Photo by Edward F. Palm)

About Me

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Forest, Virginia, United States
A long time ago, my sophomore English teacher, Father William Campbell, saw something in my writing and predicted that I would someday become a newspaper columnist. He suggested the perfect title for my column--"Leaves of the Palm." Now that I have a little extra time on my hands I've decided to put Father Campbell's prediction to the test. I'm going to start using this blog site not just to reprint opinion pieces I've published elsewhere but to try to get more of my ideas and opinions out there. Feedback is welcome. To find out more about me, please check out my Web site: www.EdwardFPalm.com (Click on any of the photos below for an enlarged view.)

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Our First Granddog

Our son Daniel just got engaged, and his fiancee Heather has a new Jack Russell Terrier puppy named "Brandy."  Here she is playing with our nephew's dog "Malcom."  --EFP

Thursday, December 24, 2009

General Cucolo and the Problem of Pregnant Soldiers

(Korean-American woman Marine and Korean orphan, Yechon, Korea, 1984)
Preface:  This one will jeopardize my standing as a card-carrying liberal. But I've always thought that Emerson was right:  "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."
     I’ve been following the consternation created by Army Maj. Gen. Anthony Cucolo III in threatening to court-martial female soldiers who get pregnant while serving in Iraq. It seems to me that all the people denouncing the general’s decision—including four women senators and the National Organization for Women—are missing the point. I’ve long been a supporter of equal opportunity for women in the Armed Services; witness my op-ed in the Seattle Times (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/opinion/2004131071_edpalm18.html) . But along with equal opportunity should come equal responsibility. The tour of duty in Iraq these days is 12 months—for men and for women. The problem is that a pregnant soldier must be sent home immediately, leaving her unit short-handed.
     A cynic might charge that female soldiers are getting pregnant on purpose in order to claim their “Get-out-of-Iraq-free (or early) card.” I doubt that many would go to that extreme. But the fact of the matter is that pregnancy is an eminently avoidable, combat disqualifying condition. And fair is fair. Male soldiers can be, and have been, punished for sustaining injuries or contracting illnesses while engaging in reckless behavior with reasonably foreseeable consequences. Hence, to my mind the matter is simple and the order equitable. Male or female, soldiers are expected to remain steadfast in the performance of their duty and to see the mission through until completion.
     The argument could be made, of course, that pregnancy is hardly an injury or illness and that it results from the exercise of a basic human right. But the consequence is the same: a soldier goes home early, and other soldiers have to take up the slack. Again, the fact of the matter is that military service demands a certain abridgment of personal liberties and even human rights. The exigencies of operational deployments, moreover, have long demanded that men endure temporary periods of enforced celibacy. If that’s what it takes for men and women to cohere into an effective fighting force, so be it.
     I hope General Cucolo doesn’t back down. He has made a decision whose time has come. He is striking a blow for gender equity through equal commitment. --EFP

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Port Orchard Ferry Leaving Bremerton

Another test of my 8 mm fisheye lens--a dramatic rendering of the Port Orchard Ferry.  Click on the photo for a better view.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Cassie's Floating Head

(I couldn't resist having a little fun with my new 8mm fisheye lens.  The models are Cassie and Sarah Allen, daughters of our Portland friends Mark and Cindy Allen.  Click on the photo for a really good look.)

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Me and Michael Steele

[A Patriotic Caddy, Smyrna, DE, 2003]

Michael Steele, the Chairman of the Republican National Committee, recently wrote to me by name. I don’t know how he got my name. I’ve never registered as a Republican, but somehow, Steele seems to feel that I’m a kindred spirit. He wants me to fill out a survey form—which, again, is registered to me by name and by a “verification” number.  
     Just to be a contrarian, I was tempted to fill out this form—until I read the questions closely. Most of the questions exhibit the logical fallacy those of us who have had the pleasure of teaching freshman composition call “begging the question.” To “beg the question” is to ground a question on a premise explicitly or implicitly assumed to be true but which is unproven or still very much at issue. Here is an example from Steele’s survey:

Are you in favor of creating a government-funded “Citizen Volunteer Corps” that would pay young people to do work now done by churches and charities, earning Corps Members the same pay and benefits given to military veterans?

Only three answers are possible:  "yes,” “no,” “no opinion.” The strategy here is especially insidious. Whichever box I checked, I would in fact be lending credence to not one but four dubious premises: First, that the approval and formation of such a Corps may be imminent; second, that our charitable and service needs are already being adequately met in the private sector; third, that this Corps would push aside the churches and charities that have been meeting the need; fourth, that the stay-at-home members of this Corps would be given the same benefits and entitlements that military veterans receive—a real hot-button, emotional issue.
     Other questions raise the specter of a 23.1 trillion dollar national deficit, amnesty for illegal immigrants, retroactive Social Security benefits for illegal immigrants granted amnesty, unlimited eligibility for welfare, and increased educational funding without accountability.
     Predictably, at the bottom of the survey instrument was a place to enter my credit card information and to specify the amount of my donation. The Republican National Committee, Steele explains in his cover letter, very much needs donations in order to head off this brave new socialist world the Democrats are trying to impose on all of us.
     The funding, of course, is needed to put out more fear-mongering demagoguery. Steele’s rhetoric reminds me of the sort of hysteria I’ve been hearing lately from Glenn Beck and his disciples. These people are convinced that we’re losing our liberties and being oppressed. The other day, I actually heard one of Beck’s callers wondering how much more “the people can take” before “law enforcement and the military” begin to rebel. While Beck said he could not “yet” envision such a day, he agreed that the people are indeed angry and right to feel that way.
      Bizarre, and more than a little scary that conservative pundits are trafficking in such agitprop! Once again, I’m reminded of that rhetorical question my friend used to pose whenever he heard a politician make some disingenuous claim: “How goddamned dumb do they think we are?” Pretty damned dumb, I guess. We can only hope that not too many of us are all that dumb.
     Some of us are sort of smart. --EFP

Thursday, December 3, 2009

No More Vietnams?

[I took this photo at the annual "Mummer's Parade," Middletown, DE, Jan. 1, 2002]
George Will's column in today's Washington Post is a must-read.  Will makes a cogent case for why our Afghan war cannot end well.  He points out that the principal excuses for waging this war--to defeat Al Qaeda and to stabilize the Afghan government--are invalid.  Al Qaeda is not concentrated in Afghanistan, and it would take decades to establish an Afghan government that could keep Muslim extremists out of the country.  Then there is the problem of our announced intention to begin withdrawing in 2011.  Obama, ironically, is pursuing the same surge strategy in Afghanistan that Bush pursued in Iraq.  But here is the paragraph that really caught my attention:

The president's party will not support his new policy, his budget will not accommodate it, our overstretched and worn-down military will be hard-pressed to execute it, and Americans' patience will not be commensurate with Afghanistan's limitless demands for it. This will not end well.

