The Angel of Mayres Heights

The Angel of Mayres Heights

All God’s angels come to us disguised.  ~James Russell Lowell

December, 1862 – The 120,000 man Union Army of the Potomac moved sluggishly south into Northern Virginia, a large clumsy bear trying to swipe a mortal blow against the frustratingly nimble grey fox, Robert E Lee and his 72,500 man army of Northern Virginia – a wounded but dangerous foe still reeling from its near annihilation at Antietam in September.

The Federal plan called for speed and deception – feigning a move on nearby towns along the Rappahannock, only to cross the river and rapidly claim the town of Fredericksburg, engaging pieces of Lee’s fragmented army.  Through brute force and overwhelming odds, the Federals would carry the war to Richmond and crush the Southern rebellion.  Yet, the Union army suffered from weak and serially indecisive leadership.  The inept Maj. General Ambrose Burnside, a failed Rhode Island businessman wracked with self-doubt, led the Federals.  Months earlier, his ultra conservative brinksmanship on a stone bridge at Antietam turned a certain Federal rout of the Confederates into a desperate draw.  Despite his obvious mediocrity, the corpulent Burnside was deemed by Lincoln as the best available choice to replace an even greater incompetent General George McClellan whose patrician insubordination and penchant for avoiding battle led to his dismissal.

The Union Right, Center and Left Grand divisions led respectively by Major Generals Sumner, Hooker and Franklin were facing the cream of the Confederacy – Robert E Lee, Longstreet, Pickett, AP Hill, Anderson, Early, McLaws and J.E.B Stuart.  The Federals had wasted a month getting into position to launch their “surprise “attack, electing to wait to assemble pontoon bridges to cross the Rappahannock instead of crossing at shallower fords and more rapidly engaging a divided enemy before the entire army of Northern Virginia could reassemble.  As Burnside equivocated, Lee built formidable defenses, President Lincoln fumed and the fate of thousands of young men was decided.

The union army 2nd Corps and 4th Corps finally crossed the Rappahannock on December 12th where they proceeded to loot Fredericksburg while dodging artillery and sniper fire. Among those bivouacking on the even of battle was private William O Grady and other Irish soldiers of 63rd, 69th and 88th NY infantry, three Gaelic brigades of immigrants, many conscripted straight off ships as they arrived in America fleeing famine and hardships suffered under colonial England.  Pressed into service to defend their adopted country, the boys from counties such as Sligo, Mayo and Wexford were mustered under Capt. Thomas Francis Meagher in the 2nd brigade of the 1st Division, 2nd Army Corps.  Meagher was a charismatic leader and political fugitive, once indicted for sedition by the English government and sent to Tasmania, only to escape to NY and enlist to lead his native countryman.

The chaplain of the brigade was Jesuit priest William Corby who would later become the President of Notre Dame University.  On the frigid evening of December 12, a light snow swirled as O’Grady and his comrades from the fighting 69th gathered around makeshift fires playing Celtic Christmas carols on fife, violin and guitar.  Across a quarter mile canyon of killing ground, a young Confederate from South Carolina, 19 year old Sergeant Richard Kirkland, listened to acoustic shadows as he stood picket duty, stomping his feet to warm frigid toes.  Behind him, the men of Kershaw’s 2nd South Carolinians prepared their defense behind a sunken stone wall at the elevated crest of a ridge known simply as Maryes Heights.

The fifth son of a religious, fourth generation Southern family, Kirkland enlisted to defend South Carolina interests against Northern aggression.  In the months preceding Fredericksburg, Kirkland’s idealism was shredded by the shrapnel battles of Bull Run and Antietam where he witnessed friends killed and the terrifying reality of modern warfare.  He lay awake that evening staring at an endless ocean of union fires and dancing shadows.  He knew that the next morning would be the last dawn for many of these men.

The battle opened slowly with assaults across a field of hard morning frost and swirling ground fog.  Union soldiers moved through fields of fire that sloped up from assault positions, climbing across over 800 yards of open, frozen ground.  “ The generals cannot be foolish as to order us up that hill” reassured Chaplain Corby to his worried men.  He was dead wrong.  At 1pm and again at 3:30pm in the dying flat twilight of the day, O’Grady and 1200 men of the Irish brigade were ordered to launch a suicidal charge.  Clutching their regimental colors that were stitched with the Gaelic expression ”Faugh a ballagh” or “ Clear the way”; Union officers ordered 16 individual charges into a fusillade of Southern rifle, canister and solid shot.  Not a single Union solider reached within 30 yards of the stone bulwark six deep with butternut sharpshooters.

As dusk descended on the inferno, 6300 men laid dead and wounded in the ebony expanse of no man’s land that stretched between the Confederate and Union lines.  As frozen rain turned to snow and temperatures plummeted, soldiers were tormented by cries of agony and pleas for help from the wounded.  Kirkland covered his ears and turned away at the haunted entreaties.  As the night yielded to an apocalyptic dawn of death, Kirkland could stand it no longer.  He leapt into action, gathering up canteens, risking certain death to administer first aid to enemies that only hours before were seeking to kill him.

With permission from a very reticent General Kershaw, Kirkland made it to O’Grady and several wounded Irish soldiers, carefully cradling their heads in his hand as he gently offered them water.  A sniper’s bullet pitched up frozen earth near Kirkland’s foot.  Another shot hit an adjacent body with a thud.  Kirkland moved quickly to more men.  Soon, a Union officer ascertained what the young man was doing and ordered his men, “ cease fire.  Don’t shoot that man.  He is too brave to die.”  The dead were stacked like cordwood as Kirkland moved frozen bodies rigid with rigor mortis, attempting to find soldiers in need of attention.   By the end of day, he returned to his lines exhausted but forever immortal. Months later, Kirkland and two friends were leading a Confederate counter attack up Snodgrass Hill at Chickamauga, Tennessee.  Finding himself and his friends too far extended beyond his lines, he turned to retreat to safety and was shot in the back.  As he lay dying, he asked his friend to “ tell my pa I died right”.  He was 20 years old.

At Christmas, we are moved by the magic of the yuletide season.  It is a time when visions of angels inspire us and goodwill and compassion can transform any man.  It is a time where we reveal our gentler natures and humanity.  We recognize that there are no burning bushes, only people who serve a higher and nobler purpose in life.  To risk one’s life to save a stranger is to express the ultimate love that was proffered by God when he sent his only son to earth to bring the word of God to man. Perhaps the Kirkland memorial at Fredericksburg best defines what it means to be an angel:  “Dedicated to Sgt Richard Kirkland CSA – At the risk of his life, this American of sublime passion brought water to his wounded foes at Fredericksburg.  The fighting men on both sides called him the Angel of Maryes Heights.

Okay Dad, Hand Over The Credit Card!

English: Federal Debt Held by the Public by U....
English: Federal Debt Held by the Public by U.S. Presidents and party control of Senate and House, 1901 to 2010; source for debt data is Congressional Budget Office, “Federal Debt and the Risk of a Fiscal Crisis”, July 27 2010, http://www.cbo.gov/ftpdocs/116xx/doc11659/07-27_Debt_FiscalCrisis_Brief.pdf (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The front door slams and a man with graying hair looks up from his book over rimmed glasses as he sits in an adjacent room. A young woman in her early twenties drops a duffel bag on the wood floor of a well-lit foyer.

Father: You’re home! How’s grad school?

(The girl looks irritated and says nothing)

Father: What’s wrong, baby?

Daughter: (The girl hesitates and then holds her hand out in front of him) Okay. Hand it over!

Father: What are you talking about?

Daughter: The credit card. You and your kick-the-can-down-the-road generation have bankrupted my future. (The girl drops a NY Times on the coffee table and becomes sarcastic) It says in here that the Fiscal Cliff has been averted. Ha! They might as well have announced that the Easter bunny is real. I just finished Michael Lewis’ Boomerang and Strauss and Howe’s The Fourth Turning and I’m depressed.

Father: Haven’t got to those books yet. Since November, I have turned to Merlot and escapism. I’m reading a bestseller about the 16th century. (Pointing to the newspaper, smirking) Cheer up! The Paper reports that the fiscal cliff is a bunny hill and Paul Krugman says spending our way out of the deficit is the only path back to prosperity. I hear Barney Frank may come out of retirement.

Daughter (looking incredulous): Are you kidding me? They only agreed to delay the debt ceiling discussion for 60 more days. Then they are going to ask Congress to raise my credit card limit. Even if the president got all the taxes he wanted, he’d have raised what, $80B of revenues? Where’s the other $15.92 Trillion going to come from? Government made a bunch of promises back in the 1960s in the form of Medicare that they no longer can keep. We’ve known it for a while, but we are hiding it like Enron. If the US government was a public company, the executives would be in jail for accounting fraud and the country would be in receivership. In the real world, you don’t pay as you go! There is bi-partisan dishonesty about the budgets and how dire our situation is. There is a deficit, all right. It’s a deficit of honesty, vision and courage in our public officials and it’s a deficit of public willingness to accept responsibility for managing a problem that has landed in their laps. Winter has arrived and you jerks keep spending the next few generations’ money to avoid a few cold nights.”

Father: It’s not us. It’s that damn Obama. He has created more debt in the last four years than all the Presidents that preceded him. He passed socialized medicine and now he wants to raid Medicare to pay for it. He’s added at least $7B of public debt and he wants to raise the debt ceiling and spend more money. He’s never worked a day in the private sector and can’t balance a lemonade stand.

Daughter: Dad, get real. The guy inherited a nightmare and a constituency that can’t face reality. This is about facing the fact that our healthcare system is broken and literally sinking the country. At some point, no one will lend you money. Congress and the White House have never shown fiscal discipline. We have recorded a budget surplus just five times in the last fifty years. Four of the surplus years came together from 1998-2001, President Bill Clinton’s last three years in office, and President George W. Bush’s first year in office. By the way, our publicly stated debt counts only current cash obligations. The real debt we are facing is more like $75 trillion dollars because we’re not adding in $45T in underfunding for Medicare. Every politician knows this but it is a radioactive secret. Both sides keep up their “Medi-Scare” rhetoric because they want support from retirees who fear they will lose benefits. Face it, Medicare is the biggest single drain on our budget and we have to deal with it.

Father (getting mad): There’s no damn way I’m going to let them raid Medicare to pay for nationalized Obamacare.

Daughter (smiling condescendingly): Dad, Medicare is unmanaged, fee for service, nationalized healthcare. The government controls Medicare costs by rationing reimbursement to doctors and cost shifting to the private sector. It’s the greatest generational rip-off from young to old in the history of the country. Medicare was established when there were 16 workers for every retiree and the average life expectancy was age 68. In 2030, we will have only two workers for every retiree and will have 80 million retirees, four times as many as today. The math does not work. Social Security is not the problem. We have to cut Medicare and make some tough decisions about how we deliver care in the last few months of life.

Father ( getting angry): Oh, now you want to euthanize me and your mother? This is not about Medicare. It’s about a socialist President who wants to redistribute wealth. We need to elect some fiscal conservatives. The Dems won’t make tough decisions. They are give-away artists who pander to Unions, illegal immigrants and anyone who feels they have gotten a raw deal. The GOP needs to win back the White House.

Daughter: Dad, don’t hold your breath. Try running on a platform of fiscal austerity when the new majority is being told that there was a big party from 1998-2008 that they did not attend but that they must now pay for. The demographics in America are changing and a large enough percentage of the GOP’s base has seen their standard of living decline that they have begun to identify with moderate Democrats joining an increasingly heterogeneous group of pro-Democratic voters. The GOP has not been able to convince non-Caucasian voters that they would benefit under their leadership.

Father: Jesus, you’re depressing. Do you have any good news to share?

Daughter: I’m taking Mandarin and I have a summer internship with an Indian microfinance firm that is trying to expand into China and Africa.

Father (trying to appear encouraged): Well, that’s great. Although it sounds like you are going to have a hard time finding a good cheese burger. (Looking bemused) My kid’s going to have to immigrate to another country to find a decent management job.

Daughter (hugging her father and laughing): Not necessarily. We just have to show the resolve to confront healthcare spending and the weight of our entitlement obligations. If we do that, we can be competitive as a country. The way I see it, we have four choices: default on our debt, raise taxes that only delay the day of reckoning and slow down our economy, create a centralized rationing regime in the form of a single payer healthcare system or migrate to a defined contribution premium support model where people receive help buying public or private insurance. I don’t think we want number one or two. So that leaves three or four. We’ve got to get honest – fast and (looking stern at her father), we have to cut up your credit cards.

