Saturday, July 4, 2015

Celebrating American Independence - New Dispatches from Maine

This morning I once again participated in the annual reading of the Declaration of Independence at the New Gloucester (Maine) Historical Society’s History Barn located behind the Meeting House in the Lower Village.  As a regular summer visitor for over two decades, and now a summer resident for the past six seasons, I was honored to continue my participation in this fine tradition marking the day we celebrate our revocation of British tyranny. And as before, I read the section listing the numerous “injuries and usurpations” to the American Colonies by King George III.

The Declaration meant a great deal to the early citizens of New Gloucester.  In 1736, a group of citizens of Gloucester, Massachusetts petitioned the colonial governor to settle land near the coast in the Province of Maine (it would not become a state until 1822).  The petition was granted the following year, and in 1739 a group of settlers cut a road from Yarmouth, on Casco Bay north of what is now Portland, through the intervale to the headwaters of the Royal River at Sabbathday Lake where our summer cottage is located.  A blockhouse fortification and palisades were erected on the high ridge line of Gloucester Hill circa 1753-1754 during the French and Indian War.  The town of New Gloucester was eventually incorporated in 1774 at a time when the thirteen American colonies were organizing to express general dissatisfaction with their treatment by the British crown.  Upon incorporation the good people of New Gloucester made it known that it would gladly contribute to the common defense of the united colonies in support of full independence.  By the end of the Revolutionary War, 44 New Gloucestermen heeded this call to arms.

I think every American should read this document from time to time to remind ourselves of the promises we made as a nation and its citizenry 239 years ago.  I fear we have strayed far from many of the freedoms and rights granted to us by our forefathers.  It is time we reconnect with our honorable heritage and face the future with a renewed sense of patriotism as we honor the gifts our Founding Fathers presented to us.

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Friday, June 26, 2015

Grilling Red Snappers - New Dispatches from Maine

It has been said that you know you have crossed into Maine when you go to the local market and the hot dogs on display are a bright, almost neon red. They are not called hot dogs here.  They are red snappers, pure and simple.  Oh, you can get the regular hot dogs at grocery stores, but why when you can enjoy a red snapper instead?  Red because of their obvious hue, and snapper because of the sharp snap they make when you bite into one.  Some folks are turned off at first sight; I know I was just a little suspicious.  They just did not look real to me.  But this all changed when I first bit into one of these pork franks for the first time.  They are delicious!

This is not to say these tasty wieners can’t be found elsewhere, although you might have to look near and far to find them in the grocery store.  I have seen them for sale in Massachusetts, but not on the scale they can be found here.  In Maine they are a staple anywhere you look, due in large part to the fact that the largest manufacturer of red snappers is Bangor-based W.A. Bean & Sons who have been turning them out since 1918 (founded in 1860, five generations of Beans have been running the company since then).  It claims it is the only source of red snappers in Maine and produces over 4 million of the red tube steaks annually.

They are tasty whether served in a split-top frankfurter roll, which is not the same thing as the standard hot dog bun found elsewhere in the USA (see photo above), or by themselves on a plate.  Just add a healthy squirt of mustard - I prefer Dijon or a mustard-horseradish confusion - and they are ready to eat washed down with a bottle of Moxie or cold beer. 

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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

A Special Kind of Soldier - New Dispatches from Maine














                L'audace, l'audace, toujours l'audace!
                 – General George S. Patton quoting Frederick the Great

I thought about posting this a few days ago, on Father’s Day, but decided to wait until today which would have been my dad’s 91st birthday.  I have posted about him in the past, but being in Maine, I thought I would touch on his short time here, about the only thing I knew about the Pine Tree State until my first visit in 1988.  I have been a regular visitor, and now part time resident, ever since.

Dad was drafted into the US Army in April 1943, just a couple months shy of his 19th birthday. He left his native Michigan, having never traveled farther than northern Ohio, and completed his basic training at Fort Jackson, in Columbia, South Carolina.  From there he was sent to the University of Maine, in Orono, as part of the Army Specialized Training Program.  The ASTP was designed to single out specially qualified soldiers for their exceptional IQs and send them to various college campuses around the United States to learn special war skills.  The two-company detachment of over 500 soldiers assigned to the University of Maine in the summer of 1943 was designated as a “pre-radar” group to study electrical and civil engineering and other related disciplines that would be required for the eventual invasion of Japan.  Some were also enrolled in Officers Candidate School (OCS) to be trained for a specialized officers corps to serve as Army engineers as the war expanded in the European Theater.  The training program was intense.  The ASTP soldiers wore their uniforms bearing the ASTP patch emblazoned with the “Sword of Valor and the Lamp of Knowledge” and maintained strict military discipline while attending university courses.   They stood early morning reveille and marched to classes and the dining hall.  The war had not yet begun in earnest for these young men, but they all knew their time would come.  They were “soldiers first, students second.”  Still, they knew they were fortunate to attend college and I recall Dad telling me how much he enjoyed his time in Orono; the war was far away and life was good, even during the winter with all the snow and the sub-zero temperatures.

    Some Mothers have sons in the Army,
    Some Mothers have sons on the Sea,
    Take down your service flag, Mother,
    Your son's in the ASTP.


Unfortunately, it would not last.  In February 1944, during the third term of the ASTP at Orono, many of the soldiers enrolled in the basic part of the program, including my dad, were recalled to active combat duty.  Casualties were mounting rapidly and the entire ASTP was abandoned that March when the advanced OCS students were also recalled to active duty.  They did not realize the Sword of Valor would come so quickly.  The Army decided its need for infantry replacements was more pressing than the need for technical specialties.  The early group traveled by train to Tennessee to join the 104th Infantry Regiment, 26th Infantry “Yankee” Division in the US Second Army’s spring maneuvers.  They were needed to bring the division up to strength before it was shipped to France in the wake of the D-Day invasion where it would join the US Third Army under General George Patton.  Originally consisting of personnel from the Massachusetts National Guard, the division was no longer the special pride of New England as its ranks swelled with men from all over the United States.  The ASTP soldiers would serve in the front ranks as combat infantry riflemen and knew from the beginning that their future looked grim.  Many who went never came back.

Thirty-four of the former ASTP soldiers at the University of Maine – their own special band of brothers – returned to Orono in September 2001 for a first reunion sponsored by the College of Engineering.  They returned not so much because of the short time they spent on campus, but because all of them were thrown into the war together.  These “special soldiers” came together again to honor the 52 members – 10% – of the ASTP detachment at the University of Maine who were killed in action during World War II and to place a bronze plaque inscribed with their names.  Since the university did not maintain records for the ASTP detachment assigned there, it is difficult to say if many more died during the war. Those who could be located and who attended the reunion believed there were many more.  Without original records, no one can be certain.  As many as 75% of the ASTP detachment was wounded in combat in northern France and across Germany in the final months of the war.  The plaque also includes the names of two soldiers who died in a dormitory fire on campus in February 1944.  I remember my dad telling me about the fire.  He was housed there and was lucky to get out.   Since this reunion, surviving ASTP members have located the names of several additional members who were killed in World War II and their names appear on a second plaque which hangs along side the first in the Class of 1944 Hall in the hope that those special student soldiers who died will not be forgotten again.

Dad did not attend the reunion; I doubt he even knew about it at the time.  He visited me here in Maine several years ago and I am quite certain it was his first time back since he left in 1944 on his way to Tennessee and the battlefields of Europe.  I asked him if he planned to go back to Orono to see if it had changed much.  He never did.  He pretty much put the war behind him when he returned home when so many did not.

If I have a chance, I hope to visit Orono this summer to have a look around and think of Dad and the good times he spent there as one of the US Army’s special kind of soldiers.

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Sunday, June 21, 2015

Subaru War Horse - New Dispatches from Maine

Allons! whoever you are come travel with me!
Traveling with me you find what never tires
.  
 
     – Walt Whitman, “Song of the Open Road”

Our 2005 Subaru Legacy wagon crossed the 200,000 mile threshold yesterday morning on my way home from the post office, the most miles we have ever put on a car.  That averages out to 20,000 mile a year and I can believe it.  That is over two-thirds the distance from the earth to the moon!  Our car is a war horse if ever there was one.

Purchased in early January 2005 when we drove it off the dealership lot in suburban northern Virginia, it is our fourth consecutive Subaru since we bought the first one - our first new car - in 1978.  Now, over ten years later, it is still a smooth and enjoyable drive.  And like all the Subarus that preceded it, it has been extremely reliable and durable after numerous fully loaded trips to and from Florida and Maine, as well as the  shorter road trip to hither and yon.  And the old girl still gets incredibly good mileage.  

Most of the miles are the routine daily local trips.  Driving in and around the Washington, DC metropolitan area takes a heavy toll on any car.  The streets are rough and full of potholes.  Add to these conditions the cold and damp winters and the hot and steamy humid summers which also exact their heavy toll.  The war horse goes where we point it and brings us back again.

We crossed the 100,000 mile mark in Florida in March 2010, and now we are in Maine and another summer during which we will rack up several thousands of miles of back road driving.  We take good care of her and she treats us well in return as we continue to explore the edges of America.  I’ll never tire of the old gal.

I wonder where we will be when we reach 300,000?

