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.)

Monday, August 31, 2009

Delaware Revisited

A sense of place has always been a prominent theme in American literature.  Just think of Twain’s Mississippi River, Fitzgerald’s Midwest, Faulkner’s or Flannery O’Connor’s South, Steinbeck’s California, or even Updike’s Pennsylvania and Roth’s Newark, New Jersey.   I suppose it’s natural for a writer to keep revisiting, and even to idealize, the place in which he or she grew up.  But what if you’re from Delaware-- “one of those places,” as a New Yorker friend once characterized it, “you have to go through to get there”?  Up until now, this liability has given me—a sometime writer—as good an excuse as any for not trying to tackle the tough work of fiction. 

Whenever I think of the Delaware I grew up in—during the Fifties and Sixties—I tend to slip into the Rodney Dangerfield mold.  Delaware, up until now, got “no respect.”  Think about it.  Assuming you’re not from Delaware, how many people from Delaware have you ever met?  Delaware is small, but it’s not the smallest state.  Rhode Island claims that distinction.  Delaware does have the distinction of being “the first state,” but only through an accident of proximity and geography.  We were the closest colony to the Continental Convention in Philadelphia, and we had only three delegates, making consensus easy.  Besides, being “the first state” has never netted Delaware any tangible benefits.  The state has fewer than a million people and only two senators and one representative in Congress. 

The Delaware I knew as a kid, moreover, always seemed to be a land of prose and not poetry.  “A river” didn’t “run through it.”  It ran alongside of it—at the time, a somewhat polluted Delaware River.  But a canal did run through it.  The Chesapeake and Delaware Canal divided roughly the northern third of the state from the southern two-thirds.  “North of the Canal,” as we used to say, was a land of suburban tract developments, strip shopping centers, factories, and above all, chemical companies.  “South of the Canal” was a flat tableau of farms and small towns—a place you had to drive through to get to Rehoboth Beach or to Ocean City, Maryland. 

 Then there is the problem of Delaware’s nondescript location.  It’s neither North nor South (and it’s not in New England—a common misconception).  It sits in the middle of the eastern seaboard—the mid-Atlantic region of the country.  There is romance aplenty and there are distinct subcultures associated with the South and with New England and even with the Midwest.  But not with the mid-Atlantic.  Those of us “North of the Canal” lived under the hegemony of Philadelphia and tended to use expressions such as “youse guys.”   Those “South of the Canal” looked to Baltimore, and many shared that distinctive “Charm City” accent.  I suppose we were united by a shared fondness for Maryland blue-claw crabs and Philadelphia-style Italian submarine and steak sandwiches.  But I can’t say that there is a distinctive mid-Atlantic or Delaware culture per se. 

The one dubious distinction we did cling to when I was growing up was being the “chemical capital of the world.”  “Better things for better living through chemistry,” the DuPont Company of my youth used to proclaim.  DuPont was, and still is, headquartered in Wilmington.  Atlas and Hercules Chemical—both major concerns in their own right—were also there.   But the working-class Delaware dream in those days was “to get in with DuPont”--one of the great paternalistic companies that used to promise secure lifelong employment and a good retirement. 

For those of us with no prospects of going to college, the next best thing to DuPont seemed to be a soul-deadening-- but highly paid, union protected--life of monotony on the assembly line at either General Motors or Chrysler—both of which had plants in northern Delaware.   But there was always the military too, and that’s the route I chose in order to escape the life of industrial-strength boredom that seemed to be my legacy were I to stay.
Looking back on the fifty-some years since I first left, one thing I’ve learned to appreciate is the ironic truth of a popular song lyric from the Seventies:  “You can travel on 10,000 miles and still stay where you are.”  I have worked my way out to Washington State-- about as far as I could get from Delaware and still be in the contiguous United States.  A year ago, had I challenged people out here to name a famous Delawarean, I’ll bet they couldn’t have done it.  But, now, a Delawarean, Senator Joe Biden, has become the Vice President of the United States.   It’s time to embrace the truth of a self-deprecating joke I’ve often made with friends and acquaintances from other places:  I’m just a simple working-class lad from New Castle, Delaware.   It worked for Joe Biden, and its working for me. 
 I think I’ll start that long-put-off Vietnam novel, and the protagonist will be from Delaware.  Maybe my wife and I will even move back there someday.
--Edward F. Palm  (Below, the Washington Street Bridge over the Brandywine River, Wilmington, 1971)