Father (grabbing his daughter’s bag): How in the hell did you get so smart?

Daughter (smiling and putting her arm around her father): Four years of economics. I have your ear for BS and Mom’s ability to balance a checkbook.

Father (nudging daughter with shoulder): So, you going to tell me who you voted for in the elections?

Daughter (grinning): Ron Paul, I wrote in

Father (making a face) : That was a wasted vote

Daughter (pretending to look offended): Hey, last time I checked, this was still a Democracy.

Taking A Walk on The Wilde Side


“My own business always bores me to death; I prefer other people’s.”  So wrote the acerbic, witty and unrelenting Oscar Wilde in Lady Windermere’s Fan in 1892.  Wilde openly led a movement of aestheticism and public decadence in a time when sins were expected to be committed with discretion out of the public eye of a highly pious Victorian society.  The age-old struggle of good versus evil and the ensuing black comedy that resulted from every human’s double life was his central theme – one as apropos today as it was during the time of this “wicked” Irish iconoclast.

As a recovering collegiate sybarite and literary enthusiast, I have always been fascinated by Wilde.  I am drawn to his sarcasm and often rely on his wit when trying to contend with a world that judges too harshly.  While I cannot condone Wilde’s lifestyle choices, I could never disparage his genius.  Like so many great writers and contrarians, his tortured soul and conflicted contempt for what Victorian society viewed as “decency” compelled him to persistently test its boundaries.  In doing so, he sealed his own fate but left us timeless footprints in the forms of quotes, stories and plays.  Wilde might have been considered a troublesome dissident by today’s standards — constantly prodding and testing our conventions and hidden hypocrisies.  Although I wonder if Wilde was born in 1964 instead of 1854, if society would have been more forgiving — celebrating his brilliance and choosing to not be so offended by his habitual testing of the status quo.  A few gems:

  • Oscar Wilde, three-quarter length portrait, fa...
    Oscar Wilde, three-quarter length portrait, facing front, seated, leaning forward, left elbow resting on knee, hand to chin, holding walking stick in right hand, wearing coat. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    “ A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal..” My mother called it “compulsive candor.  Wilde’s strengths taken to excess became his weakness and ultimately led to his decent into a determined frontal assault on society.  However, the truth was too tempting to not flaunt in the face of a pious England that held itself in such high esteem while choosing to conduct its venal pursuits in far off places and under the complicated cloak of class and corruption.

  • “Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them more.” There is indeed power, liberation and humor in forgiveness.  Making one’s amends and stepping up to apologize for your part of a conflict defuses a situation and gives you the upper hand.  One spiritual advisor once chided me to pray for my enemies.  “Perhaps if he gets exactly what he wants, he may no longer offend you or better yet, he may actually get what is coming to him. Either way, it’s out of your hands and it takes away people’s power over you to forgive them – especially without their permission.”
  • “A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” It seems in a society that has come to judge material gain as a yardstick for personal advancement, we have come to understand how much everything costs but have lost our ability to understand intrinsic value.  Real moral and spiritual value requires a more complex calculus of living whose numerator is one’s impact on others – the lives we change and the legacies we leave divided by the price others pay as we achieve them. Many build wealth but may not recognize the intangible deficits they accumulate over a lifetime of misguided priorities.
  • “Wisdom comes with winters.” Our emotional intelligence is forged from the difficulties we endure.  The unexpected stone thrown through the bay window of our lives often forms the foundation for stronger character and a more resilient future.  Every winter holds the promise of an ensuing spring of insights, but only if we have the humility to seek these lessons.
  • “When the Gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.” We often say be careful what you wish for.  “You want to make God laugh?  Tell him your plans.”  In praying for something, perhaps we would be better served praying for strength to deal with whatever is to come our way.  Our own best thinking and resolve to get our way usually get us into a tangled mess.  Perhaps our lives are best guided by a point of reference other than ourselves.

In the end, Wilde’s determined sybaritic lifestyle – “working is the curse of the drinking classes”  where “only dull people are brilliant at breakfast”) – became his undoing.  In the midst of his physical and intellectual self-indulgence and his war against the English establishment, he penned brilliant works of literature : The Importance of Being Ernest, The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Canterville Ghost among others.

Wilde dared to suggest that human beings are a mass of contradictions.  We must periodically remind ourselves, as mistakes are made, boundaries broken and glass shattered, that it’s all part of the human condition.  As we move back and forth along life’s continuum between self and selfless, we should never forget that no one is without fault.

Wilde paid the ultimate price by flaunting his own self-destructive behavior in the face of an unforgiving society, then publicly challenging its hypocrisy.  He was imprisoned and died penniless three years later.  His “gross indecency” led to his mortal defeat, but also opened society’s aperture to tolerance and change.  He left us as an immortal — a fire that burned too bright, too hot and became too dangerous for the conventions of his day.  

Even now, as I finish this essay and tiptoe into a darkened kitchen in search of Easter candy hidden by my wife, Wilde whispers to me, “I can resist anything but temptation”.

The Christmas Truce of 1914

A cross, left near Ieper in Belgium in 1999, t...
Image via Wikipedia

Any traveler touring rural England often first stumbles upon a village by spying the distinct silhouette of an ancient Norman church. Buttressed by low stone walls, spring-time dafodils and ancient graveyards, the house of worship date back to eleventh century and are a living memorial to those who lived, toiled and died within the shadows of its spire.

Upon entering the narthex of these sacred places, alcoves and recessed memorials are dedicated to those who fell in the Great War.

World War I left a deeper and more jagged scar on the British Isles than any conflict in its nation’s history.  The human losses were incomprehensible – – 60,000 dead in the first few hours of the Somme, 1,000,000 dead at Verdun. Soldiers were often recruited and organized from villages and districts. The result was close knit regiments, brigades and battalions that fought and died together in close quarters – -often holding one another’s heads above the clutching mud, searing gas and devastating artillery.

On September 15, 1915, 10,000 British soldiers were ordered to attack a German salient near the town of Loos in Northeastern France.  Over the course of a 3 ½ hour slaughter, the brigades from Manchester, Northumberland and Connaught lost 8,246 men with no German casualties.  In a single engagement, entire villages within a fifty kilometer radius lost every man between 18 to 40 years old.  In the Memoirs of Flakenhayn, the German General Lundendorff was heard to comment to another officer, “The English soldiers fight like lions” – – to which the other German officer quipped, “True .  But don’t we know that they are lions led by donkeys”.

In WWI, the last gasp of 19th century civility was suffocated by the brutal advances in the technology of killing and the arrogant and incompetent military leadership that valued bravado over brains.  In the sumer of 1914, the initial German had ground to a halt resulting in a vicious stalemate and hundreds of miles of jagged trench line that stretched like a sutured wound from Belgium into Southern France.  British officers emboldened by decades of success in Colonial wars fighting third world native forces naively the war would be over in a matter of weeks.  Completing the confederacy of incompetence were French officers who believed that honor and élan could overcome kill zones of enfilading artillery and a no man’s land of unmerciful and interlocking machine guns.  Millions were ordered “over the top” of their trench lines to certain death.

Those alive in December, 1914, say it started with a spontaneous truce afforded by each side to bury those left dead on a denuded battlefield.  Letters that would be smuggled past censors to loved ones in Germany and England attested to the miracle that began with a snowflake of compassion — Germans and Brits meeting On Christmas Eve to exchange small gifts such as cigarettes, chocolate and food.  Peace became infectious and the entire Western front soon fell into an unintended armistice as small pockets of soldiers met drank beer, sang Christmas carols and even played games of soccer with tin cans as footballs and spiked helmets as goal posts.  “Fritz” and “Tommy” joined together in the common humanity of Christmas – – creating an enduring mythology that rose like a heavenly chorus above the bullets and bombs that had savaged and broke a generation of  young men.  From Ypres to the La Basee Canal, it was truly a silent night.

In some sectors of the trench line, the Christmas truce was occurring in direct contradiction to military orders.  Officers were urged to round up enlisted men who were engaged in “ the destructive action of fraternization with the enemy”.  Sir John French, in command of British forces wrote disdainfully, “individual unarmed men run from across the German trenches to ours holding Christmas trees above their heads.  These overtures were in some places favorably received and fraternization took place throughout the day. It appeared that a little feasting went on and junior officers, NCOs and men on either side conversed together in No Man’s land. When this was reported to me, I issued immediate orders to prevent any reoccurrence of such conduct and called the local commanders to strict account….”  Before being relieved of command for incompetence, French was successful in presiding over the systematic slaughter of thousands of English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh soldiers in exchange for, in some cases, meters of ground won.

The truce became a heroic stand for common man in his struggle against the insanity and the cruel machinery of war.  It also proved that the only thing stronger than hate and war — was indeed love and the humanity that it nurtures.  The world may never again witness a war as senseless, devastatingly efficient in its slaughter or tragic in its consequences.  As your fingers trace the names of the dead, etched in marble, you can feel the souls swirling and rising –the voices of young men taken too soon, ripped from the moorings of a life whose book was sill unwritten.  Yet, in the darkness and hopeless moments, a light flickers in all men.  Each understood being so near to death the precious gift of life and in recognition, they offered Thanksgiving for the chance to rise to see another dawn. If you stand at Ypres and concentrate, you can almost see them – haunted, muddied gray and green khaki shadows moving like echoes and memories across a wooded landscape long since silent.  You can see their faces in pale candlelight, the shattered eighteen year old German from Munich shaking hands with the ancient 24 year-old NCO from Stow-on-the Wold.  They perhaps gesture, exchanging a canteen and hang a piece of ribbon on an ersatz Christmas evergreen, both men longing for a Christmas at home.  One might try to describe his tradition of cutting a hunter green fir in the deep snows of a Bavarian mountain forest while the other listened, dragging on a cigarette as he imagined the warm light of the pub, spilling across a crisp, frosted pasture on an ebony Gloustershire night.

In the end, the truce would not last.  The Generals and the killing machines prevailed. The march of folly carried on for three more bloody years.  In May of 1915, Lieutenant Col. John McCrae wrote a poem to memorialize the death of his friend, Lt. Alexis Helmer, 22 years old, who had been killed in battle the prior day.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved, and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.

In this holiday season, it is important to remember that miracles still happen.  As in all things, miracles come in the form of people – – soldiers hunched and homesick in a cold foreign bivouac,  a person acting against injustice or the those who choose to put the interest of others above themselves.  As was the case of the Christmas Truce of 1914,  the love of God, stubborn humanity and a common instinct to survive, found a way to grind the great machinery of war and hate to a standstill. And though it lasted for a few brief moments, it’s power reminded everyone that peace, not war, remains the greatest conqueror of all time.

The Snobbery of Chronology

Replica of the helmet from the Sutton Hoo ship...
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The Snobbery of Chronology

As we crawl out from underneath the havoc wrought by Irene and as we stare at the newspaper headlines each day, I am reminded of the anxiety and angst that accompanied the new millennium in December of 1999.

Aside from the fact that Hebrews viewed January 1, 2000 as the date 5760 AD, Buddhists viewed it as 2544 and Muslims – the year 1420, the Western conceit that the year 2000 held grave significance for the rest of the world was both amusing and terrifying.

Y2K doomsayers and Armageddonists portended the end of civilization.  During this time of great angst, a book authored by Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger was unceremoniously published in England and simply titled, The Year 1000.  The author, a medieval scholar, sought to offer the English public some perspective on the daily life of an Anglo Saxon peasant in the year 1000 and to consider the significance of one thousand years of “progress” in Anglican society.

The ability to piece together the daily thoughts, events and travails of those who labored over ten centuries ago would have been an impossible task had it not been for a diligent eleventh century monastic clerk who created a series of pictures and Latin narratives describing daily life known as the Julius Work Calendar.  The calendar unlike many other narratives of medieval learning had a near death experience in the mid sixteenth century  during Henry VIII’s dissolution of the Roman Catholic church and its monasteries. An obscure English historian discovered the documents risked death to preserve the strangely illustrated chronology documenting the lives of common as well as landed individuals.

The calendar became a distant mirror through which modern society could see its own reflections and those of our ancestors. The monk that painstakingly maintained the record of daily living in the year 1000,  painted a picture of kings, lords, ploughman, women and children – – their triumphs and tragedies in a time when death, discomfort and disease were constant companions.  It is believed to be the most accurate record of its kind in the first millennium.

