Wife Carrying Contest

 Posted by at 12:43 pm  2 Responses »
Sep 082018

There are many Scandinavian festivals that include wife carrying contests. The one I have attended is the New Jersey festival, held annually in Budd Lake on Labor Day weekend. The video shown here is mostly from the recent 2018 festival, with a few clips included from 2015. Wife carrying is said to date to the days of the Vikings and to their practice of selecting a wife and then carrying her off. Several types of carrying are practiced, which you will see. The principal ones include 1) piggyback, 2) fireman’s over-the-shoulder, and 3) Estonian style – where the wife hangs upside down with her legs around the husband’s shoulders, holding onto his waist. You will also see variations. 

The wife carrying course is rectangular and about 250 meters in length. It has 4 obstacles, consisting of car tires, hay bales, a wooden staircase, and pools of water. The winning man receives the woman’s weight in beer. The couple does not have to be married, thus any willing woman will do for the carry.

The Wife Carrying World Championships have been held annually in Sonkajarvi, Finland, since 1992.

Please enjoy! (You may wish to view full screen. Make sure your sound is turned on.)

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Sep 052018

There are those who live their lives with no moral struggles. To them, nothing is right or wrong. Things are simply desirable, or they aren’t. Self interest makes the choices. The laws of man or God may get in the way, but only as barriers to get around. 

Most of us aren’t able to live that way. Most of us have a nagging conscience raising questions of right and wrong. This can be a burden or a blessing . . .  depending. Most of us struggle to develop our standards of right and wrong, and struggle even more to follow them.

I was reminded of this at a dairy farm in Pennsylvania. A wonderfully clean and healthy place. A great place to live if you’re a cow or calf or human child. A place where Amish buggies come driving in to buy milk and eggs, delivering children to enjoy ice cream and animals.

The folks who run this farm work hard, love one another, live modestly, help their neighbors, study their Bibles, and go to church on Sundays. And like most of us, they consider the rightness or wrongness of their words and deeds. So as I read the polite request bullet-pointed in a list on the wall, I smiled but did not scorn it. It said:

To many, such a sign will seem quaint and belonging to an earlier time. When I first read it, I had that reaction. But then, the very next day, I read about the funeral of Aretha Franklin in Detroit. There was much discussion of the mini-skirt worn by one of the singers, and whether it was appropriate for a funeral or not. Many considered it “immodest attire.” And former president Bill Clinton was accused of gazing at the singer in an inappropriate manner by a Fox News panel. They called it “leering.” So the sign I read in rural Pennsylvania is more current than it appeared.

I grew up in a small town in east Tennessee. Most people were either Baptists, Methodists, or Presbyterians. Most went to church on Sunday. Local ministers took turns preaching in our schools. Revival meetings were common, and you could listen to preachers preaching on the radio almost non-stop. They preached against a variety of sins including drinking and dancing and women wearing shorts. Kids were forbidden to play sports on Sunday afternoons because it was “the Lord’s Day.” On the campus of my own “Christian college,” couples were forbidden from holding hands while walking together. I can say this for sure because I was once caught doing it.

In my lifetime, norms have gone from this to now having a President whose third wife used to pose for nude photographs, who has spoken on television of grabbing women by the genitals, and who has paid hush money to silence women about alleged affairs. We now have explicit photos and video free-for-all on the Internet, explicit how-to articles on sex available in women’s magazines at grocery checkout counters, and all sorts of revealing dress and language on television and in public places. One cannot but admire the fortitude of religious communities that have maintained their norms against such times.

But it all seems so arbitrary, so relative, so ambiguous. How short must shorts be to qualify as “short shorts?” How low must a neckline dip down to be an “inappropriate low neckline?” I can hear teenage girls asking these questions, and mothers having a hard time explaining. Then there are the other religions that insist on covering their women from head to toe, even the eyes. For them this is necessary to “maintain pure thoughts and actions.” For them, the Amish country norms are far too liberal.

Just where did the conscience of human beings come from? The religions think God gave us our conscience, all built in and set up. But if this were so, how come the definitions of right and wrong vary so greatly? And why do they vary so much from age to age, person to person, and religion to religion? Some people have a taste for broccoli, and others don’t. Are views of right and wrong like that? Are they that variable and individual? Are there things that are universally good or evil, and if so, what are those things?

The religions usually speak of their sacred writings as defining what is right and wrong. For example, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, there is Moses and his ten commandments, given by God on a mountain and carved into tablets of stone. One of the ten says very simply, “thou shalt not kill.” But what do we make of that? What have Jews and Christians made of it? In its plainest, simplest meaning, it forbids the taking of another life. But over the years many exceptions have been proposed and carried out. These include euthanasia, capital punishment, assisted suicide, killing in self defense, killing under “stand your ground,” targeted killings by remotely operated drones, defensive wars, aggressive wars, and “pre-emptive wars,” a new term which seems a euphemism for wars of aggression.

Think of all the things that have been debated over the years from a moral standpoint: gay marriage, gay sex, premarital sex, breast feeding in public, contraception, masturbation, genital mutilation, pornography, inter-racial marriage, inter-faith marriage, human slavery, capital punishment, racial segregation, abortion, public nudity, private nude beaches, bull fighting, the torture of prisoners, the Hiroshima nuclear bombing, chemical weapons, and, of course, war itself.

Many of these discussions are far away from Amish country around New Holland, Pennsylvania. But it’s all part of the same. We’re all trying to figure out the right and wrong of things in life, and hope it matters.

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Jan 302017

WASHINGTON, DC – JANUARY 29: Demonstrators march down Pennsylvania Avenue during a protest on January 29, 2017 in Washington, DC. Protestors in Washington and around the country gathered to protest President Donald Trump's executive order barring the citizens of Muslim-majority countries Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen from traveling to the United States.

He is banning members of the Muslim religion from our country, but I am not of that religion.

He is building a wall to keep out Mexicans, but I am not a Mexican.

He will not allow us to shelter the suffering, homeless, and dying refugees of war, but I am not a refugee.

He intends to torture prisoners, but I will not be one of those tortured.

He may cancel the health insurance of 20 million people, but I have other health insurance.

He will do away with protections for the environment, but I do not have so many years left to live, and future generations will pay for this, not me.

He is moving to further restrict the voting rights of minorities and others who oppose him, but I am a white man from Tennessee and I will still be able to vote.

