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.)

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

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

EFP's "Slovak Gothic"

Actually, we were a close family, as evidenced by this shot of my Aunt Rose and her grandson Bobbie striking an unusual pose for the camera.  I call it my "Slovak Gothic."

A Postscript--Mother's Cloudy Crystal Ball

Mother was actually quite progressive.  (Just kidding.  This young entrepreneur was charging to pose for pictures at the Pike Place Market in Seattle.  I gave her $1.00.)

Apropos to today's discussion of health care reform, I can't resist sharing a bit of advice my mother once gave me.  It was the early sixties, at the latest, when my mother, who was paying bills at the time, looked up and told me that I should never be without health insurance.  Mother had "Blue Cross/Blue Shield."  She went on to tell me that "it's cheap enough and you could lose everything if you have to go into the hospital and have no health insurance."
     I should add that Mother, at the time, was a divorced single parent working as a bookkeeper for a small electronics supply firm in Wilmington, Delaware.  That firm did not subsidize her Blue Cross/Blue Shield, and she never made very much money, yet she could afford the premium to cover both of us.  How did we get from there to here?  --EFP

A Frank Exchange of Views on Health Care Reform

I couldn’t resist baiting a conservative friend earlier today. He had sent me a derogatory cartoon caricature of Obama, and I accused him in return of being a “rightwing nut job.” I trust he knows I was just kidding about that, but I also have to give him credit for sending me a better and more thoughtful response than I deserved:

I don't think anyone believes that health care/insurance in this country doesn't need some attention. Certainly this right-wing nut job believes it does. My disagreement is with government doing it. The lefties I know absolutely reject things like tort reform, allowing insurance sales across state lines, eliminating insurance policy mandates (sex change operations, health club memberships, etc.) that increase costs, medicare/medicaid bargaining with big pharma for drug prices as foreign countries do, allowing private citizens and small business the same tax relief on insurance policies that big corporations get (pay with pre-tax dollars, not after tax dollars), and so on.
     Some of the above would require regulation, I understand that, but all would save money (the single biggest problem with health care) and none would involve a new and very expensive entitlement program.
     The biggest point of disagreement I see is between those who insist on a government program (public option) and those who want to keep health care in the private sector. I come down on the side of "private sector."
     When, I ask you, has government ever done anything efficiently?
     I could argue this for along time, but will not aggravate you with further discussion unless you wish to continue it. Blast your ideas? Not with malice in my heart, you can be sure.
Warmest regards,

      I think my friend makes some good points here. I’m one of the “lefties” who supports tort reform and eliminating unnecessary and absurd insurance policy mandates. But, at the same time, I do have a few quibbles here.
     First, like many conservatives, my friend seems to have taken it on faith that the controversial insurance mandates he mentions are widespread and indeed largely responsible for making health insurance unaffordable. I have to hand it to conservatives. They certainly seem to have gotten “on message” in blaming liberal government mandates for our economic woes.
      Other conservative friends of ours, for instance, fervently believe that the main reason for the mortgage meltdown was a government mandate requiring lenders to give mortgages to insolvent and irresponsible minorities. To the contrary, I have to believe that young Americans of all races, colors, and creeds felt entitled to houses they really couldn’t afford and were willing to gamble on ever-increasing housing values. And there was no shortage of unscrupulous private-sector lenders eager to capitalize on this housing bubble before it burst. Similarly, I have a hard time believing that the poor insurance companies have been victimized by liberal government mandates.
     Second, while I do believe that malpractice suits have driven up our health insurance costs, private-sector lawyers are largely responsible for that, not the government. And I dare say that if a surgeon mistakenly amputates your good leg instead of the gangrenous one, you will see the tort reform issue from a different point of view.
     Third, behind every argument against Obama’s public option, I can hear echoes of Reagan’s famous maxim: “Government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.” That maxim is more rhetorical than meaningful. Granted, the military I served in was rife with waste and malfeasance. But only the most rabid of conservative ideologues would ever consider entrusting our national defense entirely to private security firms like Black Water. (At least, I hope that’s the case.) The answer is not to give up on government; it is to insist on better oversight and accountability of government functions and officials. There are some functions that only government can muster the resources to accomplish, and providing health care for all its citizens is one of them.
     Finally, if we did give completely free reign to the insurance marketplace, would competition really bring health care costs down? Private companies exist, first and foremost, to make a profit. Meeting our needs comes second—if at all. Capitalism is Darwinian by nature, and only government can temper that impulse. --EFP

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Dr. Palm Prescribes a Good Book

 (South Vietnamese Popular Force soldier, 1967.  Ed Palm Photo)

Another summer has come and gone, and I was just remembering the reading George Bush claimed to have done over the summer a couple years ago. If were appointed Professor General of the United States, and given the authority to make mandatory reading assignments, I would have all our policy makers and high-ranking military officers read the novel from which I’ve lifted the following excerpt:

“They were only war casualties,” he said. “It was a pity, but you can’t always hit your target.       Anyway they died in the right cause. . . . In a way you could say they died for democracy,” he said.

