Monday, August 22, 2011

Quickie Book Recommendation - Haslam's Valley by Gerald Haslam

I'm only 60 pages into Haslam's Valley, the short story collection by California fiction and nonfiction author Gerald Haslaam, but it's more than enough to declare it essential reading for anyone who lives or grew up in or around Oildale, CA and is proud or fond of that fact, or anyone who wants to discover the "Other California" between the two big cities.  Haslam has been writing and winning awards for decades, so I'm somewhat abashed that I'm just now discovering him, but better late than never.  I'll make this a full-blown review when I'm finished, but didn't want to waste any time in recommending it.  Bakersfieldians can find it at Russo's Bookstore in the Marketplace.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

This Rat's Not Deserting a Sinking Ship. Just Yet.

I hear from various sources the clarion call to join other, sensible people in their exodus from the most insane state in the Union.  Every day, with every knuckleheaded politician elected and every nonsensical law passed, California seems more and more hell bent on driving business and ordinary people who would govern themselves with common sense out of the state.

And while I'd love to live closer to my parents and my brother's family, who several years ago fled to Texas, I'm resisting.  I'm heir to what was once a great state.  Arguably the most beautiful state, the most varied terrain and climate in the nation.  The rich identity and history of Bakersfield and Kern County are mine.  The mountains and lakes are mine.  Death Valley and the high deserts are mine.  The Central Coast, with its farms and forests and cool, cloudy beaches are mine.  Fresno, my home for twenty years, with it's vineyards and Nisei farmers and The ag, tech and aerospace industries are mine.  Disneyland is my kids' and Dodger Stadium (my "Happy Place," even when the Dodgers drop one) are mine.  It may be an insane asylum, but I'm not going to just hand it over to the inmates without a fight.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Why I Love the Vietnam Vet

I have the utmost respect, admiration and gratitude for all veterans of all our armed services.  But I've always had a special affinity for the Vietnam-era veteran.  And not just because I'm the proud son of the one pictured above.  I feel a special duty to try to make up for the honor and recognition they deserve but were denied for so long, to make sure as many Vietnam vets as possible know they are appreciated.

Vietnam-era veterans, following the example of their fathers and grandfathers, stepped up when their nation called, and wrote a blank check for an amount up to and including their very lives.  They fought with every bit as much determination, valor and love for their brothers as did their fathers in the Greatest Generation, even as they were maligned and mistreated by a nation that lost its way.  Don't believe me?  Read the citations of Medals of Honor awarded for gallantry in Vietnam.

While so many others their age at home turned to chemically fueled self-indulgence, exhibitionism and apathy, our Vietnam warriors looked outward in dedication and sacrifice.  While many of the ones who were fortunate enough to return came home broken in body and spirit, and were spit on and abused, in years to come a conscience-stricken nation vowed to never again let its warriors be so mistreated.  Our current fighters reap the benefit of this and of the example of honor set by their fathers and grandfathers of the Vietnam generation.  And unlike their tormentors, Vietnam veterans can now walk with their heads held high, knowing that whatever was lost by the press and politicians, they won their war, outfighting a skilled and determined enemy, and did so with consummate skill, courage and honor. 

Thank you, Vietnam veterans.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Small Time Driver

A bit of doggerel from my younger days.

She eyes him with pity.  As they sit in the Airstream, somewhere between hell and Hanford, her baleful stare accuses him, mocks him, but mostly pities him.

No more, he says.  He’s had enough, he says.  Enough of the gut-wrenching gladiator show called racing.  Enough bloodshot bleary-eyed midnights hurtling hell-bent down some two-lane blacktop in a borrowed box van, nodding off between hits of caffeine, nicotine and delusion.  He requires respite from the roller-coaster ride of small triumphs and big failures, from the never-ending demands on his guts and cussedness.  He’s tired of empty pockets, hard luck, busted knuckles and dodging broken men on and off the track.  He’s just plain tired.

He’s through, he says, but she knows better.  Her face says as much as she mentally recites the threadbare confession in unison with him.  She knows that the lure of the dirt, the siren song of shrieking small-blocks, the smell of high-test in the morning (smells like… like victory) will prove too much for his worn-out will.  Too much for this five-o’clock-shadowed effigy hunched in the unforgiving glare of the single swinging bare bulb.  It’ll be too much, and more likely sooner than later.

She’s right of course – they always are.  He’ll fold like a pup tent in a hurricane and once again, the call of competition will see him sucked into the sweat-soaked swirling maelstrom of rubber, steel, fiberglass, fumes, tears, spit, gritted teeth, waving arms, white knuckles, clenched fists, middle digits, muttered curses and maybe, just maybe, some fleeting scrap of glory.

She shakes her head, amused, knowing she won’t be quitting her bank teller job anytime soon.


Friday, May 6, 2011

The Measure of Devotion

            On Sunday, May 1, 2011, the Wounded Heroes Fund Kern County Chapter held their 3rd annual Salute to Local Heroes at the CSUB Outdoor Amphitheater in celebration and support of local veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.

            Two local veterans honored were Casey Schaubschlager and Wesley Leon-Barrientos.

            In the savage fighting in Ramadi and Fallujah during the darkest days of the Iraqi insurgency, Cpl. Casey Schaubschlager and his brother Marines were so continually battered by daily combat that Schaubschlager can’t even say how many times he was wounded.

            “We got mortared three times a day like clockwork. Morning, noon and night.”

            It was a buried, remotely triggered artillery shell that finally sent him home for good, with 40-60 percent hearing loss and traumatic brain injury.

            Schaubschlager still contends with the invisible wounds of survivor guilt and post-traumatic stress and likely always will, has had to fight for medical care for combat injuries and still hasn’t received his Purple Heart.  But for Schaubschlager, who considered himself a career Marine, the premature end to his Marine Corps career may have been the bitterest loss of all.

