November 27, 2016

Wait of 71 years for an Iwo Jima veteran Cubs fan cut short


As a lifetime St. Louis Cardinals fan, I never in my wildest dreams thought I would ever root for, or even hope for, the “Loveable Losers” to win a World Series. Like his father raised him, my father raised me to be a Cardinals fan, and I raised my son to be a Redbird fan, even though we lived in the Chicago suburbs most of his young life. Same with the girls, even though one of them still lives in the Chicago area and is married to a damn Yankee fan.
      But then I met William Blaine “Bill” Madden in 2005 at a reunion of Iwo Jima veterans in New Orleans. Serving with Easy Company, Second Battalion, 27th Marine Regiment, Bill celebrated his 19th birthday on Feb. 18, 1945—the day before the Marines landed on the island—and was wounded in early March. 
      Transferred from Iwo Jima to the hospital on Guam, then to California and on to Great Lakes Naval Hospital to be near his northern Indiana home, the young veteran and Chicago Cubs fan was there during the 1945 World Series between the Cubs and the Detroit Tigers.
      That was in the days just before the Billy Goat Curse came down on the heads of the Chicago Cubs after somebody wouldn’t allow avid Cubs fan, Greek immigrant and Billy Goat Tavern owner William “Billy Goat” Sianis to bring his pet goat, Murphy, along with him to Wrigley Field for the fourth game of the series. As he and the goat were being denied entrance, Sianis reportedly raised his hands in the air and put the curse on, saying, “The Cubs ain’t gonna win no more.” 
      Bill didn’t know about the curse at the time, but he told me the story for my novella, Iwo Blasted Again, for which he was the primary source and his poem of that name became the title. The Tigers won the fourth game 4-1 and the fifth game 8-4. The Cubs bounced back to win the sixth game 8-7 to tie the series at three games apiece to set the stage for the seventh and deciding game of the ’45 World Series, much like the Cubs-Indians 2016 series.
      In ’45 the Cubs offered a number of tickets to the wounded veterans in the hospital at Great Lakes. But Bill and many of the wounded men didn’t get to use them. Hospital officials announced that anyone taking advantage of the Cubs’ patriotic generosity would first have to go on working parties to scrub and mop floors to “earn” the tickets.
      “I lived 90 miles from Chicago,” Bill told me, “and at 19 I figured I’d have a lot of chances to see the Cubs in a World Series.”
      By the time he was in his late ‘80s, he’d about given up and said he was going to quit watching or paying attention because they were never going to win. 
      Then things started changing for the Cubs. Last year a group called the Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes, which provides financial assistance to wounded combat veterans, offered him the opportunity to attend a playoff game, and he thought maybe he would finally make it to the series. Still didn’t happen—until this year.
      On Oct. 24, I received the following email from Bill: 
      “Hooray, I’ve just been given a ticket to the first Cubs home game of the World Series! Dave Walker and I will be seated in Section 208, row 9, seats 9 and 10. Look for us. Dave Walker heads the veterans' group, Coalition to Salute to America’s Heroes.  I’m not a hero, but I’ll pretend to be in this case since I’ve waited since 1945 for this to happen but never thought it would. Go Cubs!” 
      Sadly, when Walker came to take Bill to the game, he became ill with a blocked colon and went to the hospital. Surgery was scheduled for Tuesday, Nov. 1. But with a weak heart and failing kidneys, the prospects were bleak. 
      On Wednesday, I received a message from Bill’s son, Jim: “Dad passed away last night with his four children holding his hand. He was in the prep room waiting for surgery but didn’t make it. I was able to read the Cubs newspaper articles to him about the last win (Game 5), which made him happy, but we regret he didn't get to see another win. His was a life well lived.” 
      Indeed Bill’s life was well lived. He taught high school English for 34 years and had also taught classes at Purdue and Indiana universities. He was a great father, a poet, a teacher who could still recite verbatim some 20 poems and a good Marine. At 90 years old, he was still a great Cubs fan. I’d hoped he could hang in there for a World Series winner.
      “That was the last thing on my bucket list,” he told me when the playoffs began and I told him I thought this was the year. “I hope so, but I’ve endured a lifetime of disappointment.  This time I will wait and see.” 
      If only he’d have been able to wait just a couple more days.
 

