Monday, September 4, 2017

Twin Peaks The Return: The Day After

This is not another recap of Twin Peaks: The Return, just some observations I offer as part of the wonderfully participatory arena the whole TWR has provided.

I enjoyed the whole series, and loved both parts of the finale. I also loved reading all the intellectual interpretations about the huge subtleties within the art.

One of the questions the one-armed man asks in the Black Lodge (two times actually) is “Is it future or is this past?"  That idea is more prescient than Lynch could have possibly known when he wrote it, given the recent nuclear testing in North Korea and our government's heightened rhetoric.  For me, there are 2 real-life touchpoints to the series that will stay with me for a long time.


How eerie that David Lynch’s masterwork Twin Peaks: The Return ends on the weekend when I get a NY Times email alert: North Korean Nuclear Test Draws U.S. Warning of ‘Massive Military Response.

The art-house highlight of The Return—the extraordinary Episode 8—-is Lynch’s meditation on the ever-living effects of Trinity, the July 16, 1945 test of the A-bomb. Born in 1946, his early childhood was awash in “Drop, duck, and cover” taught in schools in the 1950s to prepare Americans to survive a nuclear attack. Children across the country went through actual drills where they methodically hid under their desks, as though that would save them.  Or they filed in neat little 1950s lines into "fallout shelters" in the school.

That anxiety of a nuclear attack seems to have had an enormous impact on Lynch’s young artistic mind. Throughout The Return Lynch brings us the ever ominous evils of electricity and multiple nightmares, including the “Gotta light?” walking incineration who kills all in his path. We get it. Mankind often faces manifestations of pure evil, many of his own doing.

The real-life threat of a war over nuclear war provides a whole new dimension of scary behind the simpler debatable semiotics of our beloved TV series.

The Return finale also made me think of the 1983 TV event that was The Day After, which aired on Sunday night, November 20. It was watched by more than 100 million people, including me. Even so, the possibility of nuclear war did not seem real to me then, so the horror of what happens to the fictional families in Lawrence, Kansas, and Kansas City, Missouri just seemed like any horror film. [Lynch, by the way, is from Missouri.] Today I fear war over nukes is entirely possible.

The Day After is also notable for the live panel that ABC broadcast from Washington, right after the broadcast.  Ted Koppel hosted Henry Kissinger, Carl Sagan, Brent Scowcroft, William F. Buckley, Jr., Elie Wiesel, and Robert McNamara along with a studio audience.

Koppel opens with: “There is some good news. Look out the window. It’s all still there. It’s not too late yet.”  The panel is highly worth watching.

ABC also opened 1-800 lines with counselors if people wanted to talk to someone after watching the US suffer such destruction.

Like the TV show, which had no clear conclusion, the North Korea situation continues on in all of its evilness.

Gotta light?

Laura Palmer

The finale works its way back to the story of Laura Palmer. As many have said, the whole story exists because a young woman was raped and murdered by her father (possessed by a demon, in order to explain it).

One of the most poignant moments of the finale is Agent Cooper going back in time to the night Laura will be killed. He is “the thing that’s over there in the woods” from the prequel Fire Walk With Me. He stops Laura and takes her hand to lead her away from continuing on to her death.

That moment. That moment of intercession.

The most human of longings: IF ONLY.

IF ONLY someone had been there to stop the violence.

That is a powerful truth in our real world. It made me think of all the women who have been murdered—usually by men—because there was no one there, at that moment, to intercede. We know the names of some of these women because they are in the news, like Katina Vetrano,  raped and murdered while jogging in Brooklyn. But there are countless, countless names we don’t know. I travel alone a lot, and I am super aware of surroundings. I have experienced women dawdle in a secluded ATM area if I enter and everyone else has left, and I have done the same. But it's never, ever enough . . .

In our fantasy story, we don’t know if the intercession was entirely successful. But that’s a commentary on how you can’t mess with time travel. Has Agent Cooper never seen Doctor Who?