     These are the cavalier sentiments of Alden Pyle, the title character of The Quiet American (1955), Graham Greene’s classic tale of America’s clandestine involvement in the Vietnam of the early 1950s. The novel is set during the waning days of France’s struggle to hold on to their Indochina empire against the Communist Vietminh, and Pyle is an earnest young CIA agent intent on cultivating a “Third Force”—a nationalist, democratic movement that would be both anti-Communist and anti-colonial. The “war casualties” Pyle dismisses in the passage quoted above were, in essence, the fruits of his labors. The renegade Vietnamese general he had cultivated and supplied with plastic explosives had set off a bomb in a crowded marketplace.
     What sets this novel apart from run-of-the-mill spy and adventure stories, however, is the way in which everything Pyle says and does is filtered through a wonderfully engaging first-person narrator who prides himself on being anything but engaged. A cynical middle-aged British journalist whose name, significantly, is Thomas Fowler, this narrator is as worldly-wise and disaffected as Pyle is naïve and committed. Fowler holds himself aloof from the war and the carnage he is paid to witness. He does not take sides. Rather, he stands on the traditional journalistic canons of fairness and objectivity:

The human condition being what it was, let them  fight, let them love, let them murder, I would not be involved. My fellow journalists called themselves correspondents; I preferred the title of reporter.  I wrote what I saw. I took no action—even an opinion is a kind of action.

     The Quiet American is very much an exposition on the difficulty of maintaining such a posture of detachment in the face of individual human suffering. As a French Air Force captain has occasion to tell Fowler, human commitment is not always a “matter of reason or justice”: “We all get involved in a moment of emotion and then we cannot get out.” The point is later reiterated by a Vietminh agent who maintains that “sooner or later . . . one has to take sides. If one is to remain human.”
      Circumstances and events eventually bring Fowler to that “moment of emotion” and to a momentous decision to try to put a stop to Pyle’s—and, by implication, America’s—involvement in Vietnam’s affairs. But it is a decision tainted by self-interest. Pyle and Fowler, who begin as casual friends, fall out not only over ideology but also over Fowler’s Vietnamese mistress. The outcome is, at first, emotionally satisfying, but it also challenges the reader to stop and think about what has really been gained and by whom.
     The Quiet American, in sum, is a wonderful historical romance, in the literal as well as the literary sense. The historical backdrop is real. Greene lived and worked as a reporter in Vietnam in the early fifties, and he saw how America was playing both ends against the middle. Officially, we were encouraging France to stay the course in what we then viewed as the struggle against an international Communist conspiracy. But, behind the scenes, a real-life Alden Pyle by the name of Edward Lansdale was indeed trying to raise that “Third Force” of Vietnamese nationalists who could eventually force out the French. And we wonder why the French don’t like us very much.
      But Greene’s novel is finally much more than a thinly veiled and dated polemic about America’s meddling and misdeeds in Vietnam. Its major themes are universal, and the mindset that first took us into Vietnam, and kept us there far too long, is endemic to the American character. The conviction that America has a manifest destiny and a mandate to reshape the world in its image continues to haunt the popular mind and to influence our policy makers. Greene could see how we were destined to make fools of ourselves by acting on this conviction. Would that more Americans had read The Quiet American and that we had heeded Greene’s warning. --EFP

Monday, September 21, 2009

Today at the Puyallup Fair

In the words of the poet, "Strange fits of passion have I known."   Actually, this lady was attempting to pin up the ribbon her goat had won, and he was intent on eating it. I took this today at the Puyallup Fair (pronounced pew-yowl-lup).  Please click on the photo for a proper view.  --EFP

Indoctrination Revisited, by Way of Supporting the Troops

Yesterday, my friend Josh Bellin posted a great essay to his blog about why he doesn’t “support” the troops.  (http://bellsyells.blogspot.com/His essay was inspired by a troubling encounter with the principal of his daughter’s elementary school.  Josh’s daughter’s class had been required to write “letters of support to the troops in Iraq.”  Josh objected—and quite rightly in my view—to requiring children to take a moral position they are not “qualified to take.”  Josh’s position reminded me of one of my favorite essays, William G. Perry’s “Examsmanship and the Liberal Arts.”  Perry reminds us that “too early a moral judgment is precisely what stands between many an able student and a liberal education.”
     The best way to “support the troops,” in my view, is to demand a clear and cogent explanation for why putting them in harm’s way is absolutely necessary.  I think Josh would agree. 
     But Josh also got me thinking of how conservatives take it as a given that liberal professors indoctrinate their students.  Having been one of those bête noires, a liberal professor, myself, I don’t think we indoctrinate.  But, in a subsequent reply to my comment on his piece, Josh supplied le mot juste.  We may not indoctrinate, but we certainly “proselytize.”  And it happens in high school and in college. 
     The teenage daughter of a young friend, for instance, used to come to us full of received opinions and instant outrage about the dangers of global warming, worker exploitation by Walmart, and the unwholesome nature of McDonald's food.  In the words of the poet, “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”  She clearly wasn’t ready to engage in the complexity of these issues.  But the well-meaning high school teachers who attempted to raise her consciousness were just taking their cues from those of us in higher education.  How many freshman composition courses these days are built around sustainability and other green issues?  Personally, I agree with all those positions. But as a former professor and dean, I know how easily students are intimidated by a teacher or professor who seems really well-versed in a topic, and I question whether classes built around such topics really give a fair hearing to divergent points of view. 
      I say this having long ago taught a course of my own design called "Vietnam in Fact, Fiction, and Film." The course was very much one-sided. Having studied the history of our involvement, I knew all about the cultural and historical misapprehensions, as well as the cynical Realpolitik, responsible for that original "wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time." And I fervently believe that the revisionists who have come along since, trying to justify that war as in our strategic best interests or even as a “noble cause,” are wrong. But the fact remains that, having only so much time, I did not give much time and attention to other points of view. And some students were probably afraid to challenge me. I may not have been indoctrinating, but I was proselytizing. 
     I'll add something that may at least serve to prime the controversy pump. Counting my Naval Academy time, I was a full-time academic for 16 years, and if there is one thing I have learned about the academic profession, it is this: Academics are no more open-minded than anyone else. They're just better at articulating and defending their prejudices." Hence, I side with Stanley Fish, who once admonished us all to "save the world on your own time." --EFP

Sunday, September 20, 2009

A Reminder I Didn't Need!