I was happy to see such a prominent commentator acknowledge the toll this latest surge is going to take on our troops.   
     Just the other day, I head someone suggest that "this," after all, is what the troops volunteered for.  Not quite.  We don't have "volunteers" in the sense that the French Foreign Legion of old had "volunteers."  Our young "warriors" didn't enlist in search of a good war or, failing that, whatever war we've got.  Most carry a set of decidedly mixed motives, and even family ties, in their Alice Packs.  Their new service anthem should perhaps be Credence Clearwater's "Fortunate Son," which poses and answers the following musical question, Whenever I ask how much should we give,/The only answer is more, more, more!" 
      Obama, of course, insists that Afghanistan will not be another Vietnam.  We'll see.  But even neo-cons Michael Medved and Michael Savage seem to be worried about the parallels.  At the same time, some dismiss the comparison, pointing out that the number and rate of casualties in Afghanistan pale in comparison to Vietnam.  My answer:  Give them time.  We may get there yet.
      And if we do, I'd like to suggest an appropriate memorial.  We could just build another V-shaped wall parallel to the existing Vietnam Memorial.  Viewed from above, it would resemble a corporal's chevron, visually driving home the parallels between the two wars.  --EFP 

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

"It's Deja Vu All Over Again"!

I very much fear that historians will someday look back on President Obama as the LBJ of this era. 
      President Johnson, I have come to realize, really was intent on creating a kinder, gentler America with his “Great Society” social programs.  But thanks to that “bitch of a war,” as he was wont to call it, Johnson found himself caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place.  If he had begun to disengage from Vietnam, his political enemies would have branded him soft on Communism.  If he had fully mobilized the reserves and the National Guard, his political enemies would have used that as an excuse to reject Johnson’s social programs.  They would have argued that we can’t afford both guns and butter. 
     Now, over 40 years later, Obama is falling into the same trap.  I believe that he would genuinely like his legacy to be an America in which adequate health care is guaranteed.  But Obama’s political opponents are already complaining that his proposed health care reforms would greatly increase an already huge deficit created by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as his government bailouts and stimulus programs.   Had he opted to begin withdrawing from Afghanistan, however, the pushback would have been ugly.  Cheney and his ilk would have attacked Obama--again--or leaving America vulnerable. 
     Moreover, I worry that, like Johnson before him, Obama doesn’t really understand the war he is waging.  As George Will and others have reminded us, we’re not at war with a nation state.  We’re at war with a freelance group of ideologues who don’t need a safe haven in Afghanistan.  The fact that the 9/11 group trained and plotted in Afghanistan is irrelevant.  They can just as easily train and plot in Somalia and a number of other countries. 
     This is not to say that we shouldn’t go after the Al Qaeda still in Afghanistan, but I believe that George Will and General Krulak are right in recommending that we limit our efforts to small, elite killer teams and predator drones.  A large-scale commitment only plays into the enemy’s hands.  The so-called collateral damage we’ll inevitably inflict will help al Qaeda recruit, as will the appearance that we are indeed mounting a crusade against Islam. 
     Of course, in all fairness, Obama claims our main objective is to build up and train the Afghan forces to take over.  This too was tried in LBJ’s day; it was called “Vietnamization.”  So are we now pursuing a course of “Afghnistanization”?   Awkward terms aside, I haven’t heard that Afghan troops are any more into it than the Army of the late Republic of Vietnam was.  Even more troubling, I have heard that a sense of nationalism or national loyalty is alien to most Afghans. 
     So “the more things change . . . .”
P.S.  Where are the additional 30,000 troops going to come from?  But that’s another topic.

Monday, November 30, 2009

A Breadline for Rich People

Andrea and I enjoyed a great Thanksgiving with my cousin and her husband in Napa, CA, where I found this scene.  --EFP

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Salmon Blues

(Click on the photo for an enlarged view.)
This one is from the 2007 spawning season.  I couldn't resist harking back to better days.  This year has been frustrating.  We've had too much rain.  The streams are all swollen and running high.  The salmon, therefore, are not jumping.  In some places, they can't move at all; the force of the water is too strong.  In other places, they're just zooming along below the surface, as if on a super highway.  That's great for the salmon, but not so good for my photography.  I'll keep trying.  --EFP

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Prisoners of War or Terrorists?

(A legitimate "POW," Vietnam, December 4, 1967)
I’ve been having a tough time deciding how I really feel about Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to try September 11 suspects in federal courts.   I suppose that what really bothers me about this issue is the way in which the administrations past and present have both been playing fast and loose with language, essentially wanting to have it both ways.
        We’ve been told over and over again that acts of terror, such the September 11 attacks, fall outside the bounds of the legitimate conduct of war.  In the aftermath of World War II, we prosecuted, and even executed, German and Japanese officers whom we determined to have overstepped these internationally recognized bounds and were therefore “war criminals” who had committed “atrocities.”  Hence, they were not entitled to the rights traditionally accorded to prisoners of war, who are supposed to be treated humanely and respected as honorable opponents. 
      What it amounts to is that acts of terror are crimes; acts of war are not.  And criminals need to be punished, not prisoners of war.
       So it seems to me that, if we don’t try the 9/11 suspects, in either civilian or military courts, we are in effect conceding that they were merely waging war and not committing illegitimate acts of terror.   The old saying, of course, is that “all’s fair in love and war,” but I don’t think that’s the position we can afford to take, legally or morally. 
      Just yesterday, I heard “El Rushbo,” as he likes to call himself, suggest that Holder’s decision represents the height of legal hypocrisy.  Rush feels this way because Holder has reassured the country that, whether they’re found guilty or not guilty, the 9/11 suspects are not going to be released.  Personally, I see no disconnect here.  A not-guilty verdict would simply mean that they are legitimate prisoners of war after all, and we don’t release POWs until the war is over. 
       Having thought it through, then, I'm taking the following position:  If we consider the 9/11 suspects to be terrorists, they need to be tried, convicted, and punished as such.   If we consider them to be prisoners of war, they need to be held but treated humanely.  While someone initially taken as a prisoner of war may later be determined to be a war criminal and a terrorist, that person cannot be both a terrorist and a prisoner of war.   Ultimately, he or she is one or the other, not both.
       The problem with holding these people as POWs, of course, is that we’re not at war with a national authority that can surrender, and how can we know that any individual Moslem extremist has indeed had a change of heart?   Where or what is the endgame here?  I wish I knew.  --EFP

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Salmon Run 2009

The salmon are running, but I've been short on time, and we've only had a couple clear days in the last two weeks.  I'm not adverse to sitting alongside the creek in the rain, trying to hold an umbrella and a camera.  I've done it before.  But the light is bad when it's raining.  This is the best I've managed to do thus far this year.  Maybe I can get out there again this weekend--if we have a decent day.  --EFP

My Formerly Homeless Piece

I did finally find a home for my piece on thanking veterans:  http://www.kitsapsun.com/news/2009/nov/11/ed-palm-guest-columnist-were-not-heroes-for-in/
       Since Bremerton is very much a military community, this was a good place for it.  My thanks to the Kitsap Sun's editor, David Nelson, for making room for me.  He put my op-ed at the top of a page in the hard copy edition and ran it as a "guest columnist" piece.  --EFP

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

To "Amy"

I was humbled to discover that "Amy," the sister-in-law of the late John LaBossiere, found my blog and left a comment.  She confirms that her brother-in-law came back from Iraq a changed man and that the war indeed played a major role in his tragedy.  I don't doubt it.  As I wrote before, I only know what the Seattle Times reported about the confrontation between LaBossiere and the police, and I hope that no further news reports add to the family's pain.  But what I do know is that we can't keep overextending and abusing our troops.  It's just not right.  To paraphrase Churchill, never have so many asked so much of so few.  This is not our country's "finest hour."
       Thank you, "Amy," for your comment.  --EFP

Happy Marine Corps Birthday!