Prior to 1066, Anglo Saxon England was a kingdom characterized by contradictions. It was an age of faith and fear. People lived in profound uncertainty.  There was universal recognition that society could not survive without a profound faith in God.  People were heavily burdened in this agrarian society.  Devils and saints fought for the souls of each citizen of the realm.  People took Satan seriously and often attributed unexplained phenomena and bad luck to the unholy evils that sought to inhabit the twilight shadows and the dark corners of men’s hearts.  Elves, fairies, demons, trolls and goblins inhabited the uncharted lands and the superstitious recesses of people’s minds.  The church fought to diffuse these influences with their own army of saints who offered their lives as an example of sacrifice and faith.  Saints were thought to inhabit holy places and powerful spirits were believed to be embodied in relics that were stored at these sites.

Medieval Anglo Saxon England was characterized by strong individuals, fed on beef from lean, free range animals whose fat content was a fraction of today’s processed food.  Life expectancy was short, only mid-forty; a fifty year old considered an elder.  Boys, as young as 12, were expected to swear allegiance to King Ethelred and to be prepared to go to battle for the kingdom.  Girls married in their early teens to men often two to three times their age.  It was routine to lose more than one child to plague, famine or accident.

Villages functioned as tightly knit communities and were the central threads in a tenuous tapestry held together by hard work and a cunning to survive.  People went by Christian names, not surnames.  One’s vocation often became as significant as their Christian name.  Surnames evolved out of the recognition of one’s parents,  Michael, son of John – – Michael Johnson. Alfred, son of the Shepherd – – Alfred Shepherd.

The English arrival in ancient Celtic England coincided with the departure of the Romans after 400 years of rule.  The swords of the Saxons, Angles and other Germanic tribes clashed and cast a new direction for England.  In bringing some semblance of order, they brought their churches and the role that the church played as the chief interpreter of all that happened in the past, present and future.  Village churches were the economic, social and spiritual hubs of these small societies.  “God was King in Heaven and Ethelred was King on Earth,” remarked one scholar.

Living an honorable life among the various hardships was the ultimate measure of a man.  As with today’s society, there were disparities between those with wealth and the poor but it was much less pronounced and it did not compensate to extend one’s life expectancy.  Rich and poor were separated by the basic necessities of living – – stone and brick versus wood and mud.  Lords offered protection to serfs in exchange for fealty and servitude.  Virtually everyone was aligned with a powerful person and with this allegiance often followed a modest stipend or improvement to one’s quality of life.  Society was more egalitarian than one might think.  The fates were recognized and constantly acknowledged as life’s great equalizer.

CS Lewis was quoted as referring to the “snobbery of chronology”.  Lewis’ premise was that as a modern society we tend to view anyone who lived before us with a degree of patronizing nostalgia.  By studying our ancestors, reading about them and studying their lives we feel superior to them and in doing so, believe we must know more.  We certainly have facts, science and fiber optic technology that have all shined a bright light deep into the recesses of our imaginations and fears and in doing so, dispelled myths and swept away archaic views.  However, it also crowded out that critical need to believe in something greater than oneself to cope with the vagaries of an uncertain world.

We have extended our chronological lives and increased our material wealth but have we proven that we have more integrity, wisdom and humility than those that lived a millennium before?  CS Lewis wondered that in times of great moral and personal strife, does modern day society’s sophistication enable us to face hardships and challenges with the same determination, grit, humor and fortitude as those who lived before us?  Perhaps, 1000 years ago, people did not live longer or as well, but perhaps if we explored more deeply how they lived, we might develop a greater understanding of what it means to live more nobly.

These Irish Eyes

Irish immigrants in San Francisco 1905
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A ventriloquist is telling Irish jokes in a pub, when a tipsy Irishman stands up: “You’re making’ out we’re all dumb and stupid. I ought a punch you in the nose.”
“I’m sorry sir, I…” the ventriloquist stuttered. “Not you,” says the Irishman, “I’m talking to that little fella on yer knee.” – Anonymous

My mother was born a Black-Irish beauty with raven hair and sapphire blue eyes. The great oak of her family tree splintered out of diasporas of English, German and Irish immigrants. She possessed her father’s athleticism and tenacity but everything else about her – from her sense of adventure, compulsive candor and those deep opalescent eyes- was Irish.

Whenever she would return to the home of her Irish grandparents she was overwhelmed by the whitewater of Irish family chaos.  The family’s summer home in Marin County would transform into an enchanted encampment of last supper nights and days of swimming in redwood shaded ebony creeks. Hers were soft, green grass afternoons where the fog would roll over the oak shrouded hills and spill like soft cold cotton down the ravines and canyons of Mt Tamalpais.

Her grandmother, Katie, was an iron-fisted Irish matron who ran boarding houses in a rough part of San Francisco’s Western Edition in the 1920s. When immigrant Kathryn Carolan married Thomas Belton in 1904, the couple grafted ancient families from the west country counties of Ireland. The Carolan name most likely grew out of clan lines of the Ciar, or “dark people”, tracing their roots to the Clare and Kerry –  the most rugged and wild of Irish counties.  His people hailed from further north, a fertile place marked by ancient tombs of inhabitants dating back to Ireland’s earliest man.  The land seemed to be forever looking into a sunset. It fell moved and tumbled to the Southwest ultimately dropping precipitously into the Atlantic at the spectacular Cliffs of Moher.

Thomas Belton loved America. When the Spanish Civil War broke out, he enlisted at 19 and served in Company M, the First Regiment of California United States Volunteer Infantry in 1898.  In the summer of 1898, Company M embarked for Peking and carried on to Manila where they participated in a series of skirmishes and battles.  He served for 18 months and was mustered out in 1900.  Most veterans did not speak much about the war unless they had been drinking. Alcohol seemed to unlock some great emotional arsenal that lay dormant under the foundations of most Irish families.  Whiskey was the key to a cache of memories and moods that would often lead to red-eyed revelation or a Pandora’s Box of conflict.

My mother grew up wrapped in Irish heritage. While my grandfather quietly considered his wife’s Gaelic roots a languid liability, he had been seduced by a “house that hugs” – a multi-generational hurricane of working class Irish immigrants that clung together and carved out a middle class life in a country they had come to love for all of its possibilities.  Having run away from a rigid immigrant upbringing, he could not help but feel safe with this reckless bawdy clan that adopted him as a prodigal son-in-law.

Donncha Cleary walked into a bar in Dublin and asked the barman if he had heard the latest Kerryman joke. ‘I’m warning you,’ said the barman, ‘That I come from Tralee in Kerry meself.’ ‘Dat’s alright,’ said Donncha, ‘I’ll tell it slowly.’

There were uncles and cousins that worked as roustabouts along the docks and warehouses of San Francisco’s bustling wharf – each week falling in and out of trouble. They were hard working, self-proclaimed socialists who loathed the class system that they had left behind in the United Kingdom. They particularly despised the wealthy Nob Hill patricians that presided over the great steel, transportation and manufacturing monopolies of early 19th century industry.  Standing at the base of California Street, they would ape at the backs of bankers and attorneys – – catcalling as they climbed on to cable cars and coaches to return home to “Snob Hill.”

My mother considered her Irish genetics a two edged sword.  It seemed that to be Irish was a blessed curse that combined the best and worst characteristics of mankind. The tenacity and will to survive that characterized her relatives were strengths, that when taken to excess, would lead to stubborn collisions with the bottle and the law. At an early age, she warned us that we “were Irish, and that means you have two strikes against you.” As a baseball player, I pondered this metaphor. It seemed that if the Irish could endure famines, wars, occupation and economic hardship, an Irishman must be a hell of a tough out to get out.  While one might be coming to the plate with two strikes, the average Gael could foul off the hardest pitches that Life could hurl. The Irish gene was preprogrammed to survive.

My mother used expressions like “Irish Twins” to describe siblings born within ten months of one another. Later in life, she would explain a malady known as the “Irish Flu”- a morning condition characterized by head aches, nausea and disorientation usually following a night out drinking. She believed in the “Luck of The Irish” and attributed the endurance of the Irish to their belief in St Patrick, Catholicism and the family unit.  She loved and at the same time, pitied the Irish. Of all God’s children, the Irish were the runts of the litter – born to an emerald green island of rock, hard-scrabble and eternal subjugation.

She had been raised a Catholic until her German father expressed a preference for the less oppressive theology of Martin Luther. In doing so, he further perpetuated the internecine troubles of the Protestants and Catholics. To her father, Catholicism was mysticism and Vatican hocus-pocus.  Protestantism was direct and did not attempt to assert temporal leadership ahead of the Holy Trinity. She spent Southern California winters as a Presbyterian and summers as a closet Catholic. By the time she was twenty, she could have qualified as an Episcopalian.  To be Irish and not be capable of uttering the Rosary was to be lost in perpetual purgatory.  Her grandmother would simply have none of it. Every Carolan and Belton relative would be safely in heaven five minutes before the Devil knew they were dead.  She would make certain of it. Being Protestant was the equivalent of swimming with water wings or artificial props.  Luther had not had the constitution to stay faithful to a doctrine that required adherence to secular and sacred rules. To be Celtic and Catholic was to suffer and still endure.

O’Gara was arrested and sent for trial for armed bank robbery. After due deliberation, the jury foreman stood up and announced, ‘Not guilty.’

‘That’s grand,’ shouted O’Gara, ‘Does that mean I get to keep the money?’


While St Patrick’s Day was a secular holiday in our household, it was a day where legends, leprechauns and laughter echoed across our dinner table.  Invariably, “the little people” would find their way into our icebox turning our milk green, recklessly dropping chocolate coins from pots of gold or mischievously hiding our shoes in odd places. If you did not remember to don a garment of green, you were likely to endure eight hours of pinches and chest twisters as a punishment for not paying respects to the fifth century patron Saint of Ireland.  It was a day of nostalgia and emerald green emotion. I looked down on the Italians and the human stew of other immigrants.  Although I was a mongrel blend of English, French, German and Irish heritage, I was forever wearing Ireland on my sleeve.  I longed for a surname that ended in O’ anything.  I worked to hide my ties to the German farmer, the indentured Englishman and the 12th century Huguenot who ran from everything. These other cultures had made their own contributions to America but there was something special about being Irish. We were the hard knuckles that had helped form the fist of early nineteenth century America.

I grew to envy my Irish-Catholic friends.  They had saints for virtually every human condition, weekly absolution in the form of confession and their own football team – Notre Dame.  There was certain misogyny in Protestant faith as the Virgin Mary was relegated to a secondary role.  In Catholicism, the Virgin Mary was “ our mother” – a reassuring image for a kid living in a landscape filled with Old testament ( angry with lots of rules ) fathers and corporal punishment.  The iconic image of the Virgin Mary would periodically manifest herself on the sides of buildings, in tree stumps and even on toast.  She was trying to contact her children daily to reassure them with miracles and maybe even slip them a dollar bill to get an ice cream.

Meanwhile, we sat in the Presbyterian Church, waiting for the smallest sign of a divine spark.  Down the street at Saturday evening Mass, there was a forest fire of signs – beatifications, stigmata, miracles and even (gulp) the occasional exorcism.  If you got into paranormal trouble, you would not call a minister, you would want a whiskey drinking Irish-Catholic priest to be your wingman.  These soldiers of God had wrestled with John Barleycorn for thousands of years and could recognize his cloven hooves from a half-kilometer.

“May Those who love us, keep loving us. May those who do not love us, may God turn their heart.  If He cannot turn their heart, may he turn their ankles so we might know them by their limp.” Irish Blessing


In 2000, I would travel to Dublin several times as the Celtic Tiger was awakened by its inclusion in the EU. Eire was experiencing positive immigration for the first time in a century.  The tragic legacy of generations that faced the bitter choice of starving to remain in the land they loved or exile – emigrating abroad to lives that might never witness their return – was finally exorcized. The Irish it seemed had come home.

Yet, not unlike the tragic epiphanies of James Joyce or the suffocating poverty and redemption of Frank McCourt, the Irish do not seem to be able to endure their own affluence. The familiar demons of unemployment, economic collapse and uncertainty have since returned from their temporary exile. Life has returned to normal.  An entire culture bred to endure seems to once again, be receiving deuces in the card game of life.