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Saturday, June 20, 2015

It's Time to Take It Down - New Dispatches from Maine

The recent murderous rampage in Charleston, South Carolina by yet another misguided and foolish person saddens and sickens me.   How many more of these  monstrous acts of violence must we endure before our leaders show the courage necessary to end this scourge?  Promises were made after the Newtown massacre almost three years ago and they still remain only promises.  People who should never have a gun can still get them.  And now, in the wake of this latest slaughter, people seem to be more interested in symbols than the weapon that killed nine innocent people in a historic black church in Charleston.  Many seem to believe that this madness will stop if we finally ban the display of the Confederate battle flag.  I feel they are somehow missing the point. 

I agree with those who think the flag should be taken down . . . from where it flies on the grounds of the South Carolina capitol in Columbia and elsewhere.  Those who tell you that it is a symbol of “heritage and not hate” are kidding themselves.  Just take a look at the above photograph.  Who wants to claim that as their heritage?  Lindsey Graham, who represents South Carolina in the United States Senate, and who almost three weeks ago announced his candidacy for President of the United States, would have us believe that the Confederate battle flag (different from the national flag of the Confederacy) is a "part of who we are."  Really?  It is certainly not a part of who I am.  And I would go so far as to suggest that it has nothing to do with anyone alive today regardless of where they were born or live.  A part of who we are as Americans?  Does this mean that modern Germans should fly the Nazi banner from their homes and government buildings because it is a part of who they are?  I don’t think so.  Today one often sees the Confederate flag flying alongside the Nazi banner at Klan rallies and other white supremacist gatherings.  The Confederate battle flag, regardless of what it represented a century and a half ago, has become inflammatory while representing an unfortunate chapter in this nation's history, one that could possibly have been avoided if our Founding Fathers had done the right thing when they had the chance.

Taking this symbol down will not end the racism it has long represented nor will it stop the endless and senseless gun violence that plagues this nation.  These problems are far too complex, and our leaders appear hesitant to address them in any sensible way.   Let's keep our eye on the ball, folks!  It is high time we start considering the very real problems we will continue to face as long as nobody has the courage to act.  We need to start somewhere.  Taking down that flag is only the first small step on the long road to doing what is necessary and right.

Symbolism only goes so far, but yes, it is time to take that flag down.  A first step, a small step, a symbolic step.  But we can’t stop there!  We need to roll up our sleeves and get to work doing what needs to be done.  And soon.  No more talking about it.  It’s time to act.  And if our leaders are not willing to do what we elected them to do, for whatever reason, then they need to step aside and get out of the way of those who can and will.

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Friday, June 19, 2015

Red Flannel Hash - New Dispatches from Maine

Someone yells “hash is ready” and I am usually the first to sit down at the table.  I love hash.  Corned beef hash, roast beef hash . . . call it hash and I am there.  But I never heard of red flannel hash until I first came to Maine almost three decades ago.  But I am glad I did, and despite some initial reservations about this local variant, I still come running. 

The etymology of the term “hash” goes back to the French “hacher” . . . to chop.  Like any good hash, it tastes best when made from leftovers and whatever else you might have handy.  In this instance, it is a motley of onion, diced potato, corned beef, with some salt and pepper to taste.  The “red flannel” come with the addition of chopped beets.  Top it off with a couple fried or poached eggs and you are done.  I am not a big fan of beets, mind you, but it works here and I am not exactly sure why.  It tastes good and so I don’t ask too many questions.

I have heard a couple tales on the origins of the name.  Some say it goes back to Vermont’s Green Mountain Boys during the American Revolution.  Supposedly they were so hungry one winter that they chopped up their red flannels to add to their scarce potatoes.  I guess hunger trumped warmth.  Another tale tells how a cook in a mining camp, suspecting her husband was stepping out on her, ground up his red flannel long johns and added them to the morning hash.   It turned out he and the others liked the stuff so much they asked to have the bright red hash every morning.  Having dispatched her errant husband’s only red flannels, she substituted beets after that.  I wonder whether he ever questioned the disappearance of his skivvies?  A good hash can make one forget his or her woes.  That must be it.  These make for entertaining tales, but the origins of Red Flannel Hash is, I am sorry to say, far more pedestrian.

Apparently The New York Times published a recipe for Red Flannel Hash in its October 25, 1943 edition under the title “Dish of Infinite Variety.”  It almost immediately drew fire from some of its readers.  One complained that the war would surely be lost “if the noble American dish of red flannel hash be fallen to the low estate set forth by your editorial . . .”, adding that the dish originated with the “never-to-be-forgotten institution, the New England Boiled Dinner!”   The ingredients were simple; one took the boiled dinner left-overs – “potatoes opalescently colored and lusciously flavored by a mixture of juices; beets, red and enticing; and a few golden carrots” – and chopped them up (but not too fine) “and warm them to a turn with a discreet use of the pot liquor.”  Another reader wondered “in what isolated corner of New England did you find the recipe published for red flannel hash?  Or were you simply fishing for the real recipe to replace the parody you gave?”  The dish was once again attributed to a boiled dinner – “corned beef and cabbage to New Yorkers” – and included “beets, carrots, turnip, cabbage and potatoes with the corned beef. The hash is the clean-up meal. It is correctly made of 50 per cent potatoes, 25 per cent corned beef and 25 per cent beets.”
Once chopped everything was fried in bacon fat in an iron skillet “and you have a dish for the gods, whether it be served for breakfast, lunch, dinner or supper.”
  
As fussy as Mainiacs are about their Italian Sandwiches (see my June 17, 2015 posting), the same goes for their Red Flannel Hash.  Some say it is only for breakfast and must be served with a fried or poached egg.  Others will insist it is a supper dish served with a side dish such as cole slaw, baked beans, or cornbread.  Still others will insist it can be served anywhere and at any time.  I tend to side with the latter.  And whereas Worcestershire sauce is frequently added to American Chop Suey (see my June 18 posting), Red Flannel Hash can be enhanced with a splash of apple cider vinegar.  Some will fry it in oil or bacon fat while others will add a dollop of sour cream just as you would to a bowl of borscht (beet soup).  Some like it soft and mushy and others fried crispy.

Strictly speaking, Red Flannel Hash is not unique to Maine; you can find it just about anywhere in northern New England.  But it was here in Maine where I first encountered it and so I consider it local fare.  My nose tends to go up when beets are offered to me; I would almost prefer my flannel long johns to beets.  Still, they work well in hash for some reason.  And I do love borscht, so what can I tell you?   The mysteries of life.

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Thursday, June 18, 2015

American Chop Suey - New Dispatches from Maine

Since I am on a local cuisine streak at the moment, allow me to wax poetic about a dish I first discovered at the Cole Farms Restaurant, an institution in nearby Gray, Maine since 1952.  I had no idea what to expect when I first came across American Chop Suey on the menu.

For me, chop suey conjures up the absolutely horrid Chun King “Chinese” food (and I use that term with great reservation) my mom occasionally served when I was growing up.  It was a congeries of chopped celery, tiny shrimp, chicken or beef mixed with a slurry of flaccid stir-fried mixed vegetables and some frightful mystery sauce that may have been soy sauce but I would not bet my life on it.  It came in a can, was heated, and then served over dried noodles.  I shudder to even think about it.  It has been decades since I last ate the stuff and I can still taste it.  It will never cross my lips again.  In fact, it was this concoction that scared me away from trying genuine Chinese cuisine until I was living on my own in college. 

So, when I saw “American Chop Suey” on the menu at Cole Farms, described as an “Old time New England favorite made with fresh tomato, bell pepper and sweet onion,” it immediately evoked those grim childhood memories of that mockery of Chinese food and I never gave it a second thought . . . not until I saw someone at a neighboring table being served a steaming bowl of what I have always referred to as goulash, which I adore, and I told my waitress that I did not see it on the menu.  She open it and pointed to “American Chop Suey.”  Imagine my surprise.  Goulash has nothing to do with Chinese cuisine and vice versa.  I had already ordered but made a mental note to try it the next time I returned. 

And I did.  Perhaps if the menu had noted that there was ground beef, and that it and the vegetables were served as a sauce over elbow macaroni, I would have realized that this was not the repugnant chop suey of old.  You live and learn.  Apparently a classic “chop suey” is a hodge-podge of ingredients served as a stew.  One source states that “chop suey” is a transcription of “tsa tsui,” the Mandarin Chinese for “a little of this and that.”  At long last, the mystery was solved.  American Chop Suey is a traditional comfort food here in northern New England, and like the Italian Sandwich, attributed to Italian immigrants to the region.  I have certainly never encountered it by this name anywhere else.  Growing up in the American Midwest, we simply called it goulash and usually associated it with the Hungarians, not the Italians, who brought the recipe with them when they immigrated to America.  I have been eating and enjoying it since I was a kid.   And in the Mid-Atlantic states, where I now live part of the year, this concoction is referred to as a “Chili Mac.”  Goulash or Chili Mac by any other name would smell (and taste) as sweet.

