The Second World Wars: An Implacable America Seeking Absolute Victory

I finished reading the eye-opening The Second World Wars by Victor Davis Hanson and came away with a lot to think about: the continuity of military issues from ancient times to today; the shifting alliances of World War II; how the Germans and Japanese misread the American capacity to make war; the British tenacity in keeping the war going for a year until the Germans invaded the USSR in 1941.

I found something compelling on every page. One passage in particular struck me in its sweep of U.S. military might and determination of attack enemies worldwide, with every weapon at hand. The passage, from pages 216-217, demands quoting in its entirety:

Why the American Army was small, in relative terms, is also illustrated by how diverse and spread over the globe the American military had become by the latter part of the war. For example, on the single day of the invasion of Normandy (June 6, 1944), around the world other US forces were just as much on the attack at sea and in the air. As part of the ill-fated Operation Frantic shuttle-bombing operations between US airfields in Italy and refueling bases in the Soviet Ukraine, over 150 B-17s and their P-51 escorts attacked the oil fields at Galati, Romania. Another five hundred B-17s and escorts hit the often-targeted Romanian oil fields at Ploesti. Meanwhile, the 12th Air Force conducted continuous tactical air strikes on German positions in Italy. Allied ground troops also had just occupied Rome two days earlier and were garrisoning in the city in preparation for offensives against the Gothic Line in northern Italy.

In the Asia and Pacific theaters on this same landmark day of June 6, the US Pacific Fleet was making preparations to invade the Mariana Islands within a week, with a combined force almost as large as had landed at Normandy. Meanwhile, B-29 bombers prepared for their first raid against Japan from forward bases in China, while six B-25 Mitchell medium bombers and ten P-51 fighter escorts conducted operations against Tayang Chiang, China. B-25s were also attacking Japanese troops moving on Imphal, India. Meanwhile, the submarine Raton was tracking a Japanese convoy near Saigon. The submarine Harder sank a Japanese destroyer off Borneo, while the Pintado torpedoed and destroyed a cargo vessel off the Marianas. B-24 heavy bombers hit Ponape Island in Micronesia as tactical strikes were conducted against the Japanese on Bouganville, New Britain, and New Guinea.

In other words, even as the American Army and its supporting naval and air forces participated in the largest amphibious landing in history, the US military was on the offensive against the Germans in Italy, conducting long-range bombing from Italy and Britain, torpedoing convoys in the Pacific, assembling forces to storm the Marianas, and carrying out air strikes from bases in China all the way to New Guinea. On such a single typical day of combat, diverse fleets of B-17s, B-24s, B-25s, B-26s, B-29s, A-20s, P-38s, P-39s, P-40s, P-47s, and P-51s were all in the air from Normandy to the China Sea.

Could the United States ever again muster that social, economic and political will to “win through to absolute victory,” as President Franklin Roosevelt said in seeking a declaration of war the day after Pearl Harbor? I don’t want to find out.

“The Second World Wars” — Compelling on Every Page

I’ve always liked the online essays of classicist and military historian Victor Davis Hanson. His work combines deep historical knowledge and jargon-free expression to make big, discomforting points about current affairs. I had never read any of his books, however.

I hadn’t until yesterday, when I started reading his latest, The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict was Fought and WonHanson grabbed me from the introduction and hasn’t let go. I can pay it a high accolade: It kept me awake on the train commute home to the suburbs, when I’m usually dozing off. I’m only 30 pages in on a 500-page book, but I know what I’ll have my nose in for the next week whenever possible.

Every page has striking passages that draw from Hanson’s knowledge of classical culture and world history. I want to quote something from every paragraph, he’s that compelling with his original take on World War II. Rather than a chronological approach, Hanson discusses the war in seven timeless, elemental themes: ideas, air, water, earth, fire, people, ends. His long, well-balanced sentences are a challenge to summarize or excerpt. One typical example:

Yet the pathetic socialist pamphleteer and failed novelist Benito Mussolini, and the thuggish seminary dropout, bank robber, and would-be essayist Joseph Stalin–traditional failures all–proved nonetheless in nihilistic times to be astute political operatives far more gifted than most of their gentleman counterparts in the European democracies of the 1930s.

Lessons applicable to current civil challenges constantly struck me. In his total grasp of the subject material, Hanson reminds me of both Charles Dickens and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The originality and argument of his thesis compares well to Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, from 2010. While I’ve only started Hanson’s book, I suspect one difference is that Hanson will come to an elegant and succinct conclusion, in contrast to Snyder, who struggled to close with a Big Message, as if his book needed something beyond its statement of horrors. That being said, Snyder’s use of statistics was so eye-opening that I wrote about his book soon after it appeared, at the Times of Israel.

Bottom line: Color me impressed and informed by Hanson. I’ll say more once I finish the book.

