The Humanity

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The National World War II Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana is now the third most visited museum in the United States. The attraction has become one of the most popular in the Big Easy and its expansion continues. I’ve been going there since well before hurricane Katrina when the place was still being called the D Day Museum. At that time it was dedicated mostly to the big event when the Allies first reclaimed French territory from the Germans. The site of the museum was chosen because it was a New Orleans manufacturer who had designed the Higgins boats that were used in the assault on Normandy.

I’ve found something new every single time that I have walked through the exhibition halls. On one occasion I concentrated on understanding the geography of the battles. In another I was most interested in the timing of battles and the equipment used by each side. In my most recent visit I found myself mostly thinking of the human aspect of World War II and in truth it was my most moving encounter yet.

Each person who comes to the museum is given a “dog tag” that outlines the personal story of someone who participated in the war. As each guests moves through the displays there are opportunities to scan the dog tag to learn what part their person played in the era. Since there were five of us in our party on this occasion we got a wide spectrum of interesting histories, including the record of James “Jimmy” Stewart, the lovable actor that we all know from some of Hollywood’s greatest hits.

My dog tag belonged to a young American girl who was living in the Philippines when the Japanese overtook the island. Her father was in the military and had been sent elsewhere but her mother was a teacher who felt she must stay at her post. The Japanese sent the young girl and her mom to a kind of concentration camp along with countless others that they deemed untrustworthy. Life in the camp was difficult for a child and the girl remembered how frightened she felt when her mother became ill and was sent to a hospital. She was all alone in dealing with the horrific conditions. She spoke of eating gruel for virtually every meal and being set to work with only a minimal amount of time for education or play.

One of my grandson’s drew the Jimmy Stewart dog tag and we learned that Jimmy had been an actual hero in the war. When he first signed on Louis B. Mayer did everything to keep him from going into battle because Jimmy was one of the biggest draws in Hollywood. Jimmy nonetheless insisted that he wanted to serve the country and soon enough was leading squadrons on air raids that helped to turn the tide of war.

Another dog tag belonged to a Marine who won countless medals for bravery. His feats were almost unbelievable. We expected to learn that he had been killed but in fact he went on to serve with honor and distinction in both the Korean and Vietnam Wars before retiring from the military.

Yet another of our stories was of a man who had been in the OSS, a precursor of the CIA. He did some of the most audacious things imaginable and somehow his luck held out even when he probably should have been captured or killed. He was incredibly brave for sure.

What really caught our attention were the telegrams informing families that one of their loved ones had died. We realized that there were people who saved those horrific notices for all of the years since the war, sometimes along with sympathy cards. It was beyond touching to see how dear those lost in battle had been to people back home. It made me think of my mom’s fiancé who died in the battle for Saipan. It was hard for her to speak of him even years after. Even though she had found love with my father she never completely forgot the man who had first asked her to be his bride.

All of the sacrifices that entire populations across the world endured became so real as we listened to the voices of survivors and gazed at the items and photographs that had been so intimately tied to them. We felt one touching moment after another as we looked at the images of young men who were fighting in the war when they were as young as my grandsons. It had to have been an incredibly difficult and frightening time across the globe. The sheer humanity of learning that the world lost more souls in World War II than in any other conflict in history moved me to tears.

I suppose that the museum is dedicated not just to providing facts about the war but also to helping us to understand the enormity of what was happening and its impact on everyone from the boy next door to a major movie star. So many of those who were alive during that fateful time are slowly leaving this earth. It is important that we remember their stories and their sacrifices. The National World War II Museum is insuring that we will not forget.

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Older Than Dirt

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I just saw a Facebook post called Older Than Dirt that lists seventeen items that have mostly gone the way of the buggy whip. If you are familiar with ten or more of them you supposedly qualify for the title Older Than Dirt. There were seventeen things listed and I not so fondly remembered all of them, so I guess that I’m officially ancient. I hadn’t even thought about or missed most of the items, but I felt a slight tug of nostalgia when I saw them on the list. I also realized that in many ways I’m part of a generation that has straddled the old ways and the new.