Yesterday, my wife and I were talking about my Collins Park story (below), and she reminded me that I was looking back at something I witnessed 50 years ago.  Don't you just hate people who are good at math?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Sound of Toppling Dominoes

"If Indo-China goes . . . "
"I know the record.  Siam goes.  Malaysia goes.  Indonesia goes. What does 'go' mean?"
                   --Graham Greene, The Quiet American (1955)

I don't normally watch C-Span.  It's a little too much like watching paint dry. While channel surfing this morning, however, I caught a few minutes of C-Span's coverage of Thursday's meeting of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  Senator Dick Lugar was restating (but not necessarily endorsing) the main argument we're hearing these days for our military commitment to Afghanistan:  We have to stabilize Afghanistan to ensure that Pakistan remains stable.  Lugar went on to claim that Pakistan now seems fairly stable, suggesting that Pakistan would be OK regardless of what happens in Afghanistan.
     Anyone hear the sound of toppling dominoes?  All this is sounding depressingly familiar to those of us who were drilled in the domino theory that took us in to Vietnam.   
     A further historical irony here is how our bombings and our incursion into Cambodia did actually destabilize that country, setting the stage for the Khmer Rouge takeover.  I have to wonder if the current plan to escalate the conflict in Afghanistan may not just make the situation worse.  We could be creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.  By trying to keep Pakistan's government from falling, we could be creating the climate for that fall.  --EFP 

Friday, September 18, 2009

Collins Park Revisited

The recent hullabaloo over whether Obama’s critics are racists reminded of a true story I almost sold to NPR about a year ago.  The commentary editor for “All Things Considered” was really high on it.  I know that she argued for it.  But, in the end, someone she answers to turned thumbs down.  I was never told why.  I suspect it was deemed too controversial.  I still think it needs to be told—as a reminder of how far we’ve come or, perhaps, how far we have yet to go.  I also owe it to the main character of the story, the bravest person I have ever known.  I am using her real name.  I don’t think she would mind, and I know she deserves the recognition. 
The classic American novelist Thomas Wolfe is widely remembered, among other things, for proclaiming that “you can’t go home again.“  Wolfe was right.  The working-class New Castle neighborhood of Collins Park is still there, but the Collins Park in which I grew up in the late fifties and early sixties no longer exists.  And that’s a very good thing. 
Most people living in Delaware today have either forgotten or never heard of what happened in Collins Park in 1959. But I know I’ll never forget it. The late fifties were the days of “block-busting,” as it was then called--the first attempts on the part of black families to move in to all-white neighborhoods.  My family moved to Collins Park in 1958, just a year after the first black family had tried to move in.  They didn’t last long.  They were driven out by shotgun blasts through their front windows. 
            I wish I could say that that event played no role in the decision of my working-class family to move there, but I would be lying.  We had been part of the “white flight” from our previous neighborhood, Rose Hill Gardens, when “colored families,” as we called them then, began to move in.  As the old saying goes, my mother and stepfather could run, but they couldn’t hide from the way the country was changing.  We had only been in Collins Park for about a year when another black family--the family of George and Lucille Rayfield--had the temerity to move into a house on Collins Park’s Bellanca Lane.  That was on February 24th, 1959.
            Collins Park, it should be noted, had had a proud beginning.  Located just north of New Castle and overlooking the Delaware River, it was the first of the post-war tract developments to be established in northern Delaware.  And it was pricey by the standards of the late forties.  The original buyers had been mostly upper-middle-class and even professional people.  By the late fifties, however, most of the original families had moved on to more fashionable suburbs north and west of Wilmington. The Collins Park we moved to in 1958 was largely working-class and was fast becoming a redneck haven. I would like to believe that this element was largely responsible for how the neighborhood erupted when the Rayfields moved in, but otherwise “nice” people turned ugly as well. 
            There were frequent demonstrations, some organized and others spontaneous.  Insults and rocks were hurled.  A state trooper was seriously injured in a melee that erupted one day.  On March 22, someone threw a Molotov cocktail at the house.  It did little damage but greatly heightened the tension.  The entire street was cordoned off for a time, with the police allowing only residents to enter.  I was strictly forbidden to go anywhere near Bellanca Lane, even though a good friend and classmate lived there.
            But the most painful part for me personally was that my own mother emerged as one of the leading segregationists. She picketed. She went to and organized meetings.  She even led a delegation to the house of the “block-busting” realtor who had brought the Rayfields to Collins Park.  After all these years, I can still see my mother on a local television news report--red-faced and shaking her finger at the reporter’s nose. She was unabashedly declaring that “the colored don’t take care of their property; they turn everywhere they live into a slum!”
            Not to defend my mother, but this was how the working-class people I knew thought back then.  Segregation had kept us from learning that black people were as various in their attitudes and values as we were.  There was, however, one exception, the mother of that friend who also happened to live on Bellanca Lane, Mrs. Verda Zdeb. 
            Looking back on it now, I can see that the Zdebs always did have the courage to be different.  The late fifties, even for the working class, were a time of affluence and conspicuous consumption.  But Verda and her family didn’t seem to care about keeping up with the Joneses.   A World War II veteran and a college graduate, Verda’s husband John contented himself with a low-level accounting job at DuPont.  He drove a stripped down, economy model Chevy with a standard transmission—a rarity in that age of status symbols and affordable convenience. If, as Emerson at the dawn of the modern age complained, “Things are in the saddle and ride mankind,” it didn’t apply to the Zdebs.  They were church people, devout Catholics who lived simply and frugally.
For that reason, everyone, it seemed, looked down on them—especially my mother. Mother, sadly, always seemed to equate happiness with owning things, and I suppose that deriding people like the Zdebs was a mark of her own insecurity, a quest for confirmation that she indeed had climbed higher in the social pecking order. 
            My mother, therefore, dismissed it as contemptible when Verda, one day in the middle of the mayhem, walked past her jeering neighbors, knocked on the Rayfields’ door; and, within earshot of the crowd, welcomed the Rayfields to the neighborhood. She, of course, was labeled a “n….. lover.”  She was told as much in a series of anonymous late-night phone calls and unsigned letters. Some of these correspondents strongly suggested that the Zdebs too should move out.    
            The story does not have a happy ending.  On April 7th, someone dynamited the house.  Fortunately, the Rayfields were not at home.  But the house was damaged beyond repair and had to be torn down. 
            My mother died of lung cancer in 1978. She was 56.  I don’t know if she came to regret the role she played in the events of the spring of 1959.  We never talked about it.  Mrs. Zdeb, however, puts the lie to the old saw about only the good dying young.  She is alive and well and will soon be 95.  She still swims every day and has even won some medals in the Senior Olympics. 
            Collins Park today is a peacefully integrated community of people who, contrary to my mother’s fears, seem to be taking good care of the neighborhood.  (I understand that black families began to move in during the early eighties--without fanfare or special notice.)  Where the Rayfields once dared to live there is now a little park.  The neighbors on both sides bought the property.  They put in a bench and planted some flowers. Still, passersby must wonder why on a street of evenly spaced two-story houses there is such a singular space between two of them.
Despite how so many of my friends and neighbors behaved during that spring of 1959, I’d like to believe that most of them, including my mother, were not really bad people. I’ll leave that to others to judge.  But this much I know: I knew only one good person living in Collins Park at the time--the bravest person I’ve ever known, Mrs. Verda Zdeb.
--EFP  (The first photo is Mrs. Verda Zdeb.  The second is of Mrs. Zdeb and her son Fred.   I took both in December, 2005.)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