 

 

The Virginian: How the West Was Written by Owen Wister

Just as Homer set the foundation of Western literature with The Iliad, so Owen Wister created the ur-narrative of another kind of “Western” literature in 1902 when he published The Virginian.

Wister is credited with writing the first novel of the American West, based on his own observations of visits to Wyoming, Montana and elsewhere. The book details the life and love of an unnamed character known as the Virginian. Wister touches on what became the classic Western themes: the guns, the cattle drives, rowdy card games, the loneliness of vast distances, the lovely and virginal school marm, religion and religious hucksters, the struggle to build a civil society, and even the gulf between the civilized “East” and the untamed “West.” The Virginian’s love interest, schoolteacher Molly Wood, hails from Bennington, Vermont, a locale that sets up humor and societal contrasts. A telling details is that Molly’s great-aunt had the honor of curtsying before the Marquis de Lafayette.

Taken together, these passages startle with the knowledge that they were new then. What we may consider cliches were once fresh and remarkable; I’m reminded of reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula, published in 1897 with all the undead themes of the undead genre.

Who was Owen Wister? He started life as a Philadelphia blueblood, educated in Europe and later at Harvard College and Harvard Law. Tart references in The Virginian to Wall Street, Bryn Mawr, Newport and Tiffany’s no doubt stemmed from personal observations. At Harvard, he became a close friend of future president Theodore Roosevelt, another proponent of the vigorous outdoor life. Restless as a lawyer, Wister moved on to politics and writing. The Virginian builds on his experiences and stories he heard on 15 carefully documented trips to the West. His politics remained on the conservative side, as he lived long enough to oppose Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal.

I knew nothing about Wister, his book or the 1960s TV series of the same name, so I didn’t know what to expect. Wister’s writing style ranged from straightforward to intricate Victorian-era ornate as he explored the “cow-boy” as a moral figure, chivalrous to women and animals, relentless foe of cattle thieves and other ne’er-do-wells. What struck me about the book was just not the themes, but their timeliness. The antique literature became a time machine giving a glimpse of behaviors and norms of a past era. And some of behaviors may not be so past.

For example, guns and rifles were common, but Wister depicted a country where gunfights were rare and were more the last resort of problem solving. While a man of action who never backed down from conflict, the Virginian spent more of his time as a ranch foreman dealing with human resources issues, as we would call them today, and logistics management—getting those dogies to market.

Kindness to those in need, implacable foe of oppressors

He’s also a friend of animals. Beneath his storytelling and aw-shucks conversational tone, the Virginian has no tolerance for the exploitation of the helpless. In this passage, he responds to a frustrated cowboy’s attack on a lovable horse named Pedro:

Pedro sank motionless, his head rolling flat on the earth. Balaam was jammed beneath him. The man had struggled to his feet before the Virginian reached the spot, and the horse then lifted his head and turned it piteously round.

Then vengeance like a blast struck Balaam. The Virginian hurled him to the ground, lifted and hurled him again, lifted him and beat his face and struck his jaw. The man’s strong ox-like fighting availed nothing. He fended his eyes as best he could against these sledge-hammer blows of justice. He felt blindly for his pistol. That arm was caught and wrenched backward, and crushed and doubled. He seemed to hear his own bones, and set up a hideous screaming of hate and pain. Then the pistol at last came out, and together with the hand that grasped it was instantly stamped into the dust. Once again the creature was lifted and slung so that he lay across Pedro’s saddle a blurred, dingy, wet pulp.

Vengeance had come and gone. The man and the horse were motionless. Around them, silence seemed to gather like a witness.

“If you are dead,” said the Virginian, “I am glad of it.” 

But the man of action is also a man of letters, even a letter writer. Thanks to his blooming relationship with Molly Wood, he finds a deep appreciation for Shakespeare, Dickens and Browning, identifying with Prince Hal and other characters. In some ways, the Virginian is more literate than many current English majors.

War and social division, quality and inequality

Reading the book through a 21st century lens, issues jumped out at me that may have been of passing interest in 1902. The Civil War hovers around the edges of the book, such as in a scene on a train:

So I was passing that way also, walking for the sake of ventilation from a sleeping-car toward a bath, when the language of Colonel Cyrus Jones came out to me. The actual colonel I had never seen before. He stood at the rear of his palace in gray flowery mustaches and a Confederate uniform, telling the wishes of his guests to the cook through a hole.

Wister treats social divisions, too, especially between the more settled parts of the United States and the wide-open canvas of the West, where unfamiliar groups and behaviors lurked. Discussing Molly’s marital prospects, her family worried about the disasters lurking:

Somebody said to Andrew Bell that they heard Miss Molly Wood was engaged to marry a RUSTLER.

“Heavens, Andrew!” said his wife; “what is a rustler?”

It was not in any dictionary, and current translations of it were inconsistent. A man at Hoosic Falls said that he had passed through Cheyenne, and heard the term applied in a complimentary way to people who were alive and pushing. Another man had always supposed it meant some kind of horse. But the most alarming version of all was that a rustler was a cattle thief.

