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.

Check out the "Looking Toward Portugal" Facebook page for more information and photos.

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Man from Big Sky Country - Remembering Ivan Doig

It was Ivan Doig who first introduced me to the true wonders of Montana.  I crossed the breadth of that Big Sky Country during the summer of 1970 when a good friend and I were returning home to Milwaukee after a trek across Canada from Manitoba to British Columbia.  I recall being impressed with the long, lonesome highways and the far distant horizons in almost any direction I cared to look.  Not only a land of endless sky, but a vast emptiness bearing little evidence that man ever passed this way.

It was not until three decades later, as I prepared for my first return to the Treasure State, that I truly came to appreciate these many wonders, having read Ivan Doig’s This House of Sky: Landscapes of a Western Mind, first published in 1979.  Wright Morris, in his review of the book in the New York Times, described how Doig “reinforces our diminishing conviction that there is something special in American earth, in American experience and in the harrowing terms of American survival.”  For it is in these western landscapes that one finds something that is uniquely American.  Hard as I have tried, even now I cannot put my finger squarely on what this singular quality might be.  If you visit the west, more specifically Montana, you will feel it, too.  This is what made Doig a special writer.  The bottom line is his pure love of language, and the creation of something that did not exist before.  He broke down the old stereotypes of the American West and those who choose to live there.  His sense of place became as broad and distant as the horizons of his native Big Sky Country, not only the distance to the horizons, but the “walls of high country” and the “windswept floor where shadows ascent deep valleys” that become a part of Doig’s heart and soul. 

Montana life, its joys and its griefs, came alive in his pen.

I don’t think of myself as a "Western" writer. To me, language—the substance on the page, that poetry under the prose—is the ultimate "region," the true home, for a writer. Specific geographies, but galaxies of imaginative expression—we’ve seen them both exist in William Faulkner’s postage stamp-size Yoknapatawpha County, and in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s nowhere village of Macondo, dreaming in its hundred years of solitude. If I have any creed that I wish you as readers, necessary accomplices in this flirtatious ceremony of writing and reading, will take with you from my pages, it’d be this belief of mine that writers of caliber can ground their work in specific land and lingo and yet be writing of that larger country: life.

Ivan Doig has left us far too soon.  The silence of his pen will be measured by the echo of his words as they vanish into that illimitable emptiness of the American West.

Check out the "Looking Toward Portugal" Facebook page for more information and photos

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Never Again - Holocaust Remembrance Day

Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom HaShoah) begins this evening and runs through tomorrow evening. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the war and the liberation of the camps. I spent almost my entire career documenting the crimes of the Holocaust to ensure "Never again."

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Poetry of Earth is Never Dead - On the Passing of Tomas Tranströmer”

  The poetry of earth is never dead.
     –Tomas Tranströmer, Östersjöar
I was deeply saddened to learn of the March 19 passing of the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, in Stockholm at the age of 83.  He was one of my very favorite poets, and in tribute to his memory I am including here an essay I first posted on October 16, 2010 on my literary blog, Epiphanies in the Rue Sansregret, at a time when Tranströmer was on the short list for the Nobel Prize in Literature.  He finally received the long-awaited honor in 2011.

In fact, Tranströmer had been a candidate for the prize for over a decade, and each year his fellow Swedes (and so many more of us) anxiously awaited the decision by the Swedish Academy, whose headquarters were just a short distance from Tranströmer’s apartment in Stockholm.  And each year we were disappointed while recognizing the honor bestowed on another deserving writer.  Unfortunately for myself and others, he did not win in 2010, the prize going to Mario Vargas Llosa "for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual's resistance, revolt, and defeat."  Still, I think my sentiments expressed in 2010 continued to ring true the following year when Tranströmer was finally recognized by the Swedish Academy "because, through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality."  So many of us who had come to respect Tranströmer and his work were deeply gratified.  The late Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet who won the Prize in 1995, perhaps said it best. “Everybody was hoping for that. For years.”  He was the first poet in almost two decades to be so honored, and the first Swede since 1974, the year I first met Tranströmer, in Tucson of all places, and began to read his poetry in earnest.

Here is the original 2010 posting.  I will conclude with a few more recent thoughts in the wake of the honor presented by the Swedish Academy.
“A Tip of the Hat to Tomas Tranströmer”
Epiphanies in the rue Sansregret, October 16, 2010

Earlier this month British bookmakers offered Tomas Tranströmer, perhaps Sweden’s most noted poet, as a 5/1 favorite to win this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature, placing him ahead of three other poets ranked at 8/1 - Adam Zagajewski of Poland, South Korea’s Ko Un and Syria’s Adonis - as well as the Paraguayan playwright Nestor Amarilla. Tranströmer, born in Stockholm in 1931 has, in addition to his career as a noted poet, critic and translator, worked as a psychologist providing vocational guidance to Sweden’s incarcerated juvenile offenders.  This year is not the first time that he has been on the bookies’ shortlist for this prestigious honor.  I welcomed this news but suspected that Tranströmer would not win since last year’s laureate was a European - the Romanian-born German novelist, poet and essayist, Herta Müller.  One hopes that geopolitics would not influence the judges, but it does.  A Hispanic writer had not won since 1998, when José Saramago, the Portuguese novelist and playwright who passed away in June, took home the Nobel laurels.  But when you think about it, no Swede - no Scandinavian - has won the Nobel Prize in Literature since 1974 when Harry Martinson and Eyvind Johnson, both members of the Swedish Academy, shared the prize.  So I was not surprised when the Academy anointed Peru’s Mario Vargas Llosa as this year’s winner.  He was not the bookmakers choice - his chances were listed as 45/1 - but there can be little argument that Llosa is deserving of the honor.

I will admit that I was pulling for Tranströmer.  I have been reading his poetry since I was first introduced to it in English translation almost 40 years ago.  Robert Bly, his longtime friend and translator, writing in the introduction to his 1980 translation of Tranströmer’s Sanningsbarriären [Truth Barriers (1978)], has perhaps captured the essence of Tranströmer’s importance and appeal to readers.  His “poems are a luminous example of the ability of poetry that inhabits one culture to travel to another culture and arrive.”  I felt an immediate connection to his poems when I first heard him read in the spring of 1974 when I was attending graduate school at the University of Arizona, in Tucson.