A Marine at Berkeley

I finally got around to assembling an album of some of my Kodak moments at Berkeley.  I was the Marine Officer Instructor with Berkeley's Naval ROTC unit from '84 to '87.  Ah those thrilling days of yesteryear!  Actually, it was the best assignment of my Marine Corps career, officer and enlisted.
      This, of course, was the pre-digital era.  I was a photographic purist in those days, preferring black and white to color.  I had a Nikon F2 and mostly used Tri-X developed in HC-110.
      Please see my Picassa Web album "Berkeley 1984-1987" at http://picasaweb.google.com/palmprints65
A few samples appear below. --EFP

President Carter, President Obama, and Racism

I have never been much of a Jimmy Carter fan.  I do think he is a genuinely good man--too good, probably, to have been an effective president.  In my estimation, Carter did the nation irreparable harm in not taking decisive, forceful action in 1979 when Iranian students stormed our embassy and took the staff hostage.  I don't mean to seem callous, but more than the lives of the hostages was at stake.  Storming our embassy was an act of war and should have been dealt with accordingly.  By being wishy-washy Carter also helped provoke the right wing reaction that swept Reagan into office.  And I do part company with those who consider Reagan to have been good for the country.  

But when Carter is right he's right!  I agree that much of the animosity we've seen displayed toward Obama is racially motivated.  This is not to say that  there are no legitimate arguments to be made against Obama's health care reform proposal or his economic stimulus measure.  Nor is it to suggest that all of Obama's critics are racists.  Contrary to what Michael Savage and others are alleging, liberals are not simply playing the race card in order to stifle debate.  Rather, Carter is simply acknowledging what a lot of us have felt:  There has been an undercurrent of racism in much of the belligerence and hysteria we've seen displayed recently in town hall meetings and other venues.

It is plainly evident that Obama's most rabid critics will not accept Obama as our rightful president.  Openly, they charge that the election was rigged and/or Obama is ineligible by birth. But what really bothers them is Obama's race.

The whole scene reminds me of the intransigent racism endemic to the working class of my youth.  Apparently, it will take more than a single generation to achieve a color-blind, post-racial society.

Stay tuned:  In the next day or two, I intend to share the story of what happened in the spring of 1959 when the first black family tried to move in to my neighborhood.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Afghanistan: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

According to an AP story in today’s paper, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen told Congress on Tuesday that victory in Afghanistan will require more troops.  I don’t doubt that is true.  We have only 65,000 troops there now.  Over half a million U.S. troops couldn’t control Vietnam, and according to my trusty atlas, Afghanistan is twice as large as Vietnam (251,825 square miles compared to 127,258).  The question is, where are these extra troops supposed to come from? 

