Thursday, December 02, 2004

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (12/02/04)


Watching a rerun of the film Doctor Zhivago brought back an embarrassing and bitterly remembered incident from my childhood. When I was in the second grade, my mother found a pattern for a child's Russian blouse in a sewing magazine. The Russian blouse is collarless, with buttons all to one side. Perhaps its appeal was there was no need for me to wear a necktie--the tying of which was a morning task I badly managed. Dutifully, I went off to school one morning wearing this unusual apparel, a clean handkerchief in its pocket.

When I removed my outer jacket, a barrage of taunts erupted. "Where's your tie?" Others scoffed, "What's that? A Scotch shirt?" For the rest of that week, school became an unbearable experience. And the following week brought no respite. My mother had run up several Russian blouses on her sewing machine, and a fresh Russian blouse awaited me. Eventually, I grew out of the hated attire. The ignominy of this affair is not only burned into my memory, it is preserved in a memento. The practice of public schools in those days was to allow contract photographers to take individual student photos that were sold to parents. In a photo made then, my unhappiness is all too apparent. A year later, another photo recorded my return to traditional garb and the hint of a smile on my face.

I'm a gun owner and sometime target shooter. A Wisconsin hunter armed with a semiautomatic rifle recently killed six hunters and wounded two others in a confrontation. I hope the gun lobby will now acknowledge that rapid-fire weapons are inappropriate for hunting.

Our military misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan throw into sharp relief the tragic aspect of the failures of America in its professed role as the leader of the "free world." The plainest lesson for Americans in the turbulent dramas now being played out in the non-Western world is the need not only of more sympathetic understanding of the diverse ways and values of other peoples, but greater self-understanding--a more critical attitude toward our own accepted values and notions of the good life. There is a real chance that America, the pace-setter in technology--and the country in which above all it has run amok--may go down in history as the greatest failure because of our misapplication of technology. When are we going to get serious and develop alternate fuels so we are no longer in thrall to petroleum? Meanwhile, does anyone really need a gas-guzzling Hummer, the civilian version of the military's Humvee?

The blessings of democracy? In a May 2001 report, the U.N. announced that Afghanistan had completely eradicated opium poppy cultivation. Of course, this was under the Taliban, which made farmers switch to growing wheat and severely punished drug trafficking. Now that we have ousted the Taliban, Afghanistan supplies 87 percent of the world's opium. The output of Afghanistan's poppy growing is today valued at $2.8 billion, making up more than 60 percent of its gross domestic product.

When television burst upon the scene more than fifty years ago, critics hailed it as a wonderful educational medium, enabling scholars from all over the world to lecture to students in American classrooms. It failed that assignment miserably. Similarly, 24-hour news stations were seen as a giant step toward educating American audiences about issues. Instead, such stations allow themselves to be used for partisan political purposes. They spend endless hours analyzing and dissecting the most sordid murder trials. And they herald the most insignificant incidents as "breaking news." TV stations should deliver more than mere talking heads of doubtful authority or highly paid card-reading personalities, interspersed with commercials in questionable taste. Similarly, major newspapers, once bastions of independence and investigative reporting, today are hotbeds of biased reporting.

My father had an ecumenical attitude toward religion. "Going to heaven is like going to Chicago," he would say. "Some people take the Catholic Express; others ride the Methodist Limited; still others prefer the Baptist Flyer. And some, like me, just walk the tracks. But no matter how we do it, we all manage to get there just the same."

To the list of writers who died young should be added the name Ernest Walsh, a little known poet. I discovered his poetry as a young man certain that I would not come back from the war. Born in Detroit in 1895, Ernest Walsh joined the U.S. Aviation Service in 1917. He was badly hurt in a plane crash while training in Texas and spent six months in a body cast. In the succession of military hospitals through which he passed, he began writing poems. Discharged at Camp Kearney, California, in 1921, he was encouraged by doctors to "travel gently." He went to Europe, where he could live on his modest Army pension and write poems. Recurring hemorrhages eventually sapped his strength, and he died in France in 1926 at the age of 31. Here is one of my favorites, written a year before his death:


It must be a good thing
To reach up and feel a white head
And to put an old hand
on the sharp rough bristles of a neck
that has turned and looked
At pretty women more than fifty years

O you old men
stroking your beards
remembering more than fifty years back
Good dinners pretty women
Think of me who died young
Think of me when you light
your first cigarette after dinner
I too I too was there
I promise you
Every thought of me shall be
Cognac to your blood
Every thought of me
shall be fire to you
I who am dead shall warm you and urge you
I shall show you how to love a beautiful girl
I shall be an old brandy
That lasted only ten dinners
But they were not the dinners of a careful man


AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Comments: Post a Comment | Postscripts Homepage

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?