            “If it wasn’t for them retiring me out, I would still be in for my 20 years. I was what they called a ‘lifer.’”

            Schaubschlager is open about his difficulties in coping with that loss and readjusting to civilian life.  He’s gradually healing from his seen and unseen wounds with the support of a loving wife and the same determination that saw him through his three combat tours of Iraq.  And he credits the Wounded Heroes Fund with helping with everything from groceries to finding jobs. 

            “They actually approached me.  They just felt like they wanted to help me, so they did.  They were ‘forcefully helpful,’ in a good way, though,” he laughed.

            His work at the Kern County Veterans Center, volunteering with the Wounded Heroes Fund and pursuing a degree in psychology with an eye toward helping other vets have given Schaubschlager a renewed sense of purpose in a post-Marines life that, until recently, he’d never even imagined.  His advice to other vets?

            “Keep the faith, keep the hope, don't let your head hang low.  At first I let my pride get in the way.  Don't let your pride get in the way of getting the help you need.”

            For U.S. Army Cpl. Wesley Leon-Barrientos and his fellow 101st Airborne Division “Screaming Eagles,” death and injury were a daily reality in Iraq’s infamous “Sunni Triangle,” as were enormous mental stresses and ironic twists of fate.  He once flipped a coin with a close friend to determine which one would have to take up the dreaded rear position in a convoy escort.

            “I lost, and he got to go in the front truck.  The front truck got hit and he died right there.”

            That was the first of many incidents over the course of three combat tours that might have shattered a less resilient man, but not Leon-Barrientos, who earned five Army Commendation Medals and three Purple Hearts.  The third was for an IED attack that cost him a broken jaw, two crushed vertebrae - and both of his legs.  But he believes there are reasons for everything - even for that.  He gestures to his two year old pixie of a daughter, who was born during the time he’d still have been in Iraq had he not been wounded:

            “I see a lot of reasons.  I see one right now.  She wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t lost my legs,” said Leon-Barrientos.  “I wouldn’t change a thing.” 

            Leon-Barrientos’ friendliness and upbeat attitude are remarkable in light of all he’s experienced.  He is lavish and effusive in his praise of the way the people of Kern County support their veterans, especially through the efforts of the Wounded Heroes Fund, which protected his mother’s home from foreclosure while she remained with him during his year-long sojourn at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, D.C., and helped build his family a home of their own.

            “If you've never had anything that you're thrilled about, proud about, and honored to do in your life, there's nothing better than volunteering with and donating to the Wounded Heroes Fund.”

            Please join the Wounded Heroes Fund in thanking and supporting these remarkable young men and their families and many others like them for their service and sacrifices.  For more information, or to learn more about Casey Schaubschlager and Wesley Leon-Barrientos and their fellow vets, call 661-324-7453 or visit

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Holding Back

     I recall something said by a famous architect, a Los Angeles-based one, I think.  It could have been John Lautner, but really, I don't remember.  I'm going to try to paraphrase it from memory here: 

     If you've got a great idea and are hoarding it, saving it for that big project that will someday come along, your stinginess will stunt your creative growth and you'll be forever waiting for the big project.  Be a spendthrift with your ideas, use every good one as it comes along, even for minor and "unimportant" projects, and the good ideas will flow like water; you will succeed and your reputation will grow and the big projects will come sooner and you'll have plenty of good ideas for them.

     I imagine that must be true for other artists, too.  That way of creating,  resisting the temptation to squeeze every last drop of life from successful formulas and relentlessly moving forward helped set the Beatles apart from every other musical act of their time, and I bet it might apply pretty well to writers, too.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Nobody Reads This Anyway

You think that's bad?  Not so.  I could post anything here and no one would care.  I could admit that I don't like sushi and love ballet and opera but think musical theater is self-indulgent pap.  If nobody is there to read it, am I still a middlebrow dilettante?  I could say "bomb" and not get violated by a TSA agent.    Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb.  I could post favorite movie quotes.

"Michael "Squints" Palledorous walked a little taller that day. And we had to tip our hats to him. He was lucky she hadn't beat the CRAP out of him. We wouldn't have blamed her. What he'd done was sneaky, rotten, and low... and cool. Not another one among us would have ever in a million years even for a million dollars have the guts to put the moves on the lifeguard. He did. He had kissed a woman. And he had kissed her long and good. We got banned from the pool forever that day. But every time we walked by after that, the lifeguard looked down from her tower, right over at Squints, and smiled."

It's kind of liberating, actually.  I could get used to it.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Like Watching Your Mother-In-Law Drive Off A Cliff In Your New Car

That's how I've heard "mixed feelings" defined.  It doesn't work that well for me because I happen to like my mother-in-law a lot, and I bought my six-year-old truck used, four years ago.  Plus, the mixed feelings I'm experiencing right now are nowhere near that acute.  So now I'm forced to admit I only used that line because I needed a catchy title for this post.  There, you happy?

Anyhow, this here blog is meant as a respository (fancy word for "dustbin") for stuff I write.  I mean, it needs to go somewhere where it will do as little harm as possible (I'm pretty Hippocratic for a non-doctor).  Only now, during rare free moments, I'm working on a book that I hope is destined for publication, and a local magazine article that I'm pretty sure is.  The latter is related to some volunteer work I've started doing, and there's an almost endless stream of worthy story subjects in that pipeline.  Which is all great for me, and I hope not too painful for the reading public, but it makes for a pretty quiescent (fancy word for "still") blog.  Being the proprietor of an inactive blog is lame, but writing things that might possibly make a real audience laugh or think is decidedly not so.  So I'll feel good about the one and bad about the other and hope all two of my fans (the charitable one who reads it on purpose in case I ask her how she liked the latest post and the one who stumbled onto it by mistake during a marathon 4 a.m. web surfing session) keep checking back once in awhile.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Come Fly With Me

Come fly with me, let’s fly, let’s fly away.
If you can use some exotic booze, there’s a bar in far Bombay.
Come fly with me, let’s fly, let’s fly away.

