Halfway Measures

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America’s affluence appears to have successfully nurtured a national indifference to the meaning of America. A quick look into our comparatively short history reminds us all that this is nothing new.

Ten years following the founding of Plymouth came the mass of New England’s settlers. Titled the “Great Puritan Migration” thousands of religious refugees stepped onto dry land at Massachusetts Bay. These newcomers didn’t exactly seek religious freedom, but aimed to school Old England on how a Godly society ought to run. The Massachusetts Bay Governor, John Winthrop described the mission of the colony as establishing “A City on a Hill,” a Godly utopia.

Particularly focusing on the Book of Leviticus, behavior was carefully regulated in Puritan New England. From the eldest male down to the lowliest servant, every individual was compelled to attend church and follow a strict code of behavior. For example, if one was to gossip or speak untruths, a hot nail through the tongue might be inflicted. Missing hours-long Sunday services could earn a date in the town square stocks, to suffer public ridicule and humiliation. These Puritans were not messing around.

Settlers from Provincetown to Lawrence resided in closely set houses, domiciles that circled the local Congregational meeting house. Any notion of personal privacy did not exist in any modern sense. The “Elect,” as they referred to themselves monitored their neighbors for righteous conduct, and individuals were admonished to put God before any other concern. One could not eat too much, drink too much, quarrel too much, or appear flashy in any way. Those decadent distractions kept believers from deep contemplation of The Lord. 

So how does this set of historical circumstances reflect the America of today?

The New England Way meant self restraint, and self denial. Any extreme was frowned upon by the Church. The only aspect permitted and even encouraged was industry, productivity and the accumulation of wealth. The Puritan Work Ethic, direct from the Book of Proverbs loomed large in Colonial New England. 

The point is Massachusetts Bay grew steadily more affluent and more secular. Moreover, the people of that moment embraced wealth as a  righteous manifestation of God’s approval and favor.

Around 1660 the lifespans and prestige of first generation New Englanders began to ebb. The City on the Hill was losing its reach. Children born in the New World did not fully appreciate the harsh ordeal their forebears endured. This second generation, born and raised in America, only knew material comforts, and were, for lack of a better word, spoiled. 

I am the grandchild of the “Greatest Generation,” raised on stories of Depression-era hunger, and amphibious beach landings at Normandy. Moved by the purposeful lives my grandparents led, I chose for my career history education. I understood early on that if kids aren’t informed, they won’t know, and are susceptible to self-satisfied entitlement; meaning this moment is all there is. Material abundance doesn’t help, either. Gifting creature comforts is no substitute for nurturing proportion and a deeper appreciation for what came before. 

As a kid I vacationed at Disneyland, watched the Flintstones, and went through about a million Barbie dolls. But those indulgences were leavened by my elders who freely shared about once living only on turnips for a week, and watching school friends of Japanese descent sent away during the war. 

Outcomes in America’s past were not preordained, but the result of a hell of a lot of work. The stories, passed down from age to age, reveal different takes on shared experiences that sustain our national character. America is much bigger than this one moment, and material things only momentary distractions.

The past is not a foreign land. 

To preserve what they left us cannot be realized with halfway measures. A realistic appreciation of what went before illumines what can be done with today. Essentially we are our history and should get acquainted.

Gail Chumbley is the author of “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.”

Both books are available on Kindle.

That’s All

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Colonel Clark used to bring his young son down to the dojo where my brothers took judo lessons. My grandfather had enrolled my older brother first, and then my two younger brothers when they were old enough. I sometimes came along to watch these lessons because, first of all, it was something to do on a boring school night, and I liked to look at the cute boys dressed in their gi (white gear).

My Grandpa Ray always sat with Colonel Clark, if the old gent happened to be present. That meant I sat with Colonel Clark, too, not fun for a twelve-year-old, boy-crazy girl. The two old men would talk and talk, seated next to one another, though their eyes remained on their boys training on the mats. They never seemed to look each other, but remained absorbed in their conversation.

My own attention span, something close to that of a hummingbird, only caught snippets of the quiet discussion. “MacArthur, Wainwright, and Bataan,” were among the many utterances exchanged by my Grandpa and the Colonel. And despite my commitment to shallow-minded teen angst, I sensed something grave, something momentous had happened in the back and forth of these two old men.