Ireland’s loss is America’s gain as a new generation of Irish immigrants is once again arriving in America. The Bronx and Yonkers have most recently witnessed a resurgence of young Irish seeking a better tomorrow.  They come as they have for over 300 years, wanting to meet or exceed the standard of living of their parents.  At the same time, they begin their exile from the land they love.  You don’t always hear it in their self effacing humor or their contagious laughter.  You cannot distinguish it in their determined work ethic or aggressive patriotism.  But you can see it in their eyes. They are brown, green and blue stained glass windows into a millenium of souls – these Irish eyes.

The Mythology of Us

Inuit family, 1930
Image via Wikipedia

I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge — myth is more potent than history — dreams are more powerful than facts — hope always triumphs over experience — laughter is the cure for grief — love is stronger than death.– Robert Fulghum

In Farley Mowatt’s Never Cry Wolf, a young wildlife biologist named Tyler is dispatched by the Canadian Wildlife Service to investigate whether the Arctic Wolf is to blame for the decline of the great caribou herds in the Alaskan wilderness.   Tyler’s adventure is a life altering journey through a looking glass where every preconceived notion of survival is cast aside by the harsh and cunning of the wild.  With the help of some local Inuit, the young biologist becomes one with the savage landscape and in doing so, he discovers that the arctic wolf, Canus Lupis Arctos, is not the indiscriminate killer of caribou but in fact, is culling the herds of its sicker and weaker members — all but ensuring the herd’s  survival.   In the vast emptiness of an Arctic twilight where  the summer breathes but a few endless nights of day, Tyler discovers the power of Inuit mythology.

As the acrid smoke of a burning fire creates broken shafts of light inside the makeshift Inuit shelter, a tribal elder recounts to some younger members of his Inuit tribe how the wolf came into existence.  In the form of native myth, the ancient sage, Ootek, shares with Tyler and the Inuit children how Mother Earth first created the People and then realized she must provide food to sustain them. In her infinite wisdom, she reached into an ebony hole in the ice and pulled out the Tuktu (caribou) to feed the Inuit people.

“Soon the tuktu had multiplied to such a level that food became scarce and over-population created a generation of sick and weak animals.  Their decline threatened the very existence of the People. The great Mother once again reached into the black hole of ice and pulled out the amarok (Arctic wolf) to whom the task fell to thin the overpopulated herds of the sick and weak thus ensuring a stronger generation so that the People might thrive. “

Ootek smiles a toothless grin and nods his head.   Tyler watches these lessons being handed down – worn gifts of insight wrapped in a timeless skin of mythology.  At that moment, he eases backwards, arms folded behind his head – pondering the brightest stars struggle through a permanent summer twilight. Beams of smoke and light escapes from a thousand seams bewteen the roof of broken pine boughs and caribou antlers. Tyler finally comes to understand through Ootek’s ancient mythology that Arctic wilderness is a last Garden of Eden, ingeniously balanced with each supporting actor playing a vital role in the symbiotic dance for survival.  Everything is here for a reason.  In the end, Ootek the old one, comes to accept Tyler as one of his own, teaching him the mythology and traditions that serve as guideposts for survival.  In Inuit society as in the life of the wolf pack,  there is no such thing as an orphan.

As the campfires of our own summers are now dwindling to tangerine glows, we reflect on the time  we spend trying to recapture the power of simple things – a gathering of our own tribe and perhaps the retelling of our own stories. These allegories offer lessons and foundations for our children.  For most, our memory of youthful stories and early American mythology has been erased. We have lost our all powerful talisman – a rabbit’s foot, a shark’s tooth or a ten banded Diamondback snake’s rattle.  Myths are no longer handed down and perpetuated.  As a society, we no longer wonder how we came to be and instead focus on what is yet to come.  Faith and wonder have been supplanted by anxious impatience for instant resolution.  In taming and deconstructing the natural world, we have marginalized the virtues of mythology as a way of understanding how we fit into this vast endless continuum of humanity.

Today’s tribal family no longer lives among multiple generations.  Our children do not enjoy as much access to or the patience to rest at the feet of an elderly relative who is eager to paint a picture with the patinaed colors of the past. With so much “reality” barraging us every day, there is no room left our own mythology.

We have moved up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs  – – migrating from basic needs of shelter, immediate family, and stories that served as framework for living  — to a more permanent and material state of perpetual want.  Many families no longer dine together, spend time in the same room, or express curiosity about their own unique history.  The “snobbery of chronology”, as CS Lewis shared, is believing that we are superior to all that came before us because we have the benefit of hindsight. As a society, we seem to be moving away from our own mythology of self reliance, sacrifice, generosity, naive optimism and independence to a place where we are more cyncially defined by what we have today.  It seems success is our most celebrated virtue and that virtue itself is viewed as an almost orthodox sentiment.

Writer Umberto Eco once mused, “ In the United States there’s a Puritan ethic and a mythology of success. He who is successful is good. In Latin countries and in Catholic countries, a successful person is a sinner.”  Eco’s European view is borne from a very different life experience and a complex notion of how values, wants, needs, desires and expectations are reconciled when man by definition is meant to suffer in order to achieve wisdom and humility.  As Americans, we are a mass of contradictions.  We are modern families – fractured and yet, still hanging together by the threads of our own potential.   Yet, many of us have forgotten our own narratives.

The “mythology of us ” is a melange of truth and fiction, hyperbole and stranger than fiction parables of people, places and things. Some of us came to America as immigrants.  Others  rose out of religious persecution or abandoned lives in an effort to give their children a better opportunity for a new start.

I look for occasions to impart these stories to my children.  As they grow older they consider their own heritage and the mythology of their ancestors as trite and dated allegories that serve little purpose.  Yet, on the right evening I can still entice them with a wartime story of their British great-grandfather digging victims of a V-1 rocket attack out of a bomb shelter in London or a distant ancestor whose Ohio home was part of the miraculous and dangerous Underground Railroad.  They have learned of a mongrel heritage of confederates, saints, villains, nobility and cutthroats.  Our own mythology rises out of tragedy and often chronicles individuals who had the misfortune of being born in a time where they were overwhelmed by circumstances.  They were first generation Irish, German, French and English immigrants.  They were soldiers killed fighting for the English army with General Gordon at Omdurman.  Some died of fever and others endured physical and mental hardships. A famous uncle was the only cavalry officer killed as he rode with Jeb Stuart around the flanks of the egotistical Union General George McClellan.  A painting depicting the tragic  “The Death of Lt. William Latane” C.S.A hangs in the state capitol in Richmond, Virginia.

The kids get quiet as I paint a canvas of restless Irishman wearing Union indigo as he clutches his glistening bayonet staring across a frozen December battlefield at Fredericksburg.  There was once a Chicago inventor and entrepreneur.  Dan Canary ran a taxi service recognized for its unique color – bright canary yellow.  Years later, he would protest that John Hertz had stolen his idea of the Canary cab – launching the iconic Yellow Cab Manufacturing Company. Dan never won his case against Hertz and in the process, lost his first wife, leaving him widowed  with eight children.  Ever the resourceful man, he successfully met and married a considerably younger woman through a mail order bride firm. They had three more girls – one of which was my grand mother, Ruth Farr Canary.

Whether we were once Huguenots escaping religious persecution or indentured souls willing to risk everything for a new start – we have evolved from the DNA of stronger ancestors – – individuals who endured, suffered, refused to acquiesce and searched the horizon line for a better way forward.

These fireside moments are the times I cherish as I plant seeds of our history and leaven in healthy doses of our own mythology –  a bloated myth of how my father walked miles to school through snow in urban Chicago or how a mischievious uncle almost swam in a Florida alligator pond on a drunken dare.   I work  these moments to weave the sacred and profane together in an endless book of virtues in hopes that these seeds might one day germinate in a time of crisis or decision.

When I think of the attributes I want my children to exhibit when they finally released into the unforgiving wilderness of man, I wonder what have I done this week, this month or this year to plant those seeds of character and virtue – generously fertilizing these life lessons with myths, stories and the history of us.

Our personal and American mythology is a wonderful story of survival, noble deeds, redemption, human frailty and the progression from self to selfless. It is only through telling our stories again and again that we might transfer knowledge, courage and confidence to our children. Like the Inuit, these fables are intended to symbolically relate the physical laws of man and nature to remind them of their our potential as individuals and as a nation.  Our greatness has not been completely stripped, overdrawn, sold, stolen or spent.  It is here – waiting to be rediscovered in new places to be excavated, mined and processed into the virtues of patience, hardwork and courage to change.

Perhaps the mountain that looms ahead won’t seem so steep if our children come to understand the myths, legends and folklore of those that climbed before them. Whether it is coming to see our natural world as a living, breathing entity or realizing the impossible is a self imposed limitation, our mythology can teach an entire generation to reverse our self destructive course and speak up over the voices of the false prophets and political charlatans.

We need our mythology to survive. Robert Redford recently warned a small audience that time is running out, “I believe in mythology. I guess I share Joseph Campbell’s notion that a culture or society without mythology will eventually disappear and ( some might argue) we’re close to that already.

The Search for Peter Starr

A photo of mountaineer Norman Clyde taken in t...
Image via Wikipedia

“I sort of went off on a tangent from civilization and never got back.” – Norman Clyde

August 24, 1933 – There was a sudden chill as the first rays of a brilliant morning sun were interrupted by a stray cloud. Norman Clyde stretched his arms and glanced up the narrow talus shelf that he would use as a base to climb Michael’s Minaret.  The degree of difficulty to ascend this lonely dagger of granite could not be underestimated.  It was vertical on all four sides and rose narrowly through jagged chutes that eventually gave way to an impossible hourglass summit. For the last five days, he had scoured every inch of this isolated range looking for clues. Clyde had pieced together small bits of information and returned to this particular minaret. How someone could attempt to conquer this serrated spine with no rope and only tennis shoes was beyond him.  Clyde rubbed his hands together to prepare for the climb.  He was 40 years old and beginning to feel the strain of failing in his mission.

Earlier in the month, Walter Starr Sr. had made an emotional appeal to Clyde and other members of the Sierra Club to help search for his son, Walter “Pete” Starr Jr. who had was last seen climbing toward Lake Ediza along the John Muir Trail.  Peter Starr was an athlete, Stanford graduate, promising attorney at the prestigious law firm of Pillsbury, Madison and Sutro and an accomplished mountain climber at the age of 26. Having been raised in the rarified air of San Francisco wealth, Starr had enjoyed the privilege of education and travel.  With his money, he was able to circumnavigate the globe and climb some of Europe’s tallest mountains.  His father was among the first to join the fledgling Sierra Club, and was on a first name basis with the famed photographer Ansel Adams.  He had instilled in his son a deep love of the timeless peaks that served as California’s crooked Eastern spine.

A rare combination of the physical and cerebral, young Starr was a success in every aspect of his young life.  He had a great ambition to be first in life and focused his personal passions on completing what he hoped would become the preeminent mountaineering guide for the John Muir Trail and Eastern Sierra.  For the past few months, Starr had been in the final stages of completing his manuscript.  After attending a wedding of a Stanford fraternity brother, he had taken advantage of a three week summer window when clear skies, dry conditions and melting snows allowed for access to the Sierra’s highest passes and most difficult peaks. Starr loved the solitude of the Sierras. In the mountains, the seasons established a harsh but predictable cadence that forced each and every living thing to conform to the inevitable certainty of change.  Starr would keep a journal and would often reference the defiant permanence of these mountains – grand monuments to a reassuring sense of immortality and a belief that something within each one of us might endure long after our physical lives have ceased.

Clyde arched his back and considered the route up the spire.  He was now the only person still searching for Starr.  He had never met the young climber but was familiar with his journal and efforts to detail the entire John Muir Trail and the peaks and valleys of the Eastern Sierra.  He had heard through friends that Starr had even made reference to him in describing Clyde’s ascent of the last unclimbed 14,000 ft peak in California, a difficult Middle Palisade, named Thunderbolt. With typical humility, Clyde had dismissed this “first ascent” of the “last 14’er”- – one of 82 first ascents of mountains for which Clyde would become famous – as difficult but manageable.  Starr had been amused by the stories of taciturn Clyde and his itinerant lifestyle of guiding, camping and living year round as the self-anointed caretaker of his beloved Sierras.