I was recently reading Tom Seymour’s Maine, a part of the “Off the Beaten Path” series describing unique places to visit in various states.  Seymour, a popular columnist and outdoor writer, tells how he likes to eat at “ma and pa” joints when traveling around the Pine Tree State.  The kind of places where the locals prefer to eat.  He calls American Chop Suey “Maine’s answer to authentic Italian cuisine.”  According to seriouseats.com, “the Oxford Companion to Food and Drink traces American Chop Suey's etymological origins to the 1916 Manual for Army Cooks, “an urtext for many institutional foods of the twentieth century.”  The manual called for beef round or pork shoulder, mixed with beef stock, barbecue sauce, and salt and served over white rice.  A 1932 Navy cookbook suggested the addition of cabbage and green peppers. Practical Home Economics (1919) includes a recipe that adds tomatoes and parsley while omitting the onions and cabbage.  Eventually the rice was replaced by elbow macaroni and somewhere along the line grated cheese was added.    This led me to wonder just how “authentic Italian” this stuff really is.  And around these parts you don’t serve it unless there is a bottle of Worcestershire (what’s this here)  sauce on the table.

It has been suggested that American Chop Suey is no longer as popular up here as it once was.  Perhaps this might be true in some places for it is not de rigeur on every menu.  Yet I have eaten at a lot of places and looked at a lot of menus here in Maine and I seldom have any problem finding it.  Now that I finally know what it is, I will order it when I am in need of, or nostalgic for, a genuine comfort food.  I am still not big on the name, but it sure does hit the spot!

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Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Italian Sandwich - New Dispatches from Maine

I have previously written lovingly of the “Cubano,” the popular Cuban sandwich which I always associate with visits to Florida, although it is beginning to show up on menus all over the USA.  So I think it is time to turn my attention to another favorite sandwich that has its origins right here in Maine.

I have been told that Portland, Maine is considered to be the birthplace of the Italian Sandwich.  Some even consider it to be Maine’s signature sandwich known simply as an “Italian” to those in the know.  Its origins can be traced back to the early 20th century when Italians were immigrating to New England in large numbers and settling into cities where they found ready work.  Many of them settled near Portland’s waterfront, and it was here that Giovanni Amato sold fresh baked rolls from a pushcart on the city wharves.  Around 1902 he eventually began to add meat, cheese, fresh vegetables, and a variety of condiments and his rolls became Italians.  Amato abandoned his cart for a storefront sandwich shop on India Street sometime in the 1920s, and by the 1950s the shop was making around 5,000 daily.   There is still an Amato’s at 71 India Street although there are now almost two dozen branch stores throughout Maine, with a few others in New Hampshire, Vermont and New York where you can still get close to one of Giovanni’s original Italians.  Amato’s also operates the oldest bakery in Maine in suburban Westbrook.  This is not to say that Amato’s has sole claim to the Italian, but its founder certainly set the standard high.  Now almost every corner grocery store and gas station shop here in southern Maine produce and sell unique versions of this tasty sandwich.  I had my first genuine Maine Italian at Sam’s, on Main Street in Lewiston after giving a lecture at nearby Bates College. It was a treat to behold.  Those who have grown up with a particular version tend to stay loyal to it for life, at times even having them Fed-Exed to wherever they might happen to be.  I don’t know if they are on Craig’s List or E-Bay, but I would not be a bit surprised.

Ask anyone who grew up or now lives for any length of time in Maine and all will pretty much agree on what constitutes an honest to God Italian Sandwich.  The sandwich got its name because its originator was Italian.  It has nothing to do with the ingredients.   Some might want to compare it to a muffuletta, a Sicilian-style sandwich popular in New Orleans.  I have had both and there is no comparison in my book.  For a classic Italian, you start with a one-foot-long soft roll . . . not the hard roll you get with a typical sub, hero, wedge, hoagie or grinder.  In fact, a good Italian in its current guise is as different from them as night is from day.  There is nothing really Italian but the bread or the fixings. The roll is sliced 2/3 of the way through lengthwise like you would a hot dog bun, and to  this you add a slice of American cheese (preferably the kind individually wrapped in plastic), slices of boiled ham, chopped onions, tomatoes, green peppers, sour pickles (although I add dills instead because I am not a native Maniac), a few olives (I prefer green or Greek), and a splash of extra virgin olive oil.  I also like to sprinkle on some oregano and a little salt and pepper, but like I said, I’m not from around here.  One thing you don’t include is lettuce (although many do), mayonnaise or mustard.  Why make it fancier than it needs to be?  And never, ever heat them up.  They are fine just the way they are.  Once finished with the ingredients, you wrap that baby up is some waxed paper (or whatever you have handy).  Unwrap one end and eat it directly from the wrap.  It can get a little messy, but what the hell.  Behold and enjoy . . . you don’t need no stinkin’ plate.

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Monday, June 8, 2015

Vacationland

Photo by Dave Benton
Yes, it is that time of year again.  Time to pack up, load up, and head up the familiar highways to Sabbathday Lake, in New Gloucester, Maine.  This will be our 28th consecutive summer in the Pine Tree State.  The thought of it rests gentle on my mind.

It was a long, hard winter, both in New England and here in the Mid-Atlantic states, with lots of snow and bitterly cold temperatures; pretty much what the weather pundits were saying last fall when we began to batten down the hatches while making ourselves ready to weather the storms to come.   But spring finally arrived, slowly but surely, and before I knew it the temperatures were beginning to creep up into the 80s, and even the low 90s, as Washington’s pervading humidity laid its heavy hand upon us. 

I have been following the weather reports from Maine for months, since we departed the lake for home in the early days of October.  The autumn colors were resplendent as we departed, but it was not long before the first flurries of snow were in the air.  Ice bound the lake tight by Christmas and then the snows came and piled up ever higher.  Ice out came in mid-April as the last vestiges of snow finally disappeared from the shadows.  A new Vacationland season was beginning.

So it is time to look northward, to the quiet and peaceful summer days along the shores of Sabbathday Lake, to the gentle breezes off the lake, and to the star-filled nights and the sound of the loons calling from the near distance.  It is a finestkind summer hiatus and it always arrives none to soon.

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Friday, June 5, 2015

Waiting for Godot

Photo by James Patterson
A literary evening in Washington, DC.  I am joined by poet and longtime dear friend Miles David Moore and Katherine Young, a gifted Russian translator and another good friend, at the after party following the Politics & Prose book launch for the Richard Peabody Reader released this year by Alan Squire Publishing.  Rick, who by the way is exactly one week older than me, is a razor-sharp (and frequently quirky) poet and writer who also edits and publishes Gargoyle, the seminal DC-based magazine founded in 1976 that may be one of  the finest literary journals in the United States. There are not too many writers in and around DC who have not been published by Rick and Gargoyle.  He published some of my early literary criticism and for that I will always be thankful. 

Thursday, June 4, 2015

And the Hits Just Keep Coming . . . .

Thanks to everyone who has checked out the 330+ postings appearing here since late 2008 . . . the 175,000 who have been counted since May 27, 2012, when the counter went online, as well as the uncounted thousands who visited this site before then.  I hope ALL of you will continue to visit as I share more random notes from the edge of America.  To paraphrase the great American patriot John Paul Jones - I have not yet begun to write.
Steve

Sunday, May 31, 2015

He Did Go Home Again - Searching for Conrad Richter

Along Tulpehocken Street, Pine Grove, PA - Photo by Carl Mydans
Back in January I was reading David McCullough’s Brave Companions: Portraits in History (1991), a collection of essays, including his 1977 "Cross the Blue Mountain," a description of a visit the author made to the small central Pennsylvania town of Pine Grove and the home of Conrad Richter in the summer of 1963.  A fellow Pulitzer Prize winner, McCullough met and befriended Richter in the 1960s and has called the novelist "an American master," praising The Waters of Kronos (1960) as "his most beautiful book."

McCullough visited Richter at his home on 11 Maple Street, near the intersection with Mifflin Street where Richter was born 72 years earlier.  He described Richter as “authentic and exceeding modest American artist about whom too little has been said.”  When they first met Richter was working on his final novel, The Aristocrat (1968).  McCullough intended to write an article about Richter but it was never realized.  Instead a close friendship blossomed in the final years of Richter’s life.  McCullough would return to Pine Grove several times over the next five years, and Richter would visit him briefly on Martha’s Vineyard although he seemed anxious to return home to Pennsylvania.  It seems he always wanted to go home again.  The two men would correspond until Richter’s death on May 30, 1968.  After reading McCullough’s essay I thought it might be fun to make my own pilgrimage to Pine Grove to gain a better understanding of Richter’s life and writings.  I have read some of his books, but it was quite a long time ago.

I had been looking forward for quite some time to getting back out on the blue highways again with a good buddy; it had been a while since our last road trip together.  So why not Pine Grove?  Plans were set for an excursion into central Pennsylvania in late January.  Unfortunately, a major nor’easter brought with it a heavy snow storm which forced us to postpone our trip.  More storms and general inclement late winter weather, both in Pennsylvania and here in Maryland, kept us home bound forcing us to push the trip deeper into February, and then into March, and finally it just fell off the calendar for good.  I better understood why McCullough chose to make his first trip to Pine Grove at the height of summer.  My own first visit to Pine Grove finally happened this past week.  It was not a planned outing so much as pure serendipity.

Driving northeast of Harrisburg on my way to a literary gathering in Albany, New York, I passed an exit on Interstate 81 for Pine Grove.  I had not really studied the map beforehand and had not realized how close I would be to Richter’s hometown.  Unfortunately I did not have time to detour; I still had several hours to drive that day.  Instead I pledged to stop on my return trip.  It looked like I was finally going to have an opportunity to visit Richter’s native earth.
  