 It’s no secret, of course, that America’s All-Volunteer Force has been stretched to the breaking point.  Almost from the beginning of the so-called Global War on Terror, the troops have endured involuntary extensions—of their enlistments as well as their tours of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan.  In 2007, when Bush embarked upon the “surge” in Iraq, some soldiers and Marines were facing their third or even their fourth tour of duty in one of the combat zones.  The operational tempo had been stepped up to less than a one-to-one ratio, meaning that the troops were not even guaranteed as much time back in the States as they spend on deployment before they have to deploy again.
The irony is that, for all the lip service about supporting our “heroes” in uniform, the troops got precious little real consideration from the people who got them into this mess.  The way in which former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once dismissed criticism of his decision to extend the Alaskan Stryker Brigade’s tour in Iraq, for instance, seems fairly typical of his administration’s attitude:  “These people are all volunteers. . . They all are there doing what they’re doing because they want to do it.”  

The fact of the matter is that America never has had, or ever will have, professional soldiers in the devil-may-care mold of the fabled French Foreign Legionnaires of old.  The great majority of our soldiers aren’t just looking for a good war.  The typical volunteer today is carrying family ties and a set of decidedly mixed motives in his or her Alice Pack.  I hope President Obama keeps this in mind. 

If our Vietnam debacle taught us nothing else, it should have taught us that Americans support wars that are short, decisive, and clearly tied to our national interest.  (Pardon me, but I forget which military historian first made and documented this observation.)  I hope Obama keeps this in mind as well. 

We used to refer to Vietnam as a quagmire.  The metaphor was appropriate, Vietnam being a wet, tropical country.  What metaphor should we employ now—“quick sand”?  Part of Afghanistan is desert.  But, judging from the television coverage, the toughest fighting has taken place in rocky, mountainous terrain.  It’s a cliché, I realize, but we seem to be stuck between a “rock and a hard place.”  We don’t have the troops or the public support to prevail. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Thinking About My Generation

Author’s Preface:  I wrote this a couple years ago, when neo-conservatives and media pundits alike seemed eager to marginalize my generation and its contributions.  I never managed to place it then, but I think it’s still relevant today.  An America that wages preemptive wars, keeps political prisoners, that tortures people (and waterboarding is torture), and in which we demonize disagreement is not the America I grew up in. We seem to have lost our core values and our equilibrium on 9/11—especially our traditional commitment to civility and our respect for divergent opinion.  And that holds true in the political and academic spheres. (I took this photo at UC Berkeley in 1985.)

Some comedian from my generation--the fabled post-World-War-II-baby-boom generation—once observed that “it would be terribly embarrassing to have a coronary while wearing blue jeans.”  His point, of course, was that we baby boomers were refusing to grow old gracefully.  And his point was well-taken.  We invented the youth culture.  But, like it or not, our charter members are now over 60, and media pundits have challenged us to point to something else we’ve done for America. 
            If the World War I generation was the “lost generation” and the World War II generation was the “greatest generation,” what were those of us who came of age during the Vietnam War?  I’ve got it:  We’re the Peter Pan generation.  We refused to grow up—that is, if you count an inability to reconcile the world the way it is with the world we were led to expect as a mark of adolescence.
            But we can explain.
            Raised in relative prosperity and nurtured by the great American myths that had seemingly been validated by the outcome of World War II, we “held these truths to be self-evident”:   “Truth, justice, and the American way” is a redundant phrase, and America had always been, and always would be, on the side of right.  
            Of course, the civil rights movement, coming as it did on the eve of our Vietnam involvement, marked the beginning of my generation’s painful trek from innocence to experience.  But the journey’s end proved to be Vietnam, where our American dream turned into a nightmare.
            We found that the people we had been sent to save were not much impressed with us and really weren’t interested in being saved on our terms.  We discovered that the search-and-destroy strategy we were employing was horribly disproportionate to the end we sought.  (We were willing to destroy Vietnam in order to save it, but the acronym for “winning hearts and minds,” fittingly, is “WHAM”!)   Worse yet, we learned that our government had been misrepresenting the war and had even lied to us about how and why we got into it in the first place.
            As a result of all this, we developed bad attitudes.  We complained, we protested, we whined, we resisted, and we overreacted.  At times, we made things worse than they had to be.  There was no excuse for the My Lai massacre, for instance, and the Kent State tragedy didn’t have to happen.  But at least we took a stand.  We dramatized what was wrong with our war, and we helped end it.  That was no small accomplishment.
            What the people who sent us to Vietnam forgot is that we were raised to believe that questioning authority was not just a right; it was an obligation. If that was a bad attitude, then maybe we could use some more bad attitudes today.
            By the by, I’m now over 60, and I would be proud to have my first coronary in my blue jeans.  It had to be said.

The Pike Place Market

I keep trying to get a perfect shot of a fish monger throwing a fish at the “World Famous Pike Place Fish Market.”  It occurs to me that shooting from the other side, looking in rather than out, would work better.  It would isolate the fish against a less distracting, dark background.  I also need to use just a little faster shutter speed.  I worry that a viewer unfamiliar with the market and its fish-throwing practice wouldn't immediately recognize the object as a fish.  I’ll go back and try again—maybe next week.  (Click on the photos for a better view.)
      One of the grocers is clearly a man after my own heart.  I have never been able to eat Brussels sprouts.  They literally make me gag.  --EFP

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Health Care Reform: No Need for a Public Option?