This area of the John Muir Trail was a rugged strand of great peaks and hidden lakes that sat silently like a string of black pearls along basins clawed out of limestone and granite across five million years of evolution.  Great silver fingers of glacial streams coursed like capillaries down the mountain sides ultimately feeding into the San Joaquin River which would flow steadily west and down into the fertile Central Valley of California.  These mountains had always served as a final gateway to the Pacific Ocean. For two centuries, settlers and damaged souls seeking new beginnings would attempt to cross or skirt these 14,000 foot peaks – choosing between an inferno of desert or frozen, precarious mountain trails to reach the proverbial land of milk and honey in places like Los Angeles, San Francisco and the Sacramento Valley.

In the case of Norman Clyde, he had come to live in these mountains after the premature death of his 24 year-old wife from tuberculosis. Clyde was devastated by the loss and sought to shut out a frenetic urban America by accepting a position as a high school principal in Independence, California. His catharsis was climbing and he quickly distinguished himself at a mere 160 pounds as a unique physical specimen.  He could climb for a dozen straight hours into the highest of elevations carrying a 90lbs packs.  He once hiked over from the top of Mount Whitney at 14,995 to the lowest point in Death Valley at – 295 feet in less than twelve hours.

Clyde was becoming a free spirit, loner and an iconoclast who had less and less use for people who were not interested in those things for which he held great passion. Clyde would be called on dozens of times in his career to find missing persons, downed planes and trapped climbers.  He was highly respected and was a local and national celebrity in climbing and naturalist circles – known through his first ascent records, his ardent environmentalism and his pragmatic journals.

Walter “Peter” Starr Jr’s disappearance haunted Norman Clyde.  While equally capable climbers, including his close friend Jules Eichorn, had finally surrendered to the fact that young Starr had been mysteriously swallowed up by this untamed maw of wilderness, Clyde was unconvinced.  He had reconstructed the climber’s last few days through a discovered journal and a series of cold camps that led him to the base of the Ritter Range.  “It was here”, he thought, “that Starr had tried to summit one of the spires.”

A ledge worked its way to the west and stopped suddenly at the foot of a chute.  Working his way up the narrow passage, Clyde reached the third chock stone in a shoulder-width gap – slowly making his way to the top.  He was exhausted and perplexed.  He should have uncovered some evidence – a cigarette butt, a scuff mark, displaced rocks or a trace of trash.  As he turned to warm himself in the afternoon sun, Clyde noticed a fly.

Author, mountaineer and Clyde biographer, William Alsup describes Clyde’s next few moments, “As I carefully and deliberately made my way down toward the notch, I scanned and re-scanned the northwestern face. Much of it was concealed by irregularities. Suddenly a fly droned past, then another, and another. . . . I began to follow a ledge running in a northwesterly direction. When I had gone along it but a few yards, turning about, I looked upward and across the chute to the northwestern face. There, lying on a ledge not more than fifty yards distant, were the earthly remains of Walter A. Starr, Jr. He had obviously fallen, perhaps several hundred feet, to instantaneous death.’

It was a poignant first meeting of two Sierra legends: Clyde, peering out from under his broad-brimmed campaign hat, rope coiled about his chest, standing among the ruins of the ancient range as a storm gathered; Starr, the debonair “club man,” clad in khaki trousers and white undershirt, arms outstretched, lying on his back on a narrow ledge, facing the heavens.”

For Clyde, it was a bittersweet conclusion to a great mystery.  To those who had sponsored the expedition to find Peter Starr – his father, famed photographer Ansel Adams, Sierra Club President Francis Farquhar and dozens of the day’s most expert climbers, it was devastating closure.  A week later, Clyde, along with his friend Eichorn, returned to bury the young man at the base of the spires that had seduced and ultimately killed him.

Norman Clyde continued to climb his way into the folklore and grey granite roster of local California heroes and regional treasures.  In High Sierra camps, he was given the nickname, “the pack that walks like a man”. He was a modern day John Muir – – gently seeking to understand and trace every crevasse, couloir, peak and high alpine meadow that made up the broken rows of jagged teeth known as the Sierra.  He continued to lead hikers and climbers into his mountains well into his sixties.  At the age of 80, Norman Clyde still preferred to sleep outside his home in a sleeping bag. His body finally failed him at 87 years old when he passed away in Bishop, California just 50 miles south of where Walter Peter Starr’s cairn rests at the base of the Michael Minaret.

If you find your way to the eastern fringe of the Sierra Nevada, you can follow the Owens River as it winds through the high desert towards the scabrous, fortressed turrets of Mt Banner and Mt Ritter joined by the parapets of the Minarets. If you happen into a local bookstore, you will find Starr’s Guide to the John Muir Trail – a primer still considered by many to be the most comprehensive overview of this section of California. Turning to the section on the Ritter Range, you will find a description of the Minarets including “Michael’s Minaret.”  Adjacent to this infamous soaring tower of stone, you will find the description of an equally magnificent obelisk that was formed in the same mid-cretaceous period.

It is simply named, “Clyde Minaret”.

In the Shade of Valor

In the Shade of Valor

Valor is a gift. Those having it never know for sure whether they have it until the test comes. And those having it in one test never know for sure if they will have it when the next test comes. – Carl Sandburg

London’s Imperial War Museum is at once a memorial, a museum and a monument to the tragedies and triumphs of war. Prior to WWII, the sun never set on the British Empire and imperial England sacrificed generations of young men to protect its colonial interests around the globe.  Once the makers of history, the British are now expert as curators of the past. Yet, it is through preserving history and traditions that nations might avoid the snares and quagmires that ultimately bring them to their knees.

The museum covers several floors and features unique exhibits that offer a covert peek into the history of espionage, the terrifying experience of enduring the Blitz in a civilian bomb shelter in 1940 London and a 30 foot trench line along the Somme in the First World War – a four year apocalypse that claimed 21 million lives and ushered in a period of modern conflict that Winston Churchill called, “the woe and ruin of the terrible twentieth century. The jagged scars from centuries of warfare are everywhere as you bear witness to the arrogance of governments, the folly of generals and the uncommon valor of men, women and children who shouldered the savagery of warfare as it ripped from their lives any semblance of civility, humanity or hope.

I always return to the exhibit on those who won the Victoria Cross – –  Britain’s highest medal of valor. As you read these vignettes and solemnly gaze upon the ancient sepia photos of ordinary faces, you are struck by the extraordinary capacity that every person has within them for great strength and bravery.  The exhibit poses questions that creep like dark shadows – whispering and taunting with the self-examining question, “what would I do?”

The questions provoke deep introspection: “What made Private William McFadzean throw himself across a store of smoldering grenades in a muddy WWI Somme trench, saving seven men in his unit?”

“Why did medical doctor Noel Chavasse tragically insist on returning to the front line to rescue more men after already winning one Victoria Cross?”

“How did Private Johnson Beharry’s belief that he would never die affect him? What was it that that made him repeatedly expose himself to enemy fire in Iraq that enabled him to rescue his commanding officer and 20 other men?”

I have never forgotten these stories and upon returning to a US that was at war, I followed the extraordinary challenges and feats of our volunteer army fighting two wars in the rugged desolation of tribal Afghanistan and across the scorched sand and hostility of an unstable Iraq.  As these distant acts of valor echo like acoustic shadows, we conduct our daily lives and go about our personal business living under a tree of valor whose great shade is cast by those who sacrifice so much.

As I follow the lives and deaths of American service men and women and learn their stories of heartache, loss, courage and valor, they seem to be all bonded by a similar and extraordinary sense of community, duty and unconditional love for one another.  These uncompromising core values serve as a rather ironic backdrop amidst this chaos and fear of war – – fear that might otherwise drive an instinct for self preservation and self interest.

Valor is a soldier’s refusal to abandon a wounded comrade in the face of overwhelming odds. It is the courage of a mother caring for a critically injured son or daughter who has returned home unable to care for himself.  It is a three tour of duty vet reenlisting to return to a vortex of chaos for the sake of not wanting to leave his buddies behind.

In reading the stories of Americans who have won the Medal of Honor – our nation’s highest award for valor – there is no genetic or social marker that can predict which person will rise up to commit extraordinary acts of courage and sacrifice. Take for example the story of Army Specialist Ross A. McGinnis who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in ceremonies this week in the Pennsylvania Medal of Honor Memorial in Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Grove at the state Capitol Complex.

“McGinnis, of Knox in Clarion County, was killed Dec. 4, 2006, in Baghdad, Iraq, when he threw his body on a fragmentation grenade that insurgents threw into the Humvee he was riding in, saving the lives of four other soldiers riding in the truck. “ Ross McGinnis was 19 years old.

Just north in rural Massachusetts, Jared Monti grew up to become a citizen soldier.  He was a generous kid who once purchased a Christmas tree for a single mother who could not afford holiday decorations for her children.  Another story details, “But even that ( Monti’s generosity ) pales in comparison to what young Monti did on June 21, 2006, in the rugged northeast corner of Afghanistan near Pakistan. According to a Pentagon account and CNN interviews with soldiers who were there, Sgt. Monti was leading a small patrol that was ambushed by dozens of Taliban fighters. As rocket propelled grenades flew past his head, Monti got on the radio to call for backup. Sgt. Clifford Baird was on the other end of the line. In between his calls for help, Monti was using his own rifle to engage the enemy. Suddenly he noticed that a young private named Brian Bradbury was badly wounded, unable to move, desperately exposed to enemy fire. Another sergeant said he would run out and try to save Bradbury, but Sgt. Derek James heard Monti say no.

‘I remember him saying that Bradbury was his guy, so he was going to be the one to go get him back and bring him back to us,’ says James.

But with bullets flying, Monti had to take cover. He ran out a second time, but the enemy fire got more intense, so he stopped and yelled for help. Risking his life yet again, he then ran out a third time to try to save Bradbury. ‘We knew he was going to get Bradbury — then we all kind of heard him scream,’ recalls James.

Monti was mortally wounded and knew he was dying. ‘He said the Lord’s Prayer and he said, Tell my family I love them.  Inspired, his squadron beat back the enemy, thanks in part to the backup that Monti had calmly called for earlier.”

In his proud hometown of Raynham, Mass, his name adorns streets, memorials and dedications.  His valor casts a long shadow across the woods and greenbelt that border this little New England town.

While most of us cling to our own mortality and are driven by an innate self interest, there are men and women out there – in the dry, arid valleys of the Pashtun, in naked convoys moving along perilous roads in the Anbar Province and thousands of other heroes stationed across the world who subordinate themselves and the needs of their families to keep our nation safe and to prosecute the foreign policies of our nation.  As the old poem laments, their’s is not to question why, their’s is but to do and die.”

As we hear these stories, we shake our heads in disbelief and peer into the abyss of our own souls and wonder how we would respond in the face of our mortality. The valor of those who serve us in our military should never be  forgotten. On Veterans Day, we must honor every soldier and their families – with perhaps our greatest gift being to know them, remember them, support them, and rise up to cast our own shadows – – not those of darker wooded self interest but brighter evergreen illuminations sparked by our capacity to embrace Duty, Honor, Country, Service, Sacrifice and Heroism.

The Killing of Michael Malloy – A True Story

Profile of a Gangster
Image by ~ Phil Moore via Flickr

It was a frigid January night in 1933 Bronx, and Tony Marino’s dingy speakeasy was a warm escape for those choosing to drink away their troubles. For Marino, money was scarce and business bad. Only six months earlier in the summer of 1932, the Dow had hit an all-time depression low at 41.22. Unemployment in New York was running at 30 percent. Across the Atlantic, the National Socialists had elected a firebrand ideologue named Adolph Hitler as chancellor on promises that he would restore the country to greatness and reduce the estimated 25 percent unemployed. It was a time of despair and dark intentions.

Marino and his confederates had subsisted during these difficult times on graft, smuggling and murder. From a dimly lit corner booth, the gang that would be later labeled the Murder Trust; Marino, Joseph Murphy, a failed businessman turned bartender; Francis Pasqua, a local undertaker; Hershey Green, a New York cabbie; and Daniel Kreisberg, a local fruit vendor; spoke in low conspiratorial tones. It would be Pasqua who, momentarily distracted by a commotion at the bar as an alcoholic patron was refused further credit, would propose repeating a plan that had proved profitable a year earlier.

“Let’s take out another insurance policy on him.” He pointed to the patron who had been refused and was being summarily shoved from the bar like a broken scarecrow. “Him”; he pointed with lifeless eyes, “Malloy”.