Come fly with me, let's float down to Peru.
In llama-land, there's a one-man band, and he'll toot his flute for you.
Come fly with me, let's take off in the blue.

Once I get you up there where the air is rarefied
We’ll just fly starry-eyed
Once I get you up there, I’ll be holding you so near,
You may hear, angels cheer, ‘cause we’re together

Weather-wise, it’s such a lovely day,
You just say the word and we’ll beat the birds down to Acapulco Bay
It’s perfect for a flying honeymoon they say,
Come fly with me, let’s fly, let’s fly
Pack up, let’s fly away…

© Cahn Music Company; Maraville Music Corporation

Are any of you old enough to remember when train travel was common and air travel was a big deal?  When a trip on an airplane was exotic and exciting?  When Frank Sinatra sang "Come Fly With Me" and you wished you could take him up on it?

Do any of you remember this scene?

Your dad wore his best brown suit and hat (well, back then he always wore a suit, although at the beach he'd at least roll up his pant legs and leave his coat and tie in the Buick) and your mom wore her new floral-print summer dress and lacy white hat.  Airport security consisted of a middle-aged guy with a nightstick and revolver and clip-on tie who looked like he'd eaten more than his share of donuts and rocked back and forth on his heels as he gave you a wink and a nod.  You strode out from the terminal building across the tarmac toward a gleaming, streamlined airplane with either a blue or orange stripe or two red ones, depending on whether you were flying Pan Am, American or TWA.  You ascended a set of air stairs that a coveralled mechanic had wheeled up to the plane and were greeted by a smiling stewardess (as female flight attendants were called in that less enlightened age), impeccably attired in a neat blue suit adorned with silver wings, and a smart, military-style cap.

The cabin wasn't cavernous, but only because wide-body jets weren’t yet invented, not because you were being stuffed into it like so much sausage by a bean counter corps trying to stave off bankruptcy proceedings.  Maybe your dad brought you up to the cockpit where the pilot (who likely flew B-24s during the War) pointed out what the various levers and switches and doohickies did and handed you a set of Junior Aviator wings that weren't plastic.

The biggest challenge for the stewardesses was your little brother wanting to zoom through the cabin with his toy F-86 Sabre jet.  Not business travelers refusing to turn off cell phones or surly men glancing furtively about, looking like they're up to no good.

Jet air travel was in its infancy.  You could get on a 707 or DC-8 for a trans-oceanic flight or major domestic route, but just flying was excitement enough and you felt a thrill, tempered with a bit of caution, as you looked out the window of the DC-6 or Super Constellation and saw the mechanic standing below the streamlined engine nacelle, fire extinguisher at the ready, and each propeller slowly turn before its massive Double Wasp or Turbo Compound radial engine caught and fired in a thunderous coughing fit and cloud of white smoke.  The booming cacophony calmed to a loafing, lopey idle until the pilot deftly eased the four throttles forward together with a practiced touch, unleashing ten thousand impatient horses to urge you free of the ground.  And then, leveling out at cruise speed and altitude, the engines settled down to a reassuring, steady drone.

It was still only 15 years since those same engines powered the Hellcats and Corsairs and Superfortresses that helped your dad and uncles whip the bad guys in the big war.  And even though they couldn't go down and have a big time in Havana anymore since that Castro clown took over, and even though the Russkies were rattling their sabers and sending stuff into space and you had to do duck and cover drills at school and your dad looked over brochures for backyard bomb shelters as he smoked his pipe, you still liked Ike and it was still an idyllic and exciting time, full of ideas and pregnant with possibility.  And on a day like today, bobbing on invisible currents of air between puffs of blinding white cloud in the achingly, impossibly blue heavens, even the Russians couldn't spoil it.

High Flight

Oh!  I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
my eager craft through footless halls of air.

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark nor eagle flew-
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.

Pilot Officer John G. Magee, Jr
American flier with the Royal
Canadian Air Force.  Died in
aerial combat on December 11, 1941

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Briefly, On Government

Government should only be big enough and powerful enough to defend us from foreign aggression and criminal activity and to carry out those few essential functions that can't or won't be done in the private sector.  It cannot and should not try to make fair an essentially unfair existence, it should not try to guarantee an equal outcome for people of different talents, motivations and work ethics, it should not favor one group of people over another and it should not exist to create wealth and power for any individuals or political class.   It should offer minimal interference in the lives of those free people who can and do govern their own behavior.

More here

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Why The Wall

In August, 1969, my 23-year-old mother drove west with her husband and their month-old son in their ’68 Volkswagen from Ft. Campbell, Kentucky.  Back home to Kern County, after my dad’s year in Vietnam and honorable discharge from the Army, to make a home with her new family.

In the coming decades, my mom made that home, helped raise two sons and weathered the ups and downs, joys and sorrows of a typical American life.  She welcomed two brides into the family as daughters, cared for other people’s children and settled into a well-deserved retirement with my dad.  She’s the happy grandmother of four grandkids.  She’s lived most of her life, a lifetime, since 1969.