I still recall the weird inconvenience of being on a telephone party line. I must have been about five or so when we finally got our own private line. Before then it was not all that unusual to lift the receiver and hear someone who lived in another house talking away. My mom taught me the code of phone etiquette which meant that I would hang up quickly and be certain that I never mentioned anything that I might have heard. Even then it seemed weird to have to share telephone time with complete strangers, but it was the way things actually were. I had totally forgotten about that strange situation until I saw it listed with a string of other oldies. While party lines may sound unbelievable to young folk, I encountered an even more old time way of talking on the phone when I visited my grandparents in rural Arkansas. They actually had to go through the services of an operator to make a call, something that I had only seen in old movies from the thirties and forties.

I never knew what eventually happened to Studebakers, but my aunt and uncle owned one. It was a sporty little car that was much more adventurous looking than than the big featureless models that most people drove back then. I still remember being filled with awe whenever my aunt and uncle drove up in their Studebaker. They were young and attractive and newly married. To five year old me they looked like movie stars, and when they took me for a ride in their automobile I felt like a celebrity. The last Studebaker I ever saw belonged to my husband’s best friend. The car was old and doing its best to fall apart. The designers had lost their mojo and turned it into a featureless box, which is no doubt why the line of cars went the way to the junkyard, but I would always remember just how sweet the models were in the early nineteen fifties.

By the time my girls were using roller skates they simply slipped on a boot with wheels, but when I was a child we had roller skates that would last a lifetime because the parts were adjustable. The process of properly sizing the skates involved using a metal key to lengthen or shorten and fit the mechanism onto the sole of whatever shoe the skater was wearing. A pair of skates that came to a five year old at Christmas time might last until they were no longer used as a teenager. Our mothers usually found some twine or ribbon to make a kind of necklace on which we kept the key that made the whole thing work. I used to keep mine inside my jewelry box so that I might quickly find it whenever I got the urge to skate.

We had very few luxuries in our home, but one that my mom faithfully used was milk delivery. Our milkman left the white liquid on our front porch in big glass gallon containers. Once the milk was gone Mama would rinse out the bottle and then leave it on the porch to be recycled by the milk company which for us was always Carnation. We got to know the milkman better than the mailman because he came with three or four gallons of milk every week and rang our doorbell to let us know that the bottles had arrived. My brothers were voracious milk drinkers and my mother often attributed their strong teeth and bones to the calcium that they consumed. Eventually grocery stores were close enough that it was easier to just make a quick trip for some milk and the idea of having things delivered to the house went away. Now I laugh that young folk think that home food delivery is a new thing.

We used to use ice trays to make the cubes that we used to cool our water or tea. Back in the day they were made of metal and used a large handle to release the ice. Even the best ones never really worked very well, so when the flexible plastic ones came along it felt as though someone had invented a miracle device. The problem was that the trays took up a considerable amount of space inside the freezer section of the refrigerator so there was never much ice available at any give time. If someone neglected to refill the trays, which happened far too often, we were reduced to drinking things at room temperature like so many Europeans do. The ice makers of today are a joyful luxury that still leave me in awe each time I see the almost boundless supply of frozen water.

The Older Than Dirt list included drive in movie theaters which are worthy of an entire blog, and candy cigarettes which made us feel grown up and sophisticated in a time when it seemed as though every adult smoked without knowing the dangers. There were metal lunch boxes which often featured our favorite movie and television characters like Roy Rogers. They held our baloney sandwiches and apples and thermoses of warm milk. There were forty five rpm records that we played on speakers that sounded tinny, and Blackjack gum which to me tasted like melted blacktop. Our soda machines dispensed glass bottles that we had to either leave once we were finished drinking or had to pay a deposit to take with us. There was Butch Wax for styling hair that I never used because it was a product for the boys, but we gals had Dippity Do which we slathered on our hair along with our curlers so that we might create the enormous bouffants of the sixities. There were five and dime stores which were small versions of Walmart, and home economics classes where students learned how to run a household efficiently long before Marie Kondo came to tell us what to do. Books came with records that in a sense were the first audio versions of our favorite stories, and rather unsophisticated drinkers consumed Boone’s Farm wine.

Yes, I knew about all of those things, but I also realized how far we have come in making the world far better than it once was. I can only think of a few things on the list that we might do well to emulate in a more modern way. Recycling glass bottles was a great idea and I’d like to see it happen again. Those stunning Studebakers of the early fifties were a sight to see. Drive In movies were a great place to take the kids on summer evenings. The metal lunchboxes were akin to Bento boxes and prevented much wasting of paper. Most of the rest were fun while we had them, but hardly worth reinventing. We’ve moved on and in most cases it has been for the best. I like my streaming music and the mountains of ice at my fingertips. Nostalgia is fine but progress is better, especially when it takes the health of our planet into account. 

