Monday, September 24, 2007

“The War”: Anything left to learn?

Baltimore Sun columnist and blogger Dan Rodericks offers that the story being told by Ken Burns on Public Television is a story too often told and previously told better. Not everyone agrees on what the story is and what it might tell us.

Some saw the same production that Rodericks' saw. Tried and true - or is it old hat and mundane - video techniques, music reminiscent of the most effective lullabies', and a 150 minutes segment that needs a fifteen minute break to avoid putting people soundly to sleep. However, some people saw something else in the project. Some saw a story too often told, while others, reminded of the recent state of public education, recognize the need to share facts about our history so that we might heed Santayana, and accept the reminder of what we might not remember.

My first impression was that I was not really watching public television. The messages I was seeing and hearing were inconsistent with the left of center political position generally found here. Additionally, although I, too, have heard the story before, there were nuances and details that often seemed to slip by in the telling by Walter Cronkite and other chroniclers of the last half of the twentieth century. Let me explain myself by giving a few examples and the messages I was receiving. That these messages were coming at this time in our national struggles at home and abroad was more perplexing.

In fairness, I was running an errand to the grocery store when the show started, and missed the first one-half hour. When I joined the show there were images and commentaries on the events occurring in Spain and Asia in 1939. There were bits of film from the theaters and comments from contemporaries about their shock, concern and horror at what men were doing to men. We then started to go down the slopes that ended with virtually everyone at war, even those in countries that were neutral.

What was different was some of the slant, or spin, or perspective. We are familiar with the photos of bodies Burns used in The Civil War, and with the melancholy music. We are not as familiar with the photos of dead babies and beheaded corpses. We are familiar with the story of spoken atrocities, but not with supporting images on public television. The reverence usually reserved for conditions under President for Life Roosevelt (I wonder if the press referred to him as Roosevelt II?) was missing. The state of preparedness of the armed forces was atrocious. Why, during the early years of alphabet soup agencies, didn't our leadership prepare for the national defense in a period of extraordinary weakness, the great depression, and world instability, and build some arms and stock materiel to ensure our future use of the Blue Ridge Parkway and Lake New Germany, to name but two important projects that used American workers and resources during that period.

It was hard to watch the images and listen to the people who lived in America in the middle years of the century without drawing some comparisons to America today. From the attack on American innocents to the reactions of the general populace, to the responses to the preparedness for and progress of the military operations, we are enlightened by how the Greatest Generation responded to these stimuli. We listened to a sailor express his outrage at the Japanese attack on the innocent people at Pearl Harbor. It is hard to feel his outraged at the attack on a military installation that killed 2900 American members of the armed forces. The sailors at Pearl Harbor had the tools with which to defend themselves. The outrage about the attack should go more to the failure of the Executive Branch to inform military commanders of the specific threats delivered earlier by the Japanese Ambassador. The sailors could have used that information stand ready for their own defense. The numbers and outrage cannot help but invoke the image of 9/11 where the attack killed 2900 people, too. These were really innocents when we speak of acts of war. They had no tools for their defense. They had no expectation that an enemy might attack them in their office building. The outrages of the populations of the two attacks were similar. There was shock and pain followed by a broad consensus of determination to right this wrong as a nation.

(This might not go here, but if only the Republicans had not said they were going to use the terror attacks as a tool in the next Congressional or Presidential elections, we not have had such an increase in impolitic, impolite and vile public discourse. It has extended to the 2008 election where the democrats are still running against George Bush and he is not running. Back to the other War . . .)

Burns reminded us that some of the decisions coming out of Washington contradicted the advice of the military commanders on the ground. Without stretching, we can recall a Southeast Asian police action where the troops repeatedly achieved objectives and made advances only to be recalled by the salons in Washington. In the 1960s, the result was a quagmire. In this century, the political opposition uses that term to evoke a similar, visceral public reaction. In earlier wars, the result of diddling by politicians resulted in deaths no less than it does now. Nevertheless, The War provides another distinction between earlier wars and the present. That distinction is in the numbers of deaths. During WWII, 1500 deaths each day were common. In Viet Nam, the daily average was closer to 16. Now the average is closer to four. Perhaps the military leaders have learned more than the politicians have over the years. At least that is what the evidence suggests.

People were also struck by the descriptions of the early war efforts of the United States. We had been shipping arms and materiel to Great Britain and Russia, but had not been increasing the equipment and preparedness of our forces. There were images of WWI pie plate helmets and leggings. We saw the horse of the cavalry and heard about the numbers useless for mounting war on an ocean of islands or in Europe. How many administrations had dropped that ball? Who could not immediately think of the 21st century American soldiers fighting without body armor or armored vehicles. Was this one of those things forgotten, things that could not inform us for that reason?