Having Twin Peaks: The Return end on Labor Day is perfect. It was a summer appointment for we who stuck with it.  Many are calling “fraud” on Lynch for another incoherent, lazy, over-indulgence that shows he has long lost his magic.

Given the state of the world and our own crass government, I celebrate the artistic expression from a kid from the Show Me state. Long may we all go on Lynchian voyages together.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Two Women for the Ages: Princess Diana & Mother Teresa, 20 Years in Heaven

 Time marches on. It is twenty years now since these two extraordinary women died 6 days apart in 1997. They had met just two months earlier that year, June 18, 1997, when Diana visited one of the Missionaries of Charity in the Bronx. 

How oddly fitting that Princess Diana and Mother Teresa, who had some connections in life, are connected to each other in death because they died six days apart in 1997. The coverage of Diana’s death made for a somewhat memorable Labor Day weekend that year, which then rolled right into the coverage of Mother Teresa.

And now, this week, we pause to remember that it has been twenty years since Diana died in a car crash. At the ten year anniversary, the book Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light came out, along with an article in Time that put forth the extraordinary idea that Mother Teresa basically lost her faith just at the moment she started the work with the poorest of the poor for which she is known.

Princess Diana, Escaping for Love
I happened to be awake 20 years ago when the first reports of Diana’s car accident broke into CNN. Shortly after, her death was announced, and it was shocking, in the way that John F. Kennedy Jr.’s death was. Young people with all the earthly gifts possible, dying in sudden, violent ways makes one stop for a moment. You intellectually know that this very day can be your last, but incidents like this make that idea more tangible.

I haven’t read Tina Brown’s book nor any of the cottage industry of tell all rags on the princess, but I have kept up with her story over the years. We share a birth year, but while she was getting married in 1981, I was off crewing on a schooner and didn’t get to see the wedding. My feminist friends at college had given me a “Don’t Do It Di” button, which their English counterparts had made up following a headline in the feminist magazine Spare Rib. But I didn’t understand it back then. I didn’t know what they were talking about, why shouldn’t she marry her prince, an actual prince? I think theirs was a general invective against the patriarchal monarchy, but how eerily prophetic was their warning.

The draw of the Royals, for most people, is simply that it’s a family writ larger than in our own homes. The saddest part of their particular mess is the triangle of Charles and Camilla and Di. Having a husband/lover who is always thinking of another is a soul crushing, living hell. It’s a shattering experience, and whatever personal struggles and demons Diana had herself—-bipolar/borderline personality, bulimia-—the unrelenting presence of Camilla in her marriage doomed any spec of happiness she might have known.

And to make it worse, Diana was horribly subjected to the subtle and not so subtle power plays from everyone around her. For instance, Camilla supposedly is responsible for Di getting into that monstrosity of a wedding dress, under the guise of the old guard helping her. Parker-Bowles supposedly laughed and laughed with her friends at how successful she was in making the wedding of the century look buffoonish. (This sickening power play is at least a plausible explanation for that nightmare in taffeta.)

It also illuminates how utterly Diana’s mother was missing from the whole equation, and what a devastating absence it proved to be. Frances Althorp Shand Kydd was an enigmatic woman. She also married young, to an older man of stature, and found herself in an unhappy marriage. She had an affair with Peter Shand Rydd, and a year later divorced Diana’s father and married him. (He would leave her years later for a younger woman.) It seems that with this kind of split, where Lady Althorp's own mother testified against her in the custody hearing in favor of Lord Althorp getting custody of their children, she wasn’t very close to her daughter at all, and that’s very sad for both of them.

In the end, I admired Diana for playing the hand she was dealt. She developed her dazzling style and looks as a way to parry the blows to her self esteem from the Royal family. She refused to stay in a sham marriage, and believed that she could have actual love with the right man, if she could find him. She saw two little boys through their early childhood with much genuine love and caring. And in the larger historical dimension, she reinvigorated the monarchy for all time. It was a short life well lived.