November 10, 2016

My 2016 Veterans Day Speech at Urbana High School

It’s an honor for me to speak about Veterans Day here where I taught English and journalism for 15 years and advised The Echo. Some of the best times of my life were in the classroom with students, discussing literature and the news of the day and how those stories and events apply to our own lives.
            I also want to thank Dr. Owen and the Urbana School District for having school today instead of giving everybody the day off and in providing the opportunity to remember the sacrifices of veterans who served down through the years for the freedom we enjoy in this country. It’s great for teachers and staff to be here, as well, to be reminded of what our country owes to its veterans.
            Look at these men (and women) here before me. They served when they were only slightly older than you are now and are here today to help us pay tribute and to help you understand why we’re here remembering Veterans Day. Would you veterans stand and let these students give you a hand for your service?
            How many of you students have parents, grandparents or relatives who served in the military? Please stand. That’s great. How about friends or neighbors? Please thank them for their service the next time you see them.
            Now to a bit of history—I’m a teacher. Remember?
            While we celebrate Veterans Day each year, and it’s a day off from school or work for many and the stores give sales, many people don’t know where the holiday came from. Oh, we know that Veterans Day is a day to honor Americans who have served and sacrificed for our country. But there’s more to it than that.
            World War I officially ended with the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919, but was signed seven months after the fighting had finally ended with an armistice, or a peace agreement, between the Allied Nations and Germany (with whom we were at war) on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, or November 11. The following year, Armistice Day was observed on that day “to remind nations to seek peaceful relations between one another, in hopes that we will never again be divided.”
            Well, so much for that. Great idea, but we’re still at war. World War II followed in a little more than 20 years and took 405,000 American lives before Germany and Japan surrendered and peace was restored after millions of other lives around the world were lost.
            World War II had hardly ended before the United States was back at it in Korea. That war ended in a truce with North Korea in 1953. Service organizations urged the 83rd Congress to reinstate or rename Armistice Day as Veterans Day to honor veterans of all conflicts, and President Eisenhower signed the legislation on June 1, 1954.
            And there have been changes so we could celebrate holidays on Mondays “to ensure three-day weekends for federal employees.” Veterans Day was relegated to the fourth Monday in October until objections reversed the decision for Veterans Day back to the original date so “Americans are able to focus on the importance of Veterans Day, which is to honor and celebrate veterans for their patriotism, passion for our country, and selflessness in serving for the common good.”
            No test on that, but I do hope you remember it. These things are aspects of our country that I tried to share with students here and at other schools where I taught for 25 years. Through those years, I brought veterans into my classes to speak about their service.
            Many times, those veterans were quite a bit older than the students, and it’s not always apparent how their experiences can apply to someone your age. But the fact of the matter is, as I said earlier, they were not much older than you are now when they served. I just returned from a funeral of an Iwo Jima veteran who turned 19 the day before the Marines landed on Iwo Jima. Many of those men were teenagers. In fact, Jack Lucas turned 17 six days before he landed on Iwo Jima and received the Medal of Honor for his actions in saving the lives of his buddies a few days later.
            From my own experience, I don’t remember when I didn’t look up to veterans and appreciate their service. In my eyes, they were like today’s action heroes. My earliest memory during World War II was of community dinners that were held in the upstairs of an old-time general store in a tiny village in eastern Illinois where I grew up. Soldiers would come home on leave, and the town would honor them for their service with a get-together. On the wall above the piano was a board with the names of all the men and women in the community who were serving. Four gold stars were beside the names of those who would never see their home again because they were killed in action.
            After the war, many of those who did come home and re-entered civilian life had a difficult time. One of my older cousins who was in his early 20s at the time, had landed on Omaha Beach during the invasion of Europe on June 6, 1944. After the war when he came home, I remember him playing cards with my parents and a couple of others—still wearing his Army fatigues and wearing a tankers’ cover on his head.
            He later went to work driving a livestock truck for my father. As I got older, I got to go with him sometimes. He was kind and gentle to me, but one day while we were at a neighbor’s farm loading calves during a thunderstorm, Bruce dove under the truck when a bolt of lightening accompanied a loud crack of thunder as if a mortar had exploded beside him. When I saw him do that, I was scared and didn’t know what to think.
            The neighbor—whose own son had served with Bruce—put his hand on my shoulder and simply said to me, “He was in the war, son.”
            Through the years, I continued riding or working with Bruce whenever possible. Throughout the area, we’d run into others who had served. I’d listen to them talk and occasionally hear a bit about their service. Not much, but I looked up to them and their service and told them I hoped some day to also be able to serve in a war as they had done—something they always said they hoped I would never have to do.
            Time ran out for Bruce when he was no longer able to handle the pain from his wounds and injuries. Sadly, on the anniversary of the D-Day invasion several years later, he took his own life. He once told me he wouldn’t take a million dollars for what he’d seen—but he wouldn’t take a millions dollars to do it again, either.
            The barber who cut my hair until I was out of high school had been in the Marine Corps and had landed on Iwo Jima—one of the toughest battles of the war—6,821 men were killed and another 19,000 wounded in the 36-day battle. He was among the wounded, and while he was being hoisted up the side of a hospital ship, he looked back toward the island and saw the flag flying on Mount Suribachi that’s now an iconic image in our nation’s history. He would tell that story to me with tears in his eyes.
            “Regardless of how long I live, I’ll never see anything so beautiful as Old Glory flying on that mountain,” he said. That was on only the fifth day of the battle, and the men on the island thought the battle was over.
            Others fought and served throughout the Pacific and Europe, “Flew The Hump,” over the Himalayas, taking food and supplies into China, or served in the States, as many civilians did, to support the war effort overseas. Some 16 million men and women served.
            When one of our neighbors who had joined the Marine Corps Air Wing before the war would meet one of my dad’s trucks I happened to be riding in and I would see him, I’d roll down the window and put my arm out and fly “a plane” at him. He’d fly his arm back at me. He’d been wounded in Hawaii as he was relieving the guard on Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
            Then came the Korean War, the Cold War and Vietnam. I served during the later half of the second and the first part of the last and was with men who had served on Guadalcanal, on through the island-hopping campaign on the way to Japan and later in Korea. My most vivid memory is of one man, a corporal when I met him, a private when I last saw him serving time in the brig where I worked, who had been a gunnery sergeant. He’d landed with the infantry in four island campaigns, including bloody Tarawa, in World War II. He was still a gunnery sergeant during Korea, but his condition, which would have been identified as PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) today, and alcohol took its toll. The last time I saw him back in the States he had the 1000-yard stare as he moved along, oblivious to everything around him.
            Since then, the country has eliminated the draft, the Iranian student revolution took over our embassy in Tehran and held our servicemen and citizens prisoner for 444 days, the Marine Barracks in Beirut was bombed, we’ve been attacked in our own country on 9-11, and we’ve been at war in Afghanistan and Iraq for years, and we’re still fighting in the Middle East.
            And despite the lack of a draft, thousands of men and women have continued serving in the military by choice to keep us free and safe. Remembering and honoring those veterans who serve this country on our behalf is what today is all about. It’s the right thing for us to do for those who have been willing to put themselves in harm’s way to defend our country and our freedom.
            Thank you for your attention and thank you for remembering and honoring our veterans, today and every day.