Now the truth is that all these meanings were right. The word ran a sort of progress in the cattle country, gathering many meanings as it went. It gathered more, however, in Bennington. In a very few days, gossip had it that Molly was engaged to a gambler, a gold miner, an escaped stage robber, and a Mexican bandit; while Mrs. Flynt feared she had married a Mormon.

The Virginian also keenly observes issues of equality and inequality. In a discussion with Molly, he observes (“cyards” is his Virginia-accented pronunciation of “cards”):

“I’ll tell you what,” pursued the cow-puncher, with slow and growing intensity, “equality is a great big bluff. It’s easy called.”

“I didn’t mean—” began Molly.

“Wait, and let me say what I mean.” He had made an imperious gesture with his hand. “I know a man that mostly wins at cyards. I know a man that mostly loses. He says it is his luck. All right. Call it his luck. I know a man that works hard and he’s gettin’ rich, and I know another that works hard and is gettin’ poor. He says it is his luck. All right. Call it his luck. I look around and I see folks movin’ up or movin’ down, winners or losers everywhere. All luck, of course. But since folks can be born that different in their luck, where’s your equality? No, seh! call your failure luck, or call it laziness, wander around the words, prospect all yu’ mind to, and yu’ll come out the same old trail of inequality.” He paused a moment and looked at her. “Some holds four aces,” he went on, “and some holds nothin’, and some poor fello’ gets the aces and no show to play ‘em; but a man has got to prove himself my equal before I’ll believe him.”

Justice and injustice in America

Wister’s characters address issues of lawlessness, with an unblinking frankness of the era’s realities that deliver shock value today. The key passage deserves quoting at length:

“Well,” he said, coming straight to the point, “some dark things have happened.” And when she made no answer to this, he continued: “But you must not misunderstand us. We’re too fond of you for that.” 

“Judge Henry,” said Molly Wood, also coming straight to the point, “have you come to tell me that you think well of lynching?”

He met her. “Of burning Southern negroes in public, no. Of hanging Wyoming cattle thieves in private, yes. You perceive there’s a difference, don’t you?”

“Not in principle,” said the girl, dry and short.

“Oh—dear—me!” slowly exclaimed the Judge. “I am sorry that you cannot see that, because I think that I can. And I think that you have just as much sense as I have.” The Judge made himself very grave and very good-humored at the same time. The poor girl was strung to a high pitch, and spoke harshly in spite of herself.

“What is the difference in principle?” she demanded.

“Well,” said the Judge, easy and thoughtful, “what do you mean by principle?”

“I didn’t think you’d quibble,” flashed Molly. “I’m not a lawyer myself.”

A man less wise than Judge Henry would have smiled at this, and then war would have exploded hopelessly between them, and harm been added to what was going wrong already. But the Judge knew that he must give to every word that the girl said now his perfect consideration.

“I don’t mean to quibble,” he assured her. “I know the trick of escaping from one question by asking another. But I don’t want to escape from anything you hold me to answer. If you can show me that I am wrong, I want you to do so. But,” and here the Judge smiled, “I want you to play fair, too.”

“And how am I not?”

“I want you to be just as willing to be put right by me as I am to be put right by you. And so when you use such a word as principle, you must help me to answer by saying what principle you mean. For in all sincerity I see no likeness in principle whatever between burning Southern negroes in public and hanging Wyoming horse-thieves in private. I consider the burning a proof that the South is semi-barbarous, and the hanging a proof that Wyoming is determined to become civilized. We do not torture our criminals when we lynch them. We do not invite spectators to enjoy their death agony. We put no such hideous disgrace upon the United States. We execute our criminals by the swiftest means, and in the quietest way. Do you think the principle is the same?”

Molly had listened to him with attention. “The way is different,” she admitted.

“Only the way?”

“So it seems to me. Both defy law and order.”

“Ah, but do they both? Now we’re getting near the principle.”

“Why, yes. Ordinary citizens take the law in their own hands.”

“The principle at last!” exclaimed the Judge.

As these passages show, The Virginian is intensely quotable, because of Wister’s style and his subject material. On every page I knew I was reading the birth of the Western, a genre that’s never truly vanished, and the raw material for reimaginings and reinterpretations, right down to the new Netflix series, Godless. The themes of that series include religion, the birth of civil institutions, a lovely (but not virginal) schoolmarm, women without men (a reversal of the usual western imbalance), breathtaking vistas, horses, oily Eastern business interests, black and Indian communities, and railroads opening the land.

Had Owen Wister seen Godless, he’d recognize a lot of it. He and the Virginian were there first.

Live From New York: It’s Little Home Companion on the Prairie!

By sheer dumb coincidence, I bought tickets to see A Prairie Home Companion at New York’s Town Hall on December 2. That turned out to be four days after Minnesota Public Radio fired retired PHC host and creator Garrison Keillor for allegations of improper behavior.