Andrea and I found this solicitation today at the annual Wooden Boat Festival in Port Townsend, Washington.  (Click on the photo for a better view.)  A local shopkeeper gave us the back story:   This young cancer sufferer was a classmate of the shopkeeper's son.  She couldn't afford health insurance, and now she is battling brain cancer.  
         This young woman's plight reminded me of something Obama's critics are loathe to acknowledge:  How many young people today manage to land jobs that provide or even subsidize health insurance?  I know that our son, age 32, would be up the proverbial creek if his employer didn't provide it.  I also know that entry-level jobs with benefits are even harder to come by today than when our son got out of college ten years ago.  
          Sometimes, when I'm driving, I find myself listening to the conservative pundit Michael Medved.  I recently heard him challenge the administration's number of the uninsured.  Sorry, I don't recall Medved's exact numbers.  But Medved claimed that a large percentage of the uninsured are old enough for Medicare but are choosing not to pay the modest premiums that program requires.  Fair enough, I suppose.  But he also went on to subtract a large number of the people in the 18- to 30-year-old range--most of whom are in good health and many of whom, according to Medved, choose to spend their money in other ways.  True, the majority of these young uninsured people probably win this actuarial gamble.  But many don't, and I think we have a moral obligation to help them get the care they need.  
          Medved always starts his show by proclaiming that this is "the greatest country on God's Green earth."    If that's true, no American should have to beg for the money to pay for health care on the streets.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Annals of the Rod and God Club: The Rosary Society