One more example that invokes a comparison is that of Bataan. The government abandoned 78,000 American and Filipino troops because the United States was not prepared for the action. The radio carried messages of hope for the soldiers and threat to the enemy. Both messages were hollow. The few who survived described the terrible actions of their opponents, beheadings and genital mutilation. We heard of the promises of captors to employ humane treatment, promises made by people who scorned surrender and visited their scorn on their prisoners. Where is the comparison with modern times? Why, in what we remember. Our military has learned not to overextend its lines even if the President says to do it. It has remembered what Sun Tzu told us centuries before about force deployments. After practices that made people seem expendable from the American Civil War, The Spanish American War, the Great War and The War, our military started to see soldiers as people, people worth protecting and worth retrieving.

My maternal grandfather left Baltimore and joined the Royal Canadian Air Force early in WWI. He flew in France. Repatriated when America joined the War, based on the three planes shot out from under him, he became an aircraft mechanic in the Army Air Corps. While in the Army, he helped train a pilot, H. Norris Mangan of Salem New Jersey. Norris and his brother Harry had been part of the New Jersey National Guard activated to fight in that war. My grandfather told me stories of the war and Norris and Harry wrote letters almost every day to their Mother. I listened to the stories and read the letters. I recently found some letters written in December of 1918 by a Baltimore Marine Drill Sergeant at Parris Island. I could not help but recall these things as I watched, snoozing to the lullabies of The War. As in the show, the complaints of these men were not of the poor political leadership, but were about the heat in Biloxi and the behaviors of those around them. The DI thought it unfair that the draftees were going to go home before the enlistees. The future pilot and his brother commiserated about the qualities of their commander, a good person back in Salem, but not the best of leaders in the field.

My parents both served in the Army during The War. Mom, a WAC from Baltimore and Dad, an Okie intelligence operative both served. They met when he made the occasional disciplinary visit to the Fort Monmouth office of the Adjutant General to see mom's boss and clear up his case. There sits on my desk a box of tiny photos from the tiny camera he used in the Pacific Theater. The emaciated young men were not complaining about the food, but of the changes to their characters from their participation in The War. My parents also told stories of the hardships of war but never once mentioned the incompetency of the leadership. They, like the WWI veterans understood that not everything would work. The War was hard on them. People around them were dying, even at Fort Monmouth. They trusted that the leaders would do their best bring success. The glass framed, sepia toned photograph of them smiling at the camera is in another box nearby.

Watching the reactions of the people to the attacks on America was amazing. After Pearl, people stood ten deep in the streets to send off soldiers, not protest their patriotism. In every town, a line around the block of young men enlisting to protect their country, and the attack was three thousand miles away from their homes! Fast forward to now. People still silently pass the site of the attack on our soil. The enlistment lines have diminished. But they were there. Young people might want to serve but there are so many voices in opposition it is hard to step up. I am afraid our political leaders have forgotten. Protestors get the media to promote their marches and inflate expectations that always fall short under a post event detail blackout. I wonder what they think they will really accomplish beyond rending the fabric of their community. I fear they do not remember the result of the last time this was done this way.

My mother described her duty in the towers on the New Jersey shore, watching for submarines intent on attacking our homeland. My sisters and I thought this activity to be preposterous. In The War, I learned that the Gulf Coast and waters off Florida experienced attacks on many ships attempting to get supplies to our troops and those of our allies. As often as I have heard the story that detail that hit my mind as fresh. Perhaps I can blame my public school education. Probably not. That was but one of the little details that I learned from Mr. Burns production there were others for another time.

I think that one of the greatest harms of war is the way it drains the gene pool. Darwinism does not always seem to triumph in war. The list of good people dead is too long. The list of people who stood up to right wrongs and were killed is too long. Those who made it back procreated the next generation. Moreover, after the next war we were left with those who survived. Many good people survived, but the evidence suggests that many spineless people have passed there traits on to others. When I was in school I wrote about the harms visited upon those who fought and returned to society lesser people than when they left. Now I am worrying more about the children of the previous age's cowards. What will their progeny contribute to society?

I admit that I was falling every so softly into the land of nod as I 'watched" the last thirty minutes of The War. My wife rested quietly beside me. The story was very familiar, as was the music, as were the production techniques. But I learned something new and remembered some things that had faded for me. I was interested that "political correctness" was not overpowering. The series will continue tonight. I have been assailed by advertisers to join that singer of standards Wayne What'shisname, you remember him, he has black hair, as he Dances with the Stars. Others insist that I join Chuck, the computer geek with no drive. I will leave those shows to Dan and his friends and return to the story of what made the Greatest Generation so great.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

What’s in Your Pocket?