In the month Mom was coming home on Route 66 to begin the next phase in her young life, a happy-go-lucky neighbor and Wasco High classmate two years her junior was beginning his tour of duty as a combat medic with the U.S. Army 5th Special Forces Group, Vietnam.
Had he survived his tour, his story from that point wouldn’t have been the same as my mother’s, but probably wouldn’t have been all that different.  I don’t know if he would have gone to medical school, or Bakersfield College, or to work as a Pontiac salesman.  Maybe he would have married and had children and grandchildren.  Maybe, having seen and done more than most people twice his age, he would have left his hometown behind and burned brightly across the firmament.  Or perhaps simply made a quiet, honorable life in small-town Kern County.  Maybe he’d have found a cure for cancer or maybe just vanquished the crabgrass.  But no matter what twists and turns his life would have taken, he should have had a life, should have lived, like my mom, a lifetime beyond the year 1969.

After all, he was just 20 years old then, barely a grown man.  Not old enough to vote or even take a legal sip of beer.  But on December 1 of that crazy, climactic year, as my parents got ready for their baby’s first Christmas, at a time when this young man’s life with all its unrealized promise and possibility had just barely begun, it ended in an mortar attack in the Quang Duc Province of the Republic of Vietnam.  And instead of Who’s Who in American Business or the minutes of school board meetings or the Family Practitioner section of the Yellow Pages, the name Stephen Leon Ragsdale is etched in Panel 15W, Line 014 of a long, black granite wall.


There are at least 1,006 other names that will join Sgt. Ragsdale’s on Kern County’s own Wall.  Each one represents a life full of limitless potential that should have been lived to the fullest but instead was cruelly abbreviated.  Each is a story never finished and never told.  Like my mother, each should have experienced his share of successes and failures, love and loss, satisfaction and regrets.  Each should have been entitled to graying hair, growing waistlines and the other unwelcome trophies of middle age.  Each should have been remembered not only in faded photographs and eight millimeter home movie film and the failing memories of elderly parents and middle-aged siblings and high school friends, but in adult accomplishments and ceremonies and good times and milestones, and in the hearts of children and grandchildren.  Although they achieved much, their lives were too short for any of their names to be engraved on a Lifetime Achievement Award.  So let us, the people of Kern County, engrave them on something meaningful and lasting and worthy of their sacrifice, where we and our children can come and reflect on the meaning of service, the importance of gratitude and the fragility and brevity of life, and where we can let them know they are still not forgotten.  Let’s all give what we can to finish the Kern Veterans Memorial Wall of Valor.

Kern Veterans Memorial Foundation
(661) 201-3987

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Duke Snider, 1926-2011

In the 1950s, New York was the Capital of Baseball, and three teams, the New York Yankees, New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers seemed to hold sway over the game and the imaginations of fans (back in the pre-internet/24-hour cable news coverage/overexposed superstar days, when fans' imaginations were an essential part of experiencing the game).  Three of the biggest stars of the era were the teams' respective center-fielders, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Edwin "Duke" Snider, who died Sunday at the age of 84.

To the casual fan, Mantle was the game's greatest slugger, Mays, its all-time greatest all-around player, and Snider... well, the name is vaguely familiar but does not really compute.

Too bad, and not only because for the throngs of fans that lived and died by the outrageous fortunes of "Dem Bums," whether scaling the centerfield wall to snuff out home run hopes, knocking a hard but graceful liner over the right field wall, or donning top hat and monocle to ham it up for the camera, Number Four, The Duke of Flatbush, was royalty.  During the time when the three of them played concurrently, big, powerful Snider led in home runs and RBI, and though which one was the best centerfielder of the '50s is a debate for the ages, the Duke himself stated at his 1980 Hall of Fame induction that since the three of them were now there, it didn't really matter.

More important to me than his stats, and they were good, is what he represents.  He is the last regular position player of Roger Kahn's famed "Boys of Summer" of the Dodgers of the '50s to pass on, joining Carl Erskine, Carl Furillo, Gil Hodges, Roy Campanella, Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese. He was one of the last living links to a time when kids dodged cabs and played stickball near open hydrants in the streets of Crown Heights and Bensonhurst and sat on fire escapes or in open bedroom windows to listen to the Dodgers on transistor radios when they weren't sneaking into Ebbets Field to catch a Saturday doubleheader.  (Back when working families could afford to go to big-league games and kids actually could sneak into a major league ballpark).  A time before Walter O' Malley ripped the heart out of Brooklyn and became a hero to grateful Southern Californians.  Before free agency strained the moorings between players and fans, before the designated hitter sheltered American League pitchers from having to stand at the plate and take their cuts, and before unnaturally augmented sluggers looked like linebackers and fouled the record books with asterisks.

That's why baseball fans everywhere are sad at the passing of Duke Snider.  So long, Duke.  Say hi to my grandparents (die-hard Dodger fans) for me.  You'll find them at that great Ebbets Field in the Sky, probably chatting to Campy from behind home plate.

Friday, February 25, 2011

New blog. Alert the media.

Hey, insomniac who wandered here by mistake, or the two who showed up on purpose.  Here's where I stow the stuff in my head, to prove there's something there.  No guarantees, implied or otherwise, on the quality of the content.  I just got done dumping most of the essays and stuff I've written and kept, because an empty blog is sad.  A full one may be just as sad, or worse, but it doesn't give off a hollow sound when you hit it.

Book Review In Honor of Black History Month

Book Review: Brothers in Arms, The Epic Story of the 761st Tank Battalion, WWII’s Forgotten Heroes

In the flush of outrage and patriotism in the days and months following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Americans by the hundreds of thousands volunteered to serve in our nation's armed forces. It was no different for black Americans, who were ready to fight for their country, even one that still treated them as decidedly second-class citizens.  Eager to maintain the support of black citizens for the war effort, the government attempted to placate them by accepting blacks into the still racially segregated armed services in support roles such as cooks, mechanics, quartermasters (supply troops) and the like, while never actually intending to let them fight.  This is well-known, but to this day, a myth persists that no blacks fought in combat during World War Two, except perhaps in isolated instances such as the famed Tuskegee Airmen of the 332nd Fighter Group.  But in fact, driven by the urgent need for combat replacements in the last year of the war, tens of thousands of black soldiers fought and were killed and wounded in front line combat, mostly in all-black units.  The 761st Tank Battalion was just such a unit.

