the nearby lighthouse. Suddenly, we were part of an expanding “family-away-from-home” and able to concentrate on our new marriage and new life together. Mike taught me how to fish the northwestern lakes for crappie, and the harbor for salmon, and I soon had a new Labrador Retriever to run with his Springer Spaniel (a rather full boat load!)
            Looking across the landscape of a lifetime, I recognize Master Sgt. Mike Rathsak as a Tall Giant!