John Paul II, a Saint and an Inspiration

The elevation to sainthood of Pope John Paul II gives me a happy feeling. In his long and eventful papacy, he spoke to me on political and human levels.

He became the Pope from Poland on October 16, 1978 (my 21st birthday, by the way) when communism still ruled over Eastern Europe and Russia. He was subtle and tactically brilliant in confronting the Evil Empire and its lackeys in Poland. I recall that after martial law was declared in Poland in 1981, John Paul II warned Soviet leaders that if the Red Army invaded Poland, he would personally go to Poland to lead the resistance. Having lived in Poland during the Nazi occupation, he knew the value and costs of resistance. I hope I’m remembering the story accurately; I can’t find documentation for it, but the thought remains deeply lodged in my associations with John Paul II. He was fearless.

Fast-forward two decades. Poland is free, the USSR has been swept into the dustbin of history, and John Paul II is dying. Cancer, Parkinson’s Disease and assassination attempts all took their toll on the man. He was clearly ailing in his public appearances. In the weeks before his death on April 2, 2005, I remember walking past The Church of Our Savior at 38th Street and Park Avenue in New York, on a spring evening a few days before his passing. A large sign on an easel outside the church said, “Pray for Pope John Paul II.”

That made me think. The Pope no doubt had a great degree of spiritual peace in his declining days, sureness in what awaited him in the World to Come. But he still needed prayers, for recovery of health and his comfort. He kept hanging in there as Pope despite his decline. The thought that came to mind: Even if you have absolute faith in the certainty of an afterlife, you don’t have to be in a big rush to get there. Like the movie title says, heaven can wait; it ain’t going anywhere.

Life in human society, among friends and family, offers great rewards whatever the difficulties. I like to think John Paul II rather liked being alive right to the end and would go only when the proper moment came. Life is short, enjoy it while you can. The afterlife is long, so, so long.

His last words to aides on April 2 were “Pozwólcie mi odejść do domu Ojca” (“Allow me to depart to the house of the Father”). Finally, Pope John Paul II was ready.

 

Junior High Confidential: The Young Literary Reviewer Looks at “Across the Tracks”

Reading old journals offers endless pleasures. I found my inner literary critic at an early age, and I especially wrote about books that touched on the world around me. In the early 1970s, tales of vampires and werewolves and Hunger Games were decades in the future. Social realism attracted me. From September 18, 1971, at Mission Junior High School in Texas. I was 13 years old and had just started the 8th grade:

Finally, yesterday 2nd period, Mrs. Smith let us go to the library. I checked out a book, a paperback, that I noticed but never got around to reading. It’s called “Across the Tracks,” about this senior at a high school in South. Cal, Betty Ochoa, who wants to: 1) be accepted by the top social group at school (the Anglos) 2) help the tough, bitter gang leader, Pete Flores, before he gets killed. 3) she wants to bring gringo and chicano together. Though it has some faults (the author can’t go a page without having Betty  blush) + everyone’s always hugging each other, it’s interesting because, with only a few alterations, it could be Mission.

What to make of this? Even then I noted other books with similar themes of Anglo-Hispanic (today’s terms of choice) conflict. Everything seemed to set in California, Texas didn’t get much ink as far as I could tell, and what books did cover South Texas were of the Anglo-focused triumphalist sort. More realistic views of interactions in Texas now exist and I’ve read them, through the novels of Rolando Hinojosa, set in an imaginary landscape of South Texas. I tried to find out more about Across the Tracks, but online searching turned up nothing about this book that so caught the life swirling around me in my small town.

One of these days I hope to make my own contribution to the genre of life along the tracks of Mission, Texas.

“The Son” Also Rises

When last I wrote, I lamented the difficulties I have finding books I really like. I struggled through sci-fi, winners of glittering international awards, Jewish historical fiction, Latin American books. The list of grim hikes through trails of directionless prose discouraged me.