With Brothers in Arms, The Epic Story of the 761stTank Battalion, WWII's Forgotten Heroes, NBA Hall of Famer and historian Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Author of On the Shoulder of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance, and co-author Anthony Walton, finally do justice to the remarkable but almost completely unknown story of the 761st Tank Battalion, whose motto was "Come Out Fighting!"

Highly trained, but manning poorly-designed Sherman tanks that were in many ways mobile death traps and were in all ways under-armored and outgunned by the vaunted German Panzers, the 761st fought their way over 2,000 combat miles from the hedgerows of Normandy to the concentration camps of Mauthausen.  You could say they had to fight a two-front war - not only against the best Nazi Germany could throw at them, but also the worst to which some of their own countrymen could subject them. Both in stateside training and European combat, they fought to overcome indifference, stereotypes, outright racism and even violence.  They struggled against mistrust, disrespect, disdain, ignorance, doubting leaders, poor leadership and tactics, neglect and exhaustion.  They dealt with the ambiguous and contradictory feelings toward them personified in their erstwhile commander General George S. Patton, who had made it plain in past writings that he thought blacks couldn't think quickly enough for armored warfare, yet was willing enough to have their support in critical battles.  They fought for weeks and months without more than a day's break from combat, adequate winter clothing or even a change of uniform. To drag a wounded comrade to safety under fire or to scout ahead or attack German positions on foot was nearly an everyday occurence.  Rather than being part of a self-contained armored division staffed with infantry trained to support tank operations, the 761st Battalion was a detached unit (known to themselves and the rest of the Army as a "bastard" battalion) that was shuffled around different armored or infantry units according to need or the whim of commanders.  They would be placed alongside an all-white unit whose reactions to them ranged from caution to outright contempt, and win most of them over with their courage, skill, dedication and humanity, demolishing stereotypes that blacks weren't brave or intelligent enough fight or lead.  Then they would be abruptly bounced to another unfamiliar unit and have to start again from scratch, suffering the crushing indignity of going from heroes and life-savers one day to "n----r tankers" the next.

Through it all, they fought with unheralded but unexcelled valor and determination, and often with conspicuous gallantry.  And when they returned home, sure that their bravery and sacrifices in blood and lives would open America's eyes to their worth as men and finally gain them full participation in American life, they found a country mostly eager and determined to go on as if they had never even set foot overseas.  Their status as an unattached unit hampered record keeping, as did "lost" commendations and paperwork and old stereotypes, to the extent that even other black Americans refused to believe that they had fought at all, let alone from inside the iconic Sherman tank. Their skill in maneuvering thirty-two ton tanks through difficult terrain and demolishing German fortifications and machine gun teams with 75mm armor-piercing shells did little to prepare them for the postwar workforce and the reluctance of white managers to hire them, even after some obtained college degrees.

It would have been little wonder had they given up and retreated into bitterness and disillusionment.  But instead, we see in almost all of them a determination to start families and make new lives for themselves.  (We also see that men whose courage had been forged in bitter fighting against elite German armored units and SS troops were not easily intimidated by jeering crowds and phalanxes of police with nightsticks, dogs and fire hoses).  What is surprising is that so many people had to work so long and hard for them to receive the recognition that should have been theirs from the beginning.

While not without minor flaws, such as the need for more maps, the thoroughly researched and well-written "Brothers in Arms" illuminates an important part of black history and American history (including the history-shaping involvement of one John Roosevelt Robinson with the unit).  The experience of the black serviceman in World War II is an important prelude to the Civil Rights struggles of the '50s and '60s.  It's hard to read this account knowing that what they went through was part of a fight that would stretch on for another two decades. It's hard, knowing they thought they had won peace for their children, but their children would have to continue the struggle.

"Brothers in Arms" also retells an important part of military history.  The flawed and bloody campaign for the Saar, a low point in Patton's career, has been almost completely overshadowed by the Battle of the Bulge and the final drive through Germany (in both of which the 761st also fought) and receives deserved attention here.

But I recommend "Brothers in Arms" simply because the men of the 761st Tank Battalion, as well as all black WWII veterans, deserve for their story to be told.

Favorite Feel-Good Songs

January 22, 2011 

Some of my favorite feel-good songs
What a Wonderful World, Louis Armstrong
Dock of the Bay, Otis Redding
Cherry, Cherry, Neil Diamond
Good Vibrations, the Beach Boys
Brown-Eyed Girl, Van Morrison
Here Comes the Sun, The Beatles
Drift Away, Dobie Gray
I can See Clearly Now, Johnny Nash
Three Little Birds, Bob Marley
Lean on Me, Bill Withers
Peace Train, Cat Stevens
Love Train, the O'Jays
Sweet Home Alabama, Lynyrd Skynyrd (not Kid Rock's ripoff of that song + Werewolves of London)
Everybody's Everything, Santana
Sir Duke, Stevie Wonder
Peaceful, Easy Feeling, The Eagles
Questions 67 & 68, Chicago
Kodachrome, Paul Simon
Just Like Starting Over, John Lennon
Watching the Wheels, John Lennon
Easy, the Commodores
Let's Go, The Cars
Just Like Heaven, The Cure

I left off some obvious ones.

Christmas Songs - Definitive and Favorite Versions

December 24, 2010

My favorite versions of Christmas Songs.  Your results may vary...