Ignoring the Distractions

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My foray into genealogy has provided me with a clearer understanding of the history of at least one branch of my family. My paternal grandmother was a Smith, descended from John William Seth Smith and Christina Rowsee. Her roots center on Kentucky, Virginia, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas. Despite the southern bent of her background she was not a child of Dixieland. In fact, her father was a soldier in the Union army with the Kentucky Volunteers. Still her hard scrabble story was typical of the people from those places who lived in an era during which life was often uncertain and harsh.

Grandma never had the time or the opportunity to take advantage of education, leaving her illiterate but not unwise. She possessed a folk knowledge and a strength that came from living in corners of the country that were often untouched by modernization. She embraced what she saw as her role in life, that of a partner in the daily contest for survival. Little in her life was easy, and yet she was a happy and content person, not out of ignorance but out of a feeling that she had enjoyed the fruits of progress in the march of time.

She reveled in the joy of knowing that her son had achieved levels of education and success that were beyond her dreams. She took pride in having plumbing and electricity in her home as she recalled times when such things were yet to become the norm. She took little for granted and was a model of thrift even going so far as to make clothing out of the flour sacks that held the lovely white ingredient for her biscuits and pies. She was a woman who straddled the agrarian society of her birth and the industrialized wonder of her later years, and she marveled at the glory of it all.

I try to imagine the kind of life that she and those who came before her must have led. I recall so well her folksy manner of expressing herself that seemed quaint and of another time even in the early nineteen sixties. Memories of her ways have become for me a kind of link to her parents and how they must have talked and believed. I witnessed the hint of her Kentucky background even though she never actually lived there. Like the earnest and hard working folk who struggle to this very day in that part of the country, she was never afraid of long days filled with sacrifices and back breaking labor. She was a survivor, someone who gallantly faced whatever came her way with determination and a sense of wonder, but still she worried. It was as though she understood all too well the fragility of life. She knew how quickly all for which she had worked might go away.

Kentucky has been in the news of late with sweeping generalizations about its nature as a state. We’ve been hopelessly focused on an event in which nothing really happened until our collective anger and beliefs set our discourse on fire. We’ve aligned ourselves with one side or another without actually knowing anything about the players in this farcical debacle. We’ve drawn conclusions and made judgements based on soundbites of a few seconds and photographs taken out of context. In an instant we’ve turned on a group of young boys and even more so on each other. Our outrage and indignation has occupied our thoughts for days which is ironic given that if we want to focus on Kentucky there is a far graver issue of which we barely speak.

Much of the state of Kentucky is reliant on coal mining, an industry that is slowly dying and causing its workers to die as well. Entire generations of people have worked in the dark cramped caves filled with dust that invades their lungs and quietly begins to ravage their bodies. We have eagerly taken that coal to run our electrical plants. Coal has fueled the very progress that so awed my grandmother. It has kept the northern climes warm in the dead of winter. We have given little thought to the price of our modernization. We don’t worry much about the people who have been left to face harsh economic times and even worse medical problems that are decimating young men who never realized what the act of working each day would do to them.

The real tragedy related to Kentucky has nothing to do with a few teenagers who may or may not have reacted well to a supercharged situation. It is instead to be found in the towns where the mines and the factories have become empty shells. It is to be witnessed in the rising numbers of people with are literally suffocating as they attempt to breathe with their damaged lungs. The fact that we are not outraged for them on a national level speaks to the twisted ways in which we find ourselves viewing the world these days. We have somehow got it wrong all the way around as we quibble over nothing while real problems fester.

My great grandfather who served in the Union army with the Kentucky Volunteers was sick and tired after the Civil War. He eventually hid himself away in the remote forests of Arkansas where he quietly tended his land. He had seen and buried the dead at Shiloh. He must have understood the horrors that come when we lose our way in anger. I suspect that if he had the chance he would caution us to calm down and strive for more understanding and compassion.

