January 21, 2019

Recalling a conversation with Burl Ives

The famous singer/actor Burl Ives was from a little town of about 100-150 people called Hunt City in southeast-central Illinois, a few miles from the village of Bellair, where I was born and raised. "From Here to Eternity" author James Jones was born and raised in nearby Robinson.
          In 1982--13 years before his death in 1995--I interviewed Burl as part of a cultural journalism project called Tales from the General Store that published 27 issues in tabloid newsprint format and was distributed in several newspapers throughout east-central Illinois. Those issues are helping to preserve part of the history and culture of the area, and the entire collection is now available for free through the Digital Public Library of America at http://www.idaillinois.org/digital/collection/p16614coll12/search/.
          Burl had much to say about growing up in the area, his career, the musicals in which he performed (Lerner and Loewe's "Paint Your Wagon"), movie roles (Big Daddy in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"), songs he sang ("The Ballad of Barbara Allen," where he sees the same image saw when he first sang it early in his life), and more. Read all about him: http://www.talespress.com/Issue_3_Burl_Ives.pdf.

September 26, 2018

Fifth Marine Division Association reunion Oct. 16-21 brings Iwo Jima veterans to Urbana-Champaign

Two Iwo Jima veterans and I made our way to the elevator through a group of young students in the lobby of the Sheraton Pentagon City Hotel in Arlington, Va., a few years ago during the annual Iwo Jima Reunion and Symposium to commemorate the Feb. 19 anniversary of the invasion of the island during World War II.
            When we got on the elevator, one of the veterans looked at the other one, chuckled and said, “Those kids are not much older than I was when I saw a bunch of Civil War veterans at a reunion of the battle at Gettysburg.”
            “Yeah,” the other one said, “I remember seeing Civil War vets, too.”
            I remember looking at them and being rather amazed. The Civil War was over in 1865, some 145 years before that night on the elevator. I’d never thought about these World War II veterans having ever seen Civil War veterans.
            The Fifth Marine Division Association is bringing Iwo Jima veterans to Urbana-Champaign Oct.16-21 for its 69th annual reunion. This is the Marine division whose Easy Company, 28th Marine Regiment troops raised both flags on Mount Suribachi, the second one depicted in the iconic photo that Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal took that is one of the most recognized photos in history and was made into the statue that overlooks the nation’s capitol from Arlington Cemetery.
            While there are Iwo Jima veterans around the area, people will have the opportunity to meet and greet several of these aging veterans from around the country at the free screening of Oscar-winning filmmaker Arnold Shapiro’s 1985 documentary, Return to Iwo Jima, on Saturday, Oct. 20, at the Virginia Theater. The theater will open at noon with historic displays, and the film will be shown at 1 p.m.
            Shapiro is coming from his home in California to introduce the film and sit on a panel with the Iwo Jima veterans afterward to discuss the battle and the effect it has had on these men. There is no charge for admission, although the FMDA will accept donations to help maintain the association and to develop a digital library of books, interviews, photos, and artifacts for the FMDA museum on the Big Island of Hawai’i where the division trained for the battle of Iwo Jima.
            Years from now, when the Iwo Jima veterans and all the World War II veterans are gone, there will be some aging citizens saying the same thing about seeing these Iwo Jima veterans like the two veterans said about seeing the Gettysburg and Civil War veterans on the elevator that night.
            Looking back, I remember seeing World War I veterans when I was a kid. Some of them hung around the pool hall, playing pool and enjoying life. They were a lively group and had a lot of fun talking trash to each other as they played snooker. One of the group who had lost an arm in the war sat and watched. And I watched him, quite astonished, as he rolled his cigarettes with only one hand.
            But most of the veterans I remember were from World War II and Korea. They had flown The Hump over the eastern end of the Himalayan Mountains in military transport aircraft from India to China to resupply the Chinese war effort of Chiang Kai-shek and the units of the United States Army Air Forces, they had flown missions over Europe and throughout the Pacific and to Japan, they had made landings on Pacific islands and on Omaha Beach during the allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe and fought throughout Europe and the Pacific. When I hosted television writer and producer Norman Lear at Ebertfest a couple of years ago, I’d read that he had flown 51 missions over Europe.
            “Really that many?” I asked. “That was a lot of combat missions.”
            “Only 37 of them were combat missions,” he said dryly. 
            The barber who cut my hair for years was a veteran of Iwo Jima. Somebody told me once that one day, they’d walked into his barbershop in the middle of the afternoon. Three or four other men sat around the shop talking. Besides Ben the barber, who had been wounded on Iwo Jima and was being hoisted up the side of the hospital ship and looked over his shoulder and saw the flag on Mount Suribachi just after it was raised, one of them had been relieving the guard a little before 8 a.m. on Ford Island on Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese attached Pearl Harbor, another had landed on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, for the allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe. The other two were Marines who served during the Korean War.
            That’s one conversation I would have liked to have heard. And we’ll have the opportunity to hear some of these veterans talk about the experiences they had during the battle for Iwo Jima after the film at the Virginia on Oct. 20.
            Hope to see many of you there because these are things to remember.