He will degrade public education, on which most families depend, while funding private education for the well-off. But I already have my education.

He intends to deport some 12 million immigrants, including many who were born and grew up here. But I am not one of those to be deported.

He will reverse the civil rights gains made by lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgendered persons, but I am not one of these persons.

He wants to make abortions illegal and even criminal, but I will not be needing an abortion.

He will reduce government benefits for the poor and vulnerable to benefit the wealthy and powerful, like himself. But I am not among the poor and vulnerable.

He wants more people in more places armed with more guns, so the “good guys” can kill the “bad guys.” This will increase our national murder rate even more than it already is. But I live a quiet life and am not likely to be among those murdered.

So, other than a terrible sadness for the plight of others, will he do me no harm?

Well, no harm unless . . .

Unless he is able to take away our freedom of speech, and of the press, and of religion, or from religion if we choose. Unless he can take our rights of travel and free association with others, and of voting and debating public issues, and of equal treatment under just laws. Unless we are left sold out and oppressed, with no truthful information on what is happening, to us and others in the world.

Unless he so divides and abuses and insults and provokes others who are not me, that some equivalent of a second American Civil War occurs. A conflict in which the military forces he now commands will be unleashed against citizens who oppose him, as in Assad’s Syria and Saddam’s Iraq and Franco’s Spain and Amin’s Uganda and Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany.

Unless his constant and unpredictable anger, and belligerence toward other peoples and nations, leads us into nuclear destruction. Which now does not seem all that unlikely.

His view of our America is a dark and gloomy one, a view that sees threats on every side and emergencies he must address where none exist. And now that he has gained this power he sought, my own view has turned dark and gloomy as well. 

If I were a man of power and prominence in the country, and he read these words, I would doubtless be marked for suppression or retribution.

But I am not a man of power or prominence. Just a very worried citizen.

Listen to a reading of this story:

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Breakfast in Payson

 Posted by at 9:51 am  No Responses »
Aug 312016

I'm a big fan of Garrison Keillor. He once said that if you drive around the country, stop in small towns, and sit down with the locals in their breakfast cafe, you never know when you may hear something interesting, surprising, or even profound. John Steinbeck also believed that. He took his dog and drove across America, talking with ordinary people and collecting stories. They went into a thoughtful and entertaining book titled "Travels With Charley."

payson azWell . . . I came to the desert town of Payson, Arizona. I ordered breakfast in a small diner there beside the road. The adjoining booth was occupied by a local man, sitting by himself, talking on his cellphone, his voice lowered. He had long, unkept hair and a long, unkept beard. His clothes looked as worn and tired as he did, and his speech had the lingering of alcohol about it. I heard him use the word "innebriated," a term less confessional and more respectable than the word "drunk." But meaning the same, of course.

The man was talking with a woman. You could tell she was someone he missed, someone he owed something to, someone he needed to have around and planned to see again.

The man was doing most of the talking, mostly about nothing, until the end of the conversation. The woman on the line had apparently said, "I love you."

Now, a man in those circumstances must say something. As a man myself, I know about this moment, that pause that needs a response, as the woman awaits one. I didn't expect a memorable response from this man, but I heard one.

There was a moment of hesitation, and then: "I love you . . . no matter what I say or do."

I love you no matter what I say or do.

Payson, Arizona

Payson, Arizona

It was said wistfully. Like saying you don't want to borrow money again, but you really have to. Wistfully, like thinking of an old friend and remembering your last words were something you wish hadn't been said. Wistfully, like remembering that opportunity of a lifetime you missed out on, because you were so stupid, stupid.

"No matter what I say or do," remember I love you.

The man is admitting his sins of the past, but also anticipating their repetition in the future. He's disclaiming in advance the hurt that he may cause. He's professing both his love, and his liklihood of acting contrary to it. In essence, he wants forgiveness in advance, saved up for a rainy day. What a deal!

I tried to imagine . . . what were those words and deeds that had passed between them, out there in the desert?

Did he verbally abuse this woman? Call her names, or fat, or ugly? Had he insulted her family, her friends? Had he sworn hatefully at her, unprovoked?

Did he maybe wreck her car, steal money from her purse, break up her furniture?  Did he hit her? In the face, or somewhere else?  With his fist, or with something else?  And whatever that history was, it's one thing to own up and ask forgiveness, but how, at the same time, do you say you'll be repeating such things in the future?

Pathetic, I thought, sitting there listening. "Believe that I love you, no matter what I'm about to say or do to hurt you?" Can his woman accept that, and live with it? And if she does, is she to be admired or pitied?

It may well be that she did accept it, did believe it, and was willing to live with it. It may well be that in spite of his drinking and all his flaws, she loves him. Maybe she knows and appreciates qualities of his the rest of the world has missed. There are women like that. There are women devoted to deeply flawed men. There are women who feel they have no choice except to go along and make the best of things. I imagined that maybe the woman on the phone line was that sort of woman. And not knowing her, I felt sad for her.

I felt sad because her fear of loosing him may be greater than any fear of him. She can put up with his drinking and abuse, because her greater fear is being without him and alone.

But then . . . hold on . . . who am I to know or to judge about any of this? 

Could there be another side to it, I've asked myself since then? Should his words be viewed in a more positive light? Was this the true confession of a down-and-out man who knows and freely admits his failure and weakness? An honest man. Honest to a fault, and about his faults. When he said "no matter what I say or do," did his woman smile a knowing smile, or even laugh out loud? I imagined that happening. Did this woman love him truly, despite anything he'd said or done, anything he might say or do? 

If so, we onlookers would say he's lucky to have her. But she may consider herself lucky to have him, even him. He may be the best she can do in Payson, Arizona.

The man left the restaurant ahead of me, and I observed him as he went. The kind of man people glance at, but then away from. Who appears sad to the world, and is. The kind of man you might want to forget, but can't.

I did take something home from this. When my own woman says, "I love you," and a reply is called for, I've tried out those words of his. I say, "I love you . . . no matter what I say or do."

Sometimes she laughs, but not always.