My brother later translated the mysterious conversation I unwillingly witnessed. Colonel Clark had been left on the Bataan Peninsula when General Douglas MacArthur evacuated the Philippines in 1942. Under the new command of General Jonathan Wainwright some 22,000 Americans surrendered to Japanese occupiers, among them young Clark. The Japanese forced this defeated army on a death march (along with their Filipino comrades) some sixty miles in the jungle. The men suffered from heat exhaustion, and dehydration, staggering on, hat-less and barefoot. When a captive stumbled, or fainted, the penalty meant an immediate beheading.

Colonel Clark had witnessed this nightmarish brutality, forced to suffer in ways words fail to recreate.

In defiance of considerable odds, Colonel Clark survived his hell. And that same ordinary older man murmuring quietly with my Grandfather, fondly attending a young son he should never, in reality, have sired.

I am a much better listener today, and recognize that valiant warriors are everywhere, and frequently disguised as harmless old men. Also listening to these elderly gents has enriched my understanding of the past far more than I thought possible.

For example there was George, the high school janitor.

For many years this little old fellow pushed a mop down the halls where I taught American history. Equipped with two hearing aids, this diminutive man wielded an immense mop across litter-strewn floors that was wider than he was tall.

To a passing eye George appeared a friendly, gentle, and harmless grandfather.

I often found the old fellow paused outside my classroom door, mop in hand, listening to me blather on about the Second World War, as if I understood. Later I learned that this mild mannered 80-something had once packed a M-1 Garand, shivering aboard one of those Higgins boats heaving and crashing toward Omaha Beach in 1944.

Me “So George, what do you remember most about that June morning?” 

The aged warrior rasped in a high, faded voice, “It was awful early, and the water was awful cold.”

Then there was Roy Cortes, the jovial, open-faced father of our Student Resource Officer. Smiling, white-haired Roy.

As a teenager he enlisted straight from the Civilian Conservation Corps into the US Army.

Me “What do you remember most about the morning of the invasion, Roy?”

The affable elder smiles slightly, then a cloud passes over his expression. “I lost everyone in my outfit. I was real scared. Soon I was regrouped with other survivors. You see, that was bad because I’m Mexican, and my first platoon got used to me, and stopped calling me Juan or Jose. I had to start all over with this new bunch. For days, as we moved inland, these boys were giving me the business. One guy said, ‘Mexicans can’t shoot.’ I said that I could. So he said, ‘Ok Manuel. Show me you can shoot. See those birds on that tree branch up ahead? Shoot one of those birds.’ I lifted up my rifle and aimed at the branch and pulled the trigger.” Roy again begins chuckling.

“I missed the branch, the birds all flew away, and twelve Germans came out of the grove with their hands up.”

Astounded, I couldn’t speak. Roy simply smiled and shrugged.

Colonel Clark, George the Janitor, and Roy Cortes. They were just boys who found their lives defined in ways we civilians can never comprehend. They were scared, and hot, and cold, and hungry, and suffering, and ultimately lucky.

They came home.

That’s All.

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January, and River of January: Figure Eight, a two-part memoir www.river-of-january.com. Also available on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Go Get ‘Um

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The date was June 5, 1944, and General Dwight D Eisenhower had made the decision to begin the Allied invasion of France the next morning. Christened “Operation Overlord” the massive campaign required disruption inland from the Normandy coast to insure a solid beach-head. The task fell to soldiers of the US 82nd Airborne, the US 101st Airborne,  and members of the 6th British Airborne. The mission was to impair the Wehrmacht’s ability to move their Panzer units toward the five invasion points.

General Eisenhower met informally with soldiers of the 101st, chatting and encouraging, to build morale. He must have felt an enormous responsibility sending these young Americans on such a hazardous and vital mission. While he mingled with the men, Ike suddenly wondered, “Is anybody here from Kansas?” A voice replied from the crowd, “I’m from Kansas, sir.” Ike looked the boy in the eye and responded, “Go get ‘um, Kansas.”

That story always leaves me teary. I don’t cry in movies, poetry doesn’t move me, and books have to be awfully emotional to elicit a sob out of me. But that moment of raw, honest regard, with so much at stake, hits me in the heart.

Washington at Trenton, Grant at the Wilderness, Doughboys in the Argonne, GI’s at the Bulge, Marines at Hue: the devotion to duty chokes me up. Every time.

But today Americans seem somehow lessened, cheapened. There are no Eisenhowers, or Washingtons, or Lincoln’s to describe what we represent. The institutions that inspired countless young people to lay down their lives are now attacked by an ersatz strongman from within. How could this happen? How can citizens of good conscience condone this very real threat? Where is our collective honest regard for our past, present , and future?

