“Set their Feet on the Firm and Stable Earth”
“Set their Feet on the Firm and Stable Earth”
A moment of grave consequence.
“Our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”
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.
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
Sun Valley Idaho is especially beautiful in the fall. We had driven to the resort through steep, intimidating mountain passes, to finally descend among groves of whispering Aspen trees. We had traveled over for a book presentation on “River of January,” the first volume of my two-part memoir at the local Library. We had arrived with hours to spare.
With tons of time to kill we walked the boarded walkways of Blaine County’s most famous community. My eyes were peeled for a glance of the the rich and famous; perhaps Arnold, maybe Bruce, or Demi, or even Tom and Rita. They pop up once in a while to relax in the natural beauty, away from the rat race.
Wandering, we chanced across a dress shop, and I slipped inside the glass door, leaving my husband sitting on a bench outside. The clothes were beautiful; plaids in silky fabric, and fashionable shoes among displays of accessories. The owner was on her phone, behind the counter, speaking to what sounded like a potential customer.
And she was clearly French.
I continued to browse the merchandise, but was more taken with the French lady. I had a good reason.
She soon closed her call, then addressed me. “May I help you?,” the lovely woman trilled.
“Well, maybe.” I replied. “I’m a writer. In fact, I’m here to discuss my new memoir at the library. By any chance have you heard of Mistinguett?”
The shop owner stopped, and looked into my eyes. “Oo La La!” she gasped. “She is a legend.” I smiled, my day made.
Mistinguett was a French music hall entertainer, born late in the 19th Century. At one time this singer-dancer was the highest paid entertainer in Europe, best remembered for her torch song, Mon Homme. Americans might recognize the tune better as My Man, a hit, first for Ziegfeld headliner, Fannie Brice, and later Barbra Streisand.
A fun fact about Mistinguett is she had her legs insured for 50 Francs during her prime. Another fun fact is she discovered Maurice Chevalier, pulling him from the chorus, and making him a star.
The best news about Mistinguett concerns Helen Thompson. Just a girl, this American dancer who’s life story appears in “River of January,” toured with the “Oo la la” French legend from 1932-33.
Enjoy this film clip of the iconic entertainer, dated 1936, and look for Helen in the cast photos of Viola Paris, the Mistinguett variety show from three years earlier.
Mistinguett sits in front holding flowers. Helen Thompson is in the top row center right–the blonde wearing the fur-collared coat.
Here Mistinguett is wearing a giant head dress, and Helen is second girl to the right.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the memoir “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Also available on Amazon.com
“For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People.”
I’m finishing up the last of a series of Presidential talks, closing with an examination of the life of Theodore Roosevelt, our 26th President. TR’s formative years involved a great deal of outdoor activity, pursuing what he called the Strenuous Life. And that life dramatically shaped his later terms of office. Next to George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, subjects of previous presentations, TR might be one of most thoroughly decent chief executives in the series.
Theodore Roosevelt liked to hunt, a lot. As a boy, while on holiday, floating the Nile, young “Teedie” bagged literally hundred of birds, picking them off along the riverbank. Toting a new shot gun, a gift from his father, and a new pair of glasses, he combed the grasses along the ancient river searching for winged prey. Back on board the family’s rented houseboat, he promptly performed amateur taxidermy on his take, as bewildered Egyptian servants and crewman stood silently by, watching. The finished collection eventually went on display in young Roosevelt’s own natural history museum, located on the top floor of the family’s elegant Manhattan home.
As a young adult, Roosevelt tracked countless paths through forested mountains, the prairies, and even the Great Plains, shooting and crating home countless pelts and game trophies. TR climbed the Matterhorn on his honeymoon, returning to Long Island rowing and sailing near his home at Sagamore Hill. The Roosevelt fortune made for comfortable, and convenient travels.
However, TR, through his innate sense of fair play came to a more enlightened conclusion, scrutinizing the inequity of his privileged lifestyle. In 1903, after a two-week trek into Yellowstone National Park, America’s first park, President Roosevelt was requested to make remarks to a small crowd of local Montanans. He agreed and took the opportunity to extoll his new democratic philosophy of America’s natural wonders. TR told listeners that day:
“The only way that the people as a whole can secure to themselves and their children the enjoyment in perpetuity of what the Yellowstone Park has to give is by assuming the ownership in the name of the nation and by jealously safeguarding and preserving the scenery, the forests, and the wild creatures . . . the Park is simply being kept in the interest of all of us, so that every one may have the chance to see its wonders
with ease and comfort at the minimum of expense. This pleasure, moreover, can under such conditions be kept for all who have the love of adventure and the hardihood
to take advantage of it . . .”
This world-traveling aristocrat spoke of the essential equality of America’s public lands–open places tourists can all savor equally, rich or poor. Grasping the finite dimensions of land and wildlife, TR changed his earlier approach to hunting and camping. He came to embrace a classless ideology to accessing our mutual bounty. In spite of his famous name, wealth, and public prominence, President Roosevelt realized that natural wonders were meant to inspire us all.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, River of January and River of January: Figure Eight. Available at http://www.river-of-january.com and at Amazon.com