Born in Pine Grove, Conrad Richter (1890-1968) was the son of a Lutheran minister and he and his family moved around to several small central Pennsylvania mining towns in the coal region northeast of Harrisburg.  He eventually graduated from Tremont High School, ten miles north of Pine Grove, in 1906.  That would be the end of his formal education at age fifteen; he had to go to work to earn money to help support his family.  He worked for a spell as a teamster, a clerk, a farm worker, a timberman, a bank teller, and a salesman. In 1909, he took a job as a cub reporter for the Courier, a weekly magazine in Patton, near Johnstown, Pennsylvania.  He later sought out editing jobs on the Johnstown Journal and Leader and the Pittsburgh Dispatch.  Apparently he had the journalist’s touch and was told, “Boy, you’ll go far!”

Moving to Cleveland, Ohio in 1911 to serve as a private secretary for a wealthy industrialist, Richter would remain for the next thirteen years and it was there he took up his pen to write fiction.  Having married in 1915, with a child born the following year, Richter grew frustrated that his writing career could not support his family.  Returning to a high valley farm outside of Harrisburg in central Pennsylvania in 1924, his first story collection, Brothers of No Kin and Other Stories, was published in Philadelphia that same year.  Richter opened a publishing firm in Reading while pursuing his own writing,  eventually publishing stories in Ladies' Home Journal, American, and the Saturday Evening Post.

Due to his wife’s tuberculosis and deteriorating health, they eventually relocated to Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1928, and later to Arizona where Richter published a great deal of pulp fiction during the 1930s – mainly for the Saturday Evening Post – while developing an intense interest in frontier life in the American Southwest.  This interest is reflected in his collection, Early Americana and Other Stories, published in 1936.  His writing achieved a major success the following year as he was approaching age fifty with the publication of The Sea of Grass (1937), a best-selling novel about farming and ranch life in New Mexico which was awarded the National Book Award.  Southwestern frontier life was also the subject of his subsequent novels Tacey Cromwell (1942), Always Young and Fair (1947), and The Lady (1957).  The characters of the stories are an intricate element of the landscapes they inhabit.  Richter, much like other writers of the period, also worked briefly as a screenwriter for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios in Hollywood in the late 1930s. 

Even while living in the Southwest Richter never forgot his Pennsylvania roots and between 1940 and 1950, when he returned to Pine Grove, he penned and published his Ohio trilogy.  The first volume, The Trees, was published in 1940 and won the Pulitizer Prize.  It was followed by The Fields (1946) and The Town (1950), which also won the Pulitizer Prize in 1951.  McCullough calls the trilogy “an American masterpiece, as vivid and as moving an account as we have of pioneer life.”  This still holds true.  The trilogy tells the story of a pioneer family’s roots in Pennsylvania after the American Revolution, its eventual migration into the primordial forests of southeastern Ohio, and the conquering of this vast wilderness.  The books were followed by The Light in the Forest (1953), also set in late eighteenth century Pennsylvania and Ohio.

The pull of native soil was strong, and Richter and his wife returned to his hometown of Pine Grove to live in 1950, settling into a stately house at 11 Maple Street where they would remain until Richter’s death in 1968, only occasionally escaping for a few weeks to the Gulf Coast of Florida, or to Pawcatuck, Connecticut or the Mount Desert Island, in Maine, where he would continue to write.  During this time Richter produced eight more novels, a novelette, and several short stories and magazine articles.  But it was two autobiographical novels – The Waters of Kronos (1960), which won the National Book Award in 1961, and A Simple Honorable Man (1962), that climaxed his writing career.  The Ohio trilogy was also republished as a single volume - The Awakening Land - in 1966 as The New York Times heralded Richter as a “modest giant” among American writers.

These two late novels grew out of Richter’s family life during his youth in Pine Grove.  In the latter, a “prequel” of sorts to The Waters of Kronos, Harry Donner, the narrator’s father, leave a storekeeper job to enter into the Lutheran church and to minister to the needy and the poor in fictional rural coal-mining communities in Pennsylvania.  This difficult, some time violent, and often thankless task takes a heavy toll on Harry and his entire family as they struggle to keep the family intact as they move from place to place.  The story continues in The Waters of Kronos.  The narrator, John Donner, is Harry’s son and a well-known writer and the author of a book of about his hometown of Unionville, Pennsylvania (a fictional version of Pine Grove).  He returns home from the West to find the town flooded following the construction of a nearby hydroelectric dam.  There John Donner ponders the fates of his family and the rest of the townspeople and the despoiling of the American landscape, a favorite topic in Richter’s writings.  The novel raises questions about its autobiographical elements and the extent it reflects nostalgically on childhood scenes and key events in Richter's own family life.  It addresses the age old question whether it is possible to go home again. 


But Richter did go home again, and he wrote passionately about the past.  “I don’t believe he much cared for history in the conventional sense,” McCullough wrote in his essay.  “As some people are born with perfect pitch, he had a perfect sense of time past.”  It was as if he had lived in the past and now came home “to tell his stories.”  Not stories of great historical figures, but the stories of the common man and his fate in America.  “You could say,” McCullough added, “that he was a patriot in the largest, best meaning of the word.”  Richter valued what he called “the old verities” of “courage, respect for one’s fellow man, self-reliance, courtesy, devotion to truth, a loathing of hypocrisy, the power of simple goodness” which he sensed was quickly disappearing from the American scene.
 
Conrad Richter suffered a heart attack and passed away on October 30, 1968 in nearby Pottsville at the age of 78.  He is buried close to his parents on Cemetery Hill not far from his home on Maple Street and the St. John’s Lutheran Church where his father once preached.  Two short story collections – Brothers of No Kin and Other Stories (1973) and The Rawhide Knot and Other Stories (1985) – were published posthumously and most of his books are still in print.

Not much is said about Richter today two generations after his death and I was curious what evidence I might find of his life in Pine Grove.  Back in 1963 McCullough had driven from New York and approached the town from the southeast having crossed over Blue Mountain that demarcates the eastern margin of the Appalachian range where it abuts the Lehigh Valley.  The Appalachian Trail runs along its crest.  I approached from the north on Route 125, happy to abandon the traffic-addled Interstate 81 for the back roads.  Upon arrival I found it little changed from the time he last walked these quiet, tree-lined streets almost fifty years earlier.  A very typical small American town with a population hovering around 2000, I discovered it celebrating Memorial Day in typical small town fashion.   Flags and banners hung from the streetlights and adorned several buildings along Tulpehocken Street, the main north-south drag, and Mill Street, the east-west axis.  I had seen photographs of these streets taken when Richter lived here and they appeared not to have changed very much.  Young boys were fishing along the banks of the Swatara Creek as it coursed through town while others flocked to a small pond in the town park and to the local swimming pool.

Most of the existing town, founded in 1830, dates from the 19th and early 20th centuries and it is now a National Register Historic District (as is Mount Rainier, Maryland where I have resided for the past 33 years).  There is a short street named in Richter’s honor in the middle of town, and I quickly found Richter’s last home at 11 Maple Street.  It looked just the way McCullough described it in his 1977 essay.   “The house, a white stucco on Maple Street, was the largest I had seen while driving into the town.  There was a neat front walk, a small front porch with columns, a large screened porch over to one side.  Everything – house, walk, me – was bathed in cool green light under the shade trees.”  Other than that, I found little outward evidence of Richter’s years here in a town that clearly meant the world to him.  I drove over to the Lutheran cemetery where he is buried but chose to honor the “No Trespassing” signs posted at the entrance.  Besides, it would have been difficult to find his final resting place and to read his own epitaph:
                        Little grasses, I have come among you.
                        Little grasses, you are taller now than I.


Richter was popular but never fashionable.  There were no best sellers among his many books even if they were critical successes.  Having now visited Pine Grove - the model for Conrad Richter’s fictional Unionville - I have decided I must read his novel, The Waters of Kronos.  Perhaps then I will more fully understand the importance of Pine Grove, Pennsylvania to the man and his writing.

In the meantime, I left Pine Grove behind, to cross the Blue mountain just as David McCullough did on his trip of discovery.  After all, I too had to come home again.

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Monday, May 25, 2015

Memorial Day

Remembering my Dad and all of his brothers and sisters in arms from all of this country's wars - both the righteous ones and the ones we had no business fighting in the first place - and especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice in the defense of their country.  They should never be forgotten.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Friday, May 8, 2015

The Liberation of Czechoslovakia - Victory in Europe 70 Years Later

Three days ago I posted a short piece commemorating the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Gusen Concentration Camp on May 5, 1945, explaining the role my Dad’s unit - the US Army’s 26th Infantry Division - played in that historic event.