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Jun 142016

On June 12, 2016, I completed my 7th Great Chesapeake Bay Swim. My time was 2 hours and 36 minutes which is my best to date. I finished in 520th place among the 642 finishers. This does mean that a lot of swimmers finished ahead of me, but it also means I came in ahead of 122 others, all younger than myself. I finished first in my age group (75-79) although, full disclosure, there were only two of us in that age group. My Garmin Forerunner sport watch counted the 4,136 swimming strokes it took me to swim the 4.4 miles, and it estimated I burned 1,619 calories. My family made up this calorie deficit afterward with a barbecue dinner at the Red, Hot, & Blue place. The race was won by a 20-year-old man with a time of 1:24, which was a near record. The swimmers who swim across the bay that fast seem beyond mere mortals to me.

The weather was a good news/bad news affair. There were winds blowing 33 miles per hour, but the wind was blowing in the direction we were swimming. However, the wind was kicking up waves said officially to be 2-3 feet but felt to be more like 4-5 feet by those of us in the water. It was hard to get reliable breaths without taking in mouthfuls of water. I kept thinking of the expression "tossed around like a cork." But the water was a pleasant temperature and the tidal currents were less than usual. Other than the terrific wind and waves, it was a great day for a swim.

I'm addressing 5 questions I've been asked about swimming out in open water.

Why do you do this?

Sometime around the year 2003, I was sitting at a company event next to a man named John Jellen. I'd recently given up running and taken up lap swimming. Jellen had recently completed the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim, I asked him many questions about the swim, and I began thinking I'd love to do this myself. Sometime after that, I was innocently driving across the Bay Bridge on a second Sunday in June, and had the astonishing view of all those swimmers far down below in the water. I wondered if I could ever do a thing like that. Then later I decided to try.  I began doing shorter open water swims, eventually qualified to enter the Bay Swim, and completed my first one in 2005. 

The effort and discipline of getting ready for this swim gives me great incentive to stay healthy and keep in shape throughout the year. I know that at my age I can't get out of shape during the year and hope to do the swim on short notice. So I swim all year round, but with increasing effort starting in January.

I've always been drawn to adventure, and open water swimming is certainly in that category. At my age and now with an artificial right hip, I can't run or play tennis or climb mountains as I used to. But I can swim, and swim a lot. I think swimming is the ideal form of exercise for my situation. The next Bay Swim motivates my regular swimming and fitness all year long.

What do you think about?  

This was an interesting question. The person who asked may have thought you get bored swimming for two and a half hours. That can be true of swimming long distance in a lap pool. For that I have a waterproof MP3 player and a variety of music.

But out in open water there is much to do and much to occupy the mind. You must sight ahead and navigate your course. In many cases that's a full-time job. But along with that you have to avoid collisions with other swimmers, and the traps and other dangers you encounter. In rough water, every stroke and breath is different, and you're constantly trying to better adjust. You try to get in sync with the waves, to be in harmony with the elements instead of struggling against them. But that struggle is a struggle.

In a long swim, you have to keep assessing your level of effort, and balancing the desire to swim fast with the need to stay within your ability. There's a debate inside your head. One voice says go all out, and the other says slow down and play it safe. You have to moderate that debate and then deal with the consequences.

There's also the matter of motivation. There is almost always some adversity to be overcome. And the adversity requires a mental as well as a physical effort.

In the first half mile of this year's swim, I went through a period of tough breathing. It seemed I was getting a mouth full of water with every breath, and unable to get any breath at all between some strokes. There was some sense of panic in my thinking then, and I had to fight that, make myself slow down, and stay calm and work through this.

I mainly have the Chesapeake Bay Bridge memorized now, and as I swim I decide on new objectives one after another. This breaks up the course into manageable chunks.  This, also, occupies the mind.

How does swimming like this compare to pool swimming?  

Pool and open water swimming both involve making your way through water, but there are many differences after that.

Lap swimming in a pool is very safe, set, and structured. You swim down a marked lane and back, in nice clear water, with a life guard watching over you. The water is calm and temperature controlled, and its purity is closely monitored. At the end of the lane you get a big push off the wall before starting back. Any time you want you can stop and rest. You have your water bottle right there if you decide on a drink. You can hang off the side of the pool and chat with friends.

Out in a lake or river or bay or ocean, almost none of those things exists. Unlike the pool, you never know what you may experience, and you have to adjust to unexpected and often variable circumstances. Pool swimming is like walking the dog around an accustomed neighborhood route. Open water swimming is like exploring strange new territory or climbing a hill where no trail exists. You must improvise and adapt to whatever you encounter. You are more on your own, and the miles come harder. But the reward will most likely be greater.

I don't mean to disparage pool swimming, or imply it's only good for conditioning. After many years of swimming laps, I still keep learning and finding new challenges. If I could only swim in a pool, I would keep swimming in the pool for sure.

I own and ride two bicycles: a road bike and a mountain bike. Both are bicycles. Both have 2 tires and a chain and seat and handlebars and gears and sprockets. But one bike is built for speed on a smooth surface. The other is heavier and slower with full suspension and lower gearing and built to handle rough terrain. The same conditioning is good for both types of riding, but the challenges and skill sets are different. Road riding is more even and predictable. Off-road biking is more variable, presenting a great variety of situations and requiring more improvisation. That, for me, is an appropriate analogy for swimming in the lap lanes as contrasted with swimming in open water.

How do you prepare to swim across the Chesapeake Bay?   

This is more about hard work and common sense than anything else. I try to eat healthy and keep in shape all year round. I put in many miles of laps in swimming pools all year round, but increasing in intensity as the event approaches. I average swimming 14-15 miles most weeks, including a lot of 3 mile swims and some 4's as well. I time every swim and keep track of my times and distances.

I do other things that benefit other parts of the body: hiking, bicycle riding, daily stretching and core-building exercises. If possible, I do shorter swims in open water in preparation. This year I did the Nanticoke River Swim (3 miles) about a month ahead of the Bay Swim. Since I swim in a wetsuit, I also do wetsuit training swims in the pool ahead of the swim. Wearing a wetsuit changes your balance in the water and affects your stroke, and it is good to adjust to this in practice ahead of time.

Two weeks before the swim I taper off. I cut back on mileage. The week before the swim this year I did a one mile swim on Monday, followed by half mile swims on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. But those half miles consisted of 100 yard sprints at the fastest pace I could do. And I rested a lot otherwise. I prepared mentally by going over the swim course and my lessons learned from previous years. And another thing, very important, is hydration. I drink water, water, water the day before and the morning of the swim. I once passed out from dehydration after a 3 mile swim, and learned a hard lesson.

What is so special about the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim?  