Adeste Fidelis                                                      Bing Crosby
All I Want for Christmas Is You                           Mariah Carey
Baby It's Cold Outisde                                         Dean Martin
Blue Christmas                                                     Elvis Presley
Breath of Heaven (Mary's Song)                         Amy Grant
The Christmas Song                                            Nat King Cole
Christmas Time Is Here                                       Vince Guaraldi Trio
Do They Know It's Christmas?                             Band Aid
Feliz Navidad                                                       Jose Feliciano
Frosty the Snowman                                           Jimmy Durante
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen                            Bing Crosby
Grown Up Christmas List                                     Amy Grant
Happy Xmas (War is Over)                                 John Lennon & Yoko Ono
Have a Holly Jolly Christmas                               Burl Ives
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas              Judy Garland
Heaven Came to Earth                                          2nd Chapter of Acts
Here Comes Santa Claus                                    Gene Autry
I'll be Home for Christmas                                   Bing Crosby
It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year           Andy Williams
Jingle Bell Rock                                                    Ritchie Valens
Let it Snow                                                          Dean Martin
The Little Drummer Boy                                       Harry Simone Chorale
March of the Toys                                               The Philadelphia Orchestra
Mele Kalikimaka                                                    Bing Crosby with the Andrews Sisters
Merry Christmas Darling                                      The Carpenters
O Tannenbaum                                                    Nat King Cole
Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree                     Brenda Lee
Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer                       Gene Autry
Santa Baby                                                          Eartha Kitt
Santa Claus is Coming to Town                           Frank Sinatra
Sleigh Ride                                                           Arthur Fiedler and The Boston Pops Orchestra
The Night Before Christmas                                 Amy Grant
There's No Place Like Home for the Holidays       Perry Como
Walking in the Air (from the film "The                  Peter Auty
Snowman" )

White Christmas                                                  Bing Crosby
White Christmas                                                  The Drifters
Winter Wonderland                                             Amy Grant
Wonderful Christmastime                                    Paul McCartney

Rights in the Absence of a Transcendent Creator

October 20, 2010

"The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty records.  They are written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of the divinity itself, and can never be erased."
Alexander Hamilton,
The Farmer Refuted (1775)

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness..."

If the President of The United States includes "endowed" but purposely and conspicuously omits "by their Creator" (as he has several times) when quoting the Declaration of Independence, then by whom or by what does he suppose men are endowed with rights? And if that who or that what isn't bigger than man's power to oppress, tyrannize, injure, kill and take by force, then what, exactly, makes any rights inalienable? A "right" that is not inalienable is no right at all; it is nothing more than a privilege, granted by the strong to the weak, which can be altered or rescinded at any time at the whim of the grantor. Which was exactly the situation against which America's founders rebelled when they declared their inependence from King George III.

Book Review: Descent into Darkness Pearl Harbor, 1941 (The True Story of a Navy Diver)

August 21, 2010

The standard narrative of World War II in the Pacific long engraved on the American psyche moves from the devastation at Pearl Harbor to the dark days of Bataan and first good news of the Doolittle raid.  From there, the tactical defeat but strategic victory at the Coral Sea, the stunning turning point of Midway, the Marines' savage struggle for Guadalcanal, fighting in the jungles of New Guinea, and the bloody island-hopping campaign.

But while all this was happening, Pearl Harbor was a beehive of activity, and not just with the comings and goings of Navy ships and in-transit personnel.  Every day, civilian and Navy "hardhat" divers like Edward Raymer donned almost 100lb of bulky diving gear and descended into the blackness of the oil-covered waters of Pearl to undertake the important and hazardous task of salvaging what they could of the once-proud battleships sunk and damaged in the attack and refloating as many of them as possible so they could be repaired and sent to the fight that had been over for them almost as soon as it had begun.  In Descent into Darkness Pearl Harbor, 1941 (The True Story of a Navy Diver), retired US Navy Commander Edward C. Raymer (formerly an enlisted sailor and the first person to dive on the sunken U.S.S. Arizona) weaves a fascinating tale of a relatively unknown but important part of the war in the Pacific – the attempt to undo as much as possible the damage from the Japanese sneak attack on the Pacific Fleet.  In so doing, he brings to life a motley cast of ordinary but brave, dedicated and hardworking sailors who are a microcosm of the Greatest Generation who triumphed in World War II, and who, like the combat sailors, sometimes gave their lives in doing so.

The nature of the divers' work dictated that it be done alone and unsupervised.  The kind of officers that would normally try to micromanage things were only too happy to leave the terrifying work up to the enlisted divers once they experienced it themselves.  This work involved painstakingly moving through fully fueled and armed battleships that were ripped apart and strewn with wreckage and debris.  It was up to the individual divers to overcome countless problems and hazards that had never been encountered in peacetime salvage diving, whether it was jagged steel, the removal of 2,000lb high explosive shells from magazines or the deadly buildup of explosive gases.  And because the work was inside sunken ships in water covered and saturated in fuel oil and debris, it was all done in pitch darkness and had to be accomplished with the help of radioed directions from ship's plans and done completely by feel – a feel that was finely honed in the months and years they toiled in the inky blackness.  The cadre of divers were true pioneers who invented solutions and procedures that became adopted as standard later on.  And from the Publisher's Weekly review, "Raymer's memoir is useful above all as a case study of the hands-on, un-bureaucratized approach to problem-solving that the U.S. brought to WWII from the beginning."

Raymer hilariously relates off-duty antics as the divers ingeniously circumvented prohibition (of liquor) in order outmaneuver an entire island of soldiers, sailors and Marines to secure female companionship for a series of covert beach parties.  But he also sensitively treats the difficult subject of encountering the bodies of sailors still entombed in the ships.  Phobias – fears of the dark, confinement, drowning and being buried alive all came into play as every day brought new challenges to be overcome.  (Even arachnophobia was a problem in an incident that will either terrify or amuse, depending on one's feelings towards spiders).