Later that same day, Dad’s division, commanded by Major General Willard S. Paul, began advancing northward into western Czechoslovakia as part of Third Army’s XII Corps, commanded by Lieutenant General LeRoy Irwin.  It was one of only two American corps, along with V Corps, to serve in Czechoslovakia during the war.  After slugging its way across northern France, Luxembourg, Belgium, and central Germany since the late summer of 1944, the 26th Infantry Division drove deep into the National Redoubt area in Bavaria, and into Austria in late April 1945.  Moving into Czechoslovakia, on May 6, Third Army fielded 18 divisions and over 540,000 men, making it the largest field army assembled by the United States.  General George Patton went a step further, calling his command “probably one of the most powerful armies ever assembled in the history of war . . . .  ”  For the next three days infantry and armored units of V and XII Corps conducted a major offensive against the German Wehrmacht’s Seventh Army,  liberating over 3.400 square miles of the Sudetenland and Bohemia, in western Czechoslovakia, and taking tens of thousands of German prisoners.  On May 7, the 26th accepted the surrender of the remnants of the 11th Panzer Division, much of which had already surrendered to the 90th Infantry Division in Austria three days earlier to avoid moving northeast to battle the Red Army near Prague.  It was against this same division that Dad’s 104th Infantry Regiment had its baptism of fire in the Moncourt Woods, in northern France, the previous October. 

Third Army quickly held a line running from Ceské Budejovice (Budweis) to Plzen (Pilsen) to Karlovy Vary (Carlsbad).   Patton was eager to continue east toward Prague but General Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied commander, ordered the Americans to hold their present line.  Prague was finally occupied by the Soviet Red Army on May 9 after several days of intense combat with its German defenders. Dad’s unit ended up in Ceské Budejovice on May 8 and advanced no further.  It was V-E Day; the war in Europe was over.  Forward elements of the Red Army arrived in Ceské Budejovice on May 9.

My dad and his 26th Infantry Division remained in western Czechoslovakia until early June 1945, then returned to Austria to assume occupation duties there and to train near Linz for possible deployment to the Pacific Theater where the war would rage on for another three months.  Thankfully, V-E Day was the end of the war for Dad as V-J Day, on September 2, 1945, came before he could be shipped out to the Pacific.

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Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Death of the Lusitania - May 7, 1915

Track of the Lusitania - William Lionel Wyllie
May 7, 1915 was a beautiful, warm spring day along the southern coast of Ireland.  The skies were clear and blue. The seas were calm.  Standing on Old Kinsale Head, near Cork, one could observe a large passenger liner sailing eastward along the horizon.  Nearly 800 feet long and crowned with four large funnels, the British liner Lusitania was easy to recognize.  A dozen miles offshore that afternoon, it departed New York City six days earlier and was on the final leg of its voyage to Liverpool.  Only 250 miles to go through a war zone in which Germany had declared unrestricted submarine warfare and where it had recently sunk a number of hostile and neutral merchant ships.  Passenger liners were considered off limits . . . until that day.

At approximately 2:10pm local time, a torpedo fired from a German U-boat struck the Lusitania on its forward starboard side and almost immediately it began to list heavily, going down by the head.   Less than 20 minutes later it disappeared beneath the waves, the smoke from its funnels drifting away as squadrons of gulls circled the spot where it went down.  The seas were littered with flotsam and bodies.  Of its 1,959 passengers and crew, 1,198 perished that afternoon.  Some 800 victims were never found.   Many of the bodies recovered were buried in a mass grave in Queenstown  while others continue to washed up along the Irish coast in the coming weeks.

There are special times when a person chances upon a place one had no idea existed until it is suddenly discovered.  How is it I never knew such places existed?  And afterwards I wonder how I am ever going to forget them.  Some of these moments might be more significant than others; some stick in your memory better than others.  Yet one can never forget them entirely.  I could make it my life’s work to write about all of them. 

The fact that today marks the centenary of the sinking of the Lusitania perhaps explains how one of these obscure memories rose to the surface; one of these sudden discoveries made over three decades ago, in May 1981, when my wife and I were making a circuitous bicycle ramble along the coast of Ireland.  We had begun our journey in Shannon, traveling first along the southwestern coastline to the Dingle Peninsula and the Ring of Kerry.  Soon we found ourselves in Cork in order to visit the nearby Blarney Castle.  I was oblivious to the discovery awaiting me.

It was a beautiful spring day when we decided to bike down from Cork to the village of Kinsale. A distance of ten miles or so.  During our visit to that village we chanced upon the medieval Saint Multose Churchyard, and given our affinity for old graveyards, we wandered among the crowded stones dating from the 16th to 19th centuries and encircled by an old stone wall.  The old Norman church dates from the late 12th century, possibly the site of an earlier 6th century monastery.  A place of history.  It was here in 1649 that Prince Rupert, whose fleet was anchored in the Kinsale harbor, proclaimed Charles II the new King of England after his uncle was executed in London by Oliver Cromwell. 

History returned to this old church in 1915 after bodies from the Lusitania - some later identified and others not - washed ashore nearby and were buried in the churchyard.  I had not expected to find these graves having not realized that the ship had gone down off the nearby coast 65 years earlier.  As we walked around the town afterwards we came across more references to the sinking and the role the town played in the recovery of survivors and victims and the subsequent inquest on the bodies recovered which was held in the town's courthouse.

The following day, as we continued eastward along the coast toward Waterford, we passed through Cobh (known as Queenstown in 1915), and saw the Lusitania memorial in Casement Square, and the mass graves containing almost 200 of the victims, many of them unidentified.  I was reminded of this day almost 31 years later, when I visited the Fairview Cemetery, in Halifax, Nova Scotia.  It was another one of those moments of unexpected discovery.  Toward the rear of the cemetery, on a hillside overlooking a large rail yard, is a plot where 121 victims of the April 1912 sinking of the RMS Titanic are interred under rows of gray memorial stones (29 other victims are buried elsewhere in Halifax).  Many of these victims were also never identified yet they are not forgotten there among those who shared their fate.  I was totally unaware of Halifax’s association with the Titanic disaster until that day.  A special day.  A special connection with the past.
http://lookingtowardportugal.blogspot.com/2012/01/hard-rain-is-gonna-fall.html

I think of the Lusitania victims again today . . . one hundred years later.  We must never forget what happened on that fateful day so long ago.  To forget the past is to necessarily forgive what happened there.  To forget means the victims died in vain.  Let us never forget.

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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Into the Realm of History - The Liberation of the Gusen Concentration Camp, May 5, 1945

Flags of the US Army Divisions of Liberation

Today is the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Gusen concentration camp.  Only a fast dwindling number of survivors and liberators are still alive to tell the story.  Soon it will be cast fully into the realm of history.

In several postings here I have mentioned my dad’s wartime service in the 26th Infantry - Yankee - Division, in General George Patton’s Third Army during the northern European campaign of World War II, in 1944-1945.  The division was so nicknamed as it was created during World War I from National Guard units from the six New England states and deployed as part of the Allied Expeditionary Force in France.  It has had a long and distinguished history.  My dad bragged about his wartime unit, and rightly so.  As a kid he told me many stories about the war and the men he served with him in the 104th Infantry Regiment.  But he did not tell me everything.  I would not discover until a year after his death in 2009 that he had been awarded the Bronze Star for bravery in combat.  It is not among the medals he left to me.  Although I did not hear about it at the time, and Dad never said anything to me about it, the 26th Infantry Division was recognized as a liberating unit by the US Army's Center of Military History and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in 2002.

Third Army’s XII Corps, including the 26th Infantry Division, was tasked with the pacification of eastern Bavaria, in Germany, and it quickly advanced southward toward the Danube River and the Austro-German border near Passau.  The division moved into Austria in early May 1945 and elements of the division took Linz on May 4.  On the following day divisional units along with those of the 11th Armored Divsion liberated the Gusen concentration camp, built in 1940 and since 1944 a part of the Mauthausen camp complex, east of Linz.  It was there the American liberators discovered an elaborate tunnel system constructed with forced labor and housing underground aircraft production facilities employing inmates from the camp.  The SS had planned to demolish the tunnels with the prisoners inside, but thankfully the arrival of the 26th Infantry and 11th Armored divisions prevented this.  On May 6 the 26th Infantry Division continued north across the Vlatava River into Czechoslovakia. Third Army had moved farther east than any other American unit in the European theater.

The 26th Infantry’s divisional colors are now displayed in a place of honor in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, DC.  Each time I pass them I cannot help but reflect on the countless victims of the Nazi extermination program and those lucky enough (if it is even possible to call it this) to survive until their liberators arrived.  Most of these survivors were so weak and sick that they did not fully comprehend what liberation meant.  I also think of the men who liberated the camps 70 years ago; not just Gusen, but all of the camps that are now etched into our conscience and history.  I think about these men who had spent the previous year slugging their way across Europe, they who were lucky enough to survive protracted combat only to discover at the end the utter depravity of the regime they fought and died to destroy.  They are all victims, the survivors and the liberators.

I can understand why Dad would not have told me about Gusen when I was a kid; I would have never understood what he and his brothers-in-arms saw and experienced there.  Yet later in life, after I had become a German historian investigating and prosecuting individuals who assisted the Nazis in their programs of murder and persecution, Dad still withheld from me what must have been a very painful chapter of his life, taking it to his grave.  I just wish I had known.  If anyone would have understood, it would have been me.  And I would have wanted to tell him yet again how proud I was of him and all who fought the war that was to end all wars.

Keep all of our veterans in your thoughts and prayers today.  We cannot imagine the price they have paid to keep us free.           

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Monday, May 4, 2015

Four Dead in Ohio - Losing Our Innocence at Kent State

This past Friday I posted a piece commemorating the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam war forty years ago.  Today I find myself reflecting on another tragic event of that war; not a battle fought in some faraway patch of jungle, but one fought on a small college campus - Kent State University - on a tranquil spring day in Middle America.