I was working on a Master’s degree in German Literature at the time and had been involved with the University’s Ruth Stephan’s Poetry Center since my arrival in Tucson.  I was especially drawn to its venerable reading series and the small poetry library located in a house donated by Ms. Stephan (a second donated residence, a small cottage, housed the noted poets visiting the Center).  Tranströmer came to Tucson in late February 1974 to give a campus reading.  He was also interviewed for the new student literary magazine, Window Rock, which also reprinted a couple of his more recent poems.  I was there that evening sitting in the front row.  Admittedly, I knew very little about the poet and his work when he took to the stage. He came before us as a relatively new presence and voice.  Although he rose to prominence as a promising new voice in his native Sweden in 1954 with the publication of 17 dikter [17 Poems], at the age of 23, it was not until the early 1970s, with the publication of Robert Bly’s translation of 20 Poems (1970), and May Swenson’s translations in Windows and Stones: Selected Poems of Tomas Tranströmer (1972), that English-speaking readers were first introduced to the work of this fine Swedish poet. I read some of these translations prior to that evening, especially after hearing Swenson read in Tucson the previous month when she offered effusive praise for Tranströmer’s poetry.  I cannot say that I fully understood them, but  I was nevertheless intrigued as I felt he was a new and important poetic voice. There was an inborn authority underlying ever word, every phrase.  

Now the evening star burns through cloud.
Trees, fences and houses grow, grow larger
with the dark’s soundless, steepening fall.
And under the star is outlined clear and clearer
the other, secret landscape that lives
the life of contour on night’s X-ray plate.
A shadow draws its sled between the houses,
They wait.

[“Epilogue,” from 17 dikter, translated by May Swenson]

What I recall from the poems read that evening, and what I have taken from all of his poetry I have read since, is Tranströmer’s very strong sense of place, even when it tends toward the surrealistic at times - Sweden, of course (he has continued to reside in Västerås near Stockholm), but more particularly the islands of Södermalm and Runmarö and the east-central coastal archipelago of his ancestors where Tranströmer spent the summers during his youth.  The audience was enwrapped from start to finish and I left that evening a convert.

Tranströmer’s long poem Östersjöar was published in the autumn of 1974, and Samuel Charters acclaimed English translation Baltics was brought out by the Berkeley publisher Oyez in 1975.  I read it as soon as I could lay my hands on a copy (which, I recall, was not very easy).  It provided entree into an entirely new understanding of Tranströmer’s poetics and use of metaphor, and I agree with the poet Bill Coyle who later wrote that this collection “ is in some ways the best place for a new reader of Tranströmer to start; it develops more slowly than his shorter pieces, and his metaphors, though as striking here as elsewhere, reveal themselves more gradually.”  Again, the strong sense of place - the Stockholm Archipelago, and the Baltic Sea.

In the middle of the forest the Baltic also sighs, deep in the
    forest you’re out on the open sea.

[Baltics, II]

“The Baltic is Tranströmer’s archetypal environment,” Coyle writes, “with its mixture of sea and islands, of sweet and salt water and, at least during the Cold War, of democracies and dictatorships.”  The Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia had been under Soviet domination since the end of World War II, and this long poem reflects the geopolitical realities of the Baltic region and their impact on the poet and his work.

Now, a hundred years later. The waves come in from no man’s
and break against the stone.

[Baltics, III]

Transtömer returned to Tucson in November 1975 for a reading at which he presented Baltics in its entirety.  I had an opportunity to speak with the poet at some length afterwards and he graciously inscribed my copy of the Charters translation of Baltics as well as my copy (one of 600) of the inaugural 1974 number of Window Rock with it’s interview of the poet and the reprints of two of his poems.  I went home that evening with a deeper admiration for the poet and his work, but also a better understanding of the plight of these small nations so close to the poet’s native Baltic Archipelago yet suffering under the oppressive Soviet thumb.

And now: the stretch of open water, without doors, the open
that grow broader and broader
the farther you stretch out.
[. . . ]
But it’s a long way to Liepaja.

[Baltics, IV]

Baltics came up a few years later, in the autumn of 1979, when I had an opportunity to discuss Tranströmer’s poetry and the plight of the Baltic states with the noted Estonian poet Ivar Ivask (1927-1992), and the Lithuanian historian Vitas S. Vardys (1924-1993) .  We shared dinner at the faculty club at the University of Oklahoma, in Norman, Oklahoma, and my long conversation with Ivask, who was then the editor-in-chief of World Literature Today and the founder of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature which Tranströmer would win in 1990, opened my eyes to other approaches to the poem, including those by Baltic writers in exile.  

Tranströmer’s English speaking audience has continued to grow as has his influence on other poets.  His work in translation appeared in Robert Bly’s Friends, You Drank Some Darkness: Three Swedish Poets: - Harry Martinson, Gunnar Ekelöf, Tomas Tranströmer (1975).   Bly’s translation of Sanningsbarriären [Truth Barriers, 1978] appeared in 1980, and an entire issue of Michael Cuddihy’s fine journal, Ironwood 13, was devoted to Tranströmer in 1979 (published in Tucson, by the way).  Tranströmer’s Selected Poems, containing the work of several of his noted translators and edited by Robert Haas, was published in 1987, and New Collected Poems, translated by Robert Fulton, appeared in 1997.  This volume was greatly expanded in 2006 under the title The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems which represents the first time all of Tranströmer’s poems to date have been available in one volume in English.

I have been lucky to hear Tranströmer read two other times.  First, at an evening reading in Stockholm, in the spring of 1985.  I had a free evening in the city and it was a treat to hear selections of Östersjöar and other poems read in the original Swedish.  Tranströmer was treated like a rock star yet he remained the same humble man I first encountered a decade earlier in Tucson.  The last time was here in Washington, DC, when Tranströmer read at the Folger Library, in April 1986.  The poet and his poetry had reached a new and recognizable maturity, yet his inner voice, and the voice by which he shared his poems in Stockholm and Washington, were still recognizable from that first time I heard him read in Tucson in 1974.  Both, etched by new experiences, remained, spare, clear, and quiet  - the benchmarks of his poetry through the years.. 

Thankfully, Tranströmer at age 79 remains a major poetic voice in the world.  Sadly, however, his own voice has been largely silenced by a stroke he suffered in 1990, an event foretold years earlier toward the end of Baltics.

Something wants to be said, but the words don’t agree.
Something that can’t be said,
there aren’t any words but maybe a style . . .

[. . .]
Then comes the stroke: right side paralysis and aphasia, can only
    grasp short phrases, says wrong words
Can, as a result of this, not be touched by advancement or blame.
But the music’s still there, he still composes in his own style,
he becomes a medical sensation for the time he has left to live
[Baltics, V]

Despite the cruel silence imposed upon him, Tomas Tranströmer continues to practice his craft and sharing it with the world.  We are certainly thankful for his  insights and his ability to help us recognize and transcend the boundaries that encompass us all.