October 26, 2016

Goodbye to a dear friend


Losing someone close is always difficult, even if it’s a dog. And Skipper slipped away around noon not long ago after the vet had operated on him to relieve the pressure on the spleen caused by a mass and found other problems with the liver and other organs that precluded any quality of life and guaranteed a painful existence.
       He could linger awhile, but he would be in pain after the anesthesia wore off. So we all went to say goodbye to him at 11:30 as he was coming awake that morning. We’d already cried a bit individually when my wife called us with the news. But then we cried together as we told him goodbye and watched him slip out of our lives. The girls sat on the floor, petting him and talking softly to him.
       Skipper was wrapped in a blanket, shaking with a chill from the anesthesia, but was quite aware of everybody there with him. He shifted his eyes now and then to look at one or the other of us. It was like he knew what he was there for and why we were there. And there was a gentle, kind look in his eyes that seemed to be one of appreciation.
      Like a lot of dogs, Skipper understood language. Or at least I like to think he did. And not just English. He understood some Spanish and Vietnamese, too. Tell him no mas when he was doing something he shouldn’t be doing, and he understood. He might rebel if he wanted to jump up on somebody and welcome him or her to the house. But give him a sharp DD Mau! and he’d go quickly to his  pen. If he was uncertain, though, he’d stop at the door and look back to see if he really had to go inside.
      He knew what he could get away with from the beginning.
      We found him through an ad in the News-Gazette from one of my former students living in Danville when our girls, Caitlin and Jessica, were 8 and 10. He had that frisky pup look in his eyes—they all did, really. We liked him right off.  I suggested naming him Skipper after the Cocker Spaniel I had had growing up.
       Everybody agreed.

       From then on, Skipper was a part of the family. The girls got him a Christmas stocking with his name on it to hang over the mantle with the rest of ours. We got candy and other treats; Skipper got his stocking filled with goodies, too. He’d sit around the Christmas tree as we opened presents and wait his turn. When he’d get a bone to chew on or something else that would take him awhile to handle, he’d go off away from us.
       Through the years, he became a constant and familiar presence in the house. We all felt he was there. And when he wasn’t, we felt that, too. It’s taken us awhile to get used to his absence. He’d come and lie by your side, jump up in your lap or wait at the end of the stairs if you were upstairs.
       He was a friend, a buddy you could talk to and not worry about whether he agreed with you or whether he thought you had a screw loose. It didn’t take much to keep him happy. A warm bed, some chow, water and a pat on the head would do it. He did much more for us than we did for him.
       When he started failing, I noticed he wouldn’t hop up in your lap or jump in the car or get up the stairs quickly. And he wouldn’t eat much, lost weight and was more lethargic than normal. Like any other member of the family then, he went to the doctor.
       And like with any medical situation with a family member, there were decisions to make. Once that was done, we hoped for the best. We may have had Skipper for a while longer had we not opted for surgery. But he would have been in pain and very well could have died alone.
       While he went far too soon, there is some comfort in having been there with him as he quietly slipped away. Taking him back out where he grew up and roamed the yard, we dug a hole together, placed his bed in it and lay him gently on it between the cushioned ends, took a moment with our own thoughts and then started covering him up.
That was comforting, as well—knowing that we had done our best and were with him to the end.

September 18, 2016

‘Blame it all on my roots, I showed up in boots’