The Bay Swim is a premier event among U.S. open water swims. I would't claim it to be the greatest, but it is up there with the Manhattan Island and Alcatraz Island swims for its unique and scenic location. I have done swims in Lake Bled, Slovenia, and along the southern Turkish coast where the swimmer views are stunning. The Bay Swim is still inspiring to me, even after several crossings.

We start from the beach of Sandy Point State Park on the Maryland western shore, swim out and into the 100-yard-wide space between the spans of the towering Chesapeake Bay Bridge, swim across the bay between those spans, exit at the eastern shore, and finish at the Hemingway's Marina beach. 

There are 650 of us swimming. We're supported by over 700 volunteers. They're in boats, kayaks, busses, firetrucks, ambulances, food trucks, overhead in 2 helicopters. Volunteers are handling all sorts of support and logistical duties. The U.S. Coast guard has 18 ships lined across the bay on both sides, closing off all boat traffic. It's the only time in the year this major shipping lane to Baltimore Harbor is closed. If you take time to look while swimminbg, you can see the crowded bridge traffic high above you, or a gathering of cormorants around the base of a bridge support. You see assorted great blue herons and ospreys, and should you be lucky a nesting peregrine falcon. When you finally emerge from under the bridge after 4 miles of swimming, you see the finish another half mile straight ahead down the jetty. The protected water there is smoother, more like a pool. And a cheering crowd is there, and you get to race down this homestretch with whatever swimmers are finishing there around you. 

That is all good to great. And this event has been going on annually for 25 years now, and has a great history of supporting worthy, charitable causes, with over $2M donated thus far.

The first time I did this swim, I wasn't as prepared as I was last Sunday. I came out of the water exhausted and hurting. I remember saying to my wife: "I'm glad I did this once, but I don't think I'll ever try it again."


Long before the January registration deadline, I was eager to try it again. 

[Thoughts and comments are welcome. To read other articles on this subject, select the “Open Water Swim Events” category in the column on the right. To receive an email notification when new articles are posted here, click “Subscribe” in the menu bar above and enter your email address.]

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May 022016

I have previously written about the annual open water swimming event in Maryland’s Nanticoke River. The 2012 swim is here and lthe 2013 swim is here. I won’t repeat descriptions of the area and the event, but simply report on my experience there just yesterday – May 1, 2016.

Nanticoke scenic river on Maryland's Eastern Shore

Nanticoke scenic river on Maryland's Eastern Shore

To say that it was a cold and rainy day is putting it mildly. Rain was coming down almost constantly and alternating between light, medium, and heavy. The water temperature which is normally expected to be in the mid to upper 60’s was 55 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s 12.8 Celsius. Last summer I swam in my coldest water to date, which was 17 Celsius in an alpine river in Italy. I worried before the Nanticoke race that the water temperature would keep me from getting enough breath. It actually did not. The cold was painful at first, but as I got into the swim I was able to swim and breathe normally. 

I have dear swimming friends who literally love cold water and thrive on swimming in colder and colder environments. I will not be joining those ranks. This day after the swim, I am glad I was able to swim in such water, but I will not look forward to doing so again.

Also many of my cold water loving friends swim bare-skinned in bathing suits. I do not. At the Nanticoke I wore my Orca full length wetsuit, wetsuit insulated socks, and a Blue Seventy insulated cap under the race cap. If there was anything else I could have worn to help with the cold, I would have worn it.

Other than rain and cold water, conditions for the 2016 Nanticoke swim were quite favorable. The wind and waves were minimal, and the tidal currents were much less than in my previous swims there. The race was also less crowded, due perhaps to the expected cold temperatures. The 3-mile portion of the event, my group, had only 50 participants.

I swam well and felt I had done about as good as I am capable of. My time was an hour and forty three minutes, an average of 34 minutes per mile. I placed 37th out of the 50 finishers. 

I had hoped for a time of an hour and a half. I can swim 3 miles in that time doing laps in the pool. But there is a considerable difference between swimming in open water and swimming laps in the pool. I have been thinking about the differences that would make my time in the river slower than my expected time in the pool. I have several thoughts about the question.

(1) In the pool you get a big breath and strong push off the wall every 25 yards or meters. You can never do sustained swimming as fast as you come off the wall at the ends of the lane. There is no pushing off out in a lake or river or ocean. (2) In the pool you are swimming an exact distance following a marked lane. In open water, despite your best effort to sight ahead and stay on course, you wander and add distance. (3) In the pool your time ends when you finish the last lap, but in most open water swim events (like Nanticoke), you have to haul yourself out of the water onto a beach, get your footing, and walk/run to a finish line and timing mat, adding additional time. (4) Then, of course, the water temperature in a pool is controlled and kept at an optimal temperature. I can only assume there is some physical handicap to swimming in 55 degree water as opposed to 78 or so degrees. 

Somewhere there must be scientific studies with data on this question, but I have yet to see them. For now, these points comprise my excuses for swimming at a 34 minute pace instead of a 30 minute pace. I would be interested in other thoughts, experiences, observations, or research on the matter.

I am now looking forward to participating in my seventh Great Chesapeake Bay Swim event on Sunday, June 12th. The water should be warmer.

[Thoughts and comments are welcome. To read other articles on this subject, select the “Open Water Swim Events” category in the column on the right. To receive an email notification when new articles are posted here, click “Subscribe” in the menu bar above and enter your email address.]

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Apr 292016

Today's soldiers communicate with families and friends in many ways. They can tweet and post on Facebook. They have email and voicemail, and they can send audio and video recordings. They can often make cellphone calls, use VoIP, and even videoconference using Facetime or other programs. There are, of course, restrictions on these activities in some locations and circumstances, but none of these modes existed in World War Two. Those soldiers had only letters and post cards. For them, the "mail call" was either a great reward, or a great disappointment.

Pfc. David Briggs, Jr.

Pfc. David Briggs, Jr.

I was the youngest of three brothers, and now the only one still living. My oldest brother, David Jr., volunteered for the army at age seventeen, over the objection of our father. He trained at various bases, then shipped to England, then fought in the Normandy Invasion. He was killed in action on August 15th, 1944 at the age of nineteen, five days before his twentieth birthday.

His death was a great loss to our family and I still think of him often. Just hearing the music from "Band of Brothers" or "Saving Private Ryan" brings it back. By all accounts, my brother was bright and personable and had a fine life ahead of him. That his life ended at nineteen years of age and mine has been long and mostly happy seems unfair. That he was among nearly 300,000 other killed-in-action soldiers from the United States alone, all mostly his age, is a haunting memory.