The previous year, the five men had taken out an insurance policy on Marino’s girlfriend, a strawberry blond named Betty Carlson, who was mysteriously found dead in her apartment, stripped naked, doused with water and frozen from windows being left wide open. The coroner’s report declared cause of death to be pneumonia complicated by alcoholism. Her insurer immediately passed on a check for $800 to Mr. Marino along with his sincerest condolences.

In a period where insurable interest laws could be circumvented by a shady insurance agent or willing underwriter, the practice of murder for money held great appeal to an unimaginative group of thugs hungry for quick cash to plug the holes in their failed personal and business lives. Michael Malloy seemed the perfect victim, an unemployed fireman, a nobody – one of life’s cast offs and ne’er do wells that could disappear underneath the surface of the a dark urban ocean and not leave the slightest ripple.

Malloy had emigrated in the late 1800s from County Donegal, Ireland, seeking a better life and instead suffered a fate of unfortunate blows and disappointments so often preordained for first generation immigrants. The broken Gael was a frequent visitor to speakeasies and illegal establishments across the Bronx and chose to spend what meager earnings he made as a part-time janitor on whiskey. His alcoholism was advanced but his brogue and Irish charm still glimmered through the haze of his disease, enabling him to subsist on the kindness and amusement of patrons who would listen to Malloy regale them with tales of the old country. “They never got the best of me” was Malloy’s raspy punctuation to a colorful story.

The gang put their plan into action taking out three policies totaling more than $1,700 with the possibility of collecting double indemnity should Malloy die by accidental causes. In his advanced state of ill health, the group estimated Malloy would require no more than one week of an open tab before drinking himself to death. Marino and Murphy informed Malloy that due to stiff competition, drinks would be free for loyal patrons for one week. Each night, Malloy was only too eager to accept the house’s generosity drinking into oblivion and often passing out outside with little more than a shirt in the frigid winter night. Each morning, Malloy would miraculously return to the bar. After a week, the group became restless and decided to begin substituting anti-freeze for whiskey. Malloy downed the wood alcohol, and immediately lost consciousness. But like Lazarus, he miraculously rose from the dead, thirsty for another shot of that whiskey with a kick.

The gang was astounded at the Irishman’s resilience. They began substituting turpentine, horse liniment and finally arsenic into his beverages. Each morning, like a ghost, Malloy would stagger into the cantina anxious for a beverage and always quick to relate how the booze could not get the best of him. Marino was beginning to lose his patience and suggested they poison Malloy with rotten oysters saturated in wood alcohol. This entrée along with a sandwich laced with poisoned sardines, carpet tacks and metal shavings was offered the Irishman who engulfed the offering, bid everyone farewell and stumbled into the evening. To the delight of the Murder Trust, the next day came and went without an entrance from Michael Malloy. As they were readying their final phase of filing an insurance claim, a tired Michael Malloy walked in, apologizing for his absence and complaining of a slightly dyspeptic stomach. Pasqua and Kreisberg suggested a more drastic plan; a plan similar to the one that had succeeded in killing Marino’s girlfriend.

The gang proceeded to once again intoxicate Michael Malloy and waited until he had passed out. On a negative 14-degree bleak winter’s night, the group dragged Malloy to a nearby park, opened up his shirt and doused him with five gallons of water. His death from hypothermia was as good as guaranteed and the group awaited the news of the vagrant’s death. Instead, Malloy once again arrived at the bar, quite chipper after an invigorating evening spent sleeping rough in the park.

The group was now more than committed and the money that had seemed so certain a solution to their collective and individual problems was slipping through their fingers. They hired a professional, Tony Bastone, to assist them in tackling the seemingly indestructible Malloy. Once again, the group dragged an intoxicated Malloy out of the bar and attempted to murder him – this time propping him up in front of Green’s taxi which struck Malloy head on at 45 mph and then returned, for good measure, to run him over again.

For three weeks the group waited for a death notice that could be used as a certificate to collect on Malloy’s policies. Impatient to receive their hard earned royalties, the Trust attempted to murder another vagrant and plant papers on the body – identity papers belonging to the one and only Michael Malloy. The vagrant survived his brush with the murderers after a 55 day stay in the hospital. About this same time, Michael Malloy limped into Marino’s apologizing for his lengthy absence and sharing his terrible ordeal of a car that had tried to get the best of him.

The group had exhausted every means known to cause the accidental death of another human being. It seemed as if Michael Malloy was inhuman or possibly, immortal. As the group started to fracture in their resolve, Bastone, Pasqua and Marino took matters into their own hands and forced all the participants to drag a once again, drunken Malloy into a bedroom apartment where they succeeded in inserting a gas hose down his throat and killing him. The coroner declared the death a result of alcoholism and pneumonia. Malloy was quickly buried and the Trust began to debate over how to collect the insurance proceeds.

However, it seemed the memory of Michael Malloy would not die. While his mortal body was indeed deceased, his extraordinary resilience and the pending insurance reward began to divide his conspirators. Someone started sharing the remarkable story of the indestructible Malloy, while another murderer complained about his share of the money. The bickering escalated arousing the suspicions of the authorities. An investigation led police to the discovery of Michael Malloy’s body that was exhumed and confirmed as having been killed by inhalation of gas.

With the exception of Green, all four members of the Murder Trust went to the electric chair. Michael Malloy had found a way of rising one last time and making certain that even in death, his murderers would never get the best of him.

The Man Who Invented Himself

Photographer Robert Capa during the Spanish ci...
Image via Wikipedia

The Man Who Invented Himself

” I would say a war correspondent gets more drinks, more girls, better pay, and greater freedom to choose his spot and being allowed to be a coward and not be executed for it, is his torture.”

Robert Capa, Slightly Out Of Focus

He was, in many ways, killed by his own personae.  As he impatiently waited for the tanks to create a defilade from the sniper fire that threatened the French patrol’s advance, he leaped across a shaded embankment separating the broken road and an adjacent field of rice paddies.  Two veteran combat journalists, Time-Life’s John Mecklin and Jim Lucas looked on with admiration and bemusement, only to rapidly duck their heads, as the sporadic Vietminh attack became a furious steel fist of mortars and machine gun fire.

The photojournalist, Andre Freidman, was a Hungarian Jew, who had immigrated to Berlin in the early 1930s and fled to Paris in 1934 after the National Socialists and Adolph Hitler seized power and began a virulent movement of national hegemony.

Friedman had grown up in the Jewish quarter of Pest, the working class district that was connected by a series of bridges to its more affluent sibling, Buda that stretched across the southern side of the Danube. His father, an alcoholic and gambler, left young Andres’ education to the unsupervised streets where he graduated with a reputation for alacrity, charm and daring.  In 1918, the Fascists had an iron grip on a Hungary still traumatized by the suffocating constraints of the Treaty of Versailles. Not unlike Germany a decade later, Budapest’s Jews, socialists and communists were being vilified for societies ills and Friedman understood that he must flee to find freedom and a release for his adrenaline fueled appetites.

In Berlin and in Paris, he lived on the streets, begging and doing odd jobs, eventually moving in with Eva Besnyo, a friend from Budapest. Desperate for money and intrigued by journalism, Andres secured a job at the promotional studio, Dephot, where he learned the art of photography.  It was here that he purchased his first Leica, an engineering marvel of a camera that allowed the photographer to shoot at rapid speeds and operate in various conditions of light.  With Leica in hand, the bohemian artist began to understand how his lens could surpass a writer’s pen in offering the viewer a poignant and personal view of a world always teetering between hope and a darker destiny.  A picture could tell a deeper story.

His irresistible charm and magnetism quickly made him friends and ultimately, led to an artistic troika with Polish photographer David Chim and the fashionable Henri Cartier Bresson.  Years later, these three photojournalists would be acknowledged for providing rich pictorial footprints of the doomed, fading daylight of France’s 3rd Republic.

In 1930’s Paris, it was a grand fete of bohemians and sybarites – with patrons routinely greeting an early dawn along the Champs D’Elysses, Boulevard San Germain, Montmartre and Montparnasse.  Andres had many affairs and was a favorite among socialites and models. However, one particular woman, an acerbic, elegant German refugee, named Gerda Pohorylles, became his infatuation, soul mate and some say, his co-inventor.

Realizing that his photos could gather more attention if he was something other than another faceless European refugee, Gerda and Andres created the personae -Robert Capa. Gerda explained to international and French magazine editors that Capa was a wealthy American who felt compelled to sell his work ” as is ” and often at rates double those of ordinary photographers.  Where ever conflict broke out, it seemed Andres and Gerda were there to film it and market his brilliant journalism to the major periodicals under the “nom d’ photographe”, Capa.

In his book, Blood and Champagne, Alex Kershaw describes the perfect arrangement, ” Capa loved Gerda, Gerda loved Andre, Andre loved Capa, and Capa loved Capa.”  He was hired and sent to Spain – a country with whom he felt deep affinity – covering the smoldering Spanish Civil War. It was here that he and Gerda would meet and carouse with international journalists – Hemmingway and John Dos Passos who were attached to brigades of foreign soldiers eager to assist the Republicans against the Nazi backed Fascist armies of Generalissimo Franco.

It was in Spain that some say Andre Friedman died and Robert Capa was born.  On a small hill town outside of Cordoba, Robert Capa became synonymous with combat photography when he snapped a photo of a Loyalist soldier repulsed backward after apparently being hit in the head with a bullet. The “Falling Soldier” remains to this day, a subject of intense debate among historians who question its authenticity. One thing is certain, it cemented the public persona of Robert Capa.

Despite his newfound celebrity, the war was having a profound effect on Capa.  As he witnessed the carnage and horror of modern war and fascism crushing the idealistic and ill-equipped Loyalists, Capa urged Gerda to marry him.  It seemed as if everything might disappear in a flash of shrapnel and blood.  His mortality weighed on him. Gerda dismissed his overtures, suggesting their need to live in the moment and fight for the protection of the Republic.

Capa had returned just days before to Paris when he heard the news that Gerda had been killed. She was crushed between two tanks as they were trying to protect civilians fleeing from bullets spitting from dive-bombing German Heinkel planes.

Capa was devastated and emerged from his fortnight of alcohol fueled depression with a wild eye and self destructive resolve to use his Leica as a grand weapon against the tyrannies of imperial powers. His assignment took him back to Spain where he documented the bitter fall of the Republic and the slate gray morality of an ideological war where both sides committed horrendous atrocities.  His predisposition to socialism was shattered during this time and turned to bitter disillusionment when Stalin signed his non-aggression pact with Hitler – reinforcing a deeply cynical view that no government could be trusted.

Capa’s social exploits were the stuff of legends as he lived every second to its fullest – he drew people close, a generous supernova of consumption – gambling, womanizing, living as one person shared, ” with enough money to travel but not enough to settle down”. He was forever haunted by what he had seen as he photographed the portrait of war but never allowed his demons to reach through his veneer of devious charm. By now, he was recognized as the world’s greatest combat photographer. His celebrity and his penchant for front line assignments dropped him into high stakes company with the likes of Bogart, John Huston, George Stevens and John Steinbeck. He carried on a three-year affair with Ingrid Bergman while moving back and forth from the Italian and European fronts with beloved combat journalist Ernie Pyle (killed by a Japanese sniper) and cartoonist Bill Mauldin.

His most inspired act of courage was his decision to go forward with the first D Day wave of American soldiers on Omaha Beach.  Crowded in an LST with young soldiers from Company A, 116th of the 29th Division, many of whom would die on the Beach head, Easy Red, Capa watched and snapped four rolls of 35mm film over 90 minutes as brave soldiers drown and were scythed down like dry wheat by scores of machine gun nests, mortars, 88’s, rocket launchers, rear line artillery, fortified bunkers and pillboxes. Every inch of Omaha was a coordinated killing field.

Capa remained on the sloping beach wiggling in and out of the water, dodging machine gunners until all the film was shot.  He scrambled aboard an outbound LSI that was filled with wounded to send his photos back to London.  In the chaotic haste to meet a deadline and use the Capa combat shots, the London based dark room developer, over cooked the film and melted all but eight frames – grainy photos that were later published in Life magazine and won even greater acclaim.

Capa would rediscover his passion for Judaism as he chronicled the emigration of Europe’s surviving Jews to Palestine, the birth of Israel and the Six Day War. He started Magnum – a consortia for photographers to coalesce and market their photographs – independent of the controlling imperialism of the major periodicals. Yet, it was clear to all that while Capa was the charming raconteur, he was no businessman.