Mother Teresa, Losing Her Faith
Mother Teresa died six days later on Sept. 5. She was 87 years old, and her death was neither sudden nor violent. The ten-year mark saw the publication of Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, a collection of letters in her own hand that speak to her loss of belief in God. Teresa had been an ordinary teaching nun of the Sisters of Loreto of Ireland for 15 years when she received a “call within the call” to leave her convent and work with the misery of the world’s poorest poor.

What follows is a life that has been lionized and pulled apart from every angle. Either her homes for the poor are badly run or they aren’t. There are questions of where all the donations to her Sisters of Charity go—so the accounting is questionable. There’s the question of her judgment, in aligning herself with the likes of Charles Keating. Nothing here is surprising. Human institutions and their leaders are always corrupt in some way.

But her internal loss of faith is startling. For fifty years she struggled to regain her faith in Christ: “for there is such terrible darkness within me, as if everything was dead. It has been like this more or less from the time I started 'the work.'"

Even the Eucharist had no meaning for her, which pretty much caps it: “I just have the joy of having nothing — not even the reality of the Presence of God [in the Eucharist]."

For the cynics team, this means she lead a life of complete hypocrisy. That she “knew” there was no God, and she didn’t have the courage to admit it. Of course she has no more actual knowledge on the subject than any of us. She was canonized a saint in the Roman Catholic Church on September 4, 2016.

Just as Princess Diana was subjected to much armchair psychology, there are theories in the Time piece that Mother Teresa needed to sabotage her own success. Maybe. Maybe she wanted to leave her institution just as much as Diana wanted to leave hers, but didn’t have the strength or ability to make it happen.

I find much to learn from both of these larger-than-life women, and it all comes back to love. As a late teenager Diana thought she had found it in Charles, and she paid for her misperception for the rest of her life, and one could argue, with her life. Mother Teresa once felt a presence of Christ’s love so strong that it negated the need for the love of an earthly kind. She was surprised and saddened when she later felt that His love had abandoned her, and she faced fifty years in a depressed darkness where she simply continued on as best she could. Such is the reality of many lives.

The two women admired one another, and I read somewhere that Diana is buried with a rosary that was a gift from Mother Teresa. Considering what an RC custom that is, it seems a little unlikely, but it’s a lovely thought.

Here’s the stirring hymn from Diana’s funeral, I Vow to Thee My Country.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Mother's Day: My debt to my maternal grandmother, Rena Caroline Waldis Brown

Rena Waldis Brown at the Forest Lake Country Club circa 1918
Thinking of my maternal grandmother on this Mother's Day, whom I affectionately called Grammy Whammy because she was a pip.

She died in 1993 at the age of 93, born when the 19th century became the 20th century.

I have several of her belongings, but the one that is the most emotional for me is her Atlantic #511 washboard, from the National Washboard Co., Chicago, Saginaw, Memphis.

That washboard is a testament to the difficult realities of her life.  Rena Caroline Waldis was born in 1900 on a farm in rural Pennsylvania to immigrant Swiss German parents. The family history is sketchy—my mother’s generation didn’t ask questions of their parents. My brother has been doing some amazing ancestry work, and has found the immigrant records of Grammy's own mother coming over from Trier, Germany, on a ship through Liverpool, as a 10 year old with her mother and 4 siblings. That's a story for another day.

I know my great-grandparents were painfully poor. They had 11 children, only the first and last of whom survived childhood (my grandmother being the youngest). My great-grandfather died when my grandmother was young, leaving great-grandma with two girls to fend for themselves.

Grammy rarely spoke about her childhood, except in an offhand comment once that when she was still in the highchair her mother put an  iron in her hand so that she could iron handkerchiefs for one of the summer resorts in the area to earn pennies. And one other specific, that when she was a young girl her dog ate poison that a neighbor had put out to kill a fox, and died.  At 80 she could start crying whenever she told that story, so deep was her love for her dog, a lifelong love for all of her dogs.