(Part of the Papa 3 landing force, Vietnam, 1967)
My wife has reminded me that 34 years ago, at Quantico, we attended the ball for the 200th birthday of the United States Marine Corps.  I've said it before, and I'll say it again:  Don't you just hate people who are good at math?
     Happy birthday, Marines!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Antipathy Grounded in Racism

Just today I saw a bumper sticker that lends credence to Jimmy Carter's view of why so many people are down on Obama.
      The text was "Obama/Deceiver"; the image was of Obama in white face.
      This is one of those instances in which the medium is the message.  Taken together, the image and the text suggest that Obama is pretending to be white.  The subtext, moreover, seems to be clear:  The President of the United States is supposed to be white.
      Further, I have to wonder if the people who would display this bumper sticker understand the racist resonance of depicting Obama in white face.  It recalls the black face worn by white comedians in the minstrel shows of old, in which black people were stereotyped as clownish and conniving.
     Personally, I can respect anyone who has reasoned objections to any and all of Obama's policies, but not someone whose antipathy is grounded in racism.
     Jimmie Carter was right.  --EFP

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Whatever Happened to "Up or Out"?

(Young Corporal Palm, Vietnam, 1967)
I noticed that one of the victims of the Fort Hood massacre was a 56-year-old Army Reserve captain.  Not to cast aspersions on this man:  I understand he tried to get back in the Army Reserve after 9/11 and was finally called up two years ago.  I'm sure he was a great soldier and a wonderful human being.  But I still maintain that no army should have 56-year-old captains.  There was a certain wisdom to the "up-or-out" policy that kept our military relatively young.  Fighting wars is a young person's business.
     As I recall, this was the topic that first "loosed mere" Palm upon the air waves:    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5066475

Small Businesses--A Republican Article of Faith

(One of the small businesses that "fuel" the economy--in this case, with donuts, Pike Place Market, Seattle.)

"How g….d…. dumb do they think we are?”  a friend of mine used to exclaim every time he heard a dubious bit of political rhetoric.
      I couldn’t help but think of that sardonic friend and his favorite rhetorical question Just this morning.  A  Republican pundit on “Meet the Press” was warning that Obama’s health care plan would hurt small businesses and that we have to depend on small businesses to fuel our economy by creating jobs.
      This, of course, has been a Republican article of faith ever since the reign of Ronald Reagan.  I don’t understand why the opposition never seems to challenge the Republicans on this point.  In my experience, those same small businesses are the ones that typically pay the minimum wage and offer no benefits.   How can that fuel the economy?
      Here in the Northwest, for instance, Microsoft just announced that they will be cutting another 5,000 jobs.  Will the victims of this round of layoffs be able to support their families by going to work for these fabled “small businesses”? 
      So again, “How g….d…. dumb do they think we are?”  Pretty damned dumb, I guess.  --EFP

Thursday, November 5, 2009

A Veteran in the News

(Monument to Non-Violence, Malmo, Sweden, July, 2004)
I’ve been busy, busy, keeping up with my online teaching, but I have to take time out to comment on a story that caught my eye in yesterday’s Seattle Times.
     On, Tuesday, November 3, Lake Stevens, WA, police shot and killed an armed Iraq war veteran who allegedly “forced his way into a home where his wife and three children were staying with friends.”
     The article identified the veteran as John LaBossiere, a former Marine who had joined the National Guard upon his discharge from the Corps. The Marine Corps had sent him to Iraq twice. The National Guard sent him over for a third tour. He had just returned to the States in August, and according to his father, he returned an “angry man” who felt he had to be armed at all times. According to the article, one handgun was found near his body and "another on his body.” 
     The circumstances surrounding the actual shooting were not reported. As always happens in such cases, the officers involved are on paid leave pending an investigation. I have no idea what LaBossiere intended or whether police could have resolved the situation without killing him. But what I do know concerns me on two levels. 
     First, I could join Shakespeare’s Hamlet in proclaiming “O my prophetic soul!” For some time now, I’ve been worrying out loud and in print about the toll the operational tempo is taking on our small volunteer force. But some Horatio would be justified in reminding my na├»ve self that “there needs no ghost come from the grave to tell us” that we can expect more tragic scenes involving Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans to play themselves out in the years to come. Would that it were not so—and the overwhelming majority of today’s veterans will never be a danger to themselves or others. But it’s difficult for all combat veterans to snap back to normalcy. 
     Second, I am concerned about the effect stories about troubled veterans have on the popular mind. I remember how Vietnam veterans were stereotyped as hair-trigger, dangerously deranged losers liable to erupt into violence at any moment. That was the myth out of which Rambo was made. And let’s be honest here: most of us who went to Vietnam hadn’t been through anything compared to the veterans of our current wars , many of whom have been sent into harm’s way three or more times.
     So take one of these young soldiers or Marines who has already witnessed too much to make a smooth transition back to the land of shopping-mall warriors, and then let him know that you’re wary of him, and what is the likely result? It’s called a self-fulfilling prophecy. Your suspicion might just push him over the edge, turning him into the sort of veteran you fear.
     A bit of bad Roosevelt comes to mind: One of the things our returning veterans have to fear, ironically, is fear itself. --EFP

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Annals of the Rod and God Club--"Doubt"

(The kind of nun I wish I had had, Sr. Pat Thro, Maryville University of  St. Louis, 2002)
My wife and I rented and watched the Meryl Streep - Philip Seymour Hoffman film "Doubt" over the weekend.  I recommend it highly to lapsed and recovering Catholics alike. It's a wonderfully complex portrayal of the psychological tension those who struggle to believe must feel. But the film resonated with me on another, more personal level.
     "Doubt" is set in 1964, roughly the time of my Catholic school  experience.  I transferred to the school I call "Holy Name" in the the 7th grade, in the fall of 1959.  The early Sixties, I've come to realize, were a pivotal time for the Church in America.  Some of our parents were still fervently committed to their fatih, but the majority of them, it seemed to me, just went along as a matter of form.  Baptisms, First Holy Communions, Confirmations--even Church weddings and funerals--these were the things that working-class Catholics did in my day in order to keep up appearances.  (As I've elsewhere recounted, they weren't even naming all their children after saints, much less encouraging them to become priests or nuns.)  The Church's rites of passage were social obligations as much as, if not more than, religious duties.  And for those working-class parents struggling to support the children they already had the Church's authority ended at the bedroom door.
      Even the Church's rhetoric seemed curiously dated and comically naive in those days.  By the seventh grade, for instance, I knew that in the American lexicon an "ejaculation" was not a short, sponntaneous prayer.  I had to repress a smirk every time I heard a priest or nun encourage us to devote our free time to our "ejaculations."
      My generation was definitely pulling away.  Young people would soon begin "tuning in, turning on, and dropping out."  Questioning authority and pushing back boundaries were the new virtues.  While our secular-minded peers were ushering in an era of free love, we were still expected to be guilt-ridden over "impure thoughts."
       Into this era, and into my life, rode the nun I've already written about in my "Annals of the Rod and God Club."  She was already middle-aged when our paths crossed, and I've since come to understand something of how she must have felt.  She had made, to her way of thinking, an irrevocable commitment to a world that was dying, and she couldn't fit in to the one just then being born and which she couldn't understand.  Like the nun Meryl Streep plays, my 7th- and 8th-grade nun (I had the same one for both grades) must have been struggling with primal doubts.
     Sister, I now realize, was more to be pitied than censured.  But, sadly, early adolescent boys are not known for their capacity for empathy and sympathy.  --EFP