September 12, 2018

Urbana (Ill.) Rotary talk Sept. 11, 2018, on Return to Iwo Jima documentary

I know I’m here to talk about Arnold Shapiro and his 1985 Return to Iwo Jima documentary to be shown at the Fifth Marine Division Association reunion in Champaign on Oct. 20, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t say a couple of words about the 17th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. (Rotarian) Tom Conroy just did that, and it’s all over the news this morning, but I want to talk about heroes. People have different ideas about what constitutes a hero. To me, it goes along with the Rotary motto of “service above self,” and is not just an idle, catch-all motto.
             The passengers aboard United Flight 93 who took charge of the situation after they knew what was happening in New York and Washington—that the planes had crashed into the World Trade Center Towers and the Pentagon and believed their plane was headed for the Capitol Building or the White House and caused the plane to crash into a field near Shanksville, Penn., giving their own lives to save the Capitol or the White House—were heroes much like the Iwo Jima veterans who put their lives on the line to win the battle for island and help win the freedom we now enjoy.
            By bringing the reunion here to Urbana-Champaign for what very well may be the last for these men, now in their 90s, I’d hoped we would give them a reception as they received at last year’s reunion on the Big Island of Hawai’i where they had trained for Iwo Jima. Everywhere we went on the island, the group was greeted with appreciation. But the one occasion that sticks in my mind is the day we went to Parker School in Waimea, where the Marines used to go for concerts and social events when they had liberty.
            As we turned down the street toward the school, you could see the elementary school children lined along each side of the street, waving American flags. More than one of these old Marine veterans had tears rolling down his cheeks at the sight. And when we got off the bus to go inside for the program, most of the veterans spent several minutes talking to the kids about how much they appreciated what they were doing and asking the kids about their lives.
            We have a great program planned here for the 69th annual reunion of the Fifth Marine Division Association (see schedule in Spring/Summer 2018 Spearhead), and Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Arnold Shapiro has helped make it better by giving us, gratis, the right to show at the Virginia Theatre his 1985 Return to Iwo Jima film, hosted by Marine veteran Ed McMahon, that helped set up the annual “Reunion of Honor” trip to Iwo Jima where the Americans and the Japanese, once mortal enemies, came together in peace.
            For the record, 6,821 American died in the 36-day battle, more than 17,000 were wounded, about 21,000 Japanese died, and a total of 2,251 damaged planes landed on Iwo Jima—the first one while the battle was still raging on March 4 on the way back to the Marianas from bombing raids on Japan, saving the lives of 24,761 crew members who would have otherwise gone down in the ocean and undoubtedly died.
            A sign on a sea ration carton at the entrance to the Fifth Marine Division Cemetery (where the division buried those killed in action) put the sacrifices of the Iwo Jima veterans in perspective for those airmen and for the people at home whose freedom was maintained: “When you go home, tell them, say, we gave all for their tomorrows for all of our todays.”
            Like the passengers on United Flight 93, these men were heroes.
            Arnold Shapiro is not a veteran, but he went to Camp Pendleton, Calif., for an Iwo Jima memorial service in the early ’80s and met a number of Iwo Jima veterans. He raised the question to four of them about going back to Iwo Jima. There had been a veteran-organized trip to Iwo Jima for the 25th anniversary of the battle in 1970 just after the island had been returned to Japan to strengthen ties between the two countries, but nothing after that. A few weeks after meeting at Pendleton, a group of the veterans formed a committee to make the going back a reality and asked Arnold to write the initial letters to the State Department and others to get the ball rolling.
            For his part in that first official “Reunion of Honor,” Arnold produced the film that will be shown at the Virginia Theatre at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 20, during this year’s reunion—no charge for admission, although we will accept donations to pay the theater rental and insurance costs. He is coming from his home in California to introduce the film and participate in a panel discussion with the Iwo Jima veterans afterward.