For any number of reasons, I’ve always liked Garth Brooks’ song, “Friends in Low Places,” written by Earl Bud Lee and his songwriting partner, Dewayne Blackwell. One of the reasons is how they say the idea for the song came about in a restaurant when they found they had no money to pay the bill. I always remember a line from the old Saul Bass documentary, Why Man Creates: “From looking at one thing and seeing another.” 
      But that’s another story.
      It’s the wearing of boots in the song that I’m thinking about now. Growing up watching cowboy movies and reading western novels by Louis L’Amour, Max Brand, Zane Grey, Luke Short and a host of other writers of that genre, I had wanted a pair of cowboy boots and a horse from the time I can remember.
      I got a pair of old boots from one of my father’s truck drivers when I was 9 or 10. They were size eight, and I squeezed my feet into them until I needed another size larger. Never did get the horse.
      My 75-year-old grandfather once rode a nice paint gelding 10 miles to give to me, saddle and all, at the time I got the boots. But my loving yet overprotective mother refused to let me keep the horse and insisted that my grandfather ride the horse the 10 miles back. My father wasn’t home, and later said he’d have let me keep him. Cell phone technology would have changed my whole world back then.
      The boots stayed with me, though. Throughout life, I’ve always had a pair or two and have worn them everywhere—I don’t think I’ve ever “showed up in boots and ruined (anyone’s) black-tie affair.” Not that anyone ever said, anyway.
      Oh, there have been many hoots and hollers, mostly in good spirits, about the fact that I wore cowboy boots or that I didn’t talk or sound the same way other teachers did.
      When I was teaching in the Chicago suburbs, I’d clomp down the halls during my free periods and the classroom doors would be open, and one of my English teaching colleagues would hear me coming, and holler out, “Hey, hillbilly, come in here and let these students see your boots and hear you talk!”
      “Now, Nancy,” I’d say to one of the main perpetrators who, herself, had a distinct South Side accent, “these here boots are quite comfortable an’ go better with these here Levis than anythin’ I could wear, an’ I just cain’t stand to wear them there Dockers an’ loafers an’ look like no city slicker.” 
      The kids would laugh and ask where I came from to sound like that.
      “Well, I’m from Southern Illinoise,” I’d say with an exaggerated Southern twang. “My accent is an Upper Midland dialect, nothing like this old South Side Chicago accent you’ns have where you ask, ‘You wanna go with?’ and never finish the sentence with whom or where to let me know with whom I’m agoin’ with or where we’re agoin’.”
      Another time, I arrived early to meet some friends in a New York City restaurant and was sitting at the bar, nursing a beer and minding my own business, but got into a casual conversation with some other people.
      Finally, one of the women who’d been openly staring at my boots, Levis and the leather jacket I was wearing asked with a rather coy smirk, “You’re not from around here, are you?”
      “No, ma’am, I ain’t,” I said. “I hail from back yonder in Illinoise an’ just come out here to the big city for a couple o’ days to see how the rest of you’ns live.”
      Everybody laughed.
      So I’ve always had a good time wearing boots and talking as I do. Never bothered me none, nor kept me from finding a job that I ever knew about.
      Then a few years ago, I took over a teaching job in the middle of the school year from a beautiful and popular woman of color and taught an African-American literature class among the assigned classes she’d been teaching, hoping to get hired on full time. The room full of minority students initially met me with hostile stares.
      I’d replaced their favorite teacher—and I talked different and wore cowboy boots. It wasn’t long before we got on quite well, though, and the class became one of my favorite all-time classroom teaching experiences.
      Despite that, I didn’t get the permanent position, and moved on.
      Years later, I talked to one of the teachers who said he had lobbied for me to be hired and said the principal had agreed with him that I’d done an excellent job.
      “You know why you didn’t get the job?” he asked.
      Of course, I didn’t.
      “The principal hesitated for a minute,” the teacher said, “looked away, then said, ‘He wears cowboy boots.’”


September 9, 2016

‘Disturbing the Peace’ a documentary of monumental significance in search of peace


Throughout the 18 years of the Roger Ebert Film Festival, Roger and his staff have brought a number of important and significant movies and documentaries to the restored Virginia Theatre in Champaign, Ill., with themes exploring love, terminal illness, aging, organ donation, war and any number of other subjects of consequence.
       But in this year’s festival, a documentary of crucial importance to finding a peaceful solution to war and conflict was introduced to festival goers just a month after Chaz Ebert saw the film at a special screening in New York, as reported in the local News-Gazette by Melissa Merli, who has long been the newspaper’s eyes and ears at Ebertfest.
       The film, Disturbing the Peace, had what was called a “special premiere” and was given the first Ebert Humanitarian Award for a film shown at the festival.
       In the documentary, producer and co-director Stephen Apkon and cinematographer and co-director Andrew Young go to the troubled Middle East where Palestinians and Israelis have fought and died for territorial rights for decades. Former soldiers, fighters and activists from both sides who have lost family members have come together to form a group they call Combatants for Peace and are now ostracized and considered outcasts by many still fighting.
       Writing about the documentary in the festival program, reviewer Ben Cheever outlined the roles played by each side for years. “This fresh and intimate documentary by a first-time director and his veteran partner has changed the world I know,” he wrote. “Some stories we inherit. Some stories we invent ourselves. We live these stories. Change the stories and we change the world.”
       Two of the co-founders of Combatants for Peace, former Israeli soldier and former prisoner Chen Alon and Palestinian activist and former prisoner Sulaiman Khatib (who was sentenced to 15 years when he was 14) were in Champaign for only a few hours during the festival to talk about the film and the movement. They sat shoulder to shoulder on the stage as part of the panel after the film and told their story.
       Khatib served 10 and one-half years of his sentence and spent the time reading and learning about other world conflicts and the philosophies of Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, participating in hunger strikes and developing his commitment to nonviolent resistance.
As a reserve major in the Israeli army, Alon also co-founded Courage to Refuse, “a movement of officers and combatant soldiers who refuse to serve in the occupied Palestinian territories,” and was sentenced to prison.
       While the hostilities still rage between Palestinian and Israeli freedom fighters and soldiers, the existence of the group and the marches for peace is a far cry from the carnage that continues in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Iran and much of the rest of the Middle East with ISIS, the Taliban and other factions that have continued fighting for hundreds of years with no sign of it coming to an end.
And the way Khatib and Alon served their prison sentences and came out to work together for peace is a long way from how the prisoners of Guantanamo, Abu Graib and other prisons and detention centers throughout the world have reportedly served time and functioned after release back into society.
       It’s also a far cry from the way the controversial Steven Salaita, whose offensive and vulgar-laced rants against Israel cost him a teaching position at the University of Illinois before he ever taught the first day and cost the cash-strapped university a boatload of money, responded to the Palestinian-Israeli struggle.
       If the stories for the Palestinians and Israelis can change and have the potential to change life in that area of the world, it seems that a similar approach can offer hope for the rest of the world.
It may not be as simple as John Lennon wrote in his song: “Imagine there's no countries/It isn't hard to do/Nothing to kill or die for/And no religion too/Imagine all the people/Living life in peace. …” but you can imagine people on opposite sides of the conflicts, political parties, religions and other contentious situations or groups coming together in the interest of peace and civility.
       One would like to think that government leaders could be at least as forward thinking as the former combatants and activists in Palestine and Israel. Or is that asking too much? There are many places that could follow their example.
       A good place to start changing the stories is in our own communities, in the state government in Springfield, and in the federal government in Washington.