Rush Rushes to Judgment

(Visiting a Chinese medical school, February, 2006)
On Sunday, I caught a few minutes of a Rush Limbaugh program being replayed from one day last week.  (I'm not sure which one.)  Demagogue and ideologue that he is, Rush was citing a passage from a Florida hospital's H1N1 contingency plan as evidence that the Obama administration's health care reforms will include "death panels."  Apparently, in the event that mass casualties overwhelm this hospital, and they lack adequate facilities and equipment to care for everyone, they plan to concentrate on those with the best chance of survival.
     The charge would be laughable, were it not for the fact that so many people seem to idolize and believe Rush.  This Florida hospital's mass casualty plan merely reflects the standard operating procedure in military and civilian emergency rooms alike.  It is called "triage."
     Battlefield aid stations routinely have to practice triage.  When they're faced with more casualties than the available doctors, corpsmen, and nurses can handle, they first help the seriously wounded people with reasonable chances of survival.  Those with little or no chance of survival wait, as do the lightly wounded.   Otherwise, two soldiers or Marines may die instead of the one who is likely to die no matter what the doctors do.  It's a tough calculus, to be sure, but it is also the only moral thing to do.
      Civilian emergency rooms usually don't have to make such tough calls, but they routinely practice triage nevertheless.   If you arrive with a minor cut requiring a few stitches, and a man with chest pains arrives a half hour after you do, guess who will be seen first?
       In all fairness, though, what really bothered Rush was a statement indicating that, if there are not enough ventilators to go around, the hospital may have to take patients with little or no chance of survival off their ventilators.   Rush, of course, sees this as a slippery slope toward "death panels."  He's wrong.  The hospital was merely positing the worst-case scenario, one that may never come to pass. But, if it should, and you were an attending physician at that hospital, would you take a chance on losing two patients instead of one? The hospital in question clearly intends to save as many people as they can, not to select people for euthanasia.  --EFP

Monday, October 19, 2009

Waterboarding and Human Rights

(Volunteers encouraging support for the troops, just outside Fort Lewis, on an overpass over Interstate 5, 17 October 2009)
It never fails.  Every time I catch even a few minutes of Michael Medved’s radio program I hear something appalling.  Today, Medved’s guest was one Vince Flynn, whom I learned is the author of a series of political thrillers.  I heard Flynn justify waterboarding on the following grounds:
                First, according to Flynn, waterboarding is not really torture.  Flynn claimed that all of us who, as children, have engaged in horseplay at a public swimming pool have, in essence, been waterboarded.
                 (Strange, but I don’t remember being subjected to, or engaging in, anything like waterboarding in my numerous childhood trips to the Canby Park Pool in Wilmington, Delaware.)
                 Second, Flynn claims that it is effective.  He acknowledged that torture can indeed make anyone admit to anything, but he claims that our C.I.A. waterboarders do it skillfully.  They supposedly establish a “baseline” by asking questions they already know the answers to.  He went on to claim that, after being waterboarded, Sheik somebody (I don’t recall the name) finally broke down and drew diagrams of the Taliban’s organization. 
                (But were they accurate diagrams, and did they really benefit our side?  Flynn didn’t say.)
                 Third, Flynn reminded Medved’s listeners that these waterboardees were not U.S. citizens, so they had no rights for us to violate.  He further argued that their organization was not a signatory to any international agreements regarding “human rights.” 
                Of course, Flynn also reminded Medved’s listeners that these were the people who attacked us and who still mean to do us harm.  Granted, but Flynn doesn’t seem to see the irony in his position.
                As I understand it, radical Moslems have felt justified in beheading Westerners on camera because they were “infidels” after all.  Flynn seems to be advancing the same justification but coming at it from the other end.  If you’re not an American, he seems to be arguing, you have no human rights and can therefore be waterboarded.   The American prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment,” as Flynn interprets it, applies only to Americans. 
                Flynn’s argument is a perfect illustration of how we lost the moral high ground and the respect of the world.  I was always taught that America holds certain human rights to be “self-evident” and applicable to all people.  (Remember “when in the course of human events” and all that?) Sure, we were attacked, and it was horrific.  But, to my mind, that’s all the more reason to continue upholding the values and ideals we believe to be superior to those of the extremists who attacked us.  To do otherwise would be to hand our adversaries the most significant victory they could win.
                I can’t resist a familiar paraphrase:  what will it profit us if we win the Global War on Terror but lose our national soul?  --EFP

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Annals of the Rod and God Club: The Lives of the Saints

(The original cathedral bells, destroyed by allied bombing in World War II, Lubeck, Germany, July 2004)