What I know of her history picks up when she was 16 or so. She got a job at the Forest Lake County Club in Hawley, PA--a private club that opened in 1882 and continues today--as a waitress, and a laundress (picture above). Doing the resort’s sheets by hand was not easy. Hard manual labor followed her from the farm to the resort—it was all she knew.

Grammy had a very winning personality, and it turned out that a Lutheran reverend from Brooklyn summered there with his family. The family story goes that he said to her 'you should come to the big city' and so she did. She somehow navigated herself to Brooklyn and showed up on his doorstep to work as a live-in maid!  She had the spirit that told her there was more to life than a rural farm with no electricity, and she was going to go find it.  Her only surviving sibling did not have that spirit, and spent her entire life in the country.

In some ways Grammy hit the jackpot. I mean the reverend could have been from Boston (no offence) but no, it was New York, and Grammy had the soul of the quintessential New Yorker. I think she arrived in Brooklyn around 1919.

Again the history is a little sketchy.  After working for Reverend Harper for a while she got a job with a dowager as a paid companion--which always made me think of the Second Mrs. De Winter traveling with Mrs. Van Hopper to Monaco in the film Rebecca.

The dowager lived on Riverside Drive at 116 Street in Manhattan. Seven decades later I would move into an apartment literally up the block from there, on Claremont Avenue. Truly, what are the odds?

The years passed; Rena had a series of boyfriends. Somewhere along the line she met Arthur Cornelius Brown, a first generation American with Norwegian parents, and they began dating. It was the Depression, and he had a job as a mail carrier, which was good. Around when Grammy was 30 the dowager asked her to go to Europe with her.  Grammy said to her beau Arthur, “we get married, now, or I’m going to Europe.”

They got married.

I never met my grandfather, but it seems that married life did not turn out as Grammy was expecting. She had worked for wealthy people, and had received beautiful furniture and china as wedding gifts. She thought that she would be entertaining a lot herself, but as a mailman Grandpa worked very hard, and he wasn’t interested in much of a social life. It's also that he had been a bachelor for almost 40 years, and maybe that was too long.

My mother once told me that when she was a teenager she came upon her mother in the middle of a crying jag. I think about that sometimes. The life Grammy imagined was not her reality, even after all her will power had gotten her off the farm and into the most fabulous city in the world, where she was a success in many, many ways. She had her own money and her own bank account, no small feat for a woman in her day. She had the freedom of the great NY subway system, that she learned backwards and forward.  She had a mailman who came home, every day (something she liked to repeat), and two little girls, but perhaps something was missing, or just wasn't right.

I loved and admire her for all her struggles—for her strength, in surviving the pandemic influenza of 1918 (when the coffins in NY lined the streets), for her encyclopedic knowledge of the NY subway system, her life-long love of her dogs, for raising such a special daughter, for always sending money back to her sister who never left rural Pennsylvania, for playing tea party with me when I was 5 with much patience, and keeping her spirits up, even as old, old age descended on her, until at 93 she finally joined back up with Arthur.

Because she got off the farm, I am able to live in a condo in Manhattan that has a washer/dryer IN THE KITCHEN--which for Manhattan is still pretty rare.  How do I ever repay such a debt?

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Massive MTA Failure: Sadly, Nothing New.

The MTA has been failing its costumers on an epic scale lately.  Yesterday's commuting nightmare also had Con Edison pitching in: NY Times "Why a Midtown Power Failure Snarled Your Morning Commute."  Snarled is a pretty cozy word for soul-sapping mess.  

Funny thing, when I was googling for info about yesterday's mess (April 21, 2017), I kept landing on articles I thought were about it, but were about other recent messes: "Chaos as power blackout hits New York's Grand Central bringing trains to a standstill" is from January, 2013

There really are too many examples to list, except perhaps for the one I've pasted below. From August 1980!

Kudos to The New York Times archives.  I started commuting from Long Island into Manhattan in high school during the summer of my junior year when I got an internship at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was soul-sapping (I know I've said that before.)  I was young and wanted to shout and scream about how awful this daily experience was, and of course was really thrilled when the NY Times ran it.