This past December I received an unexpected note from James Wine, a longtime American friend of Tranströmer who now resides in Stockholm, recalling our mutual  attendance at the poet’s 1986 reading at the Folger Library when Wine and his wife, who were living here at the time, played host to Tranströmer and his wife during their visit.  Wine had recently come across my 2010 posting online and shared it with the poet.

Wine, who is also a partner in Longwalks Productions AB, a creative arts company based in Stockholm with the goal of “making poetry work in the world,” introduced me to “Östersjöar - en dikt av Tomas Tranströmer,” his half-hour remake of a 1993 film first broadcast on Swedish television in 1994.  Filmed in Sweden, in the “wonderful labyrinth of islands and water” of the Stockholm Archipelago and on Gotland, Wine states that the remaking of the original film gave him and his partners an opportunity “to dig deeper into the poem, find more authentic materials, lift up passages with fresh perspectives, bringing the imagery to an entirely new level, and all the while maintaining the same distance and character of the original experiment in 1993.”  As part of “Den kan vara alles,” a multi-year film project, it also promoted the idea of “allemannsrātten,” the Swedish belief that everyone has a rightful access to nature. Former US Poet Laureate Rita Dove calls the film “a marvelous piece . . . it almost manages to bring the smell of the sea into the living room.”   Wine provided me with an opportunity to view the new version of the film online and this only reenforced the fact that Tranströmer’s words and music will be missed terribly, that the special place on the bookshelf will never expand. 

 Robert Bly, a prominent translator of Tranströmer, noted that when the poet began to craft his early poems in the 1950s, it was still possible to write a nature poem in which nothing technological entered.  As his career progressed, however, it was not so easy to separate the two, as we see in his 1974 long poem Östersjöar [Baltics] and the mingling of maritime life in that wonderful labyrinth of forested islands and water in his native Stockholm Archipelago.  We marvel that the poetry of earth is never truly dead.

The American poet and critic Stephen Burt tells us: “More than most poets, Tranströmer survives translation, since his effects so often come from metaphors, images and situations.  Other effects come from silence, from negative space: Few readers object to the brevity of his best-known poems.” 

Tranströmer was a hugely popular figure in his home country; an American critic referred to him as “Sweden’s Robert Frost.”  The woods are lovely, dark and deep;  he has shared his music and words, and earned his sleep.

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Saturday, April 11, 2015

My Mother Celebrates Her 90th Birthday

Photograph taken April 4, 2015 at the Pickerington (Ohio) Historical Society
My mother celebrated her 90th birthday on April 3 and my wife and son joined me in a long drive from Washington, DC to her home in Canal Winchester, Ohio, not far outside of Columbus.  We were joined there by my only sister and her family who live in nearby Pickerington.  It was a wonderful opportunity to have the whole family together and to celebrate this landmark occasion.

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Saturday, March 21, 2015

Will You Still Need Me, Will You Still Feed Me?

When I get older losing my hair,
Many years from now.
Will you still be sending me a Valentine
Birthday greetings bottle of wine.

When I first sang along with this song so many years ago I never gave it much thought that one day this might apply to me.  This is not to say that I have reached that plateau in my life where I am looking at the long, downward path that can only lead to a gradual (or perhaps a speedy) circling of the drain. 

Yours sincerely, wasting away . . . .

I feel I have a few good years left in me as I reach a milestone celebrated in song.  But then there is that nagging question . . . .

Will you still need me, will you still feed me,
When I'm sixty-four? *

* John Lennon and Paul McCartney, 1967 © EMI.  Check out the "Looking Toward Portugal" Facebook page for more information and photos.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Off in the Clouds

Where has the time gone?  I have suddenly realized that it has been several weeks since I have posted anything here.  I guess I have been off in the clouds somewhere.  That often seems to be the case recently.

SallyAnn spent three weeks in Florida and I had the house to myself with a long list of writing projects I wanted to accomplish.  And there was the stack of books I have been meaning to read.  And although I was very successful in putting many hundreds of words down on paper, none of them found their way to Looking Toward Portugal.  There are lots of ideas swirling in my head, and some half-baked drafts piled here on my desk, but nothing seemed to gel into place.  At least not yet.   John Quincy Adams perhaps said it best. “Patience and perseverance have a magical effect before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish.”  These will all come together soon with a little more tender care.

I guess it happens to the best of us.  You find yourself working hard on one project, and suddenly you realize your mind is slipping away to other topics, and you feel the crushing need to drop what you are doing in order to capture a thought or a phrase before it slips away.  Suddenly you find yourself building on it to create something new.  Mind you, I am not complaining.  This certainly beats sitting here drumming on the desk with a pencil and wondering what to write next.  Heraclitus teaches us well.  “Good character is not formed in a week or a month.  It is created little by little, day by day. Protracted and patient effort is needed to develop good character.”  And with good character comes good writing.

Hopefully you will find some of it here sooner rather than later.

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Monday, February 2, 2015

"When Chekhov Saw the Long Winter" - Groundhog Day 2015

For as the sun shines on Candlemas Day,
So far will the snow swirl until May.
For as the snow blows on Candlemas Day,
So far will the sun shine before May.

                              – German Proverb

German settlers arrived in the American colonies throughout the 18th century and with them came the tradition known as Candlemas Day which is celebrated each February 2.  It occurs at the mid-point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.  Along with its importance in the Christian liturgical calendar, the day is also associated with weather prediction.  It is said that if the weather is fair on that day, the remainder of the winter season will be cold and snowy.  If, on the other hand, the weather is cloudy and gloomy, this means spring will arrive early.  It was from this tradition that the Pennsylvania Germans came to celebrate Groundhog Day ["Murmeltiertag," or the local variant "Grundsaudaag"] on February 2.

Almost every year on this date since 1887 ("war clouds have blacked out parts of the shadow" in 1942 and 1943 according to the event’s official history), one in a long line of resident groundhogs named “Punxsutawney Phil” has emerged from his hibernation den on Gobbler’s Knob, near that west-central Pennsylvania town, and offered a prognostication as to when winter will end using the same rule observed on Candlemas.