I look at nineteen-year-olds today and they seem so young. It is hard to believe this was the age of my elder brother as a soldier. It is also hard to fathom the use of German boys aged twelve through sixteen which occurred toward the end of the war. There was actually an Allied camp for captured German boy soldiers that once housed 10,000 of them. 

David Briggs grave in Normandy

David Briggs grave in Normandy

Before he died, David Jr. wrote letters to me and to my older brother, John. The letters are cheerful, caring, and given to some wisdom and good advice. 

Dear John. Please buy a book on chemistry or something that you want. If there is a book that you want, buy it. Be good, kid, and think of your brother once in a while. Take care of yourself, and if I go oversees soon, don't worry about it. Nothing will happen to me, fellow. If anything ever does happen to me you will have to fill my place. I know that you will do a good job of it. Always remember that I am counting on you. Always keep in mind that it pays to do things for others. Try to resist the temptations that you will meet. You are now sixteen, and it won't be too long before you will be as old as I was when I came into the army. If I don't leave for overseas I will get a ten day furlow the first of June. I want to see all of you once more, then I am ready for anything. We've got a job to do, and our younger brothers owe to us something. They are bound by the blood that we shed for them to do a good job in life. Remember that. You owe us that much. It isn't asking too much. I may never go across, but you can't tell. Your brother, Dave.

A Private in the U.S. Army made $138 per month back then. I assume from his letter that my brother had enclosed a check for John, suggesting the chemistry book. 

The letter contains his youthful assertion that "nothing will happen to me," and then goes on to anticipate that, indeed, "something" may happen. Most of the latter anticipates that something will happen. If "something" does happen, sixteen-year-old John will need to fill his place: his place in the family, but most of all his place in the army if the war goes on. John will soon be military age. My brother is "ready for anything," but John must be ready also. I wonder about John's thoughts on reading these words.

Besides the anticipation of military service, there is also advice about living. John is asked to "be good," to "resist the temptations" he will meet, and to "do things for others."

I know where this may have came from. The three brothers of us were all Eagle Scouts of Troop 88 in Maryville, Tennessee. The "scout law" taught us to be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. In our small East Tennessee town, these values were impressed upon us by parents and by grandparents, by teachers in the schools and by preachers in our churches.

Letter to Me

Letter to Me

I know that in my life I have sometimes been just the opposite of those values: untrustworthy, disloyal, unhelpful, unfriendly, discourteous, unkind, disobedient, uncheerful, unthrifty, unbrave, unclean, and irreverent. But whenever I have violated them, something internal always reminds me of them. 

My brother's letter to me is briefer than John's. It mentions my new goat and our family dog. But it also includes the same "be a good boy" admonition.

Dear Edward. I hear you have a goat. That is swell. I had a goat when I was your age. Tell Queen hello for me. Study hard in school and be a good boy. I am working hard. Everything is fine down here. I'll see you sometime. Take care of the goat. Love, Davy.

American Cemetery at St. James

American Cemetery at St. James

It is humbling and remarkable that David Jr. would write his two brothers about these values in the midst of everything he was facing. There are so many other things that might have been expected: the food, the war, the Germans, his soldier buddies, the things he missed, the hardships he faced. Instead he focused on us, his brothers, and our lives. 

My brother wrote other letters to our parents on August 7th and on August 10th. The August 7th letter closes with "Give my love to Eddie and John. Give Eddie a five franc note to keep the little rascal satisfied." And the August 10th letter closes with: "Give my love to John and Edward."  

American Cemetery at St. James

American Cemetery at St. James

He was killed just 5 days later fighting with the 23rd Infantry Regiment near Truttemer le Grand. He is now buried in the Brittany American Cemetery near the town of St. James. 

I was eight years old at the time of his death, and did not think as much on these things as I do now. I knew my parents were sad and crying, and thought that I should do the same. But it soon passed, and my childhood resumed. It never left my parents, though, and now will not leave me.

I often replay in my mind the conclusion of "Saving Private Ryan."  The elderly Ryan visits the grave of Captain Miller in the cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach. He speaks to the grave stone as to the captain:

I want to thank you not just for my life, but for all of (my family). And to tell you that I — that we've all tried the best we could to earn what you did for us. 

[Thoughts and comments are welcome. To read other articles on this subject, select the “World War II” category in the column on the right. To receive an email notification when new articles are posted here, click “Subscribe” in the menu bar above and enter your email address.]

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Apr 112016

Being somewhat of a nature and wildlife photographer and in the general area, I decided to visit the Point Lookout State Park in Southern Maryland. For those not acquainted, this is a remote location where the Potomac River joins the Chesapeake Bay. It was a clear and windy day, and very peaceful. A very few sightseers were around, but mostly I had the place to myself. I did see a variety of wildlife: bald eagles, brown pelicans, ospreys, great blue herons, swans, and assorted ducks and seagulls. I had come to Point Lookout innocently, unaware of the dark history of the area. But history overtook me.

Point Lookout Marker

Point Lookout Marker

Almost immediately I noticed markers telling that a Civil War prison had been located here. The Union had established it after the Battle of Gettysburg, and it had housed more than 50,000 Confederate soldiers and Confederate-leaning citizens of Maryland. Some 4,000 had died and were buried here (the number is approximate because no accurate records were kept). There are no individually marked graves of these dead; all are buried in a common mass grave. 

No prisoner of war camp has ever been a happy place. The prison at Point Lookout had no buildings for the prisoners, only military tents. Summers were hot and winters were cold. Water was contaminated and diseases were frequent. Food was scarce and poor in quality. It should be understood that neither the Union or the Confederacy was adequately prepared to handle prisoners of war, and that conditions on both sides were disgraceful. It is believed that 26,000 Confederates died in Union prisons, representing 12% of all captured. And some 15% of Union soldiers died in Confederate prisons. Clearly neither side has anything to be proud of. More information can be found here.

US Cemetery Monument

US Cemetery Monument

A cemetery for these Confederate dead is maintained at Point Lookout by the National Cemetery Administration of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Although called a cemetery, it is actually just a mass grave location; there are no tombstones or individually marked graves. The site is marked by an impressive 80-foot-tall monument with bronze tablets containing the names of those known to be buried here. There are 3,382 names.