Today’s young people, I find, simply cannot relate to the degree of sexual repression we endured in the Catholic schools of my youth.   When I teach James Joyce’s story “Araby,” for instance, I find that most students are thrown by the mention of Mangan’s sister going to a convent school.   They assume she is going to become a nun.   They don’t realize that single-sex education was the norm in Joyce’s Ireland, much less do they appreciate the cult of chastity or the ascetic impulses behind such norms.   In an effort to put the story in cultural perspective, I tell my students how co-education was only grudgingly accepted in my own Catholic school, some sixty years after the period Joyce was describing and presumably set in a less inhibited and more progressive country.
For instance, I tell them how our playground had a white line painted straight down the middle of it.   Girls were to stay on one side, boys on the other, and the nun who had playground duty on any given day walked the line like a sentry.   It was her solemn duty to make sure that never the twain should meet.   Similarly, our classrooms were divided, boys on one side, girls on the other.    And, while I don’t remember the girls ever being cautioned about the dangers of patent leather shoes, I do remember Sister worrying out loud about the prospect of our being invited to mixed parties where there might not be enough seats.   She told us that, in such a case, it might be all right for a girl to sit on a boy’s lap, so long as they put a phonebook between them. Somehow, I think that worry said more about Sister than it did about us.  
But the important thing was that, by the time that I got to the Marine Corps, I was already fairly comfortable with places and things, and even categories of people, being placed “Off Limits.”  I say that because an additional source of religious anxiety for us turned out to be one of the universal rituals of Catholic school life in those days, the daily reading from The Lives of the Saints.  
That book, as I remember it, was a marvel.   Submitted for our edification and emulation—assuming we all grooved on gruesome accounts of martyrdom and that we were all into the mortification of the flesh—were brief biographies of 365 saints.   There was one for each day of the year.   After all these years, I must confess, our daily accounts of welcome pain and persecution, cheerfully endured in His Name’s sake, have pretty much run together in my mind, leaving me with a welter of images not unlike the vision of hell painted by Hieronymous Bosch.   One day and that day’s featured saint, however, do still stand out in my mind.   
The day had to have been February 5, the feast day of Saint Agatha of Sicily, the Martyr. Each day, Sister would choose one of us to read that day’s saintly life aloud.   Maybe Sister did have, if not a sense of humor, a sense of irony or of poetic justice.   Maybe not.   But, for whatever reason, on this day she chose a girl I’ll call Gracie Moriarity.  
            Gracie, at all of 13 years of age, already saw herself, to borrow a phrase from Shakepeare, as a “thing enskied and sainted.”    She was one of only two girls in our class who had professed to hear the calling to enter the convent after the eighth grade.  (To her credit, the other aspirant didn’t seem to take herself or her vocation nearly as seriously.)  None of the boys were aiming toward the priesthood, and with only two girls hoping to become nuns, our class had fallen woefully short of God’s quota, or so Sister thought. At least once a week she would have us put our heads down on our desks and command us to meditate on the question of “whether I have a vocation.”    “In a class this size, there should be at least five vocations,” she would warn.  “Some of you are hearing but not heeding the call.    And if that’s the case, you’ll never be happy!” she would predict.   From what I could see, Sister certainly didn’t seem to be ecstatically happy in her vocation.   I decided I’d pass.   Still, I was tempted to tell her that I was hearing the “call,” just to shock and confuse her, but I never quite got up the nerve.  
            Gracie, as I remember her, was priggishly self-righteous and even pharisaical in her displays of religious devotion.   While the rest of us mumbled and murmured our way through the Lord’s Prayer and other mandatory displays of devotion, Gracie’s voice always rang out, loud and clear as a bell. She wanted Sister and the rest of us to know that she believed.  
The devil of it was that she was also good looking. And she was good at everything. If only she hadn’t been such an arrogant, precocious little prig!  I only saw her lose her composure twice.  That first instance can wait.  This is the story of the day Gracie got to read the account of St. Agatha’s life to us.
            In the version we heard that day, St. Agatha was a fetching but saintly lass of 15 whose misfortune it was to excite the lust of an evil Roman governor.    When she spurned his advances, he had her stripped naked and whipped, after which he ordered her breasts cruelly crushed and then cut off.   Later that night, however, the Apostle Peter was said to have appeared to her in a vision and to have restored her breasts to her.   Discovering that miraculous restoration, the governor, who at this point was no longer fooling around, had her rolled naked across hot coals and broken bits of pottery.    Somehow, she emerged from that ordeal uncut and unburned.    Stumped about what to try next, I suppose, the governor put her in prison, where she did soon oblige him by dying.         
            Again, you have to remember that we boys were thirteen and in the throes of puberty.     Women may not be able to relate, but those were the days when an errant daydream--an "impure thought,' to borrow from Sister's lexicon--could make it incredibly embarrassing to be called to the front of the class to recite or to work a problem on the board—although, in the latter instance, you could at least try to keep your back turned to the class for as long as possible.  My own strategy was to try thinking of Sister.   Usually, that would relieve the pressure in fairly short order.   But that would work for only a little while.   I mean, visions of naked nymphets naturally dance in a boy’s head at that age.  (Oh, would that those days would come again!)   
You have to understand as well that the tone of the accounts of these saintly lives was always weirdly at odds with the imagery.   The reputed intent was inspirational.   We were supposed to admire these heroic martyrs and, like them, to view suffering for one’s faith as the highest privilege and reward that God can bestow in recognition of a righteous life.  Maybe we had already given ourselves over to the world, the flesh, and the devil, but these “rewards” just didn’t seem all that rewarding to us.   The main thing, however, is that the victims always seemed too eager to embrace their fates and even to ask for more.  
The horrors were likewise painted in too much detail and dwelled on too lovingly, suggesting that the writer at least took a sadomasochistic pleasure in the account.    Even the euphemistic accounts tended toward the psycho-sexual and were suggestive of sublimation—as in the “passion” of Saint So and So.  As a friend of mine has since observed, human sexuality ultimately brooks no repression; it comes bubbling up somewhere, somehow.   People committed to the vow of chastity are not immune, much less thirteen-year-old boys.    Try to remember what it was like to be that age.   Then picture a lovely young girl cheerfully rolling naked across hot coals and emerging unscathed, not to mention enthusiastically offering up her breasts for magic tricks, and perhaps you can understand why the scene struck us as downright kinky.
            In all fairness, much of the erotic effect depended on the incongruity between the teller and the tale.  Here was Gracie—a virginal young thing and a stiff-necked prude who, now that I think about it, looked and carried herself a lot like Dr. Lilith Crane, the character Bebe Neuwirth used to play on “Cheers”—talking dirty to us.   Gracie, of all people, was reading aloud, uttering words we had never expected to hear from her lips—words like “breasts” and “naked.” It was too much really, especially since Gracie, who was slow to recognize anything erotic or humorous in St. Agatha’s ordeal, was doing her level best to read fluently and to enunciate clearly.   To our credit, there were only occasional, repressed sniggers until Gracie got to the part about St. Peter’s kindness in restoring Agatha’s breasts to her.   A student I’ll call Billy Decker, always a wonderful mimic, reached up with both hands, making ratcheting motions and noises, as if he were Peter engaged in screwing the poor girl’s breasts back on.    I suppose that in Billy’s imagination the right breast was reverse threaded, as he was screwing counter-clockwise with his left hand and clockwise with his right.  Four or five other guys joined in.
            We lost it, most of the girls included.   Gracie bravely tried to soldier on, through a chorus of raucous laughter.   In mid-sentence, the images must have gotten to her, as she reddened and was clearly fighting to hold back either laughter or tears.   It took a screaming fit on Sister’s part to get us calmed down to the point at which Gracie could resume.    Our forced composure, however, didn’t last long.   Gracie got to the part about rolling Agatha naked over hot coals and pottery shards, and we were off again.    Sister finally had to break it off, lecturing us once more on the theme of how Polish children would never dare to treat her in such a manner, much less make light of the horrible ordeal and blissful death of a heroic martyr. 
            I wonder if Gracie indeed went on to become a nun.
            There are a million stories associated with the Rod and God Club of my day.  This has been one of them.  --EFP 

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Service Obligation of Old: An Afterthought

(Elvis's Jungle Room, Graceland, Memphis, 2004)
I was just thinking about how attitudes toward military service have changed in my lifetime.  In 1957, when he was drafted, Elvis Presley knew that he had to go.  The country was still in that World War II mindset, and Elvis's fans would have turned against him as a "draft dodger."  But In 1967, when the former Cassius Clay refused induction, he became even more of a folk hero than he already was.
      Personally, I have no problem with the stance that Clay took.  Our Vietnam commitment was wrongheaded, and Clay--now Muhammed Ali--resisted the draft openly and with a willingness to accept the consequences.  I am merely holding him up as an example of how radically the mood of the country had changed in ten short years.
      And now, we extol everyone who serves, in any capacity whatsoever, as a "hero,"  Go figure!  --EFP

Monday, October 12, 2009

No Thanks Needed!

(Yours truly in Vietnam, 1967)
It happened again today.  A guy I just met thanked me for my "service."  This time around, however, I finally figured out what bothers me about the current compulsion to thank veterans and active duty people for serving in the Armed Forces.  Now that no one has to serve, merely joining the military is seen as going above and beyond the call of civic duty.  That's unfortunate.  I may be jeopardizing my standing as a card-carrying liberal, but I'm conservative enough to believe that all of us have an obligation to give something back to our country. 
       In my day (am I sounding old or what?), it was just expected that the majority of able-bodied young men would be drafted at age 19 or 20. Major employers, in fact, wouldn't even talk to male high-school graduates. Their standard stall was "get your military obligation out of the way, and then come back to talk to us."   Merely serving back then was considered a given, a commonplace, and not a mark of distinction.  Would that it were viewed in that light again.
       Of course, there is such a thing as legitimately going above and beyond the call of duty, and those who do so deserve our gratitude and public recognition.  As for me, I just did what I was expected to do, and no one need thank me for that.  --EFP

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Demise of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"?