Makes me want to cry.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both are available on Amazon.com

Fighting Joe

Gail Chumbley

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His name was Joseph Andrew Tucker, and he was my grandpa–my mom’s biological father. We didn’t see him very often growing up in Spokane, and I can’t say that I ever felt particularly close to this grandparent. Yet, purely by instinct, I found that I did respect him. There seemed to be an aura of dignity surrounding Grandpa Joe, along with an abiding cloud of cherry pipe tobacco, that also swirled around him. Yet, other than my youthful impression, I knew very little about Joe.

The following is what I’ve pieced together from my family.

Joe Tucker arrived in Spokane, Washington in 1937. He came west from Arkansas following his five-year-old daughter, when his ex-wife settled in the Pacific Northwest. A short time later, Joe found work with the Great Northern Railroad, as Spokane was, and still is, ribboned across the middle with busy, screeching rail lines. At about the…

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That’s All

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Colonel Clark used to bring his young son down to the dojo where my brothers took judo lessons. My grandfather had enrolled my older brother first, and then my two younger brothers when they were old enough. I sometimes came along to watch these lessons because, first of all, it was something to do on a boring school night, and I liked to look at the cute boys dressed in their gi (white gear).

My Grandpa Ray always sat with Colonel Clark, if the old gent happened to be present. That meant I sat with Colonel Clark, too, not fun for a twelve-year-old, boy-crazy girl. The two old men would talk and talk, seated next to one another, though their eyes remained on their boys training on the mats. They never seemed to look each other, but still seemed absorbed in their conversation.

My own attention span, something close to that of a hummingbird, only caught snippets of the quiet discussion. “MacArthur, Wainwright, and Bataan,” were among the many utterances exchanged by my Grandpa and the Colonel. And despite my commitment to shallow-minded teen angst, I sensed something grave, something momentous had happened in the back and forth of these two old men.

My brother later translated the mysterious conversation I unwillingly witnessed. Colonel Clark had been left on the Bataan Peninsula when General Douglas MacArthur was evacuated from the Philippines in 1942. Under the new command of General Jonathan Wainwright some 22,000 Americans surrendered to Japanese occupiers, among them young Clark. The Japanese forced this defeated army on a death march (along with their Filipino comrades) some sixty miles in the jungle. The men suffered from heat exhaustion, and dehydration, staggering on, hat-less and barefoot. When a captive stumbled, or fainted, the penalty meant an immediate beheading.

Colonel Clark had witnessed this nightmarish brutality, forced to suffer in ways words fail to recreate.

In defiance of considerable odds, Colonel Clark survived his ordeal. And that was the ordinary older man who spoke quietly with my Grandfather, watching a young son he should never, in reality, have sired.

I am a much better listener today, and recognize that valiant warriors everywhere are frequently disguised as harmless old men. Listening to these elderly gents has enriched my understanding of the past far more than I thought possible.

For example there was George, the high school janitor. For many years he pushed a mop down the halls where I taught American history. Sporting two hearing aids, this diminutive man wielded a mop that was wider that he was tall. All told, George looked like a gentle and harmless grandfather.

I’d often find George standing outside my classroom door listening to me blather on about the Second World War, as if I understood. Later I discovered that that mild mannered 80-year-old had once packed a M-1 Garand, shivering aboard one of those Higgins boats motoring toward Omaha Beach in 1944.

“So George, what do you remember most about D-Day?”

“It was awful early, and the water was awful cold.”

Then there was Roy. Smiling, white-haired Roy.

As a teenager he had gone straight from the Civilian Conservation Corps right into the US Army.

“What do you remember most about D-Day, Roy?”

“I lost everyone in my outfit. I was real scared. Later I was regrouped with survivors from other platoons. You see that was bad because I’m Mexican, and my first platoon got used to me, and stopped calling me Juan or Jose. I had to start all over with the new bunch. For days, as we moved inland, these new boys were giving me the business. One guy said, ‘Mexicans can’t shoot.’ I said that I could. So he said, ‘Ok Manuel. Show me you can shoot. See those birds on that tree branch up ahead? Shoot one of those birds.’ I lifted up my rifle and aimed at the branch and pulled the trigger.” Roy begins laughing.

“I missed the branch, the birds flew away, and twelve Germans came out of the grove with their hands up.”

Astounded, I couldn’t speak. Roy simply chuckled.

Colonel Clark, George, and Roy. They were just boys who found their lives defined in ways we civilians can never comprehend. They were scared, and hot, and cold, and hungry, and suffering, and ultimately lucky. They returned home.

That’s All.

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January, and River of January: Figure Eight, a two-part memoir. Also available on Kindle.