June 14, 2016

'In this tunnel lingers the memory of Marines ...'


Though Memorial Day is over, the speeches fading, the ceremonies concluded and the living still living free, the purpose of the day lingers in my mind. Like a lot of us, I didn’t always contemplate the sacrifices so many have made for our freedom. It was something I took for granted.
But back in the early ’60s when the Vietnam War was just beginning to ramp up for what was to come, I was a young Marine stationed in Marine Barracks, Sangley Point, a guard company on the island of Luzon in the Philippines. The off-duty section sometimes went off together for a day or two of R&R.
            One day, we boarded the admiral's boat and headed out across Manila Bay for Corregidor, another of the 7,000 islands that make up the Philippines. They had also been bombed by the Japanese right after Pearl Harbor and were controlled by them until the end of the war.
            Some of the officers and senior NCOs in the guard company had fought all through the Pacific. It wasn't something they talked about, but we knew they'd been there. For most of us, though, who were 18, 19 or 20 years old, World War II was “ancient history.” We didn't think much about it any more than they talked about it.
            On the boat ride over to Corregidor, we drank San Miguel beer and were happy to have a day free of duty—much like people do on holidays today. Once we disembarked, we walked around looking at the rusting, pit-marked anti-aircraft guns, a lighthouse, an old chapel, a small brig and other facilities you’d find on any American military outpost.
            Later, we walked into a large opening in the side of a hill with “Malinta Tunnel” in large block letters above the entrance. The top sergeant said it'd been Gen. Jonathan Wainwright's headquarters and a hospital when he was trying to hold the Philippines after Gen. Douglas MacArthur was ordered to Australia in early 1942 and gave his famous “I shall return” promise to his men and the press.
Faded message written on the wall inside Malinta Tunnel
            It was eerie to walk through the tunnel that had been an army general's headquarters and a hospital before it was taken over by the Japanese in a fierce battle. But the cool damp breeze was a welcome relief from the hot tropical sun and heat outside. We casually walked along talking, laughing and thinking about home and little about the war.
            On a wall of the tunnel, though, I saw some faded writing that looked as if it had been written in charcoal. I stopped and read: “In this tunnel lingers the memory of the Marines whom fate denied them the chance of meeting you. Leave one smile & your name shall be praise. Pepe.”
            I was moved by the solemnity of the words and asked Top about them. He was a crusty old Marine who'd spent nearly 30 years in the Marine Corps. Guadalcanal had been his first campaign of World War II. He looked at me, then stared off toward the end of the tunnel before answering.
            “The Japanese overran Corregidor in May of  ’42,” he said and explained that after Bataan fell, Corregidor was all that was left to protect Manila. The Fourth Marine garrison of 1,500 men that was to defend Corregidor received reinforcements of about 3,500 men. All of them fought under the command of a Marine colonel. Some 800 of the defenders were killed in action and another 1,000 were wounded.
            I was struck by what the top told me and went back to the base library and found an account of the siege and fall of Corregidor. Wainwright’s radio message to President Roosevelt regarding the surrender said simply, “There is a limit of human endurance, and that point has long been passed.”
            About 4,000 of the U.S. and Filipino troops were taken to Manila and marched through the streets to prisons at Fort Santiago and Bilibid. Most of the rest who were able to work were sent to various Japanese prison camps or to Japan for slave labor.
            Wainwright himself was held in prison camps in northern Luzon and Formosa before being taken to Manchuria, where he was kept until the Russians liberated him in August 1945. He was the highest-ranking American POW in the war, and despite his rank, his treatment by the Japanese was harsh.
            I’ve never found the numbers for how many of those taken prisoners on Corregidor died in captivity or how many lived through the war. Many of them certainly died. But I’ve never forgotten those words on the wall of Malinta Tunnel. And I've never looked at Memorial Day or the sacrifices of those who gave their lives for our freedom the same way since.