            When Arnold said we could show the documentary at no cost, I asked him if he would come back to introduce it. He’d just retired and moved away from L.A. and a 52-year television career in which he had produced 29 series and nearly 100 documentaries for every broadcast network and 14 cable channels and said no. Then he called and asked how far Urbana-Champaign was from Springfield, where he’d like to visit the Abraham Lincoln sites. The proximity to Springfield made up his mind to attend the union.
             In addition to producing the 1985 documentary, he raised $30,000 from the John Wayne Foundation via his friend, Michael Wayne (John’s son), for the monument that sits on the invasion beach, and wrote the words that are in English facing the ocean where the annual “Reunion of Honor” is now held annually and written in Japanese facing the interior of the island. The words Arnold wrote and gave me the OK to use in my novella, Iwo Blasted Again, follow:
            “Reunion of Honor on the Fortieth Anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima, American and Japanese veterans meet again on these same sands, this time in peace and friendship. We commemorate our comrades living and dead, who fought here with bravery and honor, and we pray that our sacrifices on Iwo Jima will always be remembered and never repeated. February 19, 1985, Third, Fourth, Fifth Division Associations: USMC and the Association of Iwo Jima.”
            He told me he’d written that in about 15 minutes and it was the best writing he’d ever done. Of all his work during his career, he says Iwo Jima is his favorite subject. He has traveled back to Iwo Jima several times for the “Reunion of Honor” and has often contributed funds for Iwo Jima veterans to make the trip back to the island. And in addition to the film we’ll be seeing at the Virginia, Arnold also wrote and produced the 2001 Heroes of Iwo Jima (a 96-minute documentary hosted by Danville native and Marine veteran Gene Hackman) and wrote and produced as his final project the 2015 Iwo Jima From Combat to Comrades (a 55–minute documentary hosted by Ryan Phillippe) shown on PBS on the Marine Corps birthday Nov. 10, 2015.
            For the last one, Arnold asked me to check the script for military accuracy, and because of his work in prisons with Scared Straight and other work about prison life, I asked him to read my prison novel, With the Silent Knowledge, and review it. The review is posted on Amazon where the book is available.
            Before I show the short trailer of Return to Iwo Jima, I want to read a piece I used in my novella from a Marine you will see in the documentary—you’ll also see the monument on Iwo Jima. But I got William Norman’s words from the letters of Dr. Luther Lowrance from Robinson, Ill., a graduate of the University of Illinois who was treating wounded Iwo Jima veterans in a hospital in Hawaii. I secured the letters from the doctor’s family for the University of Illinois Library’s Rare Book Room:
            “The sight that met my eyes as I set foot on the beach is one that I shall never forget,” Norman wrote in the hospital after he was wounded. “Dead Marines were so thick that we had to sidestep them in order to move forward. I have withstood heavy enemy bombardment that lasted all night on Saipan, but never have I seen men who died so violently. Men were blown to pieces, one leg here, an arm there, and strings of guts that were several feet long. These men had scarcely set foot on the beach. But to us, this was a reminder that we would have to fight, and pay in human lives and blood, for each foot of this barren island.”
            Men like William Norman and the Iwo veterans, like those on Flight 93 who gave their lives to save the seat of our government, are the real heroes in this world.
            While the veterans, families and friends are in Urbana-Champaign Oct. 16-21, they will also learn about the Center for Wounded Veterans in Higher Education at the University of Illinois, the history of the university’s ROTC program and the current Naval ROTC program; visit the Vermilion County War Museum and the Fischer Theatre in Danville and the Ernie Pyle Museum in Dana, Ind.; and the Abraham Lincoln Home, the Tomb and the Presidential Museum in Springfield.
            Hope to see you at the Virginia next month. We also have tickets for the banquet that Rotary member Betsy Hendrick’s Hendrick House will be catering at the Hyatt Place Hotel—see registration for banquet in the Spearhead issue. Paul Lewis, Marine Embassy guard who spent 444 days in captivity during the 1979-81student revolution in Tehran, will be the keynote speaker, and Art Leenerman, one of 14 remaining survivors of the USS Indianapolis, will be a special guest at both the film and banquet.