(On the "Iwo Jima," in the Caribbean, spring, 1968, Ed Palm photo)
Just a quick note:  I have accepted a position as a full-time online English prof with Strayer University, and it starts tomorrow.  In the words of the poet, "But at my back I always hear time's winged chariot hurrying near."
      I was heartened to hear Obama reaffirm his pledge to end the current "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy and to allow gays to serve openly in the military.  Over the years, I have had occasion to tell academic hiring committees--some members of which expected me to conform to their stereotypical notions of the military--that I have seen far more boy-girl problems threaten "good order and discipline" than I have seen problems caused by gays.  Whether gay or straight, we all have an obligation to keep our sex lives private and out of the workplace.  If soldiers, sailors, and Marines keep that in mind, there will be no problem integrating gays into the ranks.
     In 2007, I was privileged to make this point, in my own inimitable way, the pages of the late Seattle Post-Intelligencer:  The title to this entry,above, is a link to my P.I. piece.  --EFP

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Vietnam Revisited--by Way of Afghanistan

("Patriotic Caddy," Smyrna, Delaware, December, 2005)
Back in the mid-eighties, when I was the Marine Officer Instructor with the Naval ROTC unit at Berkeley, a fellow officer offered a bit of unsolicited advice about my past service. “It’s OK to be a Vietnam veteran in today’s military,” my colleague cautioned, “so long as you don’t dwell on it or refer back to it.” He was right. The military in those days seemed intent on dismissing Vietnam as an aberration and a predominantly political failure with no relevance to how we might fight future wars.
     Last Sunday’s coordinated attack in Afghanistan, which claimed 8 American lives, suggests that the military is still refusing to heed the lessons of Vietnam and that today’s soldiers and Marines are doomed to repeat that sad history. In its coverage of the attack, the CBS Evening News included an animation, complete with a 3-D look at the terrain. I was appalled to see that this isolated American outpost, manned by only 140 soldiers, was situated in a narrow valley. The Taliban was firing down on the outpost from the high ground on at least two sides. What was the brass thinking in placing these soldiers in such an untenable tactical situation? Does the name "Dien Bien Phu" still mean anything to anyone in the Pentagon?
     I am referring, of course, to the disastrous 1954 defeat that ended the First Indochina War. The French, thinking they would lure the Viet Minh out into the open, established a large base—a series of outposts, actually—in the valley of Dien Bien Phu, which also happened to be ringed by high mountains. The French commander assumed that the Viet Minh would never be able to bring any heavy weapons into those mountains. He assumed wrong. The Viet Minh disassembled and carried their artillery pieces up into the mountains, piece by piece. Deadly artillery fire began to rain down on the French outposts, and the rest is history.
      I certainly cannot claim to be a tactician, but as first an enlisted Marine and later an officer, I learned that securing and holding the high ground was key to success. What was the point, then, in establishing that outpost in such a vulnerable position? It was one small outpost in one ravine among many in those mountains. It certainly could not have impeded, in any significant sense, the infiltration of Taliban fighters coming down from their mountain hideouts. Likewise, I can’t believe that it could yield any important intelligence. Perhaps the point was to establish a base from which we could launch patrols. But, again, I know from Vietnam that there is a better way to do that than by making sitting ducks of small units in static bases. What about “air mobility”? We used it extensively in Vietnam—sometimes to good effect.
      If the whole point was simply to draw enemy fire—to lure them out in the open—I would again remind the military that it was a bad idea at Dien Bien Phu. It didn’t work out so well at Khe Sahn either. One could argue, of course, that using a small unit as bait paid off last Sunday in Afghanistan. We lost 8, the Taliban 50—so we won! Perhaps, but how would you like to have been one of the soldiers considered expendable in order to achieve such a victory? Again, I have to believe that there are better ways to do it.
     There is no doubt about. Leaving aside the larger issue of whether we really do need to stay the course in Afghanistan, we certainly need a new strategy. In the meanwhile, look for lots of hemming and hawing and excuses a-plenty. As one of my favorite Vietnam writers once observed, “There is nothing so embarrassing as when things go wrong in a war.”  --EFP

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Genesis of the "Rod and God Club"

(Joining the "Devil's Party," Lubeck, Germany, July, 2004)

Catholic schools were legendary in my day for their strict, no-nonsense approach to discipline, and most of us remained properly intimidated most of the time. Not all of us, however, went along with the program. A couple of my classmates really fought the power (more about that anon), and by the time I left Holy Penance, Sister, as they say, had a “history of violence.” But our occasional set-tos paled in comparison to the sort of things that were popularly presumed to be going on in the public schools back then.
     From where I stand now, I can see that public schools got a bad rap and that Catholic schools got much more credit than they deserved for academic excellence and for character development. We memorized too much and thought too little. What Milton says about not being able to “praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue” also comes to mind. Still, you have to hand it to the good sisters of old when it cames to social and moral conditioning. Some of the guys and girls who went through the Catholic school experience in that day and time have never quite gotten past the experience.
     “Recovering Catholics” they call themselves. As for me, my saving grace is that I started late and that I never took being a Catholic all that seriously to begin with. I suppose that’s what enabled me, years later, to get off one of the best (if one of the cruelest) bon mots of my life.
     At the time, I was long past Catholic school--already married, in a civil ceremony, to a protestant woman. My wife and I were visiting my mother when my Aunt Jerry dropped by. Aunt Jerry was Polish, and as the old saying goes, more Catholic than the Pope. She was a lifelong member and devoted supporter of St. Hedwig’s, the principal Polish parish in Wilmington in those days. St. Hedwig’s was set right in the middle of Hedgeville, a lower middle-class Polish neighborhood which began just north of Maryland Avenue. St. Hedwig’s was the cultural center of the Polish-American community in those days. Its parishioners celebrated their heritage and their ethnic identity. Aunt Jerry certainly did. So did Sister Casimir, who also happened to be Polish. She and Aunt Jerry never met, but through the Polish grapevine, Aunt Jerry knew of her and even claimed to know about the good Polish family from which Sister had come.
     Even if Aunt Jerry hadn’t told me, I would certainly have known that Sister was Polish. Sister said it loud; she was Polish, and she was proud. At the slightest provocation, she would routinely lament the fact that, with one or two exceptions, our class was not Polish. I still remember some of those laments: “Polish children wouldn’t treat me this way.” “Polish children study hard and do their lessons.” And my personal favorite: “Polish children are religious.” Like most of us, I suppose, Sister needed illusions to live by.
     Truth be told, Aunt Jerry too could be loud and opinionated, but she was also big-hearted, warm, and funny—especially when it came to her chronic lament, her husband’s hobbies. Uncle Jule was an avid bowler and a sociable sort who frequented the Polish Library—actually an after hours drinking club in Hedgeville that, for the sake of appearances, may have had a book or two. (I suspect it was started during prohibition.) But Uncle Jule’s real avocation was competitive shooting. He was a member of the Rod and Gun Club behind mother's house and often practiced there. The practice paid off, as he had won or placed highly in a number of matches, including the national competitions held each summer at Camp Perry, Ohio. Of course, maintaining that level of skill required constant practice—which, in turn, elicited constant bitching on Aunt Jerry’s part. And, truth be told, she was as accomplished in that as Uncle Jule was in shooting.
     Aunt Jerry was in particularly fine form on that day. The occasion of her visit, as I recall, was that Uncle Jule had had some sort of shooting commitment at the Rod and Gun Club that morning, after which they were going to go shopping. And rather than wait for him at the club (which, again, was adjacent to my mother’s neighborhood), she had opted to be dropped off at my mother’s house, where she could defame Uncle Jule for the duration.
     “If he isn’t bowling,” she complained, “he’s at the Polish library. If he isn’t at the Polish Library, he’s at the Rod and God Club,” she went on, oblivious to her own slip of the tongue.
     I’m usually not quick about such things. Generally, like most people, hours after the fact I think of what I could have or should have said. But not on this occasion.
     “The Rod and God Club?” I asked. “What’s that? St. Hedwig’s?”
     This still ranks as the one and only time I ever saw Aunt Jerry rendered speechless. Her eyes narrowed, and she got tight-lipped. She just stared at me for what seemed to be at least thirty seconds before responding, “I wouldn’t be so smart if I were you.”
     And, then, she just picked up right where she left off, rehearsing some more of Uncle Jule’s faults, just as if nothing had happened. What can I say, except what a sardonic friend of mine says whenever one of his one-liners isn’t well-received? “Some you’ve gotta do just for yourself.”
     Speaking for myself, I have to admit that Aunt Jerry, on that day, gave me a handle on my Catholic School Experience. The fact is, I don’t really know about St. Hedwig’s. Maybe it was a kinder, gentler Catholic School than Holy Penance. Maybe it was worse. Likewise, I don’t really know what Holy Penance was like under any other nuns. I went there only for the seventh and eighth grades, and for both grades I had Sister Mary Casimir. (You can imagine our joy on the first day of eighth grade at discovering that Sister Casimir had been promoted along with us.) All I really know is that, under Sister Mary Casimir, Holy Penance was indeed a “Rod and God Club.” And that’s the way I’ve thought of it ever since.
     I mean, hey, the Pope can take a joke, can’t he? --EFP