The American flag flies here, although none of the soldiers buried here fought under this flag. The soldiers buried here (all of the Union soldiers' remains were moved to Arlington Memorial cemetery) fought against that flag. So the business of flags at Point Lookout is something of a paradox.

None of this history was in my head when I first noticed the other memorial.  The other memorial also honors the Confederate dead and proudly flies their battle flag. I slowed the car and did a double-take (also popularly known as a WTF). Driving around in Maryland and Virginia you do notice the occasional Confederate flag displayed in someone's yard or in the back window of a pickup truck. But this was much more than a yard display. This was a large memorial area with the Confederate flag flying uppermost, surrounded by flags of the 13 states of the Confederacy. There is not an American flag in sight. And this is not South Carolina or Mississippi, this is in my own home state of Maryland. 

Confederate Memorial at Point Lookout

Confederate Memorial at Point Lookout

Then I discovered that although some trees separate the areas, the Confederate memorial is located right beside the Government memorial. So, in a sense, we have dueling memorials here. 

The Confederate memorial is on private land and operated by a private group known as the Point Lookout Prisoners-of-War Descendants Organization. The group tried unsuccessfully to have the Confederate flag flown at the adjoining Government memorial. In walking around and reading the plaques, I gathered that as in much of American life these days, the issues of the Civil War still live on. Lincoln famously said that a house divided against itself cannot stand, but America still manages to stand even as our divisions seemingly increase. 

The issue of soldier burials in any war is a potent one, but especially so in a civil war. The American civil war began with no plan for soldier buriels on either side. In 1864, a Confederate private from Virginia wrote a letter to his father as follows: "Dear Father. This is my last letter to you. I have been struck by a piece of shell and my right shoulder is horribly mangled and I know death is inevitable. I am very weak but I write to you because I know you would be delighted to read a word from your dying son. I know death is near, that I will die far from home and friends of my early youth but I have friends here too who are kind to me. My friend Fairfax will write you at my request and give you the particulars of my death. My grave will be marked so that you may visit it if you desire to do so. It is optionary with you whether you let my remains rest here or in Mississippi. I would like to rest in the graveyard with my dear mother and brothers but it's a matter of minor importance. Give my love to all my friends. My strength fails me. My horse and my equipments will be left for you. Again, a long farewell to you. May we meet in heaven. Your dying son, J. R. Montgomery,"

This letter is read in a PBS "American Experience" episode titled "Death and the Civil War." It illustrates the fact that if dead bodies were buried and graves marked, it was done by friends or relatives or fellow soldiers or by volunteers. Private Montgomery had made his own arrangements, but most soldiers could not. After the war, the Union launched an effort to identify the remains and mark the graves of Union soldiers. But although the war had officially ended, the effort did not include Confederate graves. Southerners interpreted this as revenge and retribution, not a promising step toward national reunification. It is estimated that about half of the 750,000 Civil War dead were never identified.

I did not come to Point Lookout to get involved in all of this. It was like walking along and tripping over something you didn't know was there. 

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Apr 032016

Guest Editorial by R. Edward Smith

(Roger makes his home in Asheville, North Carolina. He is an authority on the life and works of Truman Capote and is currently working to complete a new book about the author. Roger is a friend, and also a cousin on my father's side of our family.)

Roger E. Smith picture

R. Edward Smith

Senator Bernard Sander’s speech in Phoenix on the evening of March 15, 2016, was so clear in its deliverance, so “American” in its voice and in the populist values that were articulated to protest the “rigged economy” his campaign platform opposes that the political orthodoxy of the Washington elites seems offensive and even foreign to the civic sensibilities of citizens who appreciate or support the presidential candidate from Vermont. But what might not seem so clear to the electorate, at large, is that the present economic mind-set of Wall Street, or of the soulless operatives who defend the oudated precepts that dominate America's financial destiny, goes far back in time, to the republic’s past and the early decades of the Industrial Revolution that preceded the disastrous War Between the States; to a time when growing opportunities for the rich and the well-heeled Northern Industrialists resulted in wild speculations fueled by an ever-increasing thirst for wealth and control. Over time, these so-called “Captains of Industry” who profited from the Civil War morphed into the “Robber Barons of the East." These powerful financial players, and the professional army of specialists hired to aid in a “rigged economy” system of enterprises headquartered at Wall Street, had gambled on mining, rail and shipping interests, and other ventures that hungered for natural and agricultural products–and especially for the Southern Aristocrats’ slave-produced cotton that was needed for the textile factories of the Northeast.

Prior to the war, the Wall Street plutocrats and their lobbyists in Washinton set about securing the control of "King Cotton" for their own enterprising purposes by influencing Congress to impose stiff tariffs upon the export of this raw material to the textile mills of England. “Throughout most of our history,” reported author Walter Williams in 2013, “the only sources of federal revenue were excise taxes and tariffs. During the 1850s,” he noted, “tariffs amounted to 90 percent of federal revenue. Southern ports paid 75 percent of tariffs in 1859. What ‘responsible’ politician,” asked Williams, “would let that much revenue go?”[i] But, when the Landed Gentry of the South protested this targeted action against their low-country operations, the industrialists of the North recklessly contested the threat of secession. “In the presidential contest of 1860,” reported John Ashworth for The New York Times or February 2, 2011,  “southerners warned again and again that a Republican victory would mean secession. Hamilton Fish of New York declared that the ‘jails and lunatic asylums’ would be ‘of sufficient capacity to accommodate all the disunionists in the land.’ Lincoln for his part,” noted Ashworth in “What the North Got Wrong,” “dismissed all talk of secession as ‘humbug’.”[ii] When the Republican politicians in Washington lost the blinking game with the ruling class of the South, the Industrialists of the North and the federal government prepared for a war that would push the agrarian economy of the South off its tracks, but by action that was orginally believed would amount to a short campaign of military engagement. The President's miscalculation resulted in a "righteous" war that historians and civil war buffs continue to debate and even reenact. 