I confess it:  I was never a good Catholic.  When I was growing up, my idea of the mystery of the Trinity was how South Philadelphia could ever have produced the likes of Frankie Avalon, Fabian, and Bobby Rydell.  But the fact of the matter is you just can’t beat the comic relief of a Catholic school education.
     The all-male Catholic high school I went to, the Salesianum School for Boys, was widely known and respected throughout northern Delaware for three things:  a no-holds barred approach to discipline, a winning football team, and its Saturday night dances.  Public- and private-school kids of all creeds used to flock to those dances.  (I would say of all races and colors too, except that I would be lying.  Delaware was still largely segregated in those days.)  “Sallies” dances were especially popular among the girls of Ursuline and Padua Academies, the principal all-girls Catholic schools in the area.  Like us, after a long week of being harangued about the dangers of entertaining impure thoughts, they were eager to engage in some coeducational imitations of immorality.
     I say “imitations” because Billy Joel’s lyric is only half right:  It wasn’t just the Catholic girls who started “much too late” in those days.  It was still an age of “nice girls” and “tramps” (and for all the hype, the tramps seemed to be in short supply).  This was before the pill was widely available, abortions were illegal, and the social stigma of unwed pregnancy helped to keep us in check.  Girls didn’t just give it away.  You had to lay siege to it.  But that made it all the more special when the walls finally came tumbling down.  Frankly, I don’t know whether to envy or feel sorry for today’s kids, so many of whom are already jaded by the age of 16. 
     Sadly, a good friend and classmate of mine, whom I’ll call “Ralph Dumbrowski,” was barred from the dances.  His was the good fortune or misfortune—depending on your point of view—of having devoutly Catholic parents intent on keeping Ralph from the “occasions of sin.”  As I understood it, they had already had one child go wrong, Ralph’s older sister—a “sadder but wiser girl” who had gotten pregnant out of wedlock.  Ralph’s parents were bound and determined that Ralph would not bring further disgrace to the family.  Hence, he was forbidden to attend the dances.
     Compared to the rest of our gang, Ralph had been sheltered, and he could seem painfully naïve and irredeemably square.  I remember that, when we first met, Ralph was seriously trying to be a good Catholic.  One of his heroes was St. Ignatius.  I suppose I bear much of the responsibility for corrupting or liberating him—again depending on your point of view.   
     Ralph’s most notable characteristics were a nearly constant smile and an irrepressibly cheerful tone of voice.  Nothing seemed to get him down.  He was also tall and a bit gangly in those days.   Among guys at least, all this made for an unfortunate first impression.  In talking to and interacting with Ralph, you couldn’t help but think of probably the most popular cartoon character in those days, Bullwinkle J. Moose, of “Rocky and His Friends.”  Underneath that seemingly slow and unassuming exterior, however, lay an unusually imaginative and resourceful mind perceptive enough to exploit his parents’ one blind spot—their devotion to the Church.
     A word about Ralph’s parents may be in order:  Ralph’s father was an imposing figure.  A former seminarian, he had enlisted in the Marine Corps at the outbreak of World War II and saw combat in the Pacific.  Ralph maintained that his father had risen to the rank of sergeant major before the end of the war.  I could believe it.  There was an intensity about him. He never said a cross word to or in front of me, but I could tell that he was clearly not a man to be trifled with.  His one interest in life seemed to be the life of his parish.  Church suppers, bazaars, bingo, whatever—he was always there, helping. 
     Ralph’s mother always impressed me as kind and gentle and much more affable than her husband.  But she too was committed to the church.  This was an age when other Catholics were beginning to question Papal authority and to think for themselves.  But not Ralph’s parents.  They were not ones to half-step; they really tried to live their faith.      
     As for Ralph—not so much, at least not once he fell in with bad company.
     The truth of the matter is that I always underestimated Ralph.   Bound and determined to court and enjoy the occasions of sin, Ralph told his parents that he had joined the Rosary Society, a club whose mission it was to repair old Rosaries to send to the missions.  (The missions can’t ever get enough Rosaries, I suppose.)  Ralph further told his parents that the Rosary Society was meant to be a devotional alternative to the dances and that it met at the same time—from 8:00 to 11:00 p.m. on Saturday nights.  While the dances were being held in the gym, this mythical Rosary Society allegedly met in a classroom at the other end of the school building. 
     Ralph’s parents were so pleased with this turn of events that they wouldn’t hear of letting Ralph take the bus to Rosary Society meetings.  His father insisted on driving him.   He would drop Ralph off at the rectory end of the building at 8:00 and pick him up there promptly at 11:00.  Ralph, of course, would wait until his father had driven safely off and then walk through the school to the gym. 
     One of the circumstances that worked greatly to Ralph’s advantage was that we were supposedly emulating St. Francis de Sales, the “gentleman saint.”  We were all expected to be “Sallies gentlemen,” externally as well as internally.  We were required to wear coats and ties, not just for school but for all school events and activities, football games and dances included.  Hence, Ralph was turned out for dancing as well as for repairing Rosaries on school grounds.     
      It also helped that Ralph was tall (6’3” or 6’4”) and slim with blond hair and blue eyes.  He was Sallies’ answer to Troy Donahue, yet he was unassuming and supremely unselfconscious.  To say he was well-received at the dances would be an understatement.
     One of the great themes of Elizabethan tragedy is that evil inevitably overreaches.  Ralph got away with his subterfuge for fully three months.  But even Shakespeare’s Iago couldn’t think of everything.  The one thing Ralph didn’t count on, and couldn’t control, was his increasing popularity. 
     In Ralph’s defense, I should remind readers that these were still the days in which nice girls didn’t call boys.   They were supposed to wait for boys to call them (although it was permissible for a girl to get a friend to let a boy know that she was interested and would welcome a call).   Apparently so smitten that she threw over the rules, one of Ralph’s dance partners just had to know if Ralph would be at the dance on Saturday, so she called him—at home.  (Teenagers having their own cell phones would have been inconceivable to us in that time and place.)  The problem was that Ralph wasn’t home at the time, and his father answered. 
     The actual pleasantries that passed between this young lady and Mr. Dumbrowski are lost to posterity.  But as Ralph would later learn, much to his chagrin, this girl asked if Ralph would be at the dance that Saturday night. 
     Mr. Dumbrowski worked as an accountant for DuPont, but he must have had the mind of a lawyer.  He knew that direct evidence was superior to circumstantial.  He said nothing to Ralph about the call.  He told only his wife, who initially refused to believe that her good Catholic son would dissemble about a matter of faith and morals.  She agreed to set a trap that would either clear or convict Ralph.
     Come Saturday night, Ralph thought nothing of it when his mother decided to ride along with his father in taking him to his Rosary Society meeting.  They dropped Ralph off as if nothing were wrong.  But, instead of heading home, they drove around the corner and waited 15 minutes before heading back to the building. 
Again, as Ralph would later learn, his mother went in first.  She was intent on finding the Rosary Society meeting and vindicating her son.  
     After a few minutes of wandering around the deserted halls—with rock and roll music echoing through them from the gym, no doubt—she encountered a priest and asked where the Rosary Society was meeting.  This priest must have been perplexed at first, but he reassured Mrs. Dumbrowski that there was no such meeting that night, nor was there any such society affiliated with Salesianum. 
     What came next deserves to live on in the annals of adolescent embarrassment.  There is a memorable scene in the 1967 John Boorman film Point Blank in which a determined and menacing-looking Lee Marvin (himself a former Marine) walks toward the camera along a seemingly endless corridor, his leather heels clicking rhythmically.  His body language and expression both seem to be saying, “I dare anyone to try to stop me.”  I like to imagine that Mr. Dumbrowski looked like that in striding into and through the gym on a mission to find his son.   
     Picture it:  there is Ralph, in the zone, slow-dancing and oblivious to everything but the young woman with her head, and forbidden parts of her body, pressed against his chest, even her hips occasionally touching his, when he feels a tap on his shoulder.  Expecting it to be one of us, just one of his friends, wanting to cut in, Ralph turns around, only to find his father standing there and staring at him.  
     Rather than try to make himself heard over the din of the music, with the same finger he had used to tap Ralph on the shoulder, Mr. Dumbrowski gestured to follow him, and out they went, with Ralph getting some inkling of what it must feel like to walk that fabled “last mile.”
     The problem, as I now see it, is that Ralph was living under the authority of people with no sense of irony, much less an appreciation for imagination and resourcefulness.  We didn’t see much of Ralph outside of school after that—not for a long time.  But Ralph won out in the end.  He finished that academic year with two Fs, which meant that he couldn’t continue at Salesianum.  He transferred to the local public high school, where I have to believe the girls didn’t start quite so late.
     There are a million stories associated with the Rod and God Club of my day.  This has been one of them.
--Palm the Apostate 

Thursday, September 10, 2009

"Puff the Magic Dragon": A War Story

Blogger’s Preface:  It occurred to me that, in terms of the potential for self-defeating collateral damage, Predator drones probably come in second to another weapons system we’re employing in Afghanistan.  I wrote this commentary about a year ago, but I think it’s still relevant.  The photo is of a Vietnamese Popular Force Soldier.  I took it in 1967.  --EFP