I’d been a fan of PHC over the Keillor years, not rabid, but enough to appreciate his humor and inventiveness. I’ve spent much less time listening to the retooled version hosted by mandolin player Chris Thile. Still, I was eager to see the show live.

The Godzilla in the room as the show started at 5:45 pm (great timing for us 60-somethings) was what, if anything, would Thile say about Keillor. Business as usual, which would be ridiculous, or a statement. If so, when?

Thile, to his credit, came right out and addressed what everybody knew.

“It’s been a rough week,” he said, with a chuckle, not directly mentioning Keillor but the line made total sense. He soon turned to Keillor and called the situation “heartbreaking.” He also referred to the national movement to address the “harmful power imbalance that women have had to endure for so long in our culture.” Heartfelt and straight ahead, Thile said what was needed and got on with the show. This could be a model for upcoming awards shows for movies, TV, theater, journalism . . .

The show itself impressed me with the range of performers moving in and out of a crowded stage, with both PHC musicians and a set-up for the Austin band Spoon. Chanteuse Cécile McLorin Savant, whom I had heard twice before, did some saucy jazz numbers that seemed right for the times. Skit veterans Tim Russell and Serena Brook and sound effects guy Fred Newman came out to give the audience some of that old-time PHC humor religion.

Still, this reboot of PHC differs wildly from the original. While I’d estimate the Keillor version ran 70 percent skits and stories and 30 percent music, the Thile version at Town Hall was maybe 90 percent music and talk about music, 10 percent comic material. I looked at summaries of recent shows that featured more story-telling, so that mix could vary. I doubt we’ll be hearing about Guy Noir, Private Eye; cowboys Lefty and Dusty; reports from Lake Wobegon. The handful of skits carried on some of the tone and vocal stylings, but I sensed they are now the side dish, not the main course.

Thile himself sets the pace with a physical energy that reminded me of comedian Conan O’Brien. I had never picked up on that by hearing him on the radio. His musicianship on the mandolin is dazzling, as is his love of music across genres. Saturday’s show slammed through and explained bits and pieces of Jimi Hendrix’s “Power of Soul” (recorded at New York’s Fillmore East on New Year’s Eve 1969), Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” (which Dylan performed at Town Hall in 1963), “I Won’t Grow Up” from Peter Pan (in honor of actress Mary Martin’s December 1 birthday) and “Teen Town” by bassist Jaco Pastorius and the group Weather Report. Along with Savant, Spoon and guitarist-singer Sarah Jarosz, Thile wove together a master class on American musical styles and history.

That’s fantastic if you’re seriously into music. If you want monologues and wacky skits, you’re mostly up the Wobegon Creek without a paddle, at least in this stage of PHC. Where Thile and Co. will take it is anybody’s guess; MPR says a new name is in the works. That’s both good and bad; good because it gets Thile out of the shadow of Keillor and gives the show its own brand identity with a built-in audience; bad because it severs more sharply the connection with a program that’s become an American institution since 1974. Seeing the show live, if nothing else, gives me more of a stake in whatever comes next.

With institutions crashing all around us, I’m curious about what emerges from this particular pile of theatrical disorder on the shores of Lake Wobegon.

How the West Was Watched

Almost by accident, I’ve become a fan of classic Western TV shows on METV. The titles alone take me back a half-century or more to a boyhood with a family that huddled around the RCA console to watch Gunsmoke, Bonanza and The Wild Wild West.

The more I have watched after finding the programming on Saturdays, the more I felt I had circled back to something vital in my life. Where do our values come from, our role models, our sense of how the world works? The interest took a darker turn after the latest gun-driven massacres in our country, in Las Vegas and a Baptist church in rural Texas, which led me to consider violence as a culturally learned form of expression and problem solving. How do westerns depict violence, who wields that tool, and why? Is the gunplay gratuitous or the last resort against an onrushing threat? How else are conflicts resolved? Before the genre shrank and became the subject of radical rethinking, the western was a big part of the cultural puzzle that shaped these perceptions. I belonged to the last generation that lined up outside places like the Border Theater in Mission, Texas, to see the latest John Wayne movies, like El Dorado, The War Wagon and True Grit. Through METV, I hoped to learn something about 2017 in the entertainment of the 1950s and 1960s.

METV gives a snapshot of each show and a short description of each episode. The programs deal with social and ethnic issues that could be the background for today’s more revisionist westerns. Two chosen at random from The Big Valley in October 1965:

  • Heath investigates violence during a strike at a Barkley mine. He finds that the miners hate the Barkleys for promises not kept. The family sets out to make things right before the Molly Maguires strike again.
  • A hispanic family is in a land dispute with the Barkleys. Maria, the young daughter of the family, falls in love with Heath. Her father disapproves of Heath’s illegitimate birth, and uses the land crisis as leverage to force Heath and Maria apart.