A week ago a good friend and I planned a road trip north into east-central Pennsylvania to follow in the footsteps of noted American writer Conrad Richter; not quite as far away as Punxsutawney on the Allegheny Plateau, but far enough into the Ridge and Valley Province of the central Appalachians where weather can always be a factor this time of the year.  An earlier forecast had predicted a fair day and we were looking forward to the trip.  Unfortunately, a large nor’easter, as they have a want to do this time of year,  brought the season’s first major snow storm to the upper Mid-Atlantic region and New England where close to three feet of snow fell in some places before it was all over.  Central Pennsylvania was just on the edge of the storm, yet enough snow fell on our destination that day that common sense was the better part of valor and we had to postpone our outing.  (A rescheduled road trip to Pine Grove, Pennsylvania will be the subject of a future posting.)

Winter weather, and how much more snow we can expect this year, was on my mind again early on this rainy morning as I was sitting in my kitchen with my first cup of coffee.  Staring out at the gloom and the coming dawn here on the fringes of our Nation’s Capital, I was curious what Punxsutawney Phil, the Seer of all Seers and the  Prognosticator of all Prognosticators, would have to say about the next six weeks of winter.  Shortly after 7am I returned to my upstairs office and switched on my computer to watch the live stream broadcast from Punxsutawney on  The skies were dark and gloomy there, too, the only light coming from dozens of remote television crews covering this propitious annual event . . . the 129th gathering of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club on Gobbler’s Knob.  There was music as colorfully-clad young maidens danced on stage to the thrumming beat of music too loud and too boisterous for so early in the morning.  No sleeping in for Phil this morning.  He had important work to do.   

At the appropriate moment shortly after 7am, the top-hatted Inner Circle of the Groundhog Club entered through the crowd and assembled around the old tree stump that is the entry to Phil’s den.  Each member of the circle was introduced, and finally, the club’s president rapped on the door of the den with a wooden cane to awaken Phil.  Two handlers took some effort to extricate Phil as the crowded shouted the “Phil Chant.”  “He’s a little angry this year,” offered the president, but I imagine were I Phil I would have been less than thrilled to be dragged from my bed on a cold, snowy morning.  Two scrolls had been prepared, one predicting six more weeks of winter, the other offering hope for an early spring.  The president had a short conversation with Phil in “Groundhogese” and at 7:25am his prediction was read aloud to the crowd.  “Yes, a shadow I see . . .” and with that a long winter was confirmed to a mixture of cheers and groans.  For the record, the various Phils have seen their shadow 102 times while failing to do so only 17 times.  The data from several years is mysteriously missing.  So it would seem there were few surprises this morning on Gobbler’s Knob where a mixture of rain and snow fell throughout the ceremony and another major winter storm is moving out of America’s heartland into New England with a prediction of up to a foot of new snow in northern Pennsylvania.

What with Phil’s roughly 40% accuracy rate, the question remains.  Will my friend and I be taking that road trip into Pennsylvania this month as planned, or are we looking at March and the final arrival of decent weather?  We will just have to wait and see.  Frankly, I really don’t mind winter that much.  There is much to like about the season.  I think Phil Connors, the Pittsburgh weatherman played by Bill Murray in the 1993  film “Groundhog Day” perhaps said it best.  “When Chekhov saw the long winter, he saw a winter bleak and dark and bereft of hope. Yet we know that winter is just another step in the cycle of life. But standing here among the people of Punxsutawney and basking in the warmth of their hearths and hearts, I couldn't imagine a better fate than a long and lustrous winter.”

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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

70 Years After Auschwitz

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp complex.  In April 2005, shortly after the 60th anniversary of the liberation, the United Nations General Assembly designated this date as International Holocaust Remembrance Day, urging each member state to regularly and properly honor the victims of the Nazi genocide . . . the approximately seven million Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, mentally and physically challenged individuals, and other opponents of the Nazi regime.  Over 1 million of these victims, most of them Jews, were murdered at Auschwitz.  Their fates should be remembered by all people for all time, knowing that what happened to the Jews could easily happen to the rest of us if we do not remain vigilant to the long specter of evil in this world.  A memorial to these Nazi crimes might prevent future genocides.  We can only hope and pray.

It is regrettable and not a little shameful that neither President Obama, Vice President Biden, nor Secretary of State Kerry are scheduled to attend the 70th anniversary commemoration in Poland tomorrow.  Instead, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew will lead the small US delegation.   Among those heads of state attending are French President Hollande, Austrian President Fischer, German President Gauck, Belgium King Philippe of Belgium, King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands and Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark, as well as the  leaders of many other nations.  After admitting it was a mistake and diplomatic fiasco for neither Mr. Obama nor Mr. Biden to attend the solidarity march against terrorism in Paris two weeks ago, the Administration has once again failed to recognize the symbolic importance of such a visit to Auschwitz.  Mr. Obama will spend today paying homage to the new Saudi king on his way home from India.  His time would be better spent in Poland among more steadfast allies.  Add to this that Mr. Obama joins Russian President Putin in choosing not to attend the commemoration at Auschwitz.  It was, after all the Soviet Red Army that liberated Auschwitz, but Mr. Putin claims his schedule is too busy to permit a trip to Poland.  The fact is, given the current geopolitical debacle in Ukraine, Mr. Putin is not the most popular person in Europe these days.  And now Mr. Obama is apparently too busy to attend.  Certainly such a comparison with his Russia counterpart is not something Mr. Obama would particularly cherish. 

As I raised these concerns it was suggested to me that American presidents seldom attend these anniversary events, and therefore there is no reason for Mr. Obama to attend this one. If there is some reason the President cannot attend, why did he not choose to send Mr. Biden or Mr. Kerry?  Is this yet one more example of American exceptionalism?  Heads of state and high-ranking leaders from dozens of countries find it important enough to go.  Yes, there have been other such commemorations in past years, so I was also asked why this particular anniversary is such a big deal? President Obama has visited other camps before.  Isn’t this commemoration nothing more than “just another photo op?”  Yes, a few months after his inauguration in 2009, Mr. Obama visited the former Buchenwald Concentration Camp.  The story is his great-uncle helped to liberate Ohrdruf, a subcamp in the Buchenwald camp complex.   If this is the case, how is it possible for the President not to see the significance of this year’s commemoration at Auschwitz?  My questioner rebutted.  “Anniversary ceremonies aren't meaningful . . . Why 70th? Why not 69th? It's just a number.”  I cannot disagree more strenuously.  This will be perhaps the last commemoration including camp survivors, who were not so numerous in the first place. About 300 survivors are expected to attend today’s ceremony, most of them well into their 90s or older.  If they have the courage to return to this place of personal horror, surely our leaders can find the time to share in this commemoration.  To call it a simple photo op is an insult; it diminishes the very memory of those who perished there . . . and those who were lucky enough to survive. Auschwitz is NEVER a photo op.