Raymer and a fellow diver spent a hardly peaceful interlude in the jungles of Guadalcanal and the waters of "The Slot" between the Solomon Islands.  Dodging the nightly "Tokyo Express" of marauding Japanese cruisers and destroyers, the sailors worked to repair ships and resupply the Marines on the island, for whom they gained a profound respect after observing and sharing in some of their hardships.  A high point was doing underwater repair work in crystal clear sunlit waters – something they had not yet experienced in the war.  The low point was the torpedoing and sinking of their home away from home, the repair ship U.S.S. Seminole.

After a 30-day survivors leave in San Francisco, Raymer returned to his brother divers and continued the work at Pearl Harbor on the USS Arizona, Utah, West Virginia, California and Oklahoma. He served as a liaison to news reporters and even a tour guide of the Oklahoma to none other than First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.  Some of the battlewagons were beyond saving – the Utah was scuttled and the Arizona remained at the bottom of the harbor, becoming a sacred monument and a tomb for more than a thousand sailors.  Others lived to fight again, like the lightly damaged Tennessee and the West Virginia, which was present at the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945, where the long, costly and bloody war was finally brought to a close.

If you're interested in history, curious about the "rest of" the Pearl Harbor story, love the salty vocabulary and tales of the Navy, are curious about working diving in canvas suits, weighted shoes and copper helmets in the days before SCUBA, wonder what it was like when important work wasn't weighed down with a web of nonsensical rules and regulations, or just want a good read, Descent Into Darkness is highly recommended.

The State of Independence Day

July 4, 2010

This day is a bit more solemn for me than past Independence days. I have come to the full realization that no matter how profound the wisdom of the founders in writing the Constitution, despite the fact that they were aided in their task by divine Providence, despite the genius of the separation of powers, checks and balances and safeguards, and the codification of our God-given rights built into it, it cannot protect and maintain itself. Its ability to do so was predicated on a clear understanding of its meaning and the intent of its writers, and that is no longer a given. Its enemies have succeeded in twisting its meaning and depriving generations of children of their birthright of education in its greatness.

It's no longer enough to rely on our young warriors abroad to protect us from threats without and the Constitution to protect itself from threats within. It is the duty of every citizen from greatest to least to dedicate ourselves as fully to protecting and defending her and our Republic as our military has pledged to do for generations and more fully than her enemies are dedicated to tearing her down. Political activism can no longer be the territory of the enemies of liberty only. It must become an integral part of our everyday lives, too.

So enjoy this day to the fullest, but let it not be solely a day to thank God for our liberty and celebrate those who have preserved it for us in the past and are doing so now. Let it be a day when we dedicate ourselves anew to preserving it for our children and their children and beseech Almighty God his grace and mercy on our land.

On the Need for Economic Literacy

March 26, 2010

Were I Grand Poobah of the United States, I'd require everyone to read a text and pass a test in basic free-market economics. Why?

To put to rest once and for all, economic myths like the one that sellers in a properly regulated capitalist system can set prices "arbitrarily." Or the closely related myth of "price gouging." Or the myth that the "market" is some cruel, impersonal force, rather than the sum total of the free choices of a population of free people.

So people would understand why price supports result in surplus of a commodity, price ceilings result in scarcity of a commodity and wage controls result in scarcity of jobs.

So that anyone who hasn't had the misfortune to live in a communist country or any other centrally-planned, command economy would know how backward, inefficient and wasteful they are, why they don't work, and why an army of a million government planners can never do what prices do automatically in a free market.

So people would understand that no collection of disinterested bureaucrats could ever regulate an industry as well as consumers when there is real competition. That in a competitive environment, the same company that resists or skirts government regulators will quickly fall in line when customer dissatisfaction affects their bottom line, or lose their business to companies that do. Why true competition in the insurance industry is the best thing that could happen to the healthcare consumer.

So that they would never again be led astray by the lies and promises of politicians and demagogues. So they would be able to figure out exactly why the current healthcare "reform" is so bad for the country, stop demonizing people who oppose it, and maybe even consider the better ideas that have so far been ignored.

There is an ever-increasing population of Americans who have never seen the tragic effects of Marxism, who don't realize it's not a new idea that needs to be tried, and who are easy prey for those who are trying to push us toward it. If that population reaches a certain critical mass, we're in trouble.

My recommendation for an interesting and readable text? Basic Economics, by Thomas Sowell.

Knowledge is power, and the truth will make you free.

The Ultimate Regulators

March 21, 2010

In her March 17 column, Ann Coulter said that if the hotel industry were regulated as heavily as the insurance industry, she would be explaining why the government doesn't need to mandate that hotels offer rooms with beds. If they didn't, they'd go out of business.

If insurance consumers had real choice, there wouldn't need to be government regulations against things like lifetime coverage caps or using pre-existing coverage clauses to fraudulently drop existing customers - insurance companies would quickly bow to the wishes of the consumer or quickly go out of business. All with no new gargantuan entitlements, thousands of new IRS employees or rationing of healthcare. In a free market, consumers are the ultimate regulators. With tools like consumer groups, a watchdog media and the internet, the American consumer is savvier and better informed than in any other time in history, and they are more interested and invested in their own protection than a Washington bureaucrat. And they don't cost the taxpayers anything.