From Have Gun, Will Travel, 1957 and 1958:

  • At a stagecoach stop, Paladin sees a peaceful Cherokee rancher being beaten by white men who think his cattle are spreading a sickness. Paladin offers his help.
  • Paladin is hired to stop a vineyard from being ruined by seepage from an adjacent oil well.
  • Paladin defends a schoolmistress who’s being theatened for teaching about war crimes that took place during the Civil War

The influence on me includes literature. In my early teens I read several books in the Sackett series by Louis L’Amour. As an adult, I read the whole Lonesome Dove trilogy by Larry McMurtry (much of it set in the South Texas where I grew up), the blood-soaked novel The Son, also set in Texas and spanning the 1830s into the 1980s, and the outstanding non-fiction book Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches by S.C. Gwynne.

Next up on the Western reading list: The Virginian by Owen Wister, a 1902 novel I saw at a local library book sale and tossed into my $5/bag of books. I recall the series inspired by the book being on in the 1960s, until I was in my early teens, but it didn’t make nearly the impression on me of, say, The Wild, Wild West. I’ve heard the book was memorable, so I’ll dip into some 1902 entertainment.

Whatever the media, the possibilities to touch on hot-button issues are endless. I’ll find the episodes that jump out at me and take a look. My goal is to view them from two directions at once: as I saw them as a kid, and what messages I can tease out 50 years later as an adult.

Alt-History: All Singing, All Dancing, All Trotsky!

A friend on Facebook recently posed the question, “What if World War I never happened?” Many comments dealt with the geopolitical pressures, noting that some kind of war was inevitable given Germany’s militarization and the creakiness of the Russian, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. Others were more optimistic, that with no World War I, there would have been no World War II.

I took a different approach.

Lacking any original insights into the dynamics of European history, I mused on the impact of peace on the United States. I speculated that Fidel Castro would have developed into an ace fastball pitcher for the Philadelphia Athletics, a crowd-dazzling righty, of course, rather than a communist dictator.

My main contribution combined numerous interests into one great big riff I might title “All Singing, All Dancing, All Trotsky!” That’s my kind of alt-social history. Here’s what I wrote:

Without WWI and communism, Lev Davidovich Bronshtein decides to stay in New York and chucks his revolutionary identity of Leon Trotsky. He forges a brilliant career as the leading Broadway theatrical impresario of the 20th century. That’s not surprising at all, since traits of cold-blooded ruthlessness, organizational aplomb and strategic vision are key to the success of both Soviet military commissars and Broadway producers.

He marries the adorable Fania Borach and fast-tracks her career as Fanny Brice. His impact is so great that the New York theatrical awards are named after him, the Bronys. He lives well into his 90s, retiring in style after producing his groundbreaking blockbuster, a musical about aspiring dancers in the Russian-Jewish shtetl of his childhood, “A Boris Line,” with showstopping hits like “T&A & Kreplach.”

Meanwhile, his grandson Baruch Shmoikel Bronshtein opts for a life in politics, changing his name to the less-ethnic Bernie Sanders Bronshtein and becoming a Republican senator from Alabama, where his heavy Brooklyn accent and Randian economic policies charm the locals. Lev and Fanny live long enough to see their great-granddaughter, Baby Snooks Maddow-Bronshtein, become the star commentator on the New York Times’s wildly successful cable project known as DNN–the Duranty News Network.

So begins my sideline writing alt-history. This could go places and, best of all, I can make it all up.

Searching For That Red-Letter Day at the Hidalgo County Courthouse

My father recently called me to find out the date he and my late mother were divorced. He needed the information for a matter involving his military pension.

“You were one of the parties there, not me,” I said, both amused and annoyed.

The papers had all been misplaced, he replied, in moves from South Texas to Michigan to the East Coast. He hoped I could apply my sleuthing skills to dig up the details. With some reluctance, I agreed. I knew I’d be walking into an emotional minefield.

My parents were married and then divorced in Hidalgo County, Texas. The divorce took place between 1960 and 1962. I hoped the public records would be online, but the Texas divorce decrees are online only back to 1968. The county government’s website offered up a likely source to call for details. Never could I imagine, 40 years after I last lived in Hidalgo County, that I would be dealing with the district court in Edinburg to request this document. But I pulled up my big-boy britches and did what I had to do. If not me to help, then who?

I called and spoke to a woman who took my details and said she would contact me when she found something. I pictured her rummaging around among the divorce decrees buried deep in a box on metal shelves down in the basement of the county courthouse, like the last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark. 

After several days, my father called, anxious to get the information. I didn’t have anything to report.

“I could give you the contact’s name and number and you could call her,” I suggested.

“No, you have the right accent to talk to her,” he said, a comment that would have riled me 40 years ago as a dig at my South Texas roots but these days I just let it go and take it as a point of pride.

While waiting for a response, I recalled my mother, who died in 1984, carried in her purse her divorce notice from the public records column of the local paper, the McAllen Monitor. That must have been some kind of red-letter day in her life. I checked with my brother, but he didn’t remember that and didn’t have a clipping.