Scholarship of recent years argues that, contrary to the “saintly” image of Lincoln as commander in chief of an army of Christian soldiers marching off to war, he was “a model local politician, a loyal Whig standing for the protective tariff”; our 16th President, reported William Saffir (in quoting from Joel H. Silbey’s “Always a Whig in Politics" for his New York Times essay of February 14, 1986), "was a faithful practitioner of patronage to the White House” and “a total political operator.” In quoting at length, Saffir used Silbey’s reasoning about the antebellum political parties of the 1850s to critique the national politics of the mid-1980s and the congressional rancor of the day. “He was fully woven into the partisan fabric of his time,” asserted Silbey of Abraham Lincoln. “He was a total political operator—a party hack. But so what?” Saffir also appropriates Silbey’s remarks for the purpose of illuminating the inside affairs of a divided congressional body in 1986 (a Republican Senate and a Democratic House). “What emerged was a responsible party system,” opined Silbey for his view of Civil War-era politics; “the wiles and commitments of the party activist and regular are, therefore, not easily denigrated.” Saffir suggested that Silbey had reasoned correctly: that party loyalty and outspoken partisan opposition (using Saffir’s terms) “turn out men and draw issues in a way that may now be out of fashion but was vital in Lincoln’s day.”

Saffir went on to suggest that the compromising Lincoln, “working within the Whig and then the Republican Party to achieve power for great purposes, is rarely used as an exemplar by high-mindedly nonpolitical orators today. Just the opposite,” he opined: “we think of the political dissension in the North during the Civil War as divisive and harmful to the Union effort, with Lincoln having to jockey between the radical Republican abolitionists and the conservative Democratic civil libertarian Governor of New York. Most of us assume that party politics is a liability in warmaking, and that the one-party Confederacy had an advantage in mobilizing a national campaign. But the absence of a two-party system weakened the South,” reasoned Saffir. “Jeff Davis had no way of enforcing political obedience in the states, as Lincoln did,” he opined. “The clash of parties turns out to be the great instrument in protecting Lincoln’s ‘central idea’ of majority rule. That calculated internal activism needs a new birth today,” declared Saffir. “If Lincoln could speak at Springfield now, he would show us how a great politician is able to rise above the usual rising above politics.”[iii]

But since Saffir passed away in 2009 and is no longer present to comment upon the divided politics and dissension within the Republican Party of 2016, we are left to imagine what he might write for The New York Times about the polarized politics of today and the primary campaigns of a two-party system that has become ineffective in conducting the People's business. One might extrapolate from the essayist’s views of the mid-1980s in imagining what William Saffir would write today; that he would have a wild time in making sense of the current rancor within “the Party of Lincoln” which has led some to question if this might spell the end to Lincoln's "central idea" of majority rule—if not the end of the Grand Old Party itself.

But, because Lincoln was such a strict partisan, access to the Oval Office for the Captains of Industry was assured; and it is realistic to assume that the politics of that time followed the money, just as it does today. As such, it was the miscalculations of the Republicans and their party leader that led to conflict with the Southern planters and politicians–and to the disastrous military action against the aggrieved Confederate States. The horrific war, however, resulted in what is now commonly referred to today as “unintended consequences.” As it now stands, the American Civil War was the country’s bloodiest conflict, yet; the slaughter of America’s sons caused ruined lives and broken hearts for wives and children and mothers and fathers in every corner of the land; there were psychological and emotional wounds, too, for families and communities that have in some respects never healed. “Approximately one in four soldiers that went to war never returned home,” reported the authors at the Civil War Trust who wrote about the 1.2 million casualties. “At the outset of the war, neither army had mechanisms in place to handle the amount of death that the nation was about to experience.” In addition, the loss to the economy exacerbated conditions that inflamed resentments on both sides. “One in thirteen surviving Civil War soldiers returned home missing one or more limbs,” the authors noted. “Pre-war jobs on farms or in factories became impossible or nearly so.” But for many, the report declared, “there was no solution. Tens of thousands of families slipped into destitution.”[iv]

In Nicholas Marshall’s opinion article for The New York Times of April 15, 2014 (“The Civil War Death Toll, Reconsidered”), the author reported that the number of deaths was greater than had been estimated, and yet “it is not enough simply to speak about numbers.” In the effort to reassess the unintentional consequences and costs of the conflict, the authors suggest that the evidence from the period “makes clear that historians need to reevaluate the way we have come to understand the carnage of the Civil War. The war added to an existing demographic and cultural problem rather than creating an entirely new one. Given this milieu, the nearly ubiquitous use by historians of a set of factually correct, yet misleading, statistics need rethinking.”[v] One could argue that the present political climate is a continuing cultural disunity that has yet to be resolved, and that simple solutions recommended in the past are not enough to bring about reconciliation between political parties or regional societies that are currently splitting the party faithful into varying camps, each resentful of the Washington establishment. Indeed, it could be argued that the demands made by one group against the other only exacerbates the wounds that endure from the loss of life and loss of pride painfully subdued within the psyches of the millions of descendants whose forebears fought in that war. Indeed, the racial issues of 2015 that left cities such as Charleston, Ferguson, and Baltimore in question about “systemic” police brutality remain unhealed and unresolved for the nation, as a whole.

After Appomattox, political operatives loyal to the “special interests” of the North were in control of the federal government. But with the President’s assassination, the "Reconstruction South" was left to resolve its own strife and disorder, while the Robber Barons of the North turned the United States Military toward the West to wipe out or subdue Native American societies opposed to expansion beyond the Mississippi, and the threat of an unstoppable American Empire. “The Homestead Act of 1862 encouraged 600,000 families to settle the West by giving them land (usually 160 acres) almost free,” reported Wikipedia. “Before the Civil War, Southern leaders opposed the Homestead Acts because they feared it would lead to more free states and free territories. After the mass resignation of Southern senators and representatives at the beginning of the war, Congress was subsequently able to pass the Homestead Act.” But then, as the great cities of the East became swollen by immigrants who were invited to the New World to work the factories and build the growing network of ports and rails that carried away natural resources from the land, the corporate boards of the industrialists and their political stooges in the Nation’s capitol beat down the White and Black families of West Virginia and Kentucky to make of them economic slaves to coal mines from which cheap energy was extracted to fuel the dirty engines of commerce and the economies of the North—a serious game for money and power that has gone on and on, without end, to the present day.

“When you hear charges today that the federal government is overreaching, and the idea that the Constitution recognized us as a league of sovereign states—these were all part of the secessionist charges in 1860,” noted a CNN.com article in 2008 entitled “4 ways we’re still fighting the Civil War.” “The shutdown of the federal government, war in Libya, the furor over the new health care law and Guantanamo Bay—all have tentacles that reach back to the Civil War,” the report noted. “The Civil War took place during a period of pervasive piety when both North and South demonized one another with self-righteous, biblical language.”[vi] One only needs to reconsider the words from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” to understand how certain aspects of the War Between the States lives on in the present-day notions of honor and patriotism which in effect preserves old emotions for both Whites and African-Americans, no matter where they now reside within the country. What could ever possibly resolve this painful past and restore a national sense of trust in a future free from the depression of decline and a rigged economy that leaves many underemployed and without hope?