Gracie in the Attack--10-04-09

This is how I have to start every day--playing "big ball" with our 14-year-old Jack Russell terrier "Gracie."  There is life in the old girl yet!  --EFP

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Palm-Print of the Day

Some kids never came home.  You know what I mean?  (with apologies to Diane Arbus) --EFP

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Annals of the Rod and God Club: The Dawning of a New Day

(Village Teacher, Vietnam, 1967, Ed Palm Photo)

As I look back on it now, Vietnam wasn’t so bad.  It was Sister Mary Casimir and Holy Penance School that left me post-traumatically stressed.  
     But, before I go on, a disclaimer of sorts:  The story you are about to read is true—or, at least, mostly true.   The events I’m about to relate actually happened in a Catholic School in northern Delaware in the early sixties.  The names have been changed to protect the guilty, and that was all of us, to one degree or another.   It was Catholic school after all.   Guilt was our most important product. 
     Also, you have to understand that the early sixties were heady times for the Church.  A Catholic was elected to the presidency during my time at Holy Penance, and he promised we would “go anywhere, pay any price” to halt the tide of “Godless Communism” that the Church in particular seemed to fear Communism back then.   Where we would soon go, of course, myself included, was to Vietnam; and in a weird sort of way, Catholic school did more to get me ready for that trip than Marine Corps boot camp would do about five years later.  Or, maybe it would be more accurate to say that Parris Island was just more of the same, taken to a different level.    
     My real problem, I suppose, is that I've never done anything quite the way most people do.   The norm where I grew up, for instance, was to make good Catholic kids go to parochial school from the first through the eighth grade.   Then their parents would relent and let them go on to public high schools.   As for me, I was never a good Catholic kid.   I was only a nominal Catholic and pretty much getting badder by the day when, after six years in the local public grade school, I got sent to Holy Penance for the seventh and eighth grades.  The hope was that the “good sisters” could straighten me out.   (Come to think of it, there’s my first affinity.  In the America I grew up in, Catholic school and Marine Corps boot camp were both considered to be the best reform schools going.)   That’s how, and why, Sister Mary Casimir, the nun I would have for the seventh and eighth grades, and I got thrown together. 
     “Thrown together” is apt, because, from what Sister divulged and from what our parents heard through the grapevine, Sister Mary Casimir too was not a volunteer.   She had been transferred to us from a Polish parish in northern New Jersey; and, as she would take every opportunity to tell us, she herself was Polish.   Usually, those reminders took the form of invidious, implied comparisons between the ethnically pure children she had once taught and the wild working-class mongrels she found herself charged with taming.   “Polish children are respectful and courteous.   Polish children are religious.   Polish children do their lessons.”   Such was her litany, week in, week out.   And, sadly, the lament we would eventually hear: “Polish children wouldn’t treat me this way.”
     Too late, I thought of the perfect comeback, had one of us been brave enough and/or suicidal enough to use it:  “Does this look like Krakow to you, Sister?”
     I still remember that first day.   It was pure theater, not unlike the effect I would observe at Parris Island about six years later.   The costume and the attitude were everything.   A Smoky the Bear hat and sharply pressed tropical wool or a starched while wimple and a floor-length brown habit, complete with an oversized rosary cinched at the waist—to people who grew up in my time and place, both connoted absolute, uncompromising power and authority.   Of course, if Sister too had a colorful command of profanity, she never shared it with us.   But her measured, overly precise diction, coupled with her pregnant pauses and icy stares, could likewise inspire fear and trembling.  
     As I sit here today, in front of my laptop computer, I realize that I should give you, the reader, some idea of what Sister Mary Casimir, the person, looked like.  The problem is, I don’t know.  
     The overall impression is still here with me, and it remains vivid.   As I’ve already mentioned, I remember the nun-speak and the flat affect that somehow spoke volumes and could be even more intimidating than those occasions when she would lose control.  But, when I try to remember the person, all I can think of is the military supply idiom I would later learn.   She was a “nun”; category “religious”; unit of issue, “one each.”  
     I don’t know what color her eyes were; I never looked.   (One thing you never wanted to do was to make eye contact.   That would have been considered provocative and insolent.)   We never saw her hair, not even a wisp of it.   Her face was always tightly framed by her wimple.   She seemed taller than most of us, but that may have been an illusion, a product of her demeanor.  She didn’t seem heavy or thin, but the loosely flowing brown habit made possible to hide a multitude of deadly sins, gluttony in particular.   
     She could have been 35; she could have been 50.  Her face was full but not lined.   Her complexion was good—ivory white and smooth—but I remember her lips as thin and pale.   (I probably noticed because, in forbidding the girls to wear makeup, she would imply that her lips had remained soft and supple precisely because she had never worn lipstick.)   She wore the standard-issue glasses—small round lenses with thin steel frames. 
     She walked with her nose held high and her arms folded in front of her and her hands tucked into the folds of the large, open sleeves of her habit.  There was a calculated sternness to her expression and an air of high seriousness to almost everything she said or did.   Like the D.I.s I would later meet, Sister seemed angry and disdainful from the very outset, and she remained that way throughout the program.   I can’t remember her ever cracking a smile or lightening up in any way.   She ran on righteous indignation and erupted at the slightest provocation.  
     On that first day, after gliding in, she simply told us her name and started down the line, ordering us each to stand and introduce ourselves one‑by‑one.  
We had not gotten halfway through the first row when an otherwise innocuous-looking little girl stood up and said, "My name is Dawn Rossiter, Sister."
     Sister was silent for a moment, as if she thought she may have misheard the little girl. “What is your name?”  Sister repeated, as if she couldn’t have possibly heard correctly.
     “Dawn Rossiter, Sister,” the girl said, a little louder this time.
     “Your name cannot be 'Dawn,'” Sister affirmed.   “There is no 'Saint Dawn'!  Don’t your parents know that Catholic children are to be named after saints?”      
     For a moment or two, the little girl looked incredulous, as if she were wondering whether Sister might indeed know more about her identity than she did. "No, Sister . . . I mean, I don't know, Sister," she finally responded.
    As for me, I was not much given to prayer in those days, but I was paying silently and earnestly on that day:  “Please let there be a Saint Edward!  Please let there be a Saint Edward!”
    Sister just glared at the confused little girl for at least thirty seconds before she summarily strode to the next student who, mercifully, was not held liable for the sins of his parents‑‑at least not on that occasion. 
    Fortunately, there is a Saint Edward (a “confessor” at that), so I got through unscathed on when my turn came.   But, as we all realized on that very first day, there were landmines and booby-traps hidden all around Sister’s little Area of Operations, and you just never knew when you might trip one.  
This much I knew on that very first day:  It was going to be a long year.  --EFP