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Old Soldiers and the AVF

[Above, please find a "Palm-Print" of Larry Scroggs, one of the very young men I served with in Vietnam.  Am I the only one noticing how many older soldiers--men in their 40s and 50s--have made the casualty lists from Iraq and Afghanistan? Back in the 1980s I had occasion to join other Vietnam veterans in public panel discussions of that original "wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time." When my turn came to speak, I would try to lighten the mood by suggesting that my fellow middle-aged panelists had to be frauds because all the guys I served with in Vietnam were very young.
In any event, below, I try to explain why I find I find it especially troubling that today's young veterans will never be able to make such a joke. Instead, they're probably already making jokes about how things must be getting dull out at the home.--EFP]

Gen. MacArthur got it wrong. “Old soldiers” don’t “just fade away.” They do indeed die.

On May 10, Army Maj. Steven Hutchison, age 60, was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq. He holds the dubious distinction of being the oldest service member to die in that conflict, although others have come close. The casualty lists have too often included soldiers in their late forties and in their fifties.

Not to be outdone, the war in Afghanistan, on August 18, claimed 59-year-old First Sgt. Jose San Nicolas Crisostomo. He too fell victim to a roadside bomb, earning the dubious distinction of being the oldest soldier to die in that conflict.

Cynical students of history might see a certain poetic justice in this turn of events. From time immemorial, old men have been fomenting wars that young men have had to fight. But Hutchison and Crisostomo had no part in starting either war. Rather, they were among the few people willing to step forward these days to shoulder the burden of national defense (or national offense, as the case may be). And our willingness to let them—and too many like them—serve in combat speaks volumes about the inadequacy of our All-Volunteer Force. It also speaks to the hypocrisy of a citizenry that publicly venerates the military but is largely indifferent to the manner in which we are overextending and exhausting our troops.

A bit of bad Churchill comes to mind: never have so many asked so much of so few. Personally, as a Vietnam veteran, I am in awe of the current generation of troops. The tour of duty in Vietnam was 12 months for soldiers and 13 months for Marines, and rarely was anyone forced to go twice in the course of a four-year enlistment. Today’s troops--regulars, reservists, and National Guard members alike--have endured repeated combat deployments, sometimes with only a year or less at home before having to deploy again. And their tour of duty is now 15 months. No wonder old soldiers are welcome.

War has traditionally been, and should continue to be, largely the business of the young. This is not to suggest that either Crisostomo or Hutchison failed to measure up. Both were Vietnam veterans, and by all accounts, their maturity and experience were welcome. I submit, however, that they had already done their duty and that it was someone else’s turn to go to war.

It is time for politicians and the public alike to face the bitter truth. If stabilizing the situation in Iraq and winning in Afghanistan are truly national imperatives, we will need more troops—a lot more troops. And that will require reinstating the draft.

I see at least three spin-off benefits from doing so.

First, it would benefit the economy by providing a holding pattern (and even some useful training) for large numbers of young people who would otherwise remain unemployed or under-employed.

Second, it would enable us to field the sort of large decentralized military we once had and which could respond to a natural disaster or a devastating attack—as well as bolstering the local economy wherever bases are established or reopened.

Third, and most important, our national leadership would have to think long and hard before deploying a citizen-soldiery instead of a small professional force.

For my own part, I much prefer the mordant irony associated with my war over MacArthur’s sentimental idealism. I call on Country Joe McDonald, of Woodstock fame, to revise and update his “Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag.” This time, however, Country Joe should mean it in calling on young people to “put down [their] books [or their video game controllers] and pick up a gun.” He will also have to revise his final stanza, this time shaming us all with the call to “be the first one on your block to have [grandpa] come home in a box.”

--Edward F. Palm