We are all far more complex than the sides that we choose, the uniforms that we wear, the work that we do, the places where we live. Life is a continuum, a marathon, an opportunity. It’s time that we once again learn how to move forward from our mistakes and agree to disagree now and again without pushing each other away. There are very real problems that we must tackle, and none of that will happen when we are distracted and filled with anger. It’s past time to prioritize. There are coal miners needing our help, young people watching to see how we guide them, issues crying for our attention. Perhaps we all need to take a deep breath and reach across the chasms.

My Aging Thoughts

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I’ve generally felt like someone who keeps up with the world, a person who is ‘woke” as the new “with-it-ness” is called. I try not to become an old grouchy “fuddyduddy” who is out of touch. I Listen to popular music and actually enjoy most of it. I watch the movies and television programs that are trending. I am familiar with the latest fads. Of late, however, I feel myself drifting into the valley of those who are falling behind the times. Like Tevye in The Fiddler On the Roof  I have managed to adapt to the new ways again and again but sometimes I begin to think, “there  is no other  hand.” There is a definite line over which I do not wish to cross, and most recently I feel closer and closer to reaching that point.

I am a observant person. I have the ability to read people, to understand how they are feeling, to notice when they are having difficulties. This talent allowed me to bring an extra level of compassion to my students and even the teachers with whom I worked. I was often able to see problems before they became apparent to everyone else. I used this ability in dealing with my mother’s mental illness as well. I watched her carefully and did my best to provide her with the care that she needed before her difficulties became dangerous.

I sometimes wonder if I developed this skill from having a grandmother who spoke no English. The only way that she and I were able to communicate was through body language and facial expressions. I watched her carefully to determine how I needed to react. Because of this I began to notice more and more about the people around me. I had a knack for understanding.

It’s difficult for anyone not to notice how divided we have become as a nation. There are ever more frequent attempts to push us into tribes, different groups that may or may not feel comfortable. We are made to feel as though our very natures are dependent on the history of our ancestry. It is as though we are somehow defined by the people who came before us rather than by the content of our own personal character. We are instantly judged by the color of our skin, the location in which we live, the amount of education that we have, the nature of our work. Often these assessments are based on stereotypes that have little or nothing to do with who we really are. Among them is the idea of white privilege, a characteristic of which I am supposed to be guilty, but can’t truly accept given the reality of my background.

I am the product of a single parent home given that my father died when I was only eight. My mother was a first generation American citizen, the child of immigrants from a part of eastern Europe in which the people were thought to be somehow inferior. She and her siblings were often taunted by neighbors because they had parents who seemed strange with their foreign ways. Because of my economic situation I had few opportunities and no contacts for advancement. My brothers worked at a road side vegetable stand for seventy five cents an hour. If they dropped a watermelon they had to pay for it. Sometimes they took home less money that they might have earned because their boss claimed that they had made mistakes.

In spite of our condition my brothers and I worked hard. Our mother never complained about her lot in life and taught us not to do so either. We held our heads high and felt thankful for the opportunities in our country even though we sometimes found blockades in our paths. We persisted even in the face of barriers because our family believed that this was the greatest place on earth to live even with all of its flaws. Of late I hear so much belittling of not only the country itself, but also different factions of the population. We are being urged on both the far right and the far left to fight with each other and to hang our heads in shame at the very thought of being Americans.

I recently saw an article deriding virtually all older white males. Since I happen to be married to one of those types and friends with a number of them, I found the very thought of making sweeping statements about a particular facet of our society to be disgusting. I see it as the power play that it is. I understand that there are indeed groups who want us to turn on one another just as there have always been. There is nothing new about getting us to hate. It’s been de rigor for centuries. It is the reason that my grandparents moved to this country from Austria Hungary. It is a tactic that is as old as the story of Jesus being executed for His beliefs. Sadly we are falling for it in droves, and that makes me feel quite worried for the health of our country, for I believe that it is only when we work together that we are strong.

I intend to keep speaking out in favor of respecting all good people and rejecting those who would ask us to condemn entire groups without thought. We cannot become a nation of sects, groups, nationalities, races that are unwilling to trust one another. We have to face the reality that there is good and bad everywhere and we need to be discerning enough to combat evil without thoughtless condemnation. Instead we should be taking the time to better know and understand even those whose ways seem different and confusing. I fear that if we don’t the battles that we see will only escalate.

