Category Archives: Memoirs

Remembering Robert “Bobby” Kennedy

 

Forty-six years ago I was awarded a B.A. degree in history after five, not the usual four, years of reading books and writing papers.  I was somewhat burned out and in need of a rest before receiving that letter of impending doom from General Hershey, Director of the Selective Service Administration.

Shortly after graduation a letter would arrive from the Selective Service informing me that my 2-S draft status was changed to 1-A, meaning that my deferment was over and I would shortly receive a second letter from Gen. Hershey that began with “Greetings.”  The letter was, of course not an invitation to join the army and become a hero, but a notice that I was selected to become one of Uncle Sam’s mighty warriors.  In all likelihood I would be sent to Vietnam, like other college graduates in 1968, as a fit sacrifice to the god of war.

The summer of 1968 was not a good time for vacationing in Vietnam.  Not too many years ago I had the honor of getting to know a true hero who served as a marine captain in Vietnam.  He told me that the need for new bodies to send out into the jungle on “search and destroy” missions was so great that they were sending over new draftees with very little training.  Yes, at that time they were drafting men into both the army and the marines.  The number of men who were drafted into the marines during the Vietnam War was 42,633.

I felt that I might be able survive through the summer before being drafted.  I always dreamed of going to Europe, and now, before facing death in the rice paddies of Vietnam, perhaps I could fulfill that dream.

I was encouraged to go to Germany for the summer by my German language professor.  She was a native German who married an American officer at the end of World War II.  She introduced me to a foreign language major, who also wanted to go to Germany for the summer.  With encouragement from Frau Helga Leftwich, Jim Sturgis and I made plans to spend the summer studying German and bumming around Germany.

Since I would no longer enjoy the benefits of a student deferment, it was necessary to obtain permission from my draft board to leave the country.  I have to admit that the thought of going to Canada did enter my mind.  As a child I saw one of those Nelson Eddy and Jeanette McDonald movies set in Canada with those red-coated Mounties romancing beautiful girls.  Who would not want to move to Canada after watching Rose Marie (1936)?  Canada?  Perhaps.  The Canadians  speak English, as well as French.  But go to Sweden, the other option?  No way.  Sweden is lovely, and the Swedish girls are beautiful, but how would I ever be able to talk to them?  The draft board proved to be merciful and allowed me to leave the country, so long as I was back by a certain date in September.

A friendly banker who just happened to be from the little German village next door to the village where I wanted to study German agreed to give me a student loan for $1,200 to finance my adventure.  Strange as it may seem today, that was enough money to pay for air transportation to and from France, pay for the two months at the Goethe Institute in Ebersberg, and spend the rest of the time bumming around.  It was also sufficient for me to spend several days in Paris before departing for home at the beginning of September.

Jim and I made reservations on a student charter flight to Paris.  Because Paris was experiencing one of those great romantic moments in her history, our flight was diverted to Brussels, Belgium.  The students from the Sorbonne with the support of members of the trade unions were rioting in Paris in hopes of toppling the government of Charles de Gaulle.  They failed, but when we went to Paris at the end of the summer to catch our return flight, we saw lingering evidence of the riots everywhere in the area around the Sorbonne.

After arriving in Brussels, we and a couple other students, also trying to briefly escape reality, or perhaps as they often said in those days “find themselves,” went to a small café.  While sipping a glass of wine and soaking in the atmosphere, a man ran into the café all excited and tapped the front page of a newspaper on the wall.  You didn’t have to be able to read French to decipher the bold headlines above Robert Kennedy’s picture.  We heard on the news before leaving New York that Robert Kennedy had been shot in California.  We did not know until then, however, that he had died.

Bobby Kennedy was our only hope for ending the madness in Vietnam.  Eugene McCarthy proved in early primaries that a “peace candidate” did have a chance to win the Democratic Party nomination for President in 1968.  Whether he could win the general election was another matter.  Once Robert Kennedy entered the race, there was little doubt that he would be nominated, and if nominated, he would win.

All was lost when Robert Kennedy was gunned down in that Los Angeles ballroom.  Although we could not know it then, we had six more years of killing in Vietnam and six more years of unrest at home ahead of us.  1968 was the high tide of sixties revolution here at home and abroad.  As Bob Dylan said, “the times they are [were] a-changin’.”  Changing they were, but not as we hoped.