Even more satisfying: my brother, who also commuted, was on a Penn Station platform, trying to get to the stairs to get to the street, hemmed in by too many people who can but shuffle inch by inch to keep going, when he heard a guy say to his friend, "This is just what she was talking about."  He had read the article!  

Thirty years on, and commuters are still cattle. Maybe that is simply the fate of city dwellers.  

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Leftovers: I’m All in for the Final Season of Exasperations and Magic

I am all in for the niche ruminating about The Leftovers after the premiere of its 3rd and final season last Sunday because there is so much fun to be had. The series is a triumph of imagination, combined with the highest arts of TV writing, directing, and acting. It is pure enjoyment to be pulled into its narrative spell and try and makes sense of what’s going.

Warning: The below presumes the reader has watched the 2 seasons and the season 3 premiere, both for comprehension of points, and what might be spoilers.

1. Let’s start with the title: The Leftovers. Terrible title. Who doesn’t think of doogie bags from restaurants or Tupperware sitting in the refrigerator.

As for the Guilty Remnants sect, I see scraps of fabric, maybe because my mother is a talented seamstress, and she was always buying something from the remnant table, the fabric that was too small to sell in yardage.

So from a verbal/visual side, it was off to a strange start.

2. I began weekly watching in season 2, I don’t remember what drew me in to start.

So I binge-watched the first season to catch up, which was good because it helped me to connect some of the craziness very easily.

Season 1 tracked the original underlying novel. A pivotal episode— “The Garveys at Their Best”—comes 9 episodes into the 10 episode season.

As Sonia Saraiya said in the AV Club:

“Tonight’s episode offers a lot of helpful information. So what was the point of making us wait to see the backstories of these characters, nine weeks after the pilot, instead of making this, or some version of this, into the pilot?”

Messing with the narrative timeline certainly energized the storytelling.

It also meant that we learned about post Departure life first.  So when in episode 9, we were shown extended flashbacks to our characters before the Departure, something jumped out at me:

3. Much of post Departure world is a projection of Kevin's pre-Departure psyche.

Follow me:
Pre DepartureKevin didn't want to stop smoking, Laurie wanted him to, and so he hid the fact that he smoked. 
Post Departure: Smoking is a part of the very faith of the Guilty Remnant and they smoke ALL THE TIME.

Pre Departure: Kevin didn't want a dog, Laurie did. 
Post departure: Kevin gets to shoot multiple feral dogs.  Like the smoking, a wildly heightened expression of feeling in his Pre Departure life.

Pre Departure: Kevin feels threatened by how competent and loved his father is. 
Post Departure:  Dad is certifiably crazy & put away.

There has to be some reason Post Departure tracts back to Kevin's psyche. Among the mountain of things not explained, this connection is never explained. In season 2, there are no more specific parallels, though season 2 is not from the novel, but is the extension of the story written by the novelist Tom Perrotta and Damon Lindelof.

4. For now I will consider Kevin and his multiple resurrections.

For Justin Theroux now has a world-class beard.

For Christological symbols abound, my favorite being the deer that appeared throughout season 1:

Sonia spoke of it in terms of Kevin:

And then there’s the whole thing with the deer, which takes on a resonance and significance that implies a whole bunch about Kevin. The show has visited and revisited deer in unexpected spaces: The Garvey kitchen in 2014 is torn up because a deer got stuck inside; the wild dogs kill a deer in the pilot, leading Kevin to take up thinning their ranks. 

Stags are beautiful and dignified animals, and there’s a lot of subtext written into these huge beasts being trapped in houses, terrified. There’s even more subtext when Kevin introduces the idea that it’s just one scared deer that keeps getting confused.”

The stag is a medieval symbol of Christ. So a little interesting foreshadowing in season 1 that is leading to the Book of Kevin.

And now, season 3 episode one, The Book of Kevin. He may not want to be the new, New Testament, but his rational mind will need an answer for himself about his ability to cheat death, even if he rejects Rev. Matt's interpretation.