My father’s US Army unit played a role in the liberation of the Gusen subcamp of the Mauthausen Concentration Camp at the end of the war.  I spent over three decades of my professional career conducting historical research while investigating and participating in the prosecution of Nazi-era war criminals who escaped justice after the war.  The United States Government has stood at the forefront of the world community insuring that justice is meted out to the perpetrators of the Holocaust. I am left with the lamentable impression that the United States does not really understand history very well, or think it all together important to commemorate among the family of nations.  Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.  We have seen it happen.  It can happen again.

Can it possibly be time to stop remembering, to forget what happened at Auschwitz and at the numerous Nazi camps whose main gates were festooned with the most ironic of ironies . . . “Arbeit macht frei” [work will make you free]?  We must never forget, we must never stop commemorating what we know, what history has taught us.  “Wahrheit macht frei” . . . the truth shall set you free.

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Monday, January 26, 2015

I Can Still Taste Les Madeleines

A couple of days ago I was organizing and archiving the textual copies of the 300+ posting to this blogspot since late 2008.  They have accumulated to almost 600 single spaced pages collected into two large binders.  I commented to a good friend at the time that Marcel Proust would be proud of me and he suggested it might be time to break out the madeleine cakes to celebrate.  I had not thought about les madeleines in over forty years . . . certainly not in connection with Proust.  This gave me pause.

I think the first time I had a madeleine was in late 1971 during a visit to the Meuse Valley, in the Lorraine region of northeastern France.  I was there ostensibly to search out places where my dad’s US Army unit fought during the late months of 1944.  I found myself in Metz and wandering a back street one morning I chanced upon a small boulangerie with a rich variety of offerings.  I selected several madeleine cakes . . . cookies, actually . . . to go with my morning coffee.  They were quite unique in their shape and consistency, and they tasted wonderful.  I can still taste them even after all these years. 

The reason I tried them that morning, however, was because at that time I was reading  selections from Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu [In Search of Lost Time] in a French literature class at the German university I was attending.  Probably Proust’s most famous work (begun in 1909, and eventually published in several volumes between 1913 and 1927), it swelled to almost 3,200 pages.  We were reading selections from Du côté de chez Swann [Swann’s Way], the first volume published in 1913, including the section entitled “Combray” which concludes with the now famous madeleine episode  – its theme the existence of involuntary memory.  Returning home to the US, I finally had an opportunity to read the entire multi-volume English translation by Charles Scott Moncrieff to which he attached the rather obsequious title, Remembrance of Things Past (1922-1930).  The final volume of the translation was completed by "Stephen Hudson," (a pseudonym adopted by Proust's friend, Sydney Schiff), after Moncrieff’s death in 1930.   Reading the Combray episode:

 No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. ... Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? ... And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea. 

So, perhaps I was correct when I posited that Proust would be proud of me after assembling textual pages of these blogspot posting, which I have characterized from the outset as “Random Thoughts From the Edge of America.”  And my friend was also correct to suggest a celebration of this undertaking with the serving of madeleine cakes.  Eating them with his tea was, for Proust, an incident of involuntary memory triggered by sensory occurrences,  awakening still other memories and recollections, the “essence of the past” over which he had no conscious control over recollections of past people, places and events.

These postings really are random thoughts . . . involuntary memories triggered by something I have done, or seen, or heard, or read.  Yet, once triggered, I do try to think about then intelligently, and in depth.  I will do a little research to flesh them out before sharing them with my readers.

So let us dip our madeleines into our cups of tea and see what comes up.  I am sure there will always be something to dredge up and write about.

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Saturday, January 24, 2015

What Has Happened to America’s Moral Compass?

I have just read that President Obama, who arrived in India today on a planned visit, will shorten his trip in order to travel to Saudi Arabia next week to pay his respects to the newly appointed Saudi King Salman.  Vice President Biden was to join other world leaders in Riyadh today to honor Salman’s predecessor, who was buried yesterday, but once again American exceptionalism raises its ugly head and Obama will make a special appearance at the Saudi court.

Just recently the President was too busy to join other world leaders as they stood by France, our oldest ally, and marched through Paris in solidarity against terrorists who had murdered several writers and artists and other innocents.  Yet Obama does have time to visit the repressive Saudi kingdom which continues to persecute its own women, minorities, and the LGBT community.  I think the Vice President’s presence in Riyadh today would have been more than enough to honor protocol.  Why does Saudi Arabia, and not France, deserve an additional visit by the President?  Look to the Saudi oil fields for your answer.

Saudi Arabia is no true ally of the United States.  May I remind you that Osama bin Laden and most of the terrorists responsible for the September 11 atrocities were Saudis?  America supposedly cherishes personal freedoms, including the freedom of speech, and still we honor and support a country that ignores these as a matter of course.  At the moment the Saudi government is in the process of administering 1000 lashes of a cane to Raif Badawi, a young Saudi blogger, for criticizing Saudi Arabia’s powerful clerics.  His sentence also includes a fine and ten years in prison.  The blog has been shut down by the Saudi government and Badawi’s attorney has been jailed for fifteen years for “undermining regime officials,” for ‘’inciting public opinion,” and for “insulting the judiciary.”  Badawi’s wife and three young children are living in exile in Canada.  We have no time to stand by a traditional ally like France yet our president makes a special effort to stand by the Saudis?

Amnesty International has adopted Badawi as a prisoner of conscience and calls his cruel punishment “macabre and outrageous.”  Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, a member of the Jordanian royal family, has pointed out that “[s]uch punishment is prohibited under international human rights law, in particular the convention against torture, which Saudi Arabia has ratified” and he has appealed to the now deceased Saudi king to exercise his power to halt the public flogging.  So far the new King Salman has pledged continuity after his accession to the throne.  Our neighbors in Canada have described the flogging as “a violation of human dignity and freedom of expression”.  And still our President feels honor bound to pledge the United States’ continued support of Saudi Arabia and its repressive ruling family.

President-elect Obama:
When the United States stands up for human rights, by example at home and by effort abroad, we align ourselves with men and women around the world who struggle for the   right to speak their minds, to choose their leaders, and to be treated with dignity and respect. We also strengthen our security and well being, because the abuse of human rights can feed many of the global dangers that we confront -- from armed conflict and humanitarian crises, to corruption and the spread of ideologies that promote hatred and violence.

So why does he feel compelled to visit Saudi Arabia?  How soon we forget.  One again I feel like I am standing on the edge of America, scratching my head and wondering what has happened to America’s moral compass.  