I’ll bet I’m not the only one. I bet it BIG!

I can’t remember what started it, or stopped it, as the case may be, but it happened, and not only t o me.

For years and years and years I was exposing film and getting it processed. For several years I had my own darkroom but my best friend’s father had a much better one. That didn’t matter much to me because dark was dark – if you could achieve it. I did pretty well. Years went by with the shutter clicking away and the piles of envelopes containing prints piling up faster and thicker that dust.

It was genetic. My mother was always wielding a camera, except for that short time when the KGB seized it and pulled the film out before her very eyes – in an interrogation room in the early 1970’s. We had slides shows that could tax Job. And don’t forget the movies from the wind-up 8mm camera with the four flood lights on a bar. There were the obligatory shots of my then ten year-old sister scraping the dog-doo off her shoe with stick then cleaning the stick with her fingers, and the one of eight year-old me, my robe falling open as I decorated the Christmas tree while standing on a ladder immortalizing my tighty-whiteys. Yes, there was always a camera and there was always film.

The Ansco-matic was the coolest thing I had ever held and it was mine. Press a switch and the front folded out exposing a bellows and lens. It took paper backed 120 size roll film that provided sharp, large images in black and white, color, and even slides! I couldn’t imagine why people wanted little 35mm or huge 4x5 cameras when they could have had one of these. About five years later there was the twin lens reflex Yashica-D. My friends were way jealous of the images and negatives from this 120 film camera, but at least one mentioned how less expensive his 35mm film was and how many more shots per dollar he could make.

As I got older, I took fewer photos. Never having been convicted for the indecent exposure caught on film, I was allowed to attend an auction of seized and recovered goods where the police sold me a 35mm camera and lens. It was made in Dresden after the war and didn’t always wind straight, but I was back into photography and shooting my son’s image like crazy. Next was an affordable Nikon that I later used to take the photo that won a contest sponsored by Pentax to promote their flagship entry into the 35mm, SLR, Auto-focus market, the SR-1. I took thousands of photographs on thousands of rolls of film. There are sixteen albums holding 200 plus prints each and six liquor boxes full of envelopes of prints and negatives. The camera, bag and tripods went everywhere with me and were on my motorcycle when it fell down in the Great Smokey Mountains, twelve hours from home, in 1997. Now they collect dust.

How did the disposable camera displace the good ones? Of course, as the boys got older and began to drive, we picked up a four pack of the pocket shooters and stuck one in each vehicle. Somehow I had stopped carrying my gear. Oh, it went to the track meets, but it didn’t go anywhere else. At Christmas we grabbed the disposable and pulled off a couple of quick shots. Ten years before, there were multiple rolls recording the Season: now there are a couple of frames. And there were disposable cameras everywhere in the house, each with from two to six frames remaining, or is that little number telling how many have been exposed? I can’t be sure.

It all came home to roost last week as we were running out the door to the wedding of the oldest of the five boys who grew up mostly together in three close families. Four disposable cameras attempted to deceive me about their remaining capacities for photographs. Not born yesterday, or last week in this case, I went to the well. I grabbed the water resistant, 35mm film, Point & Shoot Olympus, camera purchased for our youngest when he was on his Eagle Trail and wanting to become a photographer. There was a roll of film in it, but I had no idea how many exposures were available. I found two rolls of 400DX-24 film in a drawer in his room but no battery to replace the dead one in the camera.

Off to the wedding we rushed. Arriving not more than five minutes after the appointed hour, my bride tried to break-in to the bathroom occupied by the priest, but that is another story for another time. We sat behind the groom’s parents. The Father of the Groom, a talented and committed photographer, was armed with a digital Point & Shoot and was using it! My wife asked me about a camera and I smugly told her I had it covered. After the service, as we stood in the church parking lot, she asked me to prove myself, photographically. I explained that we did not have a “disposable” camera, but a real one that used roll film and a battery. In response to her next question, I explained that I couldn’t take pictures of all the beautiful people because I didn’t have a “living” battery. So, off to find a drug store we went. No luck. We went to K-Mart (never again!) and after another story for another time, secured two batteries and arrived at the reception just as we had the wedding, after everyone else and just as the procession was starting. But the wedding, too, has stories for another time. But I must note that she was the second most beautiful bride I have ever seen. Photographs can’t do her justice. But that's not what this story is about.