He was beginning to show signs of post-traumatic stress as he moved between terror and self-indulgent nihilism. Capa chose not to cover the Korean War believing that one could not film a war that one did not have an emotional stake in.  He instead took an assignment to Japan to film the country for Ladies Home Journal.  The trip recharged him and motivated him to get back in the game – accepting a particularly dangerous assignment covering the French Colonial Wars with Ho Chi Minh in Indochina.

On Tuesday May 25, 1954, Capa was accompanying the 2nd Amphibious Group of the Foreign Legion in the Red River Delta.  His partners, Mecklin and Lucas watched him move out of sight to film a platoon advancing toward tree line small arms fire.

An explosion suddenly sucked in the humid afternoon air and spit out an angry, searing concussion “Le Photographe est mort” shouted a young soldier.  They found him clutching his camera in his left hand, as if to shield it from the blast.  His last words were perhaps the phrase he glibly uttered most often when confronted with the possibility of death, “es una cosa muy seria” (This is a very serious business).

Perhaps a fitting epitaph to the dashing contradiction that the writer John Hershey eloquently described as  “the man who invented himself.”

A Writer At Rest

A Writer At Rest

 

And another regrettable thing about death is the ceasing of your own brand of magic, which took a whole life to develop and market-the quips, the witticisms, the slant adjusted to a few, those loved ones nearest the lip of the stage, their soft faces blanched in the footlight glow, their laughter close to tears, their warm pooled breath in and out with your heart beat, their response and your performance twinned. The jokes over the phone. The memories packed in the rapid-access file.  The whole act. Who will do it again? That’s it: no one; imitators and descendants aren’t the same.  Perfection Wasted — John Updike

 

My hero John Updike died last month of lung cancer at a hospice in suburban Massachusetts. A master narrator, he was a skilled oarsman meticulously ferrying his passengers across a dark river to wander the dimly lit bayous of Middle America.

He prowled the back streets and alleys of Anglo-Saxon America for five decades – gently tending the fires to illuminate the unfulfilled underbelly of small towns and small thinkers. He once told Life magazine that his subject “ is the American Protestant small-town middle class. I like middles,” he continued. “It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules.”  His magnificent writing existed in that rare literary greenbelt that separates poetry and fiction.  His characters were often flawed Greek tragedies – mortals stumbling through a universe of moribund marriages, failed dreams, invisible constraints and electric sexual tension.

 

To a young English major who could not yet properly identify the profound that lay hidden within the prosaic, Updike was an inspiration.  He had been to the mountain top and descended with a stone tablet that deciphered the strange alchemy of the human condition – a mixture of larceny and compassion, adultery and dogged faith, black desires and noble aspirations.  In the Rabbit series of novels, Updike injected the genomes of human frailty into a small town, former basketball star named Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom whose serial restlessness and inability to understand his deepest needs condemned him to a potholed road of detours, disappointments and desperate liaisons. Yet, Rabbit captivated us and was Updike’s foil to simultaneously cuff and embrace the American way at the same time.  James Woods described Updike as “ a prose writer of great beauty…that described the aching gap between God and his creatures”.

 

Critic Adam Gopnik related, “ Updike’s great subject was the American attempt to fill the gap left by faith with the materials produced by mass culture. He documented how the death of a credible religious belief has been offset by sex and adultery and movies and sports and Toyotas and family love and family obligation. For Updike, this effort was blessed, and very nearly successful. Unlike his European contemporaries, who saw the same space and the attempted filling as mere aridity and deprivation, Updike was close enough to, and fond enough of, the source of postwar material abundance to love it fully, and for itself. (And he knew enough of the decade of deprivation that preceded the big blossoming never to be jaded about plenty.) He viewed the material culture of American life with a benign, appreciative ironic eye. But he had no illusions, either, about its ability to cover the failure or wish away mortality.”

 

While he viewed America through a sober lens, he never stopped loving it.  It was as if he saw the nation for what it was – a stumbling adolescent whose life lessons must be learned the hard way and whose serial inability to learn from the past would condemn it to center stage as an endearing moral and social recidivist. Updike once barked that “ most of American life consists of driving somewhere and then returning home, wondering why the hell you went.”

 

Updike offered conditional emancipation for Middle America tangled in lives of self -righteousness and repressed temptation.  His liberation was not in the condoning the behavior of his conflicted protagonists but was instead expressed in the absence of formal reproach.  He was our mirror and cheerleader.  Instead of whisking his readers to far off places populated by strange characters and imaginary misfits, he drove us right back into our own neighborhoods, peering through silk drapes and the soft light cast from other rooms to gaze on souls leading lives that fell into the unimaginative seams that separated the uninspired and the inspired. He offered us a life that was an uneven box, deep and dark with broad possibilities but never tied neatly with a bow or wrapping. He celebrated our “enigmatic dullness”.  He was our champion and our critic all at the same time.  Updike became the treasured spokesperson for the Silent generation who grew up unevenly under the repressed, filtered light of Depression maturity only to burst into the wild excesses of an adolescent society in full rebellion.

 

In his Bech series of books, he created his own alter ego – a cynical Jewish American novelist who stumbles through amorous liaisons and the thick twisted forest of the literary world.  Bech offers us a glimpse into Updike and his unforgiving patriotism, sardonic sense of humor and relentlessly delicious need for venal satisfaction – revenge, sexual desire and love. 

 

He won two Pulitzer prizes – only one of three American authors to ever achieve such an honor.  He loved golf and endlessly pursued the redemption that could only be found pushing a dimpled ball recklessly along green manicured fairways. He advocated for human rights and helped America come to grips with its own shadows.  He was our burning bush.  Ever the optimist, Updike’s characters muddled through every possible storm that life could throw at them.  They weaved their way across life and were celebrated if for no other reason than for just being.

 

“We do survive every moment after all “, he said ” except the last one.”

 

 

Mountain Man

Baden-Powell on patriotic postcard in 1900
Image via Wikipedia

Mountain Man

Jeremiah Johnson: You’ll do well, Del; providing you don’t get into trouble with all that hair.

Del Gue: Ain’t this somethin’? I told my pap and mam I was going to be a mountain man; acted like they was gut-shot. “Make your life and go here, son. Here’s where the people is. Them mountains is for Indians and wild men.” “Mother Gue”, I says “the Rocky Mountains is the marrow of the world,” and by God, I was right. Keep your nose in the wind and your eye along the skyline.

My self reliance avalanche started with a snowflake – a light, fictionalized account of a ten-year-old boy who runs away from home to literally carve out a new life deep in the wilds of the Catskill Mountains.  In My Side of The Mountain, Sam Gribley possessed only a small knife, string, axe and a flint and steel set.  In time, he had carved a warm home deep in the broken trunk of an ancient hemlock and trained a peregrine falcon as his pet and companion. To my amazement, in a time before child endangerment laws, Sam was allowed to live rough after his father physically finds him and recognizes his son’s maturity and independence. At night, I would lie in bed and crane my neck to trace the purple contours of the serpentine San Gabriel Mountains and Mt Wilson. I became fascinated with hunters, explorers and mountain men – those rugged societal contrarians who, chafing at the yoke of a controlling and material world, preferred the reverent counsel of a quaking aspen and the garrulous conversation of a high alpine blue jay.  Deep in the wilderness, these sons of Thoreau thrived in their own self-sufficiency.

I mingled with these free spirits in the pages of books and in Outdoor magazine’s monthly adventure feature entitled, ” This Happened To Me – Amazing True Life Experiences”.  In between pages of dead elk and rocky mountain big horn sheep, there were illustrated tales of hunters stranded in caves with killer cougars and mountain men left for dead by grizzlies. The men in these magazines were predominantly hunters, military veterans or societal anachronisms who advocated pioneering and self-reliance.  They sported buck knives as big as machetes, could field dress a five point buck faster than your Mom could make hot chocolate. They could survive sub arctic temperatures by crawling inside the freshly gutted carcass of a musk ox they had just felled with a bow and arrow.

I graduated to tales of the old West by Zane Gray and Louis L’ Amour, understudying the techniques of desperados and cowboys.  Yet, it was the novel Mountain Man by Vardis Fisher that struck me like a thunderbolt.  It was the story of Sam Minard, a settler drawn into the romanticized life of a mountain man only to have it ripped away when Crow Indians murder his Indian wife.  Vengeance drives Minard to declare war on the Crow nation and in doing so, this Rambo of the Rockies becomes an immortal force as wild and the mythic as the western landscape that sustained him.

In 1972, George Roy Hill adapted the novel into the film, Jeremiah Johnson.   I crouched in the flickering darkness of the Rialto theatre watching Robert Redford battle Indian assassins, skin “grizz” and blunt a succession of fierce Rocky Mountain winters.  The Old West held huge appeal for this young romantic eager to head west.  The fact that I lived less than an half hour from the Pacific Ocean posed a great logistical problem because if I wanted to “ go west” to live in the wilds, I must head east.  I resigned myself to the fact that I had been born a century too late.

After a demeaning afternoon of weeding and sweeping the trash area of a suburban backyard, the allure of a four by four, flat roof log cabin shanty softened with beaver pelts and bear skins, and provisioned by a squaw who excelled in turning elk into great strips of jerked beef held enormous appeal.  If pushed too far by life’s authority figures, I would simply vanish into the mountains with backpack filled with cans of Hormel chili and live out my days like Sam Gribley or Jeremiah Johnson – with a squaw and an insane pioneer lady’s son as my foster child and maybe a wolf as my dog.   The fact that I always slept with my radio on, bathroom door cracked for light and a tattered “blankee” did not interfere with my fantasy of fleeing suburban serfdom to become a wilderness alpha male with tangled matted hair and beard.

I joined the Boy Scouts Troop 354 eager to explore the deer trails and less traveled paths of our American wilderness.  It was my first exposure to a world of merit badges, bowline hitch knots and organized camping.  Initially, I was delighted by the freedom, hiking, emphasis on orienteering and self-contained survival.  We were a renegade militia meeting irregularly, choosing to avoid other troops and Jamborees.  Our scoutmaster, a henpecked oil and gas archeologist, faithfully dropped us off miles from our destination, giving us maps and instructions, and would drive ahead to our campsite to drink himself silly while waiting for us by a campfire.  It was around this swirling, roaring blaze that he would regale us with stories of his world travels divining oil and gas in the Middle East, Mongolia, the Sahara and Alaska.  It was The Lord of the Flies meets Lord Baden Powell and we loved it.  Eventually, one of the scouts gave a little too much information to his parents after a campout and we suddenly had a new scoutmaster whose obsession with khakis and cleanliness drove me to retire well short of the coveted Eagle Scout.

While, I continued to backpack well into my 30’s, I could feel my sense of reckless adventure ebbing from my bones after each night spent sleeping out on a cold ledge.  Upon reading Jon Krakauer’s non fiction account of Chris McCandless in Into The Wild , I further demythologized my dreams of log cabin living.  The life of a mountain man did not seem quite so glamorous.  I could have ended up starving to death in an abandoned bus in the Alaskan wild.  For a man who believes gluttony should be an Olympic sport, starvation seemed the worst possible way to go.  I also noticed that many of these mountain ronin exercised their right to civil disobedience, and often ended up in shoot-outs with federal marshals and ATF agents.  Perhaps all the peace and quiet starts to weigh on you.  You hear voices and think that the government is spying on you.  With no mailbox or H&R Block, you forget to pay your taxes and then wound a park ranger when she comes too close to your” homestead”.  I realized most mountain men never made it past their 35th birthday. In the end, like most free spirits, I domesticated. I lost the path of the mountain man and chose to apply my orienteering, tracking and survival skills in the primordial boardrooms of corporate America.

Yet, these days, the catastrophic climate change in American business leaves me restless and feeling bloated by the obligations of a material world. I hear the whispers of the pine trees to “simplify” and can almost make out that hollow hemlock where I would set out my essentials – candle, compass, mirror, rope and miscellaneous survival gear.   A great horned owl hoots off in the distance..  My retirement portfolio is in my pocket in the form of matches and a Victorinox Trailmaster Knife.  My newspaper is the peeling bark of an ancient shag hickory, my stereo – a steady, meandering brook and my big screen television a horizon line of a thousand dawns and sunsets. As crickets serenade my slow descent into a deep, satisfied sleep I close my eyes and suddenly realize that I forgot my flashlight.