  “A dragon lives forever, but not so little boys.”
            That line resonates with me as a Vietnam veteran.  It comes from “Puff the Magic Dragon,” the sixties hit by Peter, Paul and Mary.  I couldn’t help but think of that song and that line [last year] when I read that Afghan President Hamid Karzai was  complaining that the indiscriminate use of our firepower in his country is killing more civilians than the Taliban.  As it turns out, I know something about how airpower in particular can prove to be not only immoral but also self-defeating in an insurgency.         
I was especially concerned to learn that one of the weapons we’re falling back on in Afghanistan is the AC-130 Specter gunship.  The Specter is essentially a new and improved version of a weapon I knew as “Puff the Magic Dragon.”  The “Puff” of my day was an updated version of the venerable old C-47 transport plane.  Puff sported the latest in electrically driven 7.62 mm Gatling guns capable of firing 6,000 rounds per minute.  Puff also carried a seemingly inexhaustible supply of parachute flares and, in our area at least, was employed primarily at night in hopes of catching concentrations of North Vietnamese Army troops out in the open. 
Watching Puff in action could be an amazing spectacle, an awesome sound and light show.  The extremely rapid rate of fire made the tracers blend into an unbroken stream of fire stretching between the plane and the ground, and the overlapping reports of the guns would meld into an eerily familiar sound—sort of like the loudest and longest fart you’ve ever heard.  Rumor had it Puff could put one round in every square yard of a football field with just one pass.  We believed that.  As it turned out, we had good cause to believe it.
“We,” in this case, were the members of a Combined Action Platoon.  We were 12 enlisted Marines and one Navy corpsman sent out to live and work in a Vietnamese village alongside the village’s self-defense force—Popular Forces, or “PFs,” for short.  While we were supposed to train and inspire the PFs to root out the VC infrastructure and to keep the VC out of their village, in the main, ours was not to search and destroy.  Ours was to win hearts and minds. 
Our platoon, “Papa Three, was trying to win those elusive hearts and minds in a village called Cam Hieu.  We had established a permanent compound (complete with wire, sandbag bunkers, and a tin-roofed wooden building or “hooch.”) on a hill alongside South Vietnam’s northernmost East-West route, Highway 9.  We were not out in the jungle.  We were just seven kilometers west of Dong Ha in Quang Tri province. 
On clear nights, from up on our hill, we had a ringside seat to the war.  We could see B-52 strikes up on the DMZ—and we used to watch “Puff the Magic Dragon” work out on the hills to the south and west of our position.   
But one night in early November of 1967 was different.  Always, before, Puff used to stay two or three miles away from our compound.  On this night, however, he first appeared only about a mile to our west, and he seemed to be working toward us. 
"Do you suppose he knows we're here?" one Marine asked.
"Of course he knows we’re here," Doc,” our corpsman answered. "He has the location of all friendly units plotted."
The next thing we knew, one of Puff’s flares blazed forth almost directly over our compound, bathing us all in an eerie yellow light. 
We heard the buzz and cracking of bullets before we heard Puff's distinctive report.  Most of us instinctively dove into a long trench the Seabees had dug when they first built our compound.   Fortunately, for most of us, the ditch was deep enough and the angle of fire was steep enough that the bullets hit over our heads.  I was stung by some rock fragments and dirt kicked up by bullets that must have hit within inches of my head.  But I wasn’t hurt.  Others were not so lucky.  
            One Marine, who had been asleep in our “hooch,” took a round through the thigh.  Another Marine, who had frozen out in the open instead of jumping into the trench, was hit at the top of one buttock.  The round came out at the bottom.
            (I still remember that Marine.  Every unit has one.  He was the guy who never got the word, who never quite got with the program.  Even after he got hit, he didn’t take cover.  He kept hopping up and down at the edge of the trench, pitifully holding his rear and hollering, “I’m hit!  I’m hit!”
            When he hopped within arm’s reach, another Marine and I reached up and grabbed his pants’ legs and pulled him into the trench.  He landed right on his wounded buttock—resulting in an even louder and somewhat bitter complaint, but at least he was then as safe as the rest of us.)  
            Unfortunately, the fire must have come down at a steeper angle on the eastern half of our compound, where our PFs used to segregate themselves.   One was hit squarely on the top of his head.  The bullet came out just beneath his nose.  Two others had been hit, one in the forearm and the other in the abdomen.  That PF, too, died.  
            Fortunately, our radio operator had gotten though to our headquarters in time.  If Puff had made a second pass, all of us would have been killed.  
            The next day, a delegation of PFs accused us of deliberately calling in Puff to get even with them.  They had long been refusing to patrol with us.  So much for “Combined Action.”
            The two wounded Marines came back in a couple of weeks.  They said they received Purple Hearts and that their wounds were listed as due to “enemy artillery.”  They also said the pilots visited them in the hospital and apologized, explaining that it is difficult to know exactly where you are over Vietnam at night. 
            To the best of my knowledge, no one came out to our village to apologize to the families of the PFs who had died or the one who was wounded.  
            “Collateral damage,” that’s what we called it in Vietnam when we injured or killed innocent civilians or allies, or when we destroyed a town like Ben Tre in order “to save” it.   Now, forty years after Puff inflicted collateral damage on my unit in Vietnam, the Specter, also known as “the witch,” is working out over Afghanistan and Iraq.  And whereas Puff fired only 7.62-mm copper-jacketed rounds, Son of Puff, the Specter, also fires 25-, 40-, and 105-mm explosive shells.   
That’s a lot of potential for collateral damage.  I just hope that the people now employing the Son of Puff remember that “a dragon lives forever, but not so little boys.”