April 25, 2016

Political correctness establishes a beachhead


The headline in the March 21 issue of The Wall Street Journal caught my attention: “Notable & Quotable: Marines’ ‘Unconscious Bias.’” But I wasn’t sure what that meant until I started reading the story.
      It was from a longer story from military.com reporter Hope Hodge Seck’s March 18 article, “All Marines to get ‘Unconscious Bias’ Training as Women Join Infantry.”
      I was aware of the mandate by the powers that be who have never served in the Marine Corps—or any branch of service for that matter—to integrate women into the infantry and even send them to boot camp and officer’s candidate school with men. But I wasn’t sure what “unconscious bias” training meant. That drove me to look for a definition.
      And I found one on the University of Warwick website: “Unconscious bias refers to a bias that we are unaware of, and which happens outside of our control. It is a bias that happens automatically and is triggered by our brain making quick judgments and assessments of people and situations, influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences.”
      Which sounds quite clever.
      Col. Anne Weinberg, deputy director of the Marine Corps Force Innovation Office, recently told reporters that training teams would be sent to bases and installations throughout the Corps in May and June to present a two-day seminar for majors and lieutenant colonels who will then train the Marines under them.
      The seminars will include information on how people look at and prejudge others based on race and gender, as well as procedural changes in the Marine Corps and American military operations.
The colonel elaborated.
      “You’re in the field, you have only this certain amount of space for billeting and you’ve got three women and six guys. How are you going to billet?” Weinberg asked. “Just some of these common sense things that these ground combat units probably haven’t had to deal with, but we’ve been dealing with in the rest of the Marine Corps for generations.”
      Interesting point to think about.
      When the troops are back in the barracks, though, no doubt there are separate billets available. But as Ray Starman recently pointed out on the U.S. Defense Watch website, “There are no billets in the field REMF! (You can figure out the acronym.) Your billet is a piece of ground.”
      That completes the colonel’s “common sense” perspective.
      Women have not yet been assigned to enlisted boot camp or infantry units, but they went “0 for 26” last year in the Marine Infantry Officers’ Basic Course, the article reported.
Not that that had any effect on the decision.
      The Washington Post obtained a survey of 54,000 Marines from the Center for Naval Analyses that reported “a significant majority of male Marines at every rank opposed the decision to have women in combat roles.” And a third of female Marines also opposed placing women in ground combat roles.
      So the troops have spoken, but the Marine Corps ain’t a democracy. The decision to put women in combat units comes from outside the Marine Corps and doesn’t seem to consider unit effectiveness. And regardless of what those who serve or have served may think about the decision, that’s the way it is going to be as the infantry goes slogging and fighting and dying through the desert or wherever else it is deployed. Only then will we see how it affects the casualty rate and fighting spirit of the Marines sent to the battlefield to do the bidding of the folks back in the safety of the civilian world.
      Scores of comments from Marines, former Marines, parents of Marines and other interested parties poured onto the web pages of The Wall Street Journal, military.com and usdefensewatch.com quicker and more than I’ve ever seen.
      One concerned parent wrote, “My youngest son is a Recon Marine. He’s trained to prepare (for) the battlefield, engage the enemy in hostile territory, lead the regular combat troops, defend crucial positions, destroy or secure infrastructure, protect his comrades and defeat the enemy. The last thing he needs to be thinking about as he goes into battle is the ‘unconscious bias’—a useless distraction from the task at hand. The people behind this are needlessly putting his life in danger.”
      Another man asked, “Does that mean the draft (for which men must register at age 18) is going to apply to women? I have a conscious/unconscious bias that insists you can’t have privilege without responsibility. Evidently all women can be warriors just as all men can.”
      Another man summed it up pretty well: “From the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of political correctness.”
      So in the true Marine Corps tradition, “Improvise, adapt and overcome.” Experience will determine the wisdom of the decision to put women in the infantry.

March 24, 2016

Sharing a gratifying review of With The Silent Knowledge


My thanks to Arnold Shapiro for the following review he wrote about my novel, copies of which are available at www.talespress.com or at Amazon. (Posted with permission.)

Realism, rich dialogue and memorable characters
make novel about the flaws of incarceration read more like a memoir
 
My hope in writing this review is that readers will want to buy this book. I enthusiastically recommend it for several reasons.
        Most novelists begin a book because they have a good story to tell and/or they have strong, memorable characters around which to craft a compelling story. Ray Elliott has both, but adds a third important motivation: that many non-violent convicts don’t belong in prison and that sending them into incarceration only weakens their chance upon release of staying straight.
        Elliott could have taken his position and evidence and written an exposé book or persuasive magazine article. Instead, he chose to make his point through fiction and some memorable characters. I think Elliott chose the most effective medium by writing this novel, “With the Silent Knowledge.”
        We follow the main character, Michael Callahan, a young man who is an alcoholic and a forger – each condition making the other possible. We see “Chip” Callahan during his one-year bit inside an Illinois maximum-security prison for the third time, and then after his release. But here’s what’s so remarkable about this novel:
        Callahan’s time in prison, and everything he experiences, thinks and feels, is so realistic that I felt like I was reading an actual, engaging memoir, not a novel. Ray Elliott describes prison life so accurately that everything he wrote feels like it must have really happened to some inmate, somewhere.
        I can verify the realism of Ray Elliott’s story and the crazy journey of Chip Callahan. I spent a great deal of time inside a maximum-security prison in the 1970s (the time period of this novel) when I was researching and then producing, directing and writing the Oscar and Emmy Award-winning television documentary, “Scared Straight,” and more recently, as the executive producer of the A&E documentary series, “Beyond Scared Straight,” which took me inside dozens of prisons and jails. In terms of what prisons are really like, there is little fiction in the descriptions and occurrences in this fictional story.
        Part of the harsh reality and believability of the story is due to the rich use of dialogue – more dialogue than the average novel and – interestingly – more erudite than most people speak.
        Michael Callahan is very intelligent, glib and well spoken. There are many words in the dialogue that elevate the conversations such as “oblisk,” “asymptotically” or  “picayunish.” The dialogue is so colorful and often witty because Callahan is so smart, outspoken and unfiltered: 
        To Callahan: “Did you hear that Otto died?” 
        Callahan: “Whatever did he do that for?”
        The person with whom he has countless dialogue sparring matches is a young counselor at the prison, Jim Blaine. In fact, Callahan’s story is being told to us by Blaine nearly 50 years after it happened in the 1970s. We’re actually reading a story within a story – book-ended by Blaine’s commentary about the failures and flaws of incarceration – especially of non-violent, often addicted offenders who could truly be changed and rehabilitated elsewhere, by other means than confining them to a prison filled with far worse negative, violent offenders.
        Your sympathy for or empathy with Callahan will be based on your attitude about and knowledge of alcoholism. Callahan is certainly charismatic and likable, smart and perceptive. But he’s also self-destructive. Don’t try to anticipate what is going to happen next and what will come out of Callahan’s intelligent but uninhibited and smart-ass mouth. I found myself rooting for him to make parole and then to succeed on the outside. I could not stop reading the last 45 pages to find out what happened to Callahan once he was released from prison.
        Our journey with Callahan during his one-year behind bars is enlightening, shocking, tragic, amusing at times, and always unpredictable. And, throughout the book, there is even some poetry!
        This is a powerful book in terms of its story, its characters, and its underlying message for all of us who live in this society where more people are incarcerated than any other country in the world, and with a recidivism rate that is shamefully and dangerously high.
        I hope you will enjoy and benefit from reading “With the Silent Knowledge” as much as I did. Yes, it’s a novel, but to reiterate: It reads like an engaging memoir.