After a week, the court official called. She found the divorce decree, which she scanned and emailed to me. I thanked her for her service and immediately called my father with the date, from 1961. I mailed him a printout of the decree, having no interest in keeping a hard copy for myself. To the extent I can, I’ll leave the past in the past rather than dwell on it. My father was deeply grateful for my successful South Texas sleuthing.

The document unsettled me. Here I am, on the verge of my 60th birthday, reading about my brother and me when we were still toddlers. There was the child support order, payment of legal fees and the other mopping-up of the end of a marriage. I read it once and gladly rid myself of it. The decree had a toxic quality, since I knew the rancor, resentments and silences that would follow in the decades after that red-letter day in Hidalgo County. I can envision the day, my mother taking time off from her job as a secretary at an insurance agency in Mission to drive to Edinburg in her Chevrolet Corvair. She did what she had to do in court, probably smoked a cigarette and returned to work to support her family. Knowing her, she might have sent a thank-you note to her lawyer for his service.

Fifty-six years passed and the decree cycled back to me. I did what I needed to do with it.

To close the loop, I mailed a handwritten thank-you note to the court official who sent me the document. She did her job well and made several lives a little more secure. Meanwhile, my father and I will share a weekend lunch with our significant others at a Chinese restaurant after my birthday.

The Unspeakable Number Explained

During an August visit to the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, I enjoyed the huge exhibit “Paint the Revolution: Mexican Modernism, 1910–1950.” It ranged over painting, prints, photography and murals, with plenty of explanation of the pieces’ context.

And then I came to one that stopped me cold and sent my memory back 50 years. The exhibit showed a poster with the title “Los 41 Maricones” and below that a poem “Aqui Están Los Maricones . . . Muy Chulos y Coquetones,” based on a 1901 scandal in Mexico City where 41 men were arrested at a social event where 19 dressed as women. The exhibit translated the title as “The 41 Faggots . . . Very Cute and Coquettish.” The history of the episode can be found here.

The notorious illustration.

The notorious illustration.

 

The poster and explanation stunned me because it explained a mystery that goes back almost 50 years. During my 1960s days at William Jennings Bryan Elementary School in Mission, Texas, boys regularly invoked the number “41” to signify something. What, nobody knew. But the meaning always spanned naughty to rude to vile and shameful. I never asked, and I wonder if anybody, kid or adult in my heavily Hispanic town, knew. If anybody knew, they weren’t talking.  Maybe this was common knowledge that the gringo population never picked up on, in our ignorance (emphasis on “ignore”) of Mexican culture and history.

Mystery surrounded the number 41. When smirked on the playground, it had vague but alarming vibrations, something best avoided. By the time my classmates and I reached Mission Junior High School, puberty ran wild and numerology mattered far less than the adolescent blossoming all around us.

The forbidden number sank like a stone to the bottom of my consciousness. But it’s there. To this day I can’t see the number on a sports uniform or license plate without a tiny shake of recognition. He said 41. Still, I never knew what it meant and never even looked it up.

Then, at the Museum of Fine Arts, I read all about it.

The explanation made perfect sense, a direct allusion to homosexuality that nobody, but nobody, back then would want to explain or acknowledge except as a sneering shorthand.The number and the episode behind it referred to matters far beyond social propriety. Hearing it in South Texas made sense, given that Mission was three miles from the Rio Grande. The permeable border allowed cultural influences to cross both ways. Over the decades the Mexican meaning of 41 seeped into the Rio Grande Valley and beyond. It became part of the myths and mysteries that kids passed along.

Does the meaning still resonate in the Valley? I don’t know. Maybe this essay will shake some memories out of the trees of 50-somethings. I did discover that the 1901 scandal continues to echo, with a group reversing the number’s shameful meaning into an affirmation. Honor41.org describes itself as

Honor 41 is a national Latina/o LGBTQ online, 501 c3 non-profit organization that promotes positive images of our community, creates awareness about our issues and builds an online family/community.

The word “Honor” means pride in English and Spanish.

The number 41 has a derogatory connotation in Mexican culture. For over 100 years calling someone “41” or associating anyone or anything with that number labeled them maricon/joto which in English translates to calling someone faggot/gay.

By adopting 41 in our name, we take away the negative, oppressive power associated to the number; we educate others about this important moment in LGBTQ history; we honor their legacy; and honor our own lives and contributions to society.

Honor41 envisions a world where Latina/o LGBTQ individuals can live their lives with honor, by being “out”, with acceptance from their families and community, and fully integrated in all aspects of society.

I like that approach. Take the term, turn it around, own it, use it for good. Take 41 out of the shadows and nullify its sting. Maybe the meaning will be different for the next generation.