With the rise of Richard Nixon, the insecure former carnival barker, onetime champion of McCarthyism, and self-righteous Cold Warrior, America took a sharp turn to the right.  The idealism of the sixties drowned in despair.  Personal peace and affluence became the new mantra.  Students no longer went on to the universities and colleges to obtain an education and discover the meaning and purpose of life.  Instead of education, they sought training so that they could compete for success in a new franchised America.

For just a brief period America’s youth rebelled against the materialism that so characterized life in postwar America.  But they failed, and they embraced materialism with a passion that would have embarrassed their parents.  A lack of critical thinking and an expertise in the Social Darwinist struggle for survival are the desired skills for success in today’s world.

“Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky tacky,
Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes all the same.
There’s a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

And the people in the houses
All went to the university,
Where they were put in boxes
And they came out all the same,
And there’s doctors and lawyers,
And business executives,
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.”

(“Little Boxes,” words and music by Malvina Reynolds; copyright 1962 Schroder Music Company.)

Would it all have happened differently, if Robert Kennedy had lived, and not been shot by a deranged busboy 46 years ago?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  We historians can only record the past.  We cannot predict the future.

Until next time, be good to all God’s creatures, and always walk under the mercy.

 

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Christmas Eve, 2013

Christmas Eve, chromolithography

Christmas Eve, chromolithography (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today is Christmas Eve, 2013, the day most of us choose to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.  I say “choose,” because no one knows for sure on just what day Jesus was born.  In fact, even the year is disputed.  Getting right the day of his birth is not important.  That he was born is the single most important event is history.

For those of you who found time to read this humble blog entry, here are a few notable events that occurred on Christmas Eve in years gone by.

The first radio broadcast of both voice and music took place on Christmas Eve, 1906.  Sailors aboard vessels in the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea were astonished when at exactly 9:00 p.m. they received over their ship’s radio in Morse code the message, “CQ CQ CQ,” a general call to all stations within range.  The “dots and dashes” message was followed by the voice of Reginald Aubrey Fessenden.  After a brief introduction, Fessenden played “O Holy Night” on his violin, followed by his reading from the Gospel of Luke: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to men of good will.”  [A dramatic recreation of Fessenden’s broadcast:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Elu0HF4a8yI ]

Sixty-two years later the Apollo 8 astronauts were orbiting the moon on Christmas Eve.  Mimicking Fessenden’s historic broadcast, the astronauts took turns reading the opening verses from Genesis 1.  They ended their broadcast with “Good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas and God bless all of you — all of you on the good Earth.”   [For live coverage of the Apollo 8 broadcast by CBS News:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1aIf0G2PtHo ]

On Christmas Eve in 1818, a poem by Joseph Mohr titled “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht,” set to music by Franz Gruber, was performed for the first time during midnight mass at St. Nicholas parish church in Oberndorf, Germany.  On Christmas Eve, 1914, “Silent Night, Holy Night” was sung in German, French, and English during a spontaneous truce along the Western Front at the opening of World War I.  It remains one of the best loved Christmas hymns of all time.  [To hear the original German:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oUb8ySdERKs ]

One of my most memorable Christmas Eves was that of 1968.  It was the 150th anniversary of “Silent Night, Holy Night.”  I attended midnight mass at St. Stanislaus Church in my hometown of Bay City, Michigan.  St. Stanislaus is a neo gothic church in what was earlier the Polish section of the city.  Outside everything was covered in snow.  The beautiful crowded sanctuary was not much warmer.  At the front of the sanctuary were fresh cut pine trees and a lovely manger scene. The smell of fresh pine mingled with the smell of incense drifting through the air, added to the ambiance of the moment.  Since it was the anniversary of the first performance of “Silent Night, Holy Night,” the church’s orchestra and choir performed it in numerous languages, including of course, Polish.

I wish to complete these thoughts on Christmas Eve, 2013 with two of my favorite Christmas poems.  First, the better known “Journey of the Magi” by T.S. Eliot:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BCVnuEWXQcg

Second, the lessor known “Bethlehem BC” by Rod McKuen: http://www.rodmckuen.com/music/bethbc.mp3

Merry Christmas to one and all, and until next time, do good, be good, and always live under the mercy.

Stories My Mother Would Tell “Uncle Roy and Aunt Ruby”

“She sold her soul to the Devil for a Cadillac.”

“Who sold her soul to the Devil?” I asked.

“Aunt Ruby.”

When she was in her mid-nineties, my mother and I would spend time together at the kitchen table having coffee and cookies.  Mother would often reminisce about her past life, and her recollections could be both humorous and informative, especially when she was telling stories about her long-departed relatives.  As long as the coffee and cookies lasted, she would relate stories about who was who, or who did what, or who was said to have done whatever it was that she remembered from that particular chapter of her family’s history. 