On the Friday after the wedding, I gathered up the four, partially used, disposable cameras, the exposed roll of film that was in the Olympus when it was resuscitated, and the Olympus itself with a partially exposed roll of film and strong battery. We have been experiencing a drought in these parts. We normally cut the lawn twice each week from April through October. This year we have cut it six times. Early on, we took the mower to the shop because it wouldn’t start. Both times the culprit was spoiled gas that had sat for too long. In 2004 and 2005, I would fish a local river, wading, at least two days per week, damn near every week. The cool water gave my knees relief in the summer, and my hip waders kept me comfortable when the water was too cool for a bathing suit and sandals. I took my collection of cameras to one of my favorite fishing holes, ten minutes from home, which coincidentally has some picturesque qualities. (The normal water level is represnted by the stain on the underside fio the bridge.) One exposure of the cat, Nike (he replaced Sneakers after the leukemia worked its course), and twenty-three exposures of the Gunpowder River spread over three disposables and two rolls from the one “real” camera.

How did it happen? How did these disposables take over our lives? How do they manage to stay around for so long? What evil plan is working to deprive us of our memories in pictures?

Let me share the contents of the cameras:

One - 2005 Spring Play, The Wizard of Oz; October trip to Lake New Germany (in two weeks, we’re going back for the second time since that trip); November neighbor’s tree knocked down by a storm; 2006 Spring photos of cars involved in a crash; August 2006 photos of our son’s Eagle Scout ceremony.

Two – 2005 Christmas; September 2007 wedding.

Three – 2006 – September St. Mary’s College of Maryland Cardboard Boat Races; Christmas; 2007 - September at the Gunpowder River.

Four - 2006 – December car crash; 2007 – September at the Gunpowder River.

Five – 2007 June Hereford Optimist Club Fishing Derby.

Six – 2007 September wedding (this is the same wedding on roll two); the Gunpowder River.

For as long as two years, one of these cameras was able to keep me from getting the film processed. And they were blatant about it. Four of them (not the wedding rolls) sat in the kitchen the whole time. In the kitchen! That’s where we live at my house. It’s our great room. And the cameras, the disposable cameras, just collected and then sat there. Nary a word from any of them. Each time they were touched, each time we needed a camera, they sat mum, no explanation of what the number they displayed meant. They were mutes, unable, or unwilling, to help us. But those days are over – for me. But I’ll bet there are more of them out there. Probably in your house. What secrets do they hold? I wonder?

How about you? How long will you take the silent taunting before you break?

I’ll be right back. I want to check my fishing vest for one of those holders of good memories.

They’re sneaky, those disposables are. And insidious, to boot!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

#1 Why are we here?

Is life more than a Seinfeld episode? Or is it really just a personalized story about nothing.

On July 8, 2006 I blurted to some friends, "I am going to start a blog."

With dumbfounded stares they asked, "Why?"

"Because I have a lot to say and I have read and listened to others and don't find them be any smarter or more incisive thinkers about anything that interests me than I am."

In my mind I heard the response that went unspoken, "We listen because we are your friends. Who else cares?" And the subject changed. We ordered lunch.

Months went by. As Christmas approached, I sent a request to an author for some bookplates. It wasn't that simple, of course. Not for me.

Instead of saying, "Please send four bookplates to . . ." I spent over one hour telling a story in the e-mail. Truth be told, I interrupted the telling to get a Thursday Taco Salad, the special in the DMV cafeteria.

That author, apparently a very nice guy, a very good person at heart, from what I could tell, complimented my writing and sent along the bookplates and more, much more. He encouraged me. If you've read this far and you are not pleased, but functioning under some unexplained compulsion, blame him. Then, take some personal responsibility for your actions!

Being the go-getter that I am, several more months passed. I did very little fishing and no riding. Other stuff consumed my time. Then, the appointing authority at whose pleasure I was employed decided that I pleased him no longer.

Several more months have passed. Go figure. I researched how to start a blog and read some interesting and some not so interesting and some not at all interesting blogs. About six weeks ago I read all of the blog offerings of Frank Baron and all of the comments. Greatly discouraged, I thought I should do something else. Two weeks passed and I read another of Frank's postings; two more weeks and I read the latest. That was yesterday. (I didn't read it right away, don't you know.)

Frank's blog life doesn't read like a Seinfeld script any more than does my life.

Yesterday I was talking to one of my sons about his grad school application personal statement. Some realizations came out of the conversation. If one is going to tell their story, they must figure out why and to whom and then tell the story in a way that makes the writer comfortable and the reader want to finish reading it and then act on it.

So that is what this blog is about. My stories about the meaning of life as interpreted by me living one.

Join me for a while as I explore the meaning of life, the meaning of love, the meaning of family, the meaning of . . . an awful lot of stuff. Some of the perspectives will be seen through the perspective of the motorcyclist, the fisherman, the husband, father and bibliophile. Sometimes I behave as if I am off my meds - hypertensive - and sometimes I will not be well behaved in other ways. That's life!

And that's why I'm here. For now.