– Arnold Shapiro
Oscar and 16-time Emmy Award-winning television producer

March 19, 2016

An Audience for Mature Films

Note: Here’s the second column about the Scared Straight program that I wrote five days after the first many years ago, during and after class discussions when the suburban Chicago high school where I was teaching wouldn’t allow or approve me to show it in the documentary unit of my journalism class. Most of the students had seen the documentary. It probably still wouldn’t be allowed in today’s politically correct world when the prison population is exploding, and it looks like there is no end in sight for why people are sentenced and sent away from the community. The Scared Straight program has continued, and After Scared Straight was aired on the History Channel this fall. There are pros and cons of the program. Google “Scared Straight” to see them for yourself. Nothing works for everybody, but it seems worth continuing.
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There’s something about today’s high school students that we tend to overlook sometimes. Maybe it’s called maturity. Here’s an example of it, anyway:
     A review of sorts about a controversial documentary called Scared Straight appeared in this space last week. The program from which the film came was designed to scare kids away from prisons. It seems to be succeeding.
     The Los Angeles Times said the film is “one of the most powerful and unusual television programs ever broadcast … the medium at its finest.”
     Gary Deeb, television critic for the Chicago Tribune, reported that the reaction to the program in the Chicago area “has been so heavy and favorable that WFDL-Ch 32 has scheduled the documentary for a repeat on May 20 (1979).”
     Many high school students watched the program, too. According to an informal poll conducted at a suburban Chicago high school for this piece of writing, about one-forth of the students in some upper-division classes watched the documentary, mostly with their parents. This 25 percent figure is close to the 3 percent of the 10 p.m. audience Arbitron said the film had.
     And during class discussions over the next few days, the students continued to be interested in the film. They talked about the changes in the kids’ personalities who appeared in the film from the time they were first interviewed to the time they were last interviewed.
     The students had seen the changes the kids had undergone from the time they got to the prison to the time they left. Everyone noted the changes in the juveniles serving the sentences from the moment they entered the prison gates on to where they heard the catcalls and looked around at the unfamiliar walls.
     Some students were shy talking about the film, but the shine in their eyes and the nods from their heads showed agreement. Others talked excitedly and waved their hands wildly. Their comments and observations kept the discussions going.
     “Did you see when that one convict told them to take all their shoes off and put them in the middle of the floor?” one student asked who rarely spoke in class. “He asked them how it felt to be ripped off.”
     Those who hadn’t seen the film looked from speaker to speaker and asked questions when they had a chance. Some of the questions were ones that had been asked by skeptics of the program.
     “You mean a three-hour sentence in a prison is going to change a bunch of juvenile delinquents? From New York?” a girl in another class asked. She always questioned anything she didn’t believe. “Uh-huh.”
     “Oh, yeah,” one of the girls who had seen the program said. “If you’d seen it, you’d know why a three-hour sentence would do it. Those kids were scared to death. I would have been, too. So would you.”
     Several students mentioned the violence or the threat of violence in the film. They talked about the relationship between Scared Straight and Night and Fog, a French documentary the class had seen contrasting the comforting color of the present with the dreary black and white of the past to portray the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps.
     They saw the similarities between the degradation and the hopelessness of the convicts and the Jews in the concentration camps. But they also saw the difference. They saw there was no hope in the concentrations camps, and they saw that a few inmates in the prison were able to find some meaning in their lives by helping some kids avoid prison.
     They also saw how the film showed effective use of the medium of television and that of the documentary format by bringing a very real and worthy program to the tube. They expressed appreciation that the media could be used for so much benefit.
     They wanted to see the film in class. It seemed possible. And when they found out it would probably have to be after school, it didn’t matter to most of them. Some did say they had to work.
     Then when they found out they couldn’t see the film after school, they didn’t know what to say. Oh, they were angry. But they didn’t know what to do.
     One quiet boy in the front row asked why they couldn’t see the film. He had seen it and thought it was a good film, worthy of seeing for more reason than one. He was told that the people who made the decision didn’t think the film was appropriate to show students their age.
     He looked back for a minute before he said, “I wonder when it would be appropriate to show it to us? When it’s too late?”
     “It was on television,” another student said.
     “That’s censorship,” still another said.
     And they said a lot of other things about the film and the situation. But not once did they mention the foul language, except to say they had heard it all before. They saw the language as a part of the whole, not as something offensive or to snicker about.
     Nor did they snicker about the varying sexual preferences of the inmates. They didn’t comment about the race of the convicts, either.
     Oh, two kids who hadn’t been coming to class at all did smile crookedly and giggle to themselves about something from time to time. But they’re coming to class now… That’s something for them.