I try not to read things in advance, but apparently everyone knew that The Leftovers will end in Australia, and the prologue of The Book of Kevin was a look at the Millerites cult in 1844, in Australia.

Then the reveal at the end, with Nora, an aged woman. In Australia, with a dove/carrier pigeon coop just like the 1844 gang had.

Of course I don't know what this means. But if Lindelof and Perrotta write themselves into an end of times in Australia, I hope they do some serious homage to Peter Weir’s The Last Wave, and to a lesser extent Nevil Shute’s novel On the Beach, two pieces of art that got there first.

The novel On the Beach is much superior to the film. It is a terrific read, and the final page chilling.

The Last Wave (photo above) is one of those films that will stay with you your whole life.

Looking forward to episode 2—

Friday, April 14, 2017

Mystical Connections This Weekend: Our Titanic Catharsis, Lincoln’s Assassination, and My Dad’s Easter Memorial

The wheels of history have turned to align us today to the same days to dates as 1865.

In Daniel Mendelsohn's excellent 2012 New Yorker article "Unsinkable, why we can't let go of the Titanic" he noted an historian once quipped that "three most written about subjects of all time are Jesus, the Civil War, and the Titanic."

This weekend hits this trifecta perfectly. 

1. Abraham Lincoln was shot on Good Friday, April 14, 1865, and died at 7:22 am on April 15, Holy Saturday. Just how mystical was that extraordinary man?

2. Not aligned to 2017’s days, but we still have the annual parallel to Lincoln’s assassination: The Titanic hit an iceberg on Friday, April 14, 1912, at 11:40pm,  and broke in two and foundered at 2:20am on Saturday, April 15.

3.  Easter Sunday, April 16, happens to be 32 years since my father died.


I have felt some connection to the Titanic my whole life. I have an early memory of my dad in the kitchen filling the old metal ice cube trays. He brought it up, for no particular reason, saying that the Titanic was supposed to be unsinkable because of its watertight compartment, but that they didn't have tops, like this tray.

"Nearer My God to Thee" was in my Magnus Organ book. I knew those words and that tune since I was 6, and later learned it was what the musicians played as the Titanic sank. (Apocryphal or not, the NY Times had the music for "Autumn" on their page as part of their coverage the next day in 1912.)

It happened that I went to college in Southampton, England, where the Titanic started her voyage with such hope. I visited the small museum they had in the 1980s, but they have just opened a new, more elaborate center. Later I moved to 106 Street and Broadway, where Straus Park is. It has a memorial called "Memory" to Isidor and Ida, the Macy's magnates, who died together rather than being separated. The sculpture is by Augustus Lukeman, and this line from 2 Samuel 23 is etched into the bench: "Lovely and pleasant were they in their lives and in their death they were not parted.” The original reflecting pool has been replaced with a flower bed. (My photos above and below.)

I remember weeping through A Night to Remember when I saw it as a kid. It was directed by Roy Baker, who went on to direct 8 of the best 1965/66 Avengers episodes, another connection!

Following Mendelsohn's rhetorical "why we can't let go of the Titanic," here are some of the usual reasons pointed to:
*The hubris of declaring a ship "unsinkable" was just begging for karma to act; naming the ship after the gods was bad enough

*"Tall as an 11-story building and constructed from 46,000 tons of steel, it was the largest moving object on earth" -- so what was it doing trying to float?

*The Carpathia steaming to the rescue, but too late for most, the much closer California tragically asleep

*Captain Edward Smith going down with the ship but the ship line owner J. Bruce Ismay jumping into a lifeboat and surviving to a lifetime of shame

*The New York Times has pdfs of their original coverage, all of which is fascinating. It started the reports of the first time "women and children" had been given as an order, and the first time SOS is actually used for distress, in addition to the longer standing CQD [ based on the French for secur, help, then the word distress].

But somehow the place Titanic has had in our minds for generations since April 15 is more than all those points.