Aunt Ruby was one of mother’s aunts. 

“Did I ever meet Aunt Ruby?” I asked.

“Oh, yes.  She came to your sister Rosemary’s wedding, when she married Bernnie.”

“Yes, I think I remember her.  She must have been the one who looked like a saloon woman out of one of those old black and white westerns.  She was kind of, well, different.”

Mother leaned back in her chair and laughed.  “Different?  I’ll say she was different.”

She dipped a cookie in her coffee, took a bite, and continued.

“Everyone said that she married Uncle Roy for his money, but I don’t know.  I think maybe she did love him.”

“Did Uncle Roy have a lot of money?” I asked.

“Oh, yes, but not as much as everyone liked to think.”

I heard about Uncle Roy many times while growing up, but never met him.  Like many of my mother’s family, he was a character. 

“How did he make his money?” I asked.

Mother took another sip of coffee and set the cup down on the table.  She paused for a few moments, then got a serious look on her face, like she was about to say something very important.

“Roy would hypnotize people who were going to have a long operation.  He was paid well for that, but that isn’t where he made most of his money.”

I had heard many stories about Uncle Roy, but I did not mind hearing them told again.  There was always the chance that I would learn something new.  Even if I didn’t, a good story is always a good story.

“I heard that he was a fortune teller, and that’s where he made his money.” 

Mother laughed the sort of laugh that said she considered fortune telling a bunch of nonsense, and those who fell for such nonsense, just plain “goofy.”

 “Uncle Roy,” she continued, “was run out of Detroit by the police.”

“Really?” I asked.  “Why?”

“He was a crook,” she replied in a tone that said I was asking a dumb question.  Her assessment of Uncle Roy was based upon common sense logic.  All fortune tellers are crooks.  Uncle Roy was a fortune teller.  Therefore, Uncle Roy was a crook. 

“Wasn’t he more than just a hypnotist and fortune teller?”

I asked the question because I knew from stories other members of mother’s family told that there was a lot more to Uncle Roy, and some of it was downright scary. 

She sipped a little more coffee. “Uncle Roy worshipped the devil.”

“I heard that he was a spiritualist,” I said. 

She continued:  “I don’t know whether he was a spiritualist, whatever that is, but I do know that everyone was nervous around him.  They said that Roy could read minds.  He knew what you were thinking.  You had to be careful of what you were thinking if he was in the room.”

Like I said, I had heard all of this before, and not just from my mother.

One evening, right after I graduated from college, I attended a family gathering at the home of Uncle Joe and Aunt June.  “Aunt Junie” was one of Mother’s two sisters.

As I remember, we were all seated in the living room eating ice cream. Uncle Joe finished his, and then set the bowl on the floor for his dog to lick clean.

Someone mentioned Uncle Roy and immediately the conversation took a new and much more interesting direction.  Uncle Joe began to tell of a night he spent with Roy.

“I was never so scared in all of my life,” he began.  “Roy just sat at the dining room table, staring into a plate full of blood. “

“Blood?” someone asked. 

“That’s right, blood.”

“But why blood?”

“I don’t know.  I guess he was meditating.  Or maybe he was calling up demons, or something worse.”

No one had to ask what he meant by “worse.”  We all conjured up images of a séance complete with spooky sounds and ghostlike voices.

“He could make the window shades go up and down and the doors open and shut.  There were all sorts of weird sounds all over the house.”

Uncle Joe had our undivided attention.  Everyone just sat there starring at him, anxious for more.  It was so quiet you could hear a pin drop.

“I’m not easily frightened,” he said, “but I don’t mind admitting I was scared shitless.  I didn’t know if I would make it to morning, or if maybe a demon or the Devil himself would get me.”

Uncle Roy and Aunt Ruby both passed on many years ago.  Whether they caught a ride in a chariot to higher ground or on a subway to deeper realms is anyone’s guess. 

Uncle Joe did survive, and his story of that night alone with Uncle Roy became part of family history.

Uncle Roy and Aunt Ruby were not the only members of mother’s extended family about whom many stories are told.  There was also Uncle Ed and Aunt Lola.  I always wondered why that other man we called Uncle Chuck lived with them.  Then one day while we were having coffee and cookies, I asked mother.

Until next time, be good to all God’s creatures, and always live under the mercy.

Copyright 2013