Breaking and Mending, Forgetting and Finding

First Basil the rascally cat pushed my favorite coffee mug off a kitchen counter and it shattered. Then my six-month old Sony a5000 camera froze up while I was on a lunchtime photo prowl in midtown Manhattan. I lost my favorite kippah from the Jewish Hospital in Berlin. Finally, I accidently recycled my $369 commuter rail ticket; I’m sure I did.

This spring brought more its share of micro-exasperations as favorite possessions broke or vanished. Chalk the string up to forgetfulness or disorganization or the fragility of consumer electronics, but I kept stumbling over myself, only to take a deep breath, pick myself up and try again. The lesson: Things can work out if you give them time.

First, the coffee mug that Basil nudged over the edge was from the Red Bull gift shop in 20170507_105011-1Crawford, Texas. I bought it in October 2008 during a visit to Central Texas before starting a new job in the days before the fateful presidential election. Besides armadillo refrigerator magnets, I picked up a coffee cup that hit all the right notes, with an outline of Texas, and, best of all, signatures of George and Laura Bush. I used it for nine years, each sip a little political jab of decaffeinated pleasure. Then Basil combined with gravity to bust it up.

I have relatively few purchased possessions that mean something to me; my Crawford coffee cup is one of them, purchased at a time of enormous personal and national change. I whisked the pieces into a bag. Determined to replace the cup, I checked eBay and even emailed a gift shop/restaurant in Crawford. No suitable replacement could be found.

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After some brooding, I fetched the bag with the remnants out of the garbage. The cup had shattered into a half-dozen big pieces with a few shards. Armed with the strongest glue I could find, I reassembled Cup Crawford, except for the shards. I’m not drinking out of it but it’s holding together and I do have this memento of the turbulent fall of 2008. It sits on a shelf in my home office, well away from feline attention.

 

Next, I couldn’t find my favorite kippah, which I got at the historic Jewish Hospital in Berlin in 2014. The hospital, t20170507_104908he only Jewish institution in Germany to operate through World War II, was where an elderly friend of mine had studied nursing. Twenty years after her death, I finally paid my respects with a visit to the hospital. I use the kippah on special occasions. I wore it to an event at my synagogue, and the next time I wanted to use it I couldn’t find it. I flipped through other kippahs in my office—on the shelf under the glued-together Cup Crawford—but it wasn’t there. Checks of my coat pockets and the floor of my car turned up nothing. After a few days I worked through the other bar mitzvah and wedding kippahs, and, sure enough, there it nestled. I’m using it about as often as the broken coffee mug these days.

The real problem, with a price tag, emerged on March 31, when I opened my wallet and realized my April Metro-North commuter ticket was not parked directly behind my March ticket and my driver’s license. That’s where it always goes. Having once thrown away the new ticket rather the old one, I have a ritual to avoid such screw-ups: I remove the ticket and put it immediately in my wallet. Human hands do not touch it until the first day of the new month on the train, when I carefully remove the old ticket and rotate the new one to its rightful visible place in my wallet.

But the April ticket had vanished. I removed every scrap of paper from my wallet in case I misplaced it. Nothing. I distinctly remembered opening the envelope, since I noticed, grumpily, the increase in the fare to $369. And then . . . did I toss the ticket and the envelope and various inserts into the recycle bag? I methodically dug through the recycle bin outside, checking every piece of mail. Then I checked my pants and shirts from the laundry, in case I had carelessly tucked the ticket there. Zip.

This put me in a jam since the next day was April 1. I knew I could use my March ticket for the ride in, which I did, then I used an off-peak with a $6 extra charge for the ride home. Rather than spring for a new monthly or even weekly ticket, I decided to tough it out for the month by telecommuting, and buy single tickets for the times I had to go to the office. I talked to the customer service desk and couldn’t cancel or replace the lost ticket, which is just like cash, I was told.

“A lot of people are filing complaints that they didn’t get their April ticket,” she told me.

“But I remember getting mine,” I replied, morosely.

So, I was up the creek without at MTA paddle.

Working remotely is nothing uncommon for me, so I humped along all week. Then Saturday, I flipped through the mail and—there it was, the MTA envelope. Stunned, I opened it and found the April ticket that I had convinced myself I had received and opened. But I hadn’t. Instead, I had auto-inflicted some public-transit version of False Memory Syndrome. Going forward, I’ll treat the monthly ticket with even more TLC. I thought about getting an electronic version of the ticket for my cell phone, but then what if I lose my cell phone (something that’s never happened in the 16 years I’ve had one)?

Finally, the tale of the broken Sony a5000 camera deserves telling. The malfunction especially irked me because the Sony replaced an earlier camera, a Panasonic Lumix, after it malfunctioned. To provide the full context, the Lumix froze with its zoom lens extended after it fell out of my backpack the night before. Nobody could fix it, so before a vacation I got the Sony (side note: I eventually fixed the Lumix myself by giving the zoom lens a firm twist, like wring its neck, that kicked loose whatever glitch kept it extended). It worked fine during two weeks in Berlin in Amsterdam and I learned more about its operations.