My Titanic Thoughts:

*People had been crossing the Atlantic commercially since the mid1800s. They were on the boat for vacation, to see the world, to join family, to go to a new job, to start a new life. It's every circumstance of living in one defined place subjected to the cruelest way to die: unexpectedly, and in great pain.

•A ship on the ocean is powerful and vulnerable at the same time. It is a floating small city built not on concrete, but on the Archimedes principle: "Any floating object displaces its own weight of fluid. " Buoyancy is great while it works, until it doesn't.

*Then what seemed as solid as Manhattan is but a speck easily swallowed up by the might of the world's oceans.

As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; They kill us for their sport

*What haunts my mind is the overwhelming force of the water filling the ship, taking over every physical space where there once was oxygen, including in the lungs of those on board. The men in the engine room, who worked the brutal job of keeping the boilers stoked to make the steam, died first . . .

*That horrible feeling the moment something has happened: like hearing your knee pop and knowing that it's going to need surgery. The captain and senior officers knew from the moment of the ice on the foredeck that the ship was going to founder. 

*The scenes all the movies portray of the panic of the third class/steerage passengers struggling to climb to deck level, some finding passage ways locked. It is a nightmare come to life.

*Doesn't everyone wonder: what would I have done on the Titanic? Would I have been smart and lucky enough to survive?

*Rearranging the chairs on the Titanic is generally an idiom for futility, but I once read a scientist argue that if you were able to strap enough chairs together you might make yourself something to float on.

In the hundred years since, there have been thousands of maritime disasters including ferries with the death toll in the tens of thousands.

But it's impossible to empathize with all of that. And that's what the Titanic provides us: a story that connects us to our collective vulnerability and mortality. That's why we need it. The photo that I took of the Straus memorial shows someone had recently put a bouquet in her hands.

And then the myth takes us even further: it has allowed generations to feel a cathartic grief for the suffering and death of more than a thousand people dying at once, in daily life (not on a battlefield). Sadly, not for the last time.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

100 Years Ago Today the Americans Enter WW 1, to "Oh, were the Americans in the Great War?"

An American Doughboy receives a medal from King George V, World War 1
Updating this post on April 6, 2017, commemorating one hundred years ago today we entered World War 1.

An odd occurrence connects my recent trips to Italy and England. It concerns two conversations with Englishmen of a certain age (let's say somewhere 60 to 70) in both places.

In general chit chat with each man I asked if he had seen the play War Horse. Neither had, though both knew of it and had read about it.

I was interested to pose an observation to the play—which I've seen both in London and New York—to each: that it was an extraordinary theatrical experience, but I was surprised that there was no character, or piece of dialogue, or even hint that the Americans fought for the Allies in World War 1. There is a battle scene in France, with the Brits, French, Germans, and then all of a sudden, it's Armistice, Victory, end of the war.

I was simply surprised that there wasn't one line of dialogue about the Yanks coming over. I don't mean that there should have been a whole scene, or even American character, just a reference to the forces that entered and helped to bring the war to its end. (I know the play doesn't reference the Russians, Austrians, or Italians either, but that little Second Battle of the Marne turned the tide of the war, so we're not just a footnote.)

Then each Brit—in two different countries—said the same thing to me in response:

"Oh, were the Americans in World War 1?"

Wow. Ouch. There was no irony here, it was not leg pulling. These men were highly educated guys. How could they not know that we went "over there." It's a George M. Cohan song: "and we won't come back 'til it's over, over there" sung at the end of the James Cagney film Yankee Doodle Dandy. On the actual battlefields it was the Doughboys, remember?

Service & Sacrifice

It is notable, to an American visiting France, England, Italy, to see the names of the war dead cut into stone memorials in every town, no matter the size, as well as into churches and colleges across the country. (That is not our way, even though towns across the midwest lost tens of thousands of boys to the foreign fields during WW1 & WW2.)

I was reminded of this again at my recent visit St. John's Chapel, Cambridge, and in the Uppingham parish church, each of which had the all too-long list of a generation of young men, killed during WW1 and remembered by name.