Real Healthcare Reform

March 20, 2010

The healthcare legislation that the President and Congressional Democrat leadership are tying themselves in knots to cobble together out of parliamentary gymnastics, multi-billion dollar bribes, threats and coercion, union favors, back room bargaining, constant condescending preaching, demonization of opponents, outright lies, supplying fraudulent information and assumptions to the CBO, and for all we know, duct tape, chewing gum and bailing wire, all while not even fully knowing what is in it, is not about healthcare. It is a last-ditch attempt to salvage what was supposed to be the signature issue of the Obama presidency and realize a century-old dream of the left for the Federal government to be the lord, father figure and provider for every American. It is a Trojan horse that will lay the groundwork for further enormous expansions of government size, power, control and entitlements. It will give government unprecedented control over every aspect of our lives that could even remotely be tied to healthcare. (Like cigars? Rock climbing? Motorcycling?). It is opposed by a clear majority of Americans and has bipartisan opposition in Congress (no such bipartisan support exists for it). I humbly submit that if the issue were really the health of the American people, rather than a codification of the Left's hatred of private enterprise, Congress would immediately drop this multi-thousand page Frankenstein monstrosity into the dustbin of history and reform our health coverage system by doing four things, at zero cost to the taxpayer:

1. Eliminate the antitrust exemptions for the insurance companies, prohibitions on interstate purchasing and State mandates on coverage. If this single step happened, consumers would be able to choose exactly what type of coverage they wanted. Why should a retired man or post-menopausal woman, for example, be forced to purchase a plan that covers contraception and obstetrics? If you could choose, would you buy a plan that covers everthing down to doctor visits for sniffles, or would you cover only serious or catastrophic illness and use the savings as you see fit? You should be able to choose. Can you imagine if health insurance companies had to compete with hundreds of other companies in a marketplace similar to the one for car insurance? Consumers can regulate a consumer-product industry far better than government can. For a better-written and staggeringly commonsense take on this item, see the March 17, 2010 column at Incidentally, the amount and form of compensation from a company to its employees, including whether or not a company provides or contributes to health insurance for them, should be subject to the mutual agreement of both and no one else, period.

2. Reform medical malpractice laws, not to eliminate lawsuits for actual malpractice as opponents claim, but to allow doctors to make decisions based on what is best for the patient, not to continually work in a combative, defensive state of protecting themselves and their employers from predatory litigation.

There is no such thing as a "right" to healthcare anymore than there is a "right" to be happy, although we have the right to pursue happiness. You do not have a lien on other people's wealth and labor to provide you with healthcare. However, we are a civilized and compassionate nation, and so most of us would not be willing for anyone to suffer because of a real inability to afford healthcare. If we as a nation believe that everyone should have healthcare, then this is my answer:

3. Provide a safety net for those people who truly cannot afford coverage (even under the vastly lower prices that would result from real, competitive, free market system) by providing tax credits or tailored vouchers toward the purchase of private insurance plans. Even if someone is receiving aid, that aid should not go straight from the government to the provider - the aid recipient should be the one to fork over the payment. This would get government out of the equation, force people receiving the government aid to be an active participant in making sure they get the best care for the taxpayers' dollar and eliminate the problem of ever-shrinking reimbursements to doctors and pharmacies for services to Medicare and Medicaid recipients. This safety net would also be how we provide for people suffering from pre-existing conditions. A single-payer system would insert government bureaucrats right into the very center of a highly personal transaction in which they have no business, constitutional or otherwise. Single-payer guarantees a lord/serf relationship between government and the governed. Europe has a long history of serfdom, only relatively recently changed, but it is the exact opposite of the American ideal and what America needs. America has a different history, character and set of founding ideals from Europe, and we need American solutions to our problems.

4. Require themselves and every other member of the Federal government to have whatever kind of healthcare coverage they mandate for the rest of us. The fact that they refuse to do this now speaks volumes.

These are representative of the kind of ideas GOP senators and representatives have been advocating for years now, but in this year's debate they were utterly stonewalled by the President and the newsmedia. I'm no expert on the issue and my expression of these ideas are admittedly simplistic, but at their core is a common-sense desire to reverse the trend of ever-expanding government size, reach and power that I believe is completely consistent with the founding ideals of our nation.

My Favorite Song of Advent

December 14, 2009

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Wisdom from on high,
Who orderest all things mightily;
To us the path of knowledge show,
And teach us in her ways to go.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
From depths of hell Thy people save,
And give them victory over the grave.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Day-spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Key of David, come,
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, O come, great Lord of might,
Who to Thy tribes on Sinai’s height
In ancient times once gave the law
In cloud and majesty and awe.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Root of Jesse’s tree,
An ensign of Thy people be;
Before Thee rulers silent fall;
All peoples on Thy mercy call.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Desire of nations, bind
In one the hearts of all mankind;
Bid Thou our sad divisions cease,
And be Thyself our King of Peace.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to thee, O Israel.

The Ex-President Who Cried Wolf

September 16, 2009

Given the need for racial healing in America, it is inexcusable for short-sighted politicians to fan the flames of racial strife and trade decades of progress in race relations for the table scraps of questionable short-term political gain by affixing the motive of racism to all opposition. Do they really mean to say that all disagreement with the President is racist? Do people such as the ever more embarrassing Jimmy Carter not see that every time the word "racism" is misused, hurled indiscriminately, employed to end a losing argument or excuse bad behavior, it is further leached of its meaning and impact, like the unheeded warnings of the boy who cried wolf?

For the unjustly accused, the charge of racism is so hurtful, damaging and impossible to disprove that it ought to be handled like nitroglycerin. Instead, it’s flung about like the enamel in a Jackson Pollock painting. Actual racism is so ugly, despicable and worthy of extinction, that the word ought to have the impact of a freight train. Instead, people are so numbed to hearing it used for any and every reason that they treat it with automatic skepticism, which is most unfortunate.

As long as the Race Card remains the Left’s default response to even the most principled disagreements, the ideal of "not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character" will remain a quaint and naive sentiment from a receding past.