Writing for marketwatch.com on April 6, 2010, author Paul Farrell reported upon the danger signals enumerated by business guru Jim Collins “nine years ago” (more than half a decade before the Wall Street collapse that he predicted). Writing under the headline, “Mighty America’s 5 stages of rapid decline,” Farrell named the stages Collins had warned about: 1) Hubris born of success; 2) Undisciplined pursuit of “More”; 3) Denial of risk and peril; 4) Grasping for Salvation; and 5) Capitalization to irrelevance…or death. One’s very success, Collins had suggested, “might cover up the fact that you’re already on the path of decline.” People become arrogant, it was noted, and insiders see “success virtually as an entitlement.” Then, declared Collins, the belief that we’re so great that we can do anything drives many to “more scale, more growth, more acclaim, more of whatever those in power see as success”–and that, he suggested, justifies mega-bonuses. Those in power “begin to imperil the enterprise by taking outsize risks and acting in a way that denies the consequences”; elected representatives in 2007-2009, Farrell noted, surrendered “the keys to the U.S. Treasury over to Wall Street’s new soulless pseudo-capitalism.” The key to overcoming the decline, noted Farrell of Collin’s warning signs, is Great Leaders. “Does America have a Churchill in the wings, a leader who knows ‘the path out of darkness begins with those exasperatingly persistent individuals who are constitutionally incapable of capitulation’.”[vii]

In 1860, that great leader was the "party-hack," Abraham Lincoln. But, at what costs did the 16th President’s partisan decisions of 150 years ago bring upon the nation the unintended consequences that in both subtle and hostile ways continue to divide communities and the country, even at this very moment? It would seem that certain subtle emotions are deeply felt and might actually be at the root of fears that quietly reside in the psyche of the electorate for the present political cycle: Might Donald Trump become the “Great Leader” who will make the country great again? (But at what cost to the nation's destiny, or to the World's?) Yet, this same fear is reported to be present as a widely-shared concern about the warmongering rethoric in Hillary Clinton’s vocal abuse. “Do We Want a Chameleon or an Authentic Person,” asks Ralph West for his Reader Supported News article of February 21, 2016. “If you have read any of the postings of this semi-retired non-political English teacher, you know that I am 200% behind Mr. Sanders,” West admitted. In comparing the authenticity of Sanders to the chameleon-like “changeability of Hillary,” West suggested that she “will always be wearing the colors that suit her endless ambition.” In his view, if Clinton becomes President, “her lingering dedication to Goldman Sachs, etc., will water down all of her ‘commitment’.”[viii] But the same might be said of Donald Trump, of his chameleon-like character—which makes the choice between these two front-runners a matter of real concern for many Americans–and at a time when the nation and its citizens struggle on to recover from the financial wreck of Wall Street’s rigged system and the unintended consequences of speculation and greed which brought about the “Great Recession” that fuels the ongoing resentments over inequality, unfairness, and from racial and ethnic divides.

It could be argued that the cost of the Civil War was more, perhaps much more, than the loss of life itself; the psychological pain that seems to never end as a result of unintended consequences runs too deep to “shame” away. While one side denigrates the other by reminding it that it lost the war and that it should just get over it, the other reacts with indignation by promising to never forget what was done to impoverish the non-slave-holding families of the South whose homeland was invaded and whose farms were destroyed. The psychological wounds that were inflicted run too deep to brush away with insults intended to offend and harden positions long held to for emotional reasons related to lost property, lost livelihoods, and lost relatives. Within half a decade (within less than five years after the end of the Civil War) physicians in America were reporting upon a health phenomenon called “neurasthenia,” a disease identified as a direct consequence of modern life. “And it could only have happened in America,” reported Julie Beck in her Atlantic review of March 11, 2016. In her review of Professor David Schuster’s Neurasthenic Nation, Beck noted that the condition had “a certain American flavor” and that William James, an early psychologist, had termed it “Americanitis.” The journalist goes on to report that the psychological maladies came to be thought of as “an illness of the privileged—the white, Protestant, Northern privileged, mostly. Mental activity was thought to use more energy than physical activity,” Beck reported, and there were those who offered “racist explanations for why blacks and Native Americans didn’t get neurasthenia—because they didn’t overuse their minds.” No mention was made of the region-wide prejudice that has been perpetrated against poor white families of the South whose lives were disrupted and thrown into poverty by a war that left entire communities destitute and without security or the means of educating the next generation for a pathway toward transforming shattered lives. It is supposed that poor white southerners were among those who didn’t get "neurasthenia"–didn't contract Americanitis..

“If there is one sober lesson Americans seem to be taking out of the bathos of the Civil War sesquicentennial, it’s the folly of a nation allowing itself to be dragged into the war in the first place,” wrote Allen Guelzo for The Atlantic of August 23, 2015. “After all, from 1861 to 1865 the nation pledged itself to what amounted to a moral regime change, especially concerning race and slavery—only to realize that it had no practical plan for implementing it. No wonder that two of the most important books emerging from the Sesquicentennial years—by Harvard president Drew Faust, and Yale’s Harry Stout—questioned pretty frankly whether the appalling costs of the Civil War could be justified by its comparatively meager results. No wonder, either, that both of them were written in the shadow of the Iraq War, which was followed by another reconstruction that suffered from the same lack of planning.”[ix]

In an opinion article for the February 21, 2015 issue of The New York Times, entitled “What the North Got Wrong,” author John Ashworth began his piece as follows: “In the years and months preceding the Civil War, the Republicans in general and Abraham Lincoln in particular made many mistakes or misjudgments. And these errors were vitally important in bringing on the war.” The first mistaken, noted Ashworth, “was to underestimate the danger of secession.” The second mistaken “was to underestimate the danger, and the cost, of war, if and when it did come.” Essentially, noted Ashworth, the misconceptions “were the product of current northern social conditions” that bore the imprint (as he put it) “of the interests that were thriving in the free-labor North in the final years and months of the antebellum Republic.” Yet, the so-called “free-labor” doctrine as represented