It was at the very end of my freshman year in college, a year when anti-war protests on campuses across the country were beginning to heat up.  I was attending a small liberal arts college associated with the Methodist Church in Florida and there was very little in the way of protest there.  In fact, freshman and sophomore men were required to participate in the Army ROTC program.  Don’t get me wrong; there was anti-war sentiment on campus, but it never really blossomed into full-scale dissent and protest against the war. 

Many of us did participate in the nation-wide Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam, on October 15, 1969.  Called as a general strike, most colleges and universities refused to cancel classes that day although it was reported that class attendance was down as students participated in various protests.  It was a rather bizarre day at my college as it was a Wednesday and all the male students, including myself, were required to wear their ROTC uniforms throughout the day followed by a general drill in the afternoon.  Afterwards I dressed in my “civvies” for dinner and that evening about 300 students (approximately a quarter of the student body) gathered outside the ROTC building for a candlelight vigil and sang folk songs before marching to a nearby meditation garden for some more singing.  The next day several Florida newspapers ran stories about the various campus protests around the state.  One of our group was quoted: “There is nothing more beautiful than the American flag flying, but I believe there is nothing uglier than an American flag being lowered in a grave on top of a casket.”  Despite the faulty flag protocol for burial, the point was made.  Pretty tame stuff, but we raised out voices against the war. 

The students at Kent State the following spring were far more boisterous than our modest protest, and the Ohio National Guard was called in.  Confusion and chaos reigned, the soldiers opened fired, and four students died.  Who can forget Paul Filo's iconic photograph of Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling and crying beside the lifeless body of Jeffrey Miller?  The innocence of my generation came to an end that day.  On my way home from Florida to Wisconsin that day I Iistened and wondered where all of this was going to lead.   President Nixon said the anti-war protests would not affect his pursuit of an American victory in Vietnam.  How could it ever be a victory if the government was resigned to kill its own to accomplish it?

A month after the killings at Kent State, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young released their single “Ohio,” an haunting three-minute protestimonial penned by Neil Young. 

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
We're finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.

 

Many radio stations throughout the country refused to play it, but I went out and bought it and played it over and over until the record popped and skipped.    

What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?

 
A truly haunting song.  Crosby can be heard as the song fades away at the end. "Four, why? Why did they die? . . . "How many more?"   I am sure it was a question many were asking.

And the record’s B-side?  Stephen Stills's "Find the Cost of Freedom," an ode to the war's dead.

Find the cost of freedom, buried in the ground.
Mother earth will swallow you, lay your body down.


I thought back to that quote by my fellow student on Moratorium Day, and to all the flagged-draped coffins coming home from that remote patch of jungle so very far away.

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Friday, May 1, 2015

Not With a Bang But a Whimper - The Fall of Saigon Forty Years Later

April 30, 1975.  I was rushing around our small apartment in Tucson trying to get ready for my bike ride to the campus of the University of Arizona to teach my morning class in introductory German.  While grabbing a quick breakfast I watched the morning news and footage of the evacuation of Saigon.  America’s long military commitment to South Vietnam was quickly unraveling and it was hard to believe what I was seeing.

 American combat troops had quit the country in 1973 following the signing of the Paris Peace Accords with the North Vietnamese regime in Hanoi.  The South Vietnamese government was left to fend for itself against continued attacks by Viêt Công insurgents.  But there was hope; the South Vietnamese were beginning to turn the tide of the war.  But everything changed in the spring of 1975.

The North Vietnamese launched a long-planned offensive below the DMZ in December 1974.  The United States tried to prop up its former client state but internecine debate between the Ford Administration and Congress prevented the necessary aid from arriving in time.  By March 1975 North Vietnamese forces had advanced into the Central Highlands, in the south, and had Saigon in their sights.

The South Vietnamese defenders and a growing number of refugees retreated toward the capital as Hué and Da Nang fell.  The advance toward Saigon quickly became a juggernaut, and by late April the city was surrounded by over 100,000 North Vietnamese troops and their Viêt Công allies.  Chaos and panic reigned in the city and martial law was announced.  The war was all but lost and evacuation was the only option left open.  But when?  And how? 

Those who could make it to the coast boarded any available ship.  Others hoped to escape by air from the airport at Tân Son Náht, but shelling by the invaders on April 29 closed the airport and the fate of Saigon was sealed.  The United States initiated “Operation Frequent Wind” on April 29-30 and sent a fleet of helicopters to various landing zones throughout Saigon, including the US embassy, to evacuate the remaining Americans in the city along with as many South Vietnamese and other foreign nationals as could be accommodated in what became the largest helicopter evacuation in history. 

By late afternoon on April 29, thousands of Vietnamese hoping to escape converged on the US Embassy.  The last evacuees to leave were forced to a nearby roof top as North Vietnamese tanks rolled into central Saigon.  Who can forget that now iconic photograph of a helicopter touching down as those still hoping to escape lined the stairway?  Loaded to over capacity, it finally lifted up, tilted it nose downward, and  turned toward the east and freedom.  Forty minutes later it landed on the USS Midway operating offshore.  When it was all over the following day some 100 US helicopters had evacuated an estimated 7,000 Americans and South Vietnamese out of Saigon in under 24 hours.  Far more were left behind. The long war in Vietnam was over, not with a bang but a whimper.

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Thursday, April 30, 2015

Quilts for Kids Nepal - In the Earthquake’s Aftermath



I imagine most, if not all, of you have been reading and watching the news reports of the horrific earthquake and after shocks that have in recent days devastated the heavily populated Kathmandu Valley of central Nepal.  It has left in its wake unbelievable destruction and a death toll ranging into the thousands and growing by the hour.  Neighboring regions and countries were also impacted by the worst earthquake to hit this area in over 80 years.  This news brought with it fear for the safety and well-being of a dear friend and the many people he helps in Kathmandu. 

James Hopkins is one of the most sincere and humble individuals I have had the pleasure to meet, and we have known each other for a quarter of a century.  He worked for over two decades as an investment broker in New York and here in Washington, DC, prior to an early retirement.  He left his old world behind and moved to Kathmandu to continue his studies in Buddhism and to undertake work on behalf of others less fortunate than himself.  Living in Asia, James was troubled by the quality of life and limited possibilities of the people living around him. He discussed this with a local lama and asked how he might help his new neighbors. The lama gave him a simple answer . . . use whatever skills you have to help the people you encounter.

Wandering the streets of Kathmandu, James discovered an Indian street “begging community” located in the city’s Boudhanath neighborhood.  Even under normal circumstances, its inhabitants, most of whom come from Punjab and Rajasthan, on India’s western border with Pakistan, and from Bihar state, situated along Nepal’s southeastern border, live in  poverty and squalor.  Yet even in these sordid conditions James found the camp’s Hindu women working together to produce amazingly beautiful quilts.  He realized that, with the right guidance and support, these women had a commodity they might sell to benefit their families. Created and operated by James since 2006, “Quilts for Kids Nepal” is a successful micro-finance project which empowers impoverished women while at the same time providing a safe and secure education for their children.  You can read more about this wonderful project at its website: http://www.quiltsnepal.org/home.

After days of growing concern for James’ safety, I was relieved to learn that he escaped harm having just returned to the States on a personal matter.   But he left his friends and colleagues behind and I know he must have been heartsick wondering what had happened to everyone in a neighborhood we now know was heavily damaged by the quake.  Fortunately, James and others have been able to confirm that there has been no loss of life in the community from which “Quilts for Kids Nepal” operates.  James reminds us that “those living in poverty are always the hardest hit by natural disasters, and the kids in this community are especially vulnerable.”  Although safe for the moment, food and drinking water are already running short, and soon they will face longer-term needs for rice, medicine, clothing and shelter.


If you would like to make a donation to support this troubled community during this time of uncertainty, there is a “Nepal Earthquake Relief” tab on the organization’s website - http://www.quiltsnepal.org/payment.  Quilts for Kids is a tax-exempt 501(c)3 charity registered in the United States.  You can donate as much or as little as you would like in multiples of $25.  “Quilts for Kids Nepal” will administer the relief effort; 100% of your donation will go directly to support the needs of this special community.  The kids and their families, indeed everyone in Kathmandu, needs our support right now.  The situation in Nepal is rather serious and its limited resources are being spread very thin.  Any help at all will be greatly appreciated.   And while you are at it, consider purchasing one of the lovely quilts.  The money will go to provide salaries for the women, to purchase cloth and thread for their work, or to provide simple food for them while they work.

Please join me in sending what you can along with our prayers and thoughts to James as he returns home to Nepal to help in the reconstruction efforts and to continue the righteous work of “Quilts for Kids Nepal.”  