August 6, 2018

Cottage cheese, ketchup and ‘My Kitchen Prayer’

Not long after my father died in 1997, my mother (who was confined to a wheelchair and had been for several years) came to live with us. Our daughters, Jessica and Caitlin, were ages 3 and 1. Caitlin doesn’t remember her grandfather, and Jessica barely does. But we’d been down to Bellair, the small village where my parents lived (near the Moonshine Store of hamburger fame) the week before Princess Diana was killed in the car crash in Paris.
            One memory from that visit remains in our family: Jessica had heard my father say his favorite expression when something annoyed him or even amused him: “Thunder and Mud!” We were all in the living room watching television when she walked up to him and said, “Papaw says, ‘Thunder and Mud!’”
             He laughed and slapped his leg as he sometimes did when something tickled him. Later that night after we had gone to bed, he came to the bedroom door and told us about Princess Diana. He had a heart attack and died a week later. For a few weeks after the funeral, a neighbor looked after Mother. But my sisters and I decided it would be better if she came and lived with my family.
            Both my wife and I worked, and the girls were in day care. Mother was able to care for herself to an extent and got around in the wheelchair. The girls were with her much of the time when they were home. That was particularly true after we widened the door of the cottage next door so Mother could be nearby but have the autonomy of her own home. She could still cook and take care of herself with help. As time progressed and they got older, she also took care of the girls at times.
            She cooked some for them, read to them, watched television and patiently answered the endless questions they thought up for her.
             I came home one evening, and she was propped up in her hospital bed with Caitlin sitting on her lap and Jessica standing beside the bed directing the whole show: They had rouge, powder, eye shadow and lipstick all over her face and were still going strong.
            “Here,” I hollered when I walked in the house. “What in the dickens are you kids doing to your grandmother?”
            “Leave them alone,” Mother said, smiling. ”They’re having fun.”
            They loved being with her, and I thought it was great that they had that time with their grandmother.
            Not long afterwards, Mother was in the kitchen getting the girls supper. I don’t know what she’d gotten for them, but the story goes that Jessica had some cottage cheese that she apparently didn’t want, so she smothered it with ketchup, thinking she wouldn’t have to eat it. Mother had other ideas.
            “Now you eat that, young lady,” she said.
            Jessica had other ideas, too. She looked up at the plaque Mother had on kitchen the wall that read:

My Kitchen Prayer 
Bless my pretty kitchen Lord
And light it with Thy Love
Help me plan and cook my meals
From Thy heavenly home above.
Bless our meals with Thy Presence
And warm them with Thy grace;
Watch over me as I do my work,
Washing pots and pans and plates.
The service I am trying to do
Is to make my family content,
So bless my eager efforts Lord
And make them heaven sent.

            She started singing the words to the little poem and taught Caitlin to sing with her, believing that their grandmother would be so happy to hear it that she wouldn’t make her eat the ketchup-covered cottage cheese. As I recall, it didn’t work.
            When Mother died a year or two later, both Jessica and Caitlin were devastated. They’d known her all of their lives and couldn’t remember when they didn’t know her. Their other grandmother had died when they were only 3 and 5. They hadn’t really known death.
             At the funeral, I was to give the eulogy for Mother. Jessica asked if she and Caitlin could be a part of it and sing “My Kitchen Prayer.” I agreed and stood listening as they sang the song from their hearts. Though there were tears during much of that day and the days around it, the music was a comfort, a piece of her that they got to keep.
             “Singing that little song as young girls was just our way of contributing to a ceremony dedicated to honoring a grandmother we were so close to,” Jessica says, “but today when I look back on that poem, it means something more. The role of homemaker, the act of being in the kitchen for hours a day … Sometimes it’s seen as this less-than, diminished role for women. But food was a huge part of how Grandma cared for her family and showed them love. It was how she gave strength, both physically and emotionally, to a family of hard workers with long days.
            “That prayer, which I still know all the words to, personifies that quiet strength that Grandma and so many of the women of her generation showed in small ways every day. I still think of her every time I taste a dish of hers that someone brings to a family gathering, and I bet I’d think of her if I were ever forced to eat ketchup-doused cottage cheese again, too. But it taught me that you have to lie in the bed you make, so you better make it well.”