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Monday, January 19, 2015

Memories of the Good Earth

Steve and Knight on the Back Forty, Autumn 1956
“I felt the old pull of the earth, the solemn magic that comes out of those fields at nightfall. I wished I could be a little boy again, and that my way could end there.”
Willa Cather, My Ántonia (1918)

I have written here several times about my grandparent’s farmstead in southwestern Michigan where I lived for a time back in the mid-1950s.  My parents were traveling for  my dad’s job and so I had a stable home as I started my school career at the one-room Acorn School just down the road from the farm.  Having lived in cities – Chicago, Detroit, Kansas City, and Los Angeles - during my earliest years, I found the farm to be a fascinating and mysterious place where I could free-range to my heart’s content . . . even as a five year old boy.   How many kids can say that today?

My days on the farmstead fell into a routine.  Life was much simpler back then.  After a morning of spelling, repetitions and ciphers I was happy to walk back to the farm for a few daylight hours of rambling through my grandparent’s fields and the woodlot beyond.  This afternoon time was usually my own after a few quick chores upon returning home from school.  After a cold glass of milk I would visit the chicken coop where it was my job to gather the eggs and bring water from the pump to fill their trough.  I would also bring cracked corn from the granary which I spread around the yard, the chickens pecking at my shoes.  My grandma was often busy with her own chores around the house and with the preparation of the evening meal while my granddad would be busy in the barn mucking out the stalls and tie-ups and laying in a fresh bedding of hay for the cows in preparation for the evening milking.  On weekends I would often follow my granddad around the farm, sometimes on foot and other times up in his lap as he navigated his red Farmall tractor from one task to another.  My uncles and neighboring farmers would come when it was time to cut and bale hay or harvest the field corn and asparagus.

Most of my explorations of the farm began in the large yard separating the farmhouse from the weather-burnished barn and the other out buildings.  It was shaded by a magnificent oak tree and I would go around picking up fallen acorns and collecting them in small paper bags which I then secreted high up in the corn crib.   I had no reason for doing this.  My faithful companion was Knight, a friendly and trustworthy border collie who, strangely enough, was my best friend during those months I spent at the farm with few, if any, children to play with.  A prodigious assembly of cousins had not yet arrived on the scene. 

In the summer the fields reaching from the barnyard to the distant woodlot were planted with alfalfa, asparagus (western Michigan is considered by some the asparagus capital of the United States), and field corn.  When the corn had grown above my head I would often go into the field and walk about, changing directions at will and wondering where I would be when I finally emerged into the open.  Browned and withered in the autumn after the harvest, the corn stalks would be cut and gathered into shocks dotting the field until they were ensiled as cattle fodder for the coming year.  A small creek ran through the woodlot and I always enjoyed walking along it looking for frogs and minnows.   Sometime I would take a small cane pole with me and fish for bream in the larger pools.  I had a fort, its walls marked out by cords of wood my granddad had cut.   Later in the autumn some of these logs would be sectioned and split and transported to the dooryard to feed the winter furnace in the farmhouse cellar.  These explorations of the farm fields and back woods were a special time, when my boyhood imagination would run wild with possibilities as I listened to the wind rustling trough the crops, the trees and branches scratching and creaking as evening approached.

One of my aunts or uncles would usually stop by in time to be invited to join us for dinner and we would all gather around the large dining room table for a bounteous feast of meat and potatoes.  A large picture window opening to a broad panorama of the farmyard and the fields beyond the barn and out buildings, the cows just beginning to arrive at the barnyard from their day grazing in the pasture.

In the early evening after dinner I would join my granddad in the barn and watch him milk each of his six cows in succession.  It was my job to retrieve pails full of corn meal from the granary which I mixed with a portion of ensilage (mostly green corn fodder) to which I added a generous dollop of black molasses.  The girls appeared to enjoy it well enough.  The milk from each cow was poured into large metal milk cans which were then submerged in a water cooler overnight, the morning milk added before the cans were rolled to the side of the road near the barn to be collected daily by the local dairy truck.  Except for weekends, I left the morning milking to my granddad who was up every morning at dawn.  On weekdays I had to eat breakfast before my walk back to Acorn School for the day’s lessons.

Willa Cather’s sentiment from the Great Plains almost a century ago still held true as I wandered my grandparents’ farm in the mid 1950s.  Its good earth was magical for this city boy.  Now, almost sixty years later, I still have fond memories of those days of innocence, wishing that my own could end like this.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Ice on the Potomac - Thirty Three Years After the Air Florida Crash

I was driving home from a poetry reading in Arlington, Virginia a couple of nights ago and I noticed that the Potomac River was completely iced over and reflecting the soft sheen of light from the Lincoln Memorial with the Washington Monument beyond.  We had a few days of uncharacteristic arctic temperatures and this was the first time I had seen the river covered in ice in quite a long time.  Despite the late hour and the cold temperatures I could not help but stop for a few minutes to enjoy the peaceful setting.  Washington really is a beautiful city, especially at night.

A few minutes later I was crossing the Fourteenth Street Bridge spanning the Potomac  between the Pentagon, on the Virginia shore, and the Jefferson Memorial and adjacent Tidal Basin on the Washington, DC side of the river.  One more time I was able to look down at the ice reflecting the city lights.  And, as it often does whenever I cross this bridge . . . even now thirty three years later . . . my memory flashes back to January 13, 1983.  A blizzard had descended on Washington that morning and commuters were beginning to head home early as the city slowly crept to a halt and the snows piled higher.  The roads leading out of the city and across the Potomac bridges were jammed with people trying desperately to get home safely.   National Airport, situated on the Virginia side of the river less than mile south of the Fourteenth Street Bridge, had closed earlier in the day during the heaviest part of the storm, but reopened around noon under very marginal conditions as the snowfall slackened.

That afternoon Air Florida Flight 90 was rolling away from the terminal after being de-iced prior to departure following a delay in its scheduled take-off for Tampa and Fort Lauderdale when the airport was once again closed due to heavy snow.  It was still snowing hard as the aircraft waited on the taxi-way for over 45 minutes before it was eventually cleared for take off shortly before 4pm.  It would never reach its intended destinations.  It remained in the air for only a few seconds before it stalled and dropped toward the icy river below.  It struck the northbound span of the Fourteenth Street Bridge crushing six cars and a truck halted in the massive traffic backup traffic on the bridge and killing four.  It tore away almost 100 feet of the bridge before plunging into the ice between the two spans of the bridge some 200 feet from the Virginia shore.  The wreckage quickly sank, only the tail section rising from the icy waters.  Four of the five crew members were killed along with 70 of 74 passengers, many of whom survived the initial crash but were unable to escape the sunken wreckage.  Rescue operations were hampered by the worsening weather, ice in the river, and difficulty reaching the crash site by land and water.  Still, there were several instances of heroism to save those who had managed to escape the wreckage.