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Saturday, April 25, 2015

Celebrating ANZAC Day - Another Centennial

It seems like every day of the week there is a new centennial celebration.  Today we celebrate ANZAC Day, perhaps the most important national day of commemoration in both Australia and New Zealand.  And this year is the centenary of the event it commemorates . . . the landing of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps [ANZAC] and other element of the British Mediterranean Force, along the shores of the Dardanelles.  The Gallipoli Campaign of World War I was devised to lay siege to Constantinople and to force the Ottoman Empire to capitulate and abandon its alliance with Imperial German and the Central Powers.  It is ironic that this campaign is looked upon by the modern Turkish state as a defining moment in that nation's history.  Today Turkey is also celebrating the beginning of the Gallipoli Campaign as its most significant military victory during that war.  Some say it is an ill-advised attempt to draw attention away from the centenary of the Armenian Genocide which began the day before the ANZAC landing on the Gallipoli peninsula, an event Turkey denies to this very day.  Turkey may have won that battle, but it lost the war; a fact it seems to forget.  http://lookingtowardportugal.blogspot.com/2015/04/genocide-is-genocide-is-genocide.html

The Gallipoli Campaign was the first instance of the independent Australian and New Zealand expeditionary troops participating in active combat during World War I.  The campaign was devised to be brief, but it quickly deteriorated into a months-long trench war where little ground was gained at a terrible cost for both sides - of over 150,000 casualties, prisoners and missing matching the Turkish losses.  The ANZAC troops were finally withdrawn in November and December 1915 and returned to their staging bases in Egypt where they were disbanded and where the original ANZAC Day was celebrated on the first anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli.  The former ANZAC units were reorganized and many were transferred to Great Britain and later deployed to the Western Front, in France, while others were deployed in Egypt and in Palestine.

I knew next to nothing about the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, or the celebration of ANZAC Day, until I saw Peter Weir’s 1981 film “Gallipoli,” released in both Australia and the United States that August.  SallyAnn, who had quite a big-time jones for Australian cinema (and for almost anything Australian, to be honest), was quick to suggest we see the film as soon as it came out.  The fact that the film starred a very young Mel Gibson in one of his early roles, probably had a great deal to do with it.  He and fellow Australian actor Mark Lee played two young diggers from Western Australia caught up in the nationalism brought on by the war in Europe.  Struck by the popularity of men in uniform, and being rather down and out, they sought new adventure and enlisted in the ANZAC.  Soon they boarded troop transports to training and staging bases near Cairo, Egypt, and we watch them go through their exercises near the pyramids while enjoying youthful debauchery when on leave.  Eventually they are deployed to the Gallipoli Peninsula and finally experience the war up close and personal; boh the boredom and the relentless misery of trench warfare.  Peter Weir had visited the battlefield prior to the film’s production and he was able to capture the senselessness of war; so much death and nothing at all to show for it.  The film demonstrates a lost innocence as the young mens’ youthful esprit de corps quickly disappear as friends die and disappear.  And for what?

Last week SallyAnn and I participated in the annual DC Filmfest and had an opportunity to preview “The Water Diviner,” starring Russell Crowe in his directorial debut; its official release in the USA was yesterday after a record breaking success in Australia.  The film revisits the events of the Gallipoli Campaign, focusing primarily on its aftermath.  Four years after the battle, an Australian farmer and douser played by Crow travels to postwar Turkey in what could only be a vain attempt to locate the bodies of his three sons who died during the ANZAC offensive.  Unlike the intense battle scene in Weir’s film, here we see only brief flashbacks of machine-gun fire from opposing trenches.  And whereas the death of the Mark Lee character is captured in a final freeze frame reminiscent of Robert Capa’s iconic photograph of a Spanish loyalist soldier as a bullet strikes him dead, the almost unbearable scene of the three sons being mowed down by Turkish fire only to lie alone moaning and bleeding to death in no man’s land seems to go on forever.  Such is war.  Death can be unexpected and quick, or it can linger for what seems to be an eternity.

So pin on a sprig of rosemary while we salute those brave young men who fought and died for king and country.  And while we are at it, let us keep all veterans and those currently serving in uniform in our thoughts and prayer as we dream of the day when their sacrifices will no longer be necessary.

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Friday, April 24, 2015

Genocide is Genocide is Genocide

Gertrude Stein was perhaps being coy (more likely obtuse) in her frequent references to the qualities of a rose.  Sometimes things and events are just what they are and there is little room for debate.  To call them by any other name is a fool’s errand.  No matter how you spin it, it usually is what it is.

Armenia has prided itself in being one of the first countries to formally adopt Christianity, in the early 4th century.  Yet throughout much of its history its people have been subjugated by the Roman and Byzantine empires, the Arabs, Persians, and finally, by the Ottoman Turkish empire before part of the Armenian homeland was incorporated into the former Soviet Union following the Turkish defeat in World War I.

That war was particularly harsh on the fate of the Armenian people.  The Ottoman Empire had allied itself with Imperial Germany and the Central Powers in November 1914, and by the following spring the Turks were being pressured by the Allies on several fronts.  The British Royal Navy, supported by the Australian-New Zealand Army Corps [ANZAC], had launched an offensive against the Turks along the Dardanelles on April 25, 1915 in the hope of linking up with the Russian navy in the Black Sea, and Russian troops advancing steadily through the Balkans and the Caucasus to the east to force a Turkish capitulation.  The British offensive turned into a trench war stalemate on the Gallipoli Peninsula south of Constantinople, but the Turks largely blamed the Russian advance on the local Armenian population accused of aiding the Turks’ Russian foes.  To compound matters, the Turks faced the prospect of losing their territories in the Middle East and on the Arabian peninsula.

One hundred years ago today, the day before the beginning of the Gallipoli Campaign, the Ottoman Turks initiated the deportation of its ethnic Armenian population out of Constantinople (now Istanbul) and Anatolia and into the deserts of Syria and beyond.  It began quite innocuously with the arrest of 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders in Constantinople, but this policy eventually resulted in the systematic extermination of approximately 1.5 million Armenian Christians between 1915 and 1922 through mass slaughter, starvation and deportation.  Over 50,000 were murdered in a single day - May 1, 1915 - in the Van province in Eastern Anatolia where Armenians had lived for over two millennia.  Today this atrocity is known as the Armenian Genocide which gave rise to the Armenian diaspora communities throughout the world.  There were also large-scale Turkish massacres of the Greek, Assyrian and Kurdish minorities as part of the same campaign of ethnic cleansing.  The Armenian church sent a plea for help to President Woodrow Wilson and the United States, yet sadly nothing was done as it might appear to violate strict American neutrality in the war.  The Armenian Genocide and related programs of ethnic cleansing are today acknowledged by historians and much of the international community to have been one of the first modern genocides - the greatest atrocity of World War I which was an immense atrocity in its own right.  How quick we forget as it was soon to be followed by the Jewish Holocaust during World War II.

To this day the government of the Republic of Turkey, the legal successor state to the Ottoman Empire, refuses to recognize the suffering of the Armenians and other minorities as “genocide;” they were simply the unfortunate victims of war and internecine fighting.  How can this be?   It has been pointed out that, if you accept the events in Bosnia, Cambodia, and Rwanda as genocide, how is it possible to call what happened to the Armenians at the hands of Turkey anything else?   I have learned though my own decades-long research into the evolution of the Jewish Holocaust that denial of genocide is, in fact, the final stage of genocide.  The Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt has said: “Denial of genocide, whether that of the Turks against the Armenians, or the Nazis against the Jews, is not an act of historical reinterpretation . . . the deniers sow confusion by appearing to be engaged in a genuine scholarly effort.  The deniers aim at convincing innocent third parties that there is ‘another side of the story’ when there is [none]; denial of genocide strives to reshape history in order to demonise [sic] the victims and rehabilitate the perpetrators.”  Once you have killed the people, you must also destroy the memory and understanding of the killings.  Perpetrators become the victims in this revisionist history which creates what the psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton has called "a morally counterfeit universe for the survivors and their legacy."

Thankfully not everyone in modern Turkey is ignorant of their past and the complicity of their government in its denial of the atrocities committed against the Armenians and others.  Turkish scholar and journalist Cengiz Aktar speaks for many of his fellow citizens: "The Armenian genocide is the Great Catastrophe of Anatolia, and the mother of all taboos in this land.  Its curse will continue to haunt us as long as we fail to talk about, recognize, understand and reckon with it."   But there is a very real danger in today’s Turkey for anyone who does so.  Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk was a victim of telling the truth.  Following a 2005 Swiss interview in which he alluded to the suffering of the Armenian people during the Genocide, the Turkish press attacked Pamuk, accusing him of being a traitor and urging all good Turks to “silence” him.  He went into hiding abroad for several months after receiving death threats.  He eventually returned to his home in Istanbul only to be charged by the city’s public prosecutor with the “public denigration of Turkish identity.”  He faced three years in prison if convicted.   Pamuk shared Aktar’s position.  “What happened to the Ottoman Armenians in 1915 was a major thing that was hidden from the Turkish nation; it was a taboo. But we have to be able to talk about the past."  Turkey must come to terms with its history and this would only be possible through freedom of speech.  Fortunately for Pamuk, the charges were eventually dropped.  Others have not been so fortunate with the continuing break down of civil and human rights in Turkey under the regime of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.  But there is always hope.  Today, on the centenary of the beginning of the Armenian deportations from Constantinople, Turks are standing up for what they know to be true, gathering in Istanbul’s central Taksim Square, site of last year’s government crackdown on free speech and human rights, to honor the victims of the Genocide.  The Erdoğan regime in Ankara will not participate in any of the memorials being held throughout Turkey.  Instead, it has scheduled a centennial commemoration of the Ottoman Turkish victory in the Gallipoli Campaign.  It is a shame that Prince Charles and Prince Harry of Great Britain have agreed to attend this “commemoration” in Ankara designed to draw attention away from the centenary of the Armenian Genocide.  This denial will only perpetuate the sad memories and ill-feeling that has lasted a century. 