July 11, 2018

Summertime livin’ and eatin’ at its best

“It’s summertime and the livin’s easy” is a line from one of my favorite songs. And summertime is probably my favorite season. There isn’t much I don’t like about it. The reason that comes to mind right now is fresh vegetables.
       The garden planted in early spring starts to produce its delicious bounty in summer. According to what you like, you can enjoy a variety of the freshest-tasting vegetables you could ever want. White icicle radishes are my favorite. When they’re cleaned and washed, there’s nothing better with any meal than those radishes dipped in salt. Personally, I like to dip them in salt from one of the old-fashioned salt dishes like my grandmother used. Tastes better somehow.
       Now if you like lettuce, you’re in luck, too. Some people like fresh-picked lettuce wilted in hot apple cider vinegar, bacon grease and a touch of sugar. And it’s not bad, really. But I prefer to take fresh lettuce, wash it in cold water and pile it on a peanut butter sandwich.
       If your garden is planted as the summer clips along, you can have most anything you want for weeks. The onions have been in the ground for quite a while, if you haven’t picked them all to eat as green onions.
       It’s the large onions, sliced and put together with fresh sliced cucumbers in vinegar and water that I like best. Salted, of course. They compliment any dinner well. For a snack, there’s nothing better than a large Bermuda onion, sliced and salted and put on a bread and butter—real butter, please, none of that slick, tasteless margarine—sandwich. It may be better if you have a cast-iron stomach. I don’t know.
       Tomatoes have got to be next. The first vine-ripened tomatoes of the summer are difficult to beat. What I always liked to do as a kid was walk through the garden and spot a really red, ripe, juicy one, pluck it from the vine, wipe it off a little and eat it right there. And yes, I carried the salt shaker with me.
       All the fresh tomatoes taste good, but they don’t compare with that first one. Some people make the mistake of putting them in the refrigerator, though. That’ll ruin the taste of a tomato quicker than about anything I know. So just slice hot tomatoes and put them on the table with your favorite meal. I even like them with bacon and eggs in the morning. They just start the day off the way it should be started.
       Green beans come along when you’re ready for them and not a minute sooner. I think I like wax beans the best. But any kind of fresh green beans cooked with bacon grease and some onion chips tastes so much better than store-bought beans that I sometimes wonder if they’re even the same thing.
       Moving beyond the green beans in the garden but at about the same time, the peas ripen and bulge in their pods. When they do, you cheat a little and dig a bunch of new potatoes even before they bloom if you have to. Just as long as you get the potatoes. All you do then is skin the potatoes and de-pod the peas, cook them together in a thick, rich, cream sauce. A little salt and pepper tops them off just fine.
       And finally: Yeah, finally because it’s the pinnacle of the summer. It’s the World Series of garden eating. That’s when the corn starts coming on, filling out into large yellow ears. (I like white corn well enough, but I especially like the Peaches and Cream variety with both yellow and white kernels.) Nothing like it if you eat it right. I love to take the freshly roasted or boiled corn and dip it in melted butter—again real butter, please, if you don’t want to spoil the taste—salt and pepper four rows, add a glob of butter for good measure and eat the four rows across horizontally with one vicious gnawing.
       Okay, so I’m an enthusiastic garden eater who likes his salt and real butter. Don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it. And don’t quit until you’ve eaten four or five ears that way.
       At the end of the summer, if you’re lucky, you can have at least one meal with all your favorites. I personally can’t imagine anything better than a meal consisting of corn on the cob—roastin’ ears we used to call them—sliced tomatoes, cucumbers and onions, creamed potatoes and peas, green beans and white radishes.
       Yeah, in the summertime, “the livin’s easy” and the eatin’s great.