January 21, 2016

Scared Straight Will Open Your Eyes

Note: In preparation for launching my new novel, With The Silent Knowledge, set in an Illinois prison in the 1970s, I went back through my files looking for pieces I wrote about prisons and corrections in the late ’70s. I found two columns I wrote at the time about the documentary filmmaker Arnold Shapiro’s Scared Straight series.
    The first one was published in the Robinson (IL) Daily News and other papers when the prison population in Illinois was about 10,000. Today it’s approaching 50,000. Many other states have seen similar gains. While the U.S. population accounts for only about 5 percent of the world population, our prison population accounts for 23 percent of the world’s incarcerated people. In Illinois alone, the annual budget for taking care of the inmates is $1.2 billion or an average of about $24,000 per inmate. And Illinois politicians haven’t even agreed upon the budget this year.
    The Scared Straight program seemed to be working well for young men and women back in the ’70s. I don’t know how effective it has been since—and some say it’s ineffective—but with the increase in prison population, nothing else seems to be working.   The column follows. I hope you’ll check out the novel at www.talespress.com.
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“This program contains explicit crude language and graphic descriptions that may not be suitable for some viewers”—warned an ad in the Chicago-area TV Guide for the showing of Scared Straight, a controversial program to steer people away from prison.
    And it meant just what it said. I heard language on that program that I don’t even hear in the halls of the high school where I teach. It took me back to the days of the Marine Corps and Menard Prison. The language was real, the tones harsh. They cut to the bone.
    I’d never heard language like that on television. George C. Scott as Gen George Patton sounded like a choirboy compared to the inmates and younger toughs seen in Scared Straight.
What the program purported to show was that “scaring the crime out of kids isn’t pretty … but it works.” Here’s how:
    At Rahway (NJ) State Prison in 1976, inmates established a program to show kids in trouble what it’s like to be in prison. The program is called the Juvenile Awareness Program.
    Kids from youth homes are sent to Rahway to serve “three-hour sentences.” The sentence includes a tour of the prisons and some expert testimony from inmates who volunteer for the program.
Sixty minutes of watching Scared Straight is much different than watching 60 minutes of a James Cagney prison movie. Three hours of participating in the program is reported to have a lasting effect on a kid’s life.
    Testing and diagnostics are not part of the experience for these kids. They are replaced with the sounds of a Marine Corps boot camp or an unwanted confrontation with a Chicago policeman on a dark street.
    The only thing the inmates spare the kids is the actual physical violence. But they are threatened so convincingly that they don’t know if they’ll be hit or not. The television program, Scared Straight, is narrated by Peter Falk and is a one-hour presentation. Young kids in trouble are introduced and talk about their image of themselves, their goals, their lives. They are young tough kids, street kids, male and female. They like their way of life, are proud of it.
    One of them brags that he might get stopped once in a while, but you’ll know he’s going to be back again. That’s the way he is. That’s the way a lot of them are. The language is tough, but it doesn’t have the bite of the older inmates’ language. These kids aren’t afraid of going to prison—at first. Seventeen of them, black and white, male and female, visit the prison for their three-hour sentence. It’s a different world immediately. The tough kids show none of their earlier cockiness. Nor can they use their own terror tactics to control life around them.
    They’re no match for the older, tougher and wiser inmates who begin teaching them almost as soon as the kids step in prison. As they tour the prison, they walk down a cellblock, inmates call after them, expressing their sexual preference—young boys sometimes.
The young kids are dominated, harassed, threatened, educated, intimidated, cajoled and accursed by inmate volunteers. The only thing the inmates can’t do is hit the kids. That doesn’t stop them from threatening.
    But the kids don’t know the inmates won’t hit them. They know the inmates are doing a lot of time and don’t have any real way of being punished. The kids are scared, too. That makes a difference.
The inmates describe what prison is like. Each of them has a different mannerism or quirk. One wants everybody to look at him all the time, never smiling. One by one they talk about homosexual rape, prostitution among inmates and the violence. A black inmate takes a young kid by the belt and guides him to another inmate and asks if he’s got a cigarette. The inmate gives him a cigarette and buys the kid. That’s the way it’s done. The kids are learning. They see raw reality. And they’re stripped of their image, sitting helplessly under the wrath of the angry inmates. Kids are taunted until it almost seems one of them will blow. But nobody does. They’re two scared. And they stay that way.
    Of the 17 kids who attended the taped session, 16 of them went straight three months after the taping. One girl was busted for a minor infraction and given a suspended sentence. At the end of a year, none of the 17 had been in trouble again. That’s how the program works.
    Since its inception in 1976, there have been no major incidents, and almost 10,000 kids have served the sentence. Ninety percent of them are steered into going straight, the program claims.
    After their image has been stripped and they see life as it is, the kids say they have the insight to see that they need counseling. And the Lifer’s Hotline is available to them when they think they’re going off track and need somebody to talk to who has been where they are.
    The film was crude, explicit and graphic for sure. The program is all of that and more. It ain’t pretty, but it does seem to work.