But, with hope springing eternal, I rolled the reading dice on “The Son,” by Phillip Meyer, published last year and weighing in at 561 pages. The book gripped me from the beginning, as it rolled across 170 years of Texas history, seen through the eyes of members of the McCullough family, with tortured and violent interactions with their neighbors, the ancient Garcia family, on ranches in South Texas.

How firmly did the book hold my attention? I stayed up, fully awake, until 2:30 a.m. one night last week to finish it, and I wasn’t just skimming the pages either, as I have with other massive recent tomes. No, Meyer’s clear style , sure sense of landscape and unblinking view of his subject material took me on the reading ride I crave and so rarely encounter.

The book follows three main characters from the McCullough, starting with patriarch Eli, born in the day the Republic of Texas was proclaimed on March 2, 1836, and kidnapped by Comanches in 1849. He becomes a member of the tribe, its leader, as warfare and disease shrink it down to nothing. He goes back, reluctantly, to white society, where he doesn’t fit in. But as a Texas Ranger and Confederate he makes his way in life and finally a fortune in land and oil. The family seems cursed, and that’s told through the stories of his son Peter and great-granddaughter Jeannie.

Wending through the narrative, especially of Peter and Jeannie, is the specter of the Garcias—I’ll leave that angle to your own reading. The prose is biting in the way it captures the attitudes of the power elite. Here are Jeannie’s childhood musings on her neighbors’ ancient destroyed home:

Only the children had interest in the casa mayor. The Mexican hands, if forced to fetch cattle from the pastures nearby, always crossed themselves. They could not help being ignorant Catholics. And the Garcias had not been able to help being lazy, cattle-stealing greasers and she felt sorry for them, even if they had shot her uncle Glenn.

The book could have used a genealogy table to keep the characters straight. Other than Eli, the main characters spend most of their time moaning about fate and their lot in life (fabulous riches be damned, they want to suffer), and minor characters keep getting shoved on-stage even to the end. I could see another, more compelling book carved from the material, more on the Garcias, less on the McCulloughs. The issues become a little too trendy in the last years covered. Quick appearances by Lyndon Johnson and an unnamed woman writer (obviously Edna Ferber, when she was researching her Texas epic, Giant) suggest another plot direction that never develops.

Still, the book did a great job of communicating a sense of place. Having grown up in South Texas, I know that territory on an instinctual level, even if I haven’t lived there in almost 40 years. References to Brownsville and Hidalgo County jumped out at me, as did the bloody guerilla warfare along the border during the Mexican Revolution. The Texas Rangers, so revered in Anglo society, look very different through the eyes of the Hispanic families that had lived in the region for centuries. They were the Rangers for one population, and the dreaded “Los Rinches” for another.

Peter kept a diary of his life on the Rio Grande, with this September 17, 1915 entry:

Trying to console myself that we aren’t alone in our suffering. Two weeks ago the railroad bridges to Brownsville were burned (again), the telegraph lines cut, two white men singled out from a crowd of laborers and shot in the middle of the morning. About twenty Tejanos killed in reprisals—twenty that anyone heard about. The Third Cavalry has been in regular fights with the Mexican army all along the border, shooting across the river. Three cavalrymen killed by insurgents near Los Indios and, across from Progress, on the Mexican side, the head of a missing U.S. private was displayed on a on a pole.

June 19, 1917: [After Hispanics move north to Michigan to work in car factories, and a local Anglo finds this amusing] Considered mentioning that several of the “greasers” (Vargas and Rivera, at least) had gone to college in Mexico City while Gilbert and his cross-eyed brothers were diddling heifers in Eagle Pass.

Meyer captured the attitudes of both viciousness and generosity that I heard growing up. After Jeannie’s husband Hank dies, she finds this type of response from her business circle:

The Texans had been relentless; they might hate the blacks and Mexicans, they might hate the president enough to kill him, but they had not let her alone, they had cared for her like a mother or daughter, men she barely knew, men whose absence from their offices cost thousands of dollars an hour, and yet she would come downstairs and find them asleep on her couch, and call their drivers to pick them up.

This is Meyer’s second book, very good but not quite great, and I predict he has other major works ahead of him, on topics I cannot even imagine. I’ll be waiting for them.