I wonder if my wife left the backdoor open.

The Politics of Father and Son

The Politics of Father and Son

 

I am the son of a diehard Republican.  We often speak late in the evening across 3000 miles of America to discuss the economy, politics and trends in business.  I fancy myself as a middle ground moderate that advocates fiscal conservatism, social activism and open arms internationalism.   I never leave the fairway on issues.  My political ball can be found in the center left or right.  Rarely, will I find the rough reserved for those with hooks and hard right slices.  I am the voter every politician seeks to woo.  The fact that my views on public policy seem to lack the hard calluses of conservative conviction bothers my Dad but we like talking politics.  Discourse raises our collective IQ around issues – blending black and white opinions into a slate gray amalgam where clear answers are not easily found.

 

“Dad, I am voting for Obama.”

 

(Silence)…

 

“As far as I’m concerned, McCain comes across like the angry old conservative that loves to chase liberals off his lawn.  I have no doubt that McCain is a good man, but he is well past his buy/sell date and has been part of the party that brought us record deficits, two wars, laissez faire regulatory oversight and back breaking energy dependence.”

 

(Sound of crickets)…

 

“Obama knows he will not get the vote of those he is planning on taxing.  He is actually being transparent about the fact that we will be negatively impacted by his tax policies.  Yet, his tax cuts for the middle class are three times those of McCain.  His tax plan will cost $ 3.5B vs. McCain’s $5.1B.  The national debt has doubled under the Republicans.  When you voted against Democrats, you always did so telling me that you did not endorse politicians who would increase the deficit, intervene into the free market – (like nationalizing banks), and hijack the country on an idealistic joyride. Isn’t that where we are today after eight years of Bush? ”

 

There was a heavy sigh on the phone.  Finally he spoke. “ Well if it was just about tax policies, I suppose I could tolerate higher taxes but it won’t stop there.  You just watch.  Jimmy Carter showed us what incompetent fiscal and foreign policymaking can do to the country.  He focused on unemployment with jobs programs that bloated the federal deficit while establishing a program of wage and price controls. Neither worked. By the end of the 1980, we still had high unemployment and 18% interest rates resulting in stagflation.  We know nothing about Obama – we don’t.  America is hungry for hope and grazing on his cotton candy rhetoric because Bush has ruined the Republican party.  If that damn McCain would just be himself and stop listening to his handlers  ‘attack tactics’, people might see through the great orator Obama and realize he is just a tissue paper, give away artist.”

 

I felt the need to defend my decision to endorse the dynamic Illinois senator with the razor thin resume. “Dad, you’re right that we don’t know a whole lot about him.  However, I do not believe he consorts with terrorists and people disloyal to America.  That’s just a hangover political tactic from the Republicans who have spent eight years seasoning our opinions with fear.  I want to believe in something and someone. I am sure he believes that trickle down economics disproportionately favors those at the top and falls well short of helping those at the bottom.  His life experiences probably include a point of view that justice and prosperity is uneven in America. He probably believes that the underbelly of free market capitalism is marked by inequity and a more polarized society.   However, I do not believe you can vilify anyone for having that political view.  For many, that was their experience, particularly under Reagan and Bush. “

 

He snorted a cynical chuckle.  “Here’s the problem.  The next President inherits an economy in deep trouble.  The Treasury Secretary and the White House will have unprecedented power.  I am very concerned Obama’s policies will probably deepen the recession and expand government at a time when we need to learn to live within our means by reducing government, decreasing entitlement programs and putting money back into the hands of all consumers by making the Bush tax cuts permanent.  I am telling you, you have no idea how much damage a guy like this can do – to our legal system by liberalizing the Supreme Court, to our economy by deepening the multi trillion dollar deficit and to our national security by screwing up the next critical steps we make in foreign policy.  I may not like McCain but I am not going to vote for a guy that represents more risk to the nation.”

 

He was getting into a lather and I knew that I could probably make him spontaneously combust if I mentioned those who must not be named – – Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid.  He had worked hard to save for retirement.  He was feeling more at risk than ever.  He was also tired.  He had lost confidence in those who he had supported for so long.   The race still had a few weeks to go. Yet, deep down, he knew that this time the majority of swing voters were too fed up, too betrayed and too angry at the Bush administration to reverse their desire for a new direction when real fear was scratching at their door.

 

(More silence.) He was giving me the last word.

 

“You know Dad, I guess it get’s down to hope and faith.  I wager that Obama is a good man.  I am certain his life experiences will shape his policies. However, he is a smart guy and if he brings into his administration strong business leaders – the Buffets, Diamonds or Grosses, I think pragmatism will triumph over idealism.  Like Thomas Friedman, call me a sober optimist. “

 

A pause.  “ Well, let’s just hope you’re right. But, I’m still not going to vote for him.”

 

“Love you, Dad”. 

 

(Click.)

 

There are three things in life I can always count on – death, taxes and the fact my father will never, ever vote for a Democrat.  I’m ok with that. It’s his country too.

 

Hard Times

(The Depression) The Single Men's Unemployed A...
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Hard Times

“Gore Vidal uses the phrase, the United States of amnesia. Well, I say United States of the big A — Alzheimer’s, because what happened yesterday is forgotten today.” Studs Terkel

Studs Terkel will forever be remembered as an apostle to our past. The actor, radio host and biographer dedicated his life to chronicling diverse aspects of our American experience so that we might not lose sight of ourselves.  Terkel lived the images that he projected – – a child of Russian immigrants, a student of journalism and theatre, a blacklisted artist who would not inform on friends and a present day Tom Joad, advocating for the disenfranchised, bullied and under represented.  In an interview just before his death, Terkel lamented our sound bite society’s inability to reflect and learn from even our most recent current events.

In his award winning oral history of the Great Depression, Hard Times, Terkel conducted a symphony of history – trumpets, trombones and saxophones of the 1920’s, the melancholy deep bass of the Black Tuesday stock market crash and the chaotic syncopation of economic and social hardships of the 1930’s.

Terkel left us more than narratives, he guided us through heartache, human endurance and history and through this experience, we learned to sing a richer anthem about American living and learning.  His recording of American’s personal Depression stories revealed not only our failings but our triumphs and the human instinct to persevere in the face of great crisis.    Immigrants, minorities, investment bankers, union activists, musicians and working class families all related the ordinary and extraordinary circumstances that carved deep psychological lines into the rouged, youthful cheeks of a nation emerging from the prosperity of the early 20th century.

The Blues of our current economic uncertainty are not unique sounds to our generation.  Every society faces periods of uncertainty that threaten prosperity.  These challenges in hindsight often become the defining moments for a generation.  Those that choose to dismiss the factors that precipitated the Great Depression as singular and unique ignore the past.  CS Lewis referred to this indifference as a “snobbery of chronology”, a syndrome where descendents armed with hindsight often view themselves as impervious to replicating the missteps of their predecessors.  The arrogance that develops as a culture achieves advances in medicine, technology and science often impedes our spiritual and social progress.  The lack of heavy lifting tends to atrophy the muscles of character that people need in times of challenge.

In 1929, the stock market crashed.  Entire fortunes were lost.  People committed suicide rather than face the humiliation of total material ruin.  In the late 20’s, the Dow was soaring. Everyone became a stock speculator and could indulge their irrational exuberance with easy credit and margin purchasing of equities.  Gains were kept of the table to double down on even bigger bets. Consider the echoes of Martin Devries, a prominent Chicago and NY broker as he reflected on Wall Street in 1928.

“There were a great many warnings.  The country was crazy.  Everybody was in the stock market, whether they could afford to be or not.  You had no governmental control of margins, so people could buy on a shoestring.  And when they began to pull the plug..you had a deluge of weakness.  You also had short selling and a lack of rules.   It wasn’t just the brokers involved in margin accounts.  It was the banks.  They had a lot of stinking loans.  The banks worked in as casual a way as the brokers did.”

Herbert Hoover and the Republican party held the White House and governed with laissez faire fiscal policy and a populist view that periodic downturns were the natural fires that needed to be allowed to burn themselves out within the forests of our endlessly promising economy.

By raising taxes at a time of tight unemployment, the US government took more money out of the hands of consumers thereby reducing consumer consumption – which is critical to economic growth.  The Fed’s reaction to the crisis was to tighten policy and drive a kind of Darwinian cleansing of weaker financial institutions.  Confronted with the embarrassment of a sudden financial tailspin, the government under reacted and then overreacted.  When banks failed, the Fed did not lend the failing bank money or afford additional money to other banks to compensate for the shrinkage in money supply.  The Fed instead squeezed monetary policy and tore at the deep fissure in the economy. Lack of credit led to banks failing at an astounding rate. Frenzied queues of depositors attempting to withdraw their savings from uninsured banks “ran” to withdraw savings that were either illiquid or nonexistent.  The lack of liquidity caused mortgage defaults, bankruptcies and financial ruin.

To add insult to injury, in 1932, a Democratic Congress and a worried, willing Republican Hoover administration passed the largest peacetime tax increase in history.  According to web based financial writers Gold Ocean, “Marginal income tax rates were raised from 1.5% to 4% at the low end and from 25% to 63% at the top of the scale. A huge tax increase by any measure.”  As US consumption shrank and unemployment rose, Smoot Hawley was passed to stimulate jobs at home by reducing imports, This lead to a global trade war that debilitated the world economy.  Most historians agree that it was only WWII that got us back on the economic track.

The level of financial hardship was unprecedented. There was no place to hide as our parents and grandparents were pulled down into an economic sink-hole that stretched from China to Chile, and New York to Melbourne.  Families were fractured as fathers left to try to find employment in far off cities.  Some families were never reunited.  Mothers went back to work doing odd jobs while older siblings raised younger brothers and sisters.  Aunts, uncles, and grand parents moved in to offset expenses.  People became infinitely more dependent on one another resulting in stronger, more tightly knit communities of common interest.There was a gracious humility in many towns that hung like the sweet smell of lilacs in spring as people accepted life on life’s terms and understood that gifts were to be shared with those closer to the abyss of poverty.

Life was about making ends meet.  Basic necessities were rationed and would remain precious indulgences for over a decade.  A new sense of social justice emerged in America as dust bowl minstrel Woody Guthrie and social activist/writer John Steinbeck chronicled the inequities and humanity that blossomed in the miasma of depression. The anvil of hardship pounded an entire generation and out of it, there emerged an alloy of American values – – resilience, dedication, community, empathy and equity.  These attributes would be put to good use in 1941 as a generation rose up to defeat global fascism, stand up to communism and to form the foundation for a benevolent world power.  The lessons of the depression taught those who endured it to live within their means, and not take on massive amounts of personal debt.  They understood it meant relying on your own initiative to solve personal problems, not abdicating this responsibility to large government.

We now find ourselves in the midst of another financial crisis.  We are worried.  Oil is at an all time high.  People are losing jobs.  The Dow teeters each day like a four foot Jenga stack.  Most do not remember that it took the Dow until 1954 to match its high of 312 that it had held in 1929.  Credit is tight. Those who watched the missteps of the Fed in the 1930s know that the supply of credit is the issue, not money supply.  We have learned that there can be abundant money in the system, but if a conservative paranoia swings the pendulum too far to where banks hesitate to lend, business can’t expand. With over massive and ever expanding public debt and an economic recovery shored up by rotten timbers of cheap creidt , we know there is more pain to come and that scares us.  Anxiety and lack of faith opens up the Pandora’s box of society’s self interest.  Self-centered fear triggers many character defects – the penchant to hoard, to be selfish, to be ignorant of others in need and to prioritize oneself above all others.  The exact opposite of how history has taught us to survive catastrophe.

If Studs were sitting with us by a summer camp fire, he would surely tell us of hard times and hobos, migrant workers, dust bowl farmers and soup lines.  He would also reassure us with personal stories of compassion and love, attributes that he believes are the ties that lash the broken boats of any society and help protect against the ravages of indifferent dark passages.  He may even suggest as Dickens once mused, that we are in for “the best of times and the worst of times”.  The question is whether we can find critical perspective, strength and wisdom from the words and actions of others who survived the Great Depression or whether we dismiss these personal memorials as trite, gilded nostalgia.  Terkel would urge us to faithfully learn from the past, carefully nurture the present and actively participate in making the future.  Sometimes, he would argue, the things we fear most, are the things we most desperately need.

Character, after all, is found in the hard times.