I’m seventy years old and greatly saddened that I may have to spend the next ten, twenty, or thirty years that I have left watching my country turn on itself. I have grown weary of watching good people demonized by persons with selfish intent. The noise is overwhelming even to my aging ears that don’t hear quite as well as they once did, but it tells me that we must be very careful. I suspect that the reality is that most of us feel this way.   

In Search of Morality

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What kind of person do we most admire, someone who possesses sterling character traits or an individual who gets things done no matter what? It’s an important questions with repercussions as to how we decide to raise our children, what kinds of bosses we want to have, and the direction that we wish to traverse in our personal and public lives. At first glance our instincts tell us that it’s a no brainer to assume that we all most likely prefer persons who possess the kinds of qualities that we associate with good values, but if we think just a bit it occurs to us that sometimes those kinds of folks are often overcome by thuggish and rude bullies who demand their way or the highway. If we have a particular goal in mind we may find ourselves leaning toward the pushy sort rather than someone who is kind and soft spoken. We actually bend our own rules in favor of action.

I once worked for an organization lead by a charismatic individual whose style was boastful and audacious. He had a very bad habit of verbally deriding his supervisors and workers on a regular basis. Ironically he demanded a host of positive character traits from his employees including loyalty and compassion when he rarely demonstrated the same qualities in his dealings. The turnover among those who worked for him was enormous because he was known for delivering regular verbal tongue lashings. Surprisingly his business thrived even as his reputation as a tyrant became legendary. The irony was that he pushed his way to success on the backs of very kind people that he had chosen to fill the jobs that he had. While I despised his tactics, I had a certain level of admiration for his accomplishments. I began to understand that we sometimes need different skill sets in the various situation that we encounter, but it worried me that we accepted his brutality.

That being said, I have also worked for exceptional persons who were able to combine a tough will with an accommodating personality. These men and women were known for being competent leaders who always succeeded while also being pillars of all of the positive character traits that society treasures. They led by example and viewed themselves as motivators and coaches training the next generation of executives. They were kind, trustworthy and understanding. Going to work for them each day was a pleasurable experience. Most of us toiled just a bit harder than we might have out of respect for them. They often exceeded goals and expectations without ever demeaning even those who had made mistakes. They behaved like the patriarchs and matriarchs of a big happy family.

In poll after poll whether it be with ordinary citizens or historians the most admired President of the United States for all time is invariably George Washington with Abraham Lincoln coming in a close second. What these two illustrious men shared was an unimpeachable character. They were strong and courageous, but also steadfast in being the best sort of people. Of course neither man was perfect, nobody among us ever is, but they followed a code of conduct that was based on respect and honor. Both men did their best to form decisions based on the good of the country rather than what may have personally made them more powerful. George Washington in particular decried the very thought of being referred to with the salutations associated with royalty. He wanted the presidency to be a position by and for the people, not some exalted throne of power. He even insisted on limiting his time in office lest a precedent of unending authority be set. He was essentially a good and wise man who understood that our president was in essence a servant of the people.

Throughout history we have seen bullies devoid of motivations other than personal aggrandizement rule to the detriment of the common good. While they may have initially appeared to be saviors, the true natures of their goals inevitably became the ruination of the places that they governed. The glee with which they had once been viewed became desperation as a kind of rot overtook their every command. In truth while it takes a certain level of unfettered strength and audacity to be a leader there must also be a foundation of goodness to guide the decisions. Flawed character ultimately leads to selfish acts that destroy everyone in their paths.

As parents, educators, teachers, adults it is up to us to demonstrate the importance of morality to our young. We must always realize that when we preach one set of ideals but live by another our children notice and become confused. They may appear to be distracted by play and the trappings of childhood, but in reality they are always watching and learning from us. If we truly value certain character traits and want to instill them in our young then we must do our best to regularly follow them. Turning a blind eye to bad behaviors simply because doing so gives us something that we desire leads both us and our youth down a slippery slope from which we may one day find ourselves struggling to escape.

There are indeed truly good people who combine the very best of the qualities that we humans most admire. They know when and how to be tough, but also demonstrate compassion and flexibility. They are the true leaders, the ones whom we cherish and attempt to emulate. It’s time that we begin searching for such people in our midst and cast aside the crooks and bullies and rude and unethical people who seem to be so in vogue these days. The future of who our children is ultimately riding on our decisions.