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Back to the Future: Why I Would Restore the Draft

"There Is Something About a Soldier."  Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indianapolis
July, 1983
Ed Palm Photo
[My introduction here is dated.  I wrote this essay in response to the surge in Iraq.  But, with General McChristal calling for more troops in Afghanistan, I think my concerns are still valid, and I stand by my argument.]

If any good comes out of the war in Iraq—and, the surge notwithstanding, I doubt that any will—I hope the proverbial silver lining will be a thoroughgoing reconsideration of our reliance on an all-volunteer military. 
            I say that for a number of reasons.  It’s obviously proving too small for our current commitments.  It’s patently unfair to ask so much of so few.  Moreover, the nature of the threat we now face, it seems to me, demands a return to our Cold War posture.  We need a large military widely dispersed at numerous bases throughout the United States and ready to respond to an attack or natural disaster at a moment’s notice. 
But, as a former enlisted Marine and a career Marine office turned academic, my main reason in advocating that we go back to the future is because the military was always the best reform school we had going. 
            Picture it:  Parris Island, the summer of 1965.  Marine Boot Camp has long been legendary for physical and psychological abuse.  The opening scenes of Full Metal Jacket convey some sense of what it could be like. But worse than the physical abuse, in my view, was the psychological torment—not the least of which was a strictly enforced code of silence.  For the entire eight weeks, we never got to talk to one another, or to anyone except our drill instructor, and then only when spoken to. 
            It was, therefore, a supreme relief about halfway through the program when our platoon went on mess duty and I found myself and one other recruit alone in the pot shack out back of the mess hall.   Our mission—and we were not given any choice about accepting it—was to scrub spotlessly clean a seemingly endless supply of dirty pots large enough to cook missionaries in.  But at least we could relax and talk to one another like normal, free human beings. 
            My fellow pot-scrubber, I found out, was from a broken family in Arkansas.  His was a common story in those days.  He had dropped out of high school to join the Marine Corps.  But what really floored me was when he said he would be “out of here” by this time the following week.  We still had at least four weeks to go on “the island.” 
            He was only 16, he explained.  (Legally, you had to be at least 17 to join, and even then you needed a parent’s signature.)   He went on to admit that he had gotten in so much trouble in high school that his mother, at her wit’s end, agreed to lie about his age and to sign the papers so he could enlist.  After four or five weeks at Parris Island, however, he was seeing things from a different point of view.  He was especially happy that he would be out in time to rejoin his high school class. 
            “You know,” I remember his saying, while leaning in almost to the bottom of a huge pot, “I used to think school was the worst thing that ever happened to me.  But, when I get back in that classroom, they’re going to have to beat me out with a stick!”
            I wish I had written down that recruit’s name and had kept track of him.  Here, he was almost a high school dropout, and I would bet that he went on to become a doctor, lawyer, or successful businessman.  At the very least, he was able to write one hell of an essay on the perennial topic of “how I spent my summer vacation.” 
            I too have come a long way since then.  I went on to become a Marine officer and an academic with a Ph.D.  A lot of people along the way helped me get there, but whatever success I’ve had I owe mostly to those guys wearing Smokey the Bear hats back there at Parris Island.  From them, in no uncertain terms, I leaned to accept responsibility, to persist in the face of adversity, and to respect authority.  But, most of all, what they taught me was that self-esteem can’t be bestowed; it has to be earned.  Our public schools don’t seem to be doing a very good job teaching these life lessons anymore.  Maybe it’s time to let the military have a shot at it again.  --EFP

Friday, September 25, 2009

Toward a Rebirth of Glorious Irrelevance

One last rumination on the topic of academic indoctrination.  The photo, above, is of the actual Elsinore Castle, the setting for Shakespeare's Hamlet.  This photo is irrelevant to the topic, for reasons that should become apparent.

I certainly agree with J. David Bell that professors should be up front about their own convictions and do all in their power to welcome divergent points of view. In my own teaching, I’ve done just that on numerous occasions. Still, as a dean, I’ve heard from students who were reluctant to enter into any sort of point-counter-point with professors who seemed so much more articulate and better informed than they were. I’ve heard from other students who did dare to speak up, only to feel embarrassed at having their ideas discounted in front of the class. There are, of course, ways to handle these situations gently and constructively, but there will always be students who are timid or hypersensitive or both.

The fact remains that many of us have confronted students with issues they’re just not ready to tackle. I know I have, and in one respect, that may be a good thing. Education is supposed to take us out of our comfort zones and challenge us to think long and hard about that which we think we know and believe. A certain amount of pain, I suppose, is a necessary concomitant of intellectual growth no less than physical growth. Still, I don’t think it’s wise to try to engage students in the burning issues of the day.

My own college experience is a case in point, or counterpoint. I was an undergrad from 1969 to 1973. These were the last years of the Vietnam War and one of the most contentious periods in recent history. The country at large had turned against the war, and I’m fairly sure all my professors were against it. Yet the war was never discussed in class. On a couple occasions, when a student or students would press a professor, he or she would acknowledge his or her opposition. But that was as far as it went. The class was inevitably steered back to 17th-century literature, medieval history, or whatever the topic was. From time to time, that seemed to reinforce the ivory tower stereotype of the academic profession—as if the professor couldn’t be bothered to pay attention to the events shaking our world. But I have since come to realize that this refusal to engage publicly in the debate reflected a certain wisdom.

First, the academic profession encourages people to take the long view. The things that seem so self-evidently true at one point in time are sometimes revealed to have been delusions, and highly destructive ones at that.

Second, I think academics of the old school really thought that it wasn’t their business to engage with the passing scene. They saw their role as teaching us to read closely and to think critically and ethically, but with texts that had stood the test of time. In other words, they gave us the tools, but they left it up to us to decide how to use them.

Something my dissertation director at Penn, Professor Peter Conn, once had occasion to say to a group of us graduate students comes to mind. “Our role in academe ,” Conn remarked, “is not to solve problems. It is to identify and articulate problems with grace and clarity.” Whether Conn was being wholly or even half ironic, I’m not sure. But I have come to take his words at face value. Too many of my colleagues in higher education today, it seems to me, see their role as inspiring and mobilizing their students to solve some pressing problem or right some wrong.

My own undergraduate days, ironically, coincided with the great call for “relevance.” Students were beginning to demand that their curricula be “relevant”—in terms of preparing them for specific jobs and to engage with the issues of the day. And while my professors resisted the call, the academy in general did cave in to those demands. Some of the changes were necessary and good. But, personally, I think we have oversold higher education in terms of career preparation, earning potential, and social responsibility. It just may be time for a rebirth of glorious irrelevance! --EFP