The fate of the Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Turks is responsible for the coining of the word “genocide.”  Raphael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer who escaped the Nazi subjugation of his homeland, emigrated to the United States in 1941 where in 1943, when the scale of the Nazi extermination of the Jews was gradually coming to light, he used the word “genocide” – the wholesale and premeditated exterminations of an entire race of people – to describe the massacre of the Armenian during World War I, and its legal implications.  Following the war, Lemkin drafted a resolution for a genocide convention to persuade the new United Nations to ban and punish future acts of genocide. With the support of the United States, who had failed to address the massacres in 1915, the resolution was placed before the General Assembly for consideration.  The United Nations’ Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was adopted by the General Assembly in late 1948 in Paris.  It went into effect in January 1951.  Its definition of “genocide” in Article II is simple - “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethical, racial or religious group . . . ” which are punishable under the provisions of the convention.  The United States was one of several nations that signed the Convention on December 11, 1948 with reservation; it opposed granting consent to trial of its citizenry before an international court for the crime of genocide.  The US did not fully ratify the Convention for four decades, until November 4, 1988.  Not a very stirring act of moral courage.

Turkey is behind the curve as the world community continues to stand up for the truth borne on historical facts about the Armenian Genocide.  At least 25 countries, including Germany, Austria, France, and Russia, call the atrocity against the Armenians a genocide.  The Council of Europe and the European Parliament (of the European Union), have passed resolutions recognizing the Armenian Genocide. The United Nations Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities has also described what happened to the Armenians as genocide.   Some countries, including Switzerland and Greece, have gone so far as to make the denial of these facts a criminal offense.  

In a recent mass celebrated at the Vatican to commemorate the centenary of the  Armenian Genocide, Pope Francis joined a large community of historians and nations who have characterized the killings and the mass persecution as the first modern genocide of the 20th century.  “Concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it.”  Turkey recalled its ambassador to the Holy See.  Not to be intimidated by Turkish intransigence, the Holy Father furthermore urged the international community to recognize the Armenian Genocide for what it was and not simply some unfortunate collateral damage as suggested by the current Turkish government who believes the Holy Father’s rhetoric will only perpetuate a crisis between Muslims and Christians.  “The 1915 events took place during World War I when a portion of the Armenian population living in the Ottoman Empire sided with the invading Russians and revolted against the empire,” the Turkish news agency Anadolu reported earlier this week.  “The Ottoman Empire relocated Armenians in eastern Anatolia following the revolts and there were Armenian casualties during the relocation process.”  Nothing less, but certainly nothing more.  A little truth, but not enough truth.  Some say a little truth can go a long way.  I am sorry.  Not in this instance.

In the wake of Pope Francis’s pronouncement, the parliament of the European Union  passed a new resolution calling on the Erdoğan regime, which at one time sought entry into the EU, to accept its responsibility as the successor state to the former Ottoman Empire, and to recognize Ottoman/Turkish complicity in the Armenian Genocide of a century ago.  Turkey responded by suggesting that European countries should look to their own histories and their own complicities in so-called “genocide” before condemning Turkey.  Volkan Bozkir, Turkey’s minister for European affairs, went further and took a pot shot at Pope Francis and his fellow countrymen in Argentina by suggesting that they had been brainwashed by Armenians in their midst, noting that “Argentina was a country that welcomed the leading executors of the Jewish Holocaust, Nazi torturers, with open arms.”   The pot calling the kettle black?

It is time for the current government of Turkey to recognize the historic reality of the genocide perpetrated against the Armenian people throughout eastern Anatolia one hundred years ago.  It is history and should be recognized as such.  It was genocide and to call it anything else is ignorance in its purest form.  It is time to move on just as Germany has moved on by recognizing its complicity in the Holocaust.  It has been said that there can be no reconciliation until the truth is told.  Here is an opportunity for Mr. Erdoğan to make the history he so much wants to be a part of.

And while we are at it, perhaps it is time for the United States to join other countries and come down on the right side of history as it has promised to do so many times.  Realpolitik should not dictate that we remain silent on the truth about the Armenian Genocide.  Still, Turkey continues to assert pressure on successive American administrations to keep silent in order to maintain good relations with an important and influential ally in a region boiling over with secular and religious conflicts.  Turkey is reported to be spending millions of dollars to lobby against scholarly and cultural events about the genocide in the United States, and to defeat congressional resolutions on the genocide. Turkey has threatened several times to close US NATO facilities in Turkey, if Congress passes as much as a non-binding statement acknowledging the events of 1915 as genocide.  On April 10, 2014, on the eve of the 99th anniversary, the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations reported on a Senate Resolution 410 condemning and commemorating the Armenian Genocide, describing it as an act of "elimination of the over 2,500-year presence of Armenians in their historic homeland".  It was approved by a committee vote of 12-5. The resolution had enough votes to pass the full Senate yet it was killed at the recommendation of the State Department.  It seems that truth plays a second fiddle in this country when the chips are down.

There is still hope.  Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA), a lead sponsor of a new House resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide, trusts that Pope Francis’ pleas from the Vatican will "inspire our president and Congress to demonstrate a like commitment to speaking the truth about the Armenian genocide and to renounce Turkey's campaign of concealment and denial."  Let us keep our fingers crossed that braver souls in Congress will prevail and not acquiesce to pressures from a country who only acts like a loyal American ally when it fits its own world view, a position reinforced yesterday by two former US ambassadors and other American experts on Turkey at a panel discussion I attended at the Bipartisan Policy Institute here in Washington, DC.

It is also time for President Obama to show some backbone and to honor a pledge he made when first running for President.  Many of his predecessors from both parties have continually skirted the issue.  After all, it happened long ago and now Turkey is a NATO ally and an influential political and economic power in a very unstable region of the world.  The term “genocide” was avoided as it angered Turkish sensitivities.  When Obama first campaigned for president in 2008, he used the term “genocide” when speaking on the Armenian atrocities.  A year later, after his election and during a visit to Ankara, he asked the Turks to deal honestly with the events of a century ago . . . without honoring his campaign promise to refer to Armenian genocide as just that . . . a genocide!  "My firmly held conviction [is] that the Armenian genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence."  Unfortunately, Obama has moderated his language since taking office, calling that dark era “an atrocity,” but resisting all efforts by Congress to bring a resolution on the question to a vote.  Why???  He knows what happened and he knows what it is called and what it should be called.  Why censor himself against conventional wisdom?  Why placate a so-called ally who act less and less like one with each passing day? 

Pope Francis’ use of the term “genocide” in a mass of commemoration of that sad chapter of human history raised speculation that Mr. Obama might honor his old pre-election promise and tell Erdoğan he will no longer be bullied from doing the right thing.  Sadly, President Obama has chosen to be cautious yet again, to be cajoled rather than to take the moral high ground and lead.  In a statement released from the White House last night, he referred to the Armenian Genocide only as “the first mass atrocity of the 20th century."  Obama explained what happened.  “Beginning in 1915, the Armenian people of the Ottoman Empire were deported, massacred, and marched to their deaths,” Obama said in his official statement. “Their culture and heritage in their ancient homeland were erased. Amid horrific violence that saw suffering on all sides, one and a half million Armenians perished.”  Is that not genocide???  “I have consistently stated my own view of what occurred in 1915, and my view has not changed,” the president said.  But yes it has Mr. President!  Why not call it what is was.   Genocide is genocide is genocide.

As I watch the world community stand up to Turkey and its revisionist view of history, I continue to wonder why my own country, my president, refuses to do what is morally correct.  Why won’t they step up to the plate?  I join the Armenian Genocide Centennial Committee in expressing our mutual deep disappoint that “President Obama has chosen to break his promise and stand apart from the global community on speaking the truth about the Armenian Genocide on its 100th Anniversary.”   Once again a broken Obama promise.  For seven years in a row he has failed to keep his promise.  A follower, not a leader.  He has chosen to turn "a blind eye to genocide for political expediency."  How ironic that his current Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power won a Pulitzer Prize for her book on the Armenian Genocide.  She has constantly taken US policy makers to task for failing to  acknowledge such atrocities.  "No U.S. president has ever made genocide prevention a priority, and no U.S. president has ever suffered politically for his indifference to its occurrence,” she wrote. “It is thus no coincidence that genocide rages on."  

How can we expect Turkey to respect and acknowledge historical truth when our own leaders here in the United States - especially our president - do not have the moral courage to honor their promises to speak the truth.  The Erdoğan regime has no more loyal friend than Mr. Obama and the United States government.  What a shame it continues to spit in our eye and those of the world at large.

In closing, let me say that I see no change in American policy in future administrations.  What about Hillary Clinton, you ask?   As Secretary of State in 2012, she cautioned against calling the Armenian Genocide just that . . . “because whatever the terrible event might be or the high emotions that it represents, to try to use government power to resolve historical issues, I think, opens a door that is a very dangerous one to go through.  So the issue is a very emotional one; I recognize that and I have great sympathy for those who are just so incredibly passionate about it.”   Another follower.  Not a leader.

We must remember that not calling it a genocide also stirs passions among persons of all nationalities and ethnicities who have vowed not to be silent about what they see as attempts to liquidate entire peoples. 

Let’s not mince words, OK?  If it looks and smells like a genocide, it most certainly is.

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