The number of American lives lost---around 116,000---does not compare in number to the almost 3 million British lives lost. But remember that the US was no super power in 1914. We were a nation of teaming, recent immigrants from Germany, France, and Ireland, which argued for US neutrality, something Woodrow Wilson fought hard to maintain.

Lest we forgot, here's a quick recap if WW1, courtesy of lots of Wiki pages:

•German U-Boat's dominated the early part of the war. The Lusitania— a passenger liner which later was proved to be carrying ammunition—was torpedoed and sank on May 7, 1915, in 18 minutes.

1,959 crew and passengers; 1,198 died, 761 survived. 139 of the dead were Americans, 9 survivors.

Unlike the attack on Pearl, this was not enough to pull the US into the war immediately, although it was something the country remembered.

•President Woodrow Wilson worked hard for American Neutrality, following contemporary leaders from all walks of life who descried the war and insisted the US stay out of it: Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, Henry Ford, Samuel Gompers, and the Progressive Movement Jane Adams, just to name a few

*In 1917 Germany stepped up the Uboat activity even further, threatening passenger liners directly with the hopes of bringing the US in the war. That combined with the Zimmerman Telegram--a proposal from German Empire to Mexico to declare war against the US that was intercepted and decoded by the British---finally tipped the scales.

•President Wilson asked Congress for "a war to end all wars" that would "make the world safe for democracy," and Congress voted to declare war on April 6, 1917.

By June 1917, 14,000 U.S. soldiers had arrived in France, and by May 1918 over one million U.S. troops were stationed in France, half of them on the front lines, with troops arriving at a rate of 10,000 a day at a time Germany could not replace its losses.

In total we mobilized 4 million military personal and fought in 13 campaigns

Cambrai, November 20 to December 4, 1917
Somme Defensive, March 21 to April 6, 1918
Lys, April 9 to 27, 1918
Aisne, May 27 to June 5, 1918
Montdidier-Noyon, June 9 to 13, 1918
Champagne-Marne, July 15 to 18, 1918
Aisne-Marne, July 18 to August 6, 1918
Somme Offensive, August 8 to November 11, 1918
Oise-Aisne, August 18 to November 11, 1918
Ypres-Lys August 19 to November 11, 1918
St. Mihiel, Sept. 12 to 16, 1918
Meuse-Argonne, Sept. 26 to November 11, 1918
Vitto Veneto, October 24 to November 4, 1918

My grandfather, Arthur Cornelius Brown, was drafted in in May 1917, and served through June 9, 1919. He was one of the lucky ones.  He was not shipped overseas, but served his time in Brooklyn, in Fort Hamilton. The family story explains that he could not wink.  Which meant that he would be a very lousy shot when trying to fire a gun.

I have a feeling that if the war had continued on longer, he would have been sent regardless, being otherwise an able-bodied man.

The American World War 1 Cemeteries
Many men were not as lucky as my grandfather, as the cemeteries of Europe attest to. Off they went, Over There, never to return to the farms and cities they left.

There are 8 American World War 1 cemeteries in Europe: 6 in France, 1 in England, 1 in Belgium. Not surprisingly, they shadow the campaigns. The cemeteries are maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission, which has produced a small video for each.

From some of the close-ups on the tombstones you see Nebraska, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Ohio et al., reminding us that it was the farm boys who left the farm to fight against the strange sounding Kaiser,  and died so many miles from home.

Belgium: Flanders Field American Cemetery & Memorial

John Mcrae wrote his haunting "In Flanders fields the poppies grow/Between the crosses, row on row" in 1915, after burying a friend following the second battle of Ypres. McCrae himself is buried in Wimereux Cemetery, in the Commonwealth War Graves section. He died of pneumonia at a field hospital in Boulogne.

England: Brookward

France: Suresnes


Oise-Aisne, it's where the poet Joyce Kilmer is buried

Somme American Cemetery

St. Mihiel

Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery
14,246 Americans are buried there, the largest interment of U.S. war dead in Europe in one cemetery