Then from one minute to another it went on the blink. YouTube videos suggested the problem was a dirty connection between the removable lens and the camera’s body. That didn’t work, so I contacted Sony, which advised me to take the camera to Photo Tech, the authorized repair place in New York for warranty work. Yes, the camera was still covered by the one-year warranty.

On the day before Good Friday, I walked down to Photo Tech on West 36th Street. I didn’t know what to expect, given the problems I’ve had with dead laptops and printers before. From the moment I stepped up to the counter, Photo Tech impressed me (unsolicited rave to follow). The customer service rep noted the problem, removed the battery and memory card, gave me a receipt and a time to check on the repair status.

There’s no drama in the story. At the end of the next week I picked up the camera, fully fixed, something about a problem with rings in it. No charge, no nonsense, all professionalism. Thanks, Photo Tech. If a camera breaks again, I know where I’m going.

The camera repair closed out my month-long crazy cycle of losing and finding, breaking and repairing. Everything worked out, other than a cracked coffee cup from the Western White House. I’ve got plenty of other coffee cups, anyway.

Balm of Baseball Memory

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A portrait of the writer as a 13-year old Astros fan.

Now that Super Bowl LI has moved from conclusion to legend, let’s turn our attention to baseball. Our story begins after a recent lunchtime workout at the New York Sports Club in Rockefeller Center.

In the locker room, I walked by a guy who must have felt strained. He was rubbing himself down with balm. While I didn’t see him, I caught the aroma of the balm wafting around us. That scent, that instant, was all I needed to trigger a cascade of 45-year old memories.

The smell of balm carries me back to the athletics center of Mission High School in Mission, Texas, where I had been the baseball manager for my freshman and sophomore years in the early 1970s. I became manager by default; my delusions of actually playing for the Eagles baseball team ended quickly, given my inability to hit, field or throw. Still, coach Jake Longoria shrewdly pegged me as the perfect manager, one who combines the talents of a mule, farmhand and nurse to lug the equipment, rake and water the infield, store the players’ watches and wallets during the game and play faith healer to the pitchers’ achy-breaky arms.

So I became the manager and that’s where the balm comes in.

As baseball history shows, pitchers have a rough job, in the physical sense. They do a fast, repetitive motion that puts their young arms to enormous stress. Those arms get sore during a game and need TLC. At some point after a game I’d rub down pitchers’ arms with balm. I especially remember working on Rudy Gallegos, our pitcher with the overpowering fastball.

Over my two years as manager, the aroma of balm imprinted itself in my memory. Cozy, warm, immediate, relaxing, even a marker of male bonding—balm packed all those positive connotations. Over the last four-plus decades, that unmistakable scent takes me back to steamy Texas nights, road trips to McAllen, Harlingen and Brownsville, the crack of the bat, pranks on the bus, wins and losses, the swoosh of sprinklers watering the field after a game, the sharp knock of bats rattling around in a maroon canvas bat bag (which I used as a laundry bag in college).

The smell of balm is my gateway drug to other baseball memories. The Houston Astros moved into the Astrodome—accurately touted then as “the eighth wonder of the world”—when I was in elementary school. A family friend took my younger brother Cooper and me on a trip to Houston to see the Dome. Fifty years later, I can still remember the thrill of walking into that cavernous space age oddity. Round, cool and ringed with those candy-colored seats, the Dome could easily hold the entire population of Mission five times over. In those days, when the three- or four-story Hidalgo County Courthouse in Edinburg was the local skyscraper, the Astrodome simply had no rival for a “wow” factor. I became a staunch fan of the struggling Astros.

Summer nights passed with a transistor radio pressed to my ear, listening to the staticky radio signal from almost 400 miles away. On drives back from family vacation in San Antonio, my family would listen to AM broadcasts of games in our 1968 Chevy Impala with the white vinyl roof. While New York kids cheered on the Mets’ 1969 pennant drive, I was happy that the Astros finished the season at .500 (including a July 30 sweep of a doubleheader against the Mets at Shea Stadium). My mother thrilled me on my 12th birthday with the first edition of the Baseball Encyclopedia. I devoured its lists of players, teams and their records, and wondered how Connie Mack could spend 50 years managing just one team, the Philadelphia Athletics.

Since then I’ve seen major league games, with stops at Shea Stadium, Yankee Stadium, Wrigley Field (well, across the street in the rooftop viewing areas), and long-gone Cleveland Stadium, plus the Astros at Minute Maid Park. I can still read a box score. Despite the sleep demands of my post-middle age body, I prop myself up to watch every World Series game to the final out and beyond, no matter how late it goes. Of course that included the rain-delayed seventh game of the screaming, stomping, heart-stopping 2016 Series.

And if I run out of energy and doze off during the midnight commercials during the Series, I know I’ll eventually wake up and smell the balm.