A half hour after the plane crash the early rush hour sent thousands of commuters underground into Metro subway system in order to get out of the city that was quicky shutting down.   A second tragedy struck just a short distance from the plane crash site when a single Metro train derailed beneath the National Mall between the Federal Triangle and Smithsonian stations.  Three passengers were killed and two dozen injured while others were stranded in the tunnel darkness for hours.  Rescue efforts here were compounded by the fact that much of the area’s emergency equipment was responding to the Air Florida crash site.  This was the Metro system’s first fatal accident since it opened six years earlier. 

I was one of the Washington workers trying to get home that afternoon.  I came to work as expected like many others despite the weather forecast.   I though I could stick it out as the snowfall lessened throughout the morning.  But the heavy snow squalls returned in the afternoon and with early dismissal for federal workers, I walked to my car parked a short distance away for what is under normal conditions a 20 minute drive home.  Living in Maryland, I did not have to take a bridge and my escape from the city offered various options.  Listening to the car radio for traffic reports and traveling plowed back streets as much as possible, I was able to gradually make my way home although the 20-minute drive took me over three hours to complete.  As I drove I also listened to the first reports of the plane crash and Metro accident, both less than a mile from where I worked.  The entire afternoon was a surreal blur, and that night, as I sat safe, warm and alone at home, I watched the story of the afternoon’s events unfold on television.

There were countless stories about the victims, the survivors, and those who put their own lives in danger to assist in rescue efforts.  One story, however, kept resonating with me that evening and in the days that followed the tragedy.  Priscilla Tirado, her husband, José, and their two-month-old son Jason were flying home to Florida.  Immediately after the crash witnesses recalled Priscilla thrashing in the water and screaming for her baby, too weak to grab the line lowered from a circling helicopter.  Lenny Skutnik, a young federal worker trying to get home, jumped into the icy waters and pulled her to safety.  Her husband and son perished; the infant’s body the last to be recovered almost two weeks after the crash.  There was one thing I could not get out of my mind as I watched this tragedy unfold.  A few days later my wife and my own two month old son would be flying home on Air Florida.  They say that lightning does not strike twice.  I wanted desperately to believe this was true.

So this is why I think about that day in January 1982 each time I drive across that bridge, especially when the ice is on the Potomac reflecting the lights of a now peaceful city.

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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Je Suis Charlie!

The terrorist attacks in Paris last week are just the latest attempts to stifle free speech and thought.  It is a time to stand together and show the world that we will not be intimidated and silenced . . . that the pen will always remain mightier than the sword.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

A New Year At the Lake

Photo: Dave Breton
This past weekend one of our summer neighbors in New Gloucester, Maine, visited our adjacent cottages on True’s Point, on Sabbathday Lake, where the ice is just beginning to take hold along the shoreline after a fairly warm winter thus far.  The ice on other sections of the lake was up to three inches thick and already there were a few brave souls venturing out on the dangerously thin ice to tempt fate and go ice fishing. Much of the lake is either still open water or only transparent thin ice, but that is not enough deterrent for anglers who have been waiting patiently since the open
Photo: Dave Breton
water fishing season closed at the end of September to wet a hook.  Things are looking up, however, and the temperature began to drop later in the weekend and a passing winter storm dropped a few inches of new snow.  So winter may have finally arrived.  Perhaps.  It is even snowing here in Washington, DC this morning . . . these four inches are the first real measurable snowfall of the season.  it might be all we get.

And so here we are starting out fresh in a new year and it is time once again to begin looking toward to those summer months (and they will be here before we know it) and a return to the lake in June.   I look at the barren deck and the quiet lake beyond in these photographs and it is not difficult to envision the deck tables and the festive rainbow-hued umbrella . . . the grill standing ready.  I recall all of those stunning summer sunsets, each one different from the ones before.  It is thoughts like these that help me get through these gray and damp months of winter.

If all goes as planned I will take my annual winter trip to northern New England in the next few weeks, and if I do, I will certainly make my own outing to True’s Point and Sabbathday Lake to have a look at the cottage and the lake at the height of winter.  I am sure I will find it much changed from its appearance in these early days of January.  It has always been a bit of a treacherous go as I managed to navigate the icy and snowbound two-track that leads from the main road back to the lake.  I am only able to get as far as the top of the hill behind the cottage where I abandon any attempt of going farther.  The rest of the drive is buried under several feet of snow.  From there I could look down to the cottage with snow drifted high against it exterior walls, an ice fisherman’s bobhouse positioned on the ice in the spot where we swim and fish in the summer.   There is no fear of thin ice.

Looking at these recent photographs of the cottage and lake, and thinking back to my previous winter visits, I can’t help but see myself sitting under the umbrella on a warm summer’s day.   It won’t be long.  I can take comfort in that.

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Monday, December 1, 2014

The Road Not Taken - Part 3 of Memories from the Left Edge of America

On board the USS Ticonderoga (CV-14) at San Diego, California, July 1966 (I am third from the left).  Standing where a Japanese kamikaze plane struck in January 1945.
This is the third in a series of postings entitled “Memories from the Left Edge of America.”   Parts 1 and 2 were posted on October 20 and 22. 

The traveler in Frost’s well-known poem, “The Road Not Taken,” has arrived at an important, perhaps even a providential juncture on the road being traveled, or perhaps   an important crossroads in a life already lived, or one yet to be lived. But one will never know what life has in store until one of two pathways is chosen and followed.

            Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
            And sorry I could not travel both
            And be one traveler, long I stood
            And looked down one as far as I could
            To where it bent in the undergrowth;

            Then took the other, as just as fair,
            And having perhaps the better claim,
            Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
            Though as for that the passing there
            Had worn them really about the same,

            And both that morning equally lay
            In leaves no step had trodden black.
            Oh, I kept the first for another day!
            Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
            I doubted if I should ever come back.

            I shall be telling this with a sigh
            Somewhere ages and ages hence:
            Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -
            I took the one less traveled by,
            And that has made all the difference.   *

Two separate paths lie open and the traveler is sorry only one can be taken.  Both appear essentially the same, the only difference being where each will eventually lead.  Once down one path or the other, there is no going back, no do overs.  I arrived at just such a juncture in my own life during the summer of 1966, not long after I turned 15 years old.  Now you might think this is a very early age to arrive at such a momentous decision.  But I did.  I didn’t fully comprehend it then, but I can see it plainly now.

Ever since I was a young boy I have always been interested in history, especially military history.  Maybe this was a result of listening to my dad’s exploits while serving in General Patton’s Third Army as it advanced from the beachheads of Normandy to the Battle of the Bulge and across Germany to the eastern Czechoslovakia during the final year of World War II.  I thought I might be a soldier one day myself.  A lot of young boys do.  Mind you, Dad never glorified war or his role in it, nor did I realize or understand when I was young that there were so many terrible things he never told me about.  That would all come much later, when I better understood the history of that bitter conflict.  War would come to mean something completely different to a young boy who early on only saw the adventure and glory to be won.  But Dad did talk fondly about his comrades-in-arms, that band of brothers that faced death and adversity together, Some of them were lucky enough to survive to see the end of the war and to return home to their families and the lives they would lead after a victory won at such a terrible price. 

My own generation’s war had been brewing in French Indo-China since the early 1950s when American military advisors were sent to support the French, and later the government of an independent South Vietnam, in their efforts to stem the tide of communism in Southeast Asia.  Following the Gulf of Tonkin incident in early August 1964 during which North Vietnamese patrol boats allegedly attacked US Navy vessels, the US launched dozens of sorties against North Vietnamese bases and oil storage facilities.  It was not long before the United States began to ramp up its engagement in Vietnam.  It launched a large-scale bombing campaign, and began to commit regular combat troops in early 1965.  Over a quarter million ground troops were in country by the end of that year.  News from war zones became a constant diet on the evening news as American casualties began to mount.  Still, the war seemed far away and the idea of some sort of military service had not lost its appeal.  I joined the cadet program of the Wisconsin Wing of the Civil Air Patrol, a US Air Force Auxiliary, in 1964 and began to entertain thoughts of eventually attending the Air Force Academy so I could fly jets.  I did not really think about the likelihood that I would end up flying them over Southeast Asia.

I spent the summer of 1966 in San Diego where I was active in a local CAP squadron as part of the California Wing.  The Vietnam War suddenly seemed much closer during my time on the West Coast.   San Diego was full of military personnel on their way to, or returning from the war zone.  The skies were full of military aircraft operating out of Miramar Naval Air Station and other bases scattered across southern California.  Naval ships moved in and out of the harbor on a regular basis.  While I was in San Diego that summer I had an opportunity to tour the USS Ticonderoga (CV-14) with a group of visiting Royal New Zealand Air Force cadets.  One of 24 Essex-class aircraft carriers built during World War II, it served in several campaigns in the Pacific Theater of Operations, earning five battle stars during the last two years of the war and suffering severe damage as a result of a kamikaze assault in January 1945.  She was recommissioned shortly after the Korean War, and later earned several Naval Unit Commendations and 12 battle stars while operating off the coast of Vietnam.

When I boarded her at the North Island Naval Air Station, the Ticonderoga had recently returned home from her first six-month combat tour in the South China Sea and was being repaired and refitted for another tour.  We learned how the ship operated in combat, her air squadrons conducting bombing and reconnaissance sorties over Vietnam.  During its first deployment off Vietnam her air squadrons conducted over 10,000 combat sorties, with a loss of 16 planes, and five pilots.   We also learned it was aircraft from this carrier that engaged the North Vietnamese patrol boats during the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and along with aircraft from the USS Constellation, participated in the retaliatory raids on the North Vietnamese bases a few days later, receiving the first of its Naval Unit Commendations.  While walking on the busy flight deck we stood where the Japanese kamikaze plane struck and badly crippled the ship toward the end of World War II.  Shortly after my tour the USS Ticonderoga would put to sea in early July for training operations off the California coast.  It would return to Vietnam that October for the next of two more combat deployments until 1968 and the end of its active combat deployment.   It would subsequently recover the Apollo 16 and 17 moon mission capsules and astronauts in 1972, and the Skylab 2 astronauts near San Diego a year later.  The Ticonderoga was decommissioned in 1973 and sold for scrap in 1975).

Suddenly the war did not seem that far away.  It was all around me.  For the very first time I took a hard look at what a military career might mean and I had to ask myself whether I was committed to it.  By now I had my doubts.  With over a half million men and women deployed to Vietnam, the war continued to rage in Southeast Asia through my remaining years in high school.   I witnessed the anti-war protests along Michigan Avenue, in Grant and Lincoln Park and elsewhere throughout downtown Chicago, during the Democratic National Convention in the summer of 1968.  The war was going badly after the Tet Offensive earlier that year and the conflict was spreading throughout Southeast Asia.  The US began a secret bombing campaign over Cambodia and more than 11,000 US troops would be killed in action in 1969, the year I graduated.  By then I had scrapped any thoughts of attending a service academy or enlisting.  If the army wanted me they were going to have to come and get me.  That was a road I had no desire to take.
            Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
            I doubted if I should ever come back.


I registered with the Selective Service in 1969 when I turned 18.  It began a draft lottery in December 1969, and a second lottery drawing was held in July 1970 to determine the order in which men like me who were born in 1951 were to be called to report for induction into the military.  My birthday came up number 246.  The highest lottery number called for this group was 125.  All men assigned that lottery number or any lower number, and who were classified 1-A or 1-A-O (available for military service), were called to report for possible induction.  I was literally saved by the luck of the draw.  Lucky, too, that I had already been granted a temporary student deferment which would end either on my completion of a four-year degree or my 24th birthday in 1975, whichever came first.  Student deferments ended in 1971, yet the annual draft inductions never reached my high lottery number.  So many young men were called to serve.  I never was.

Although I was never seriously threatened by the draft, I attended Florida Southern College, a small liberal arts college which required two years of mandatory ROTC (Reserved Officers Training Corps) education.  One could then opt out or sign up for an additional two years after which one would be commissioned a second lieutenant in the US Army and required to serve at least two years of active service followed by a stint in the reserves.  I opted out in the fall of 1971 and traveled overseas to attend university in West Germany.   I had lost any and all interest in a military career.

            I shall be telling this with a sigh
            Somewhere ages and ages hence:
            Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
            I took the one less traveled by,
            And that has made all the difference.

I chose a civilian career as a historian charged with investigating the darkest corners of war, in this instance war crimes and crimes against humanity by the Nazis and their collaborators.  It has been a righteous endeavor.  There are no regrets, no sighs so many years after choosing one calling over another.

*   Robert Frost. The Poetry of Robert Frost. Edited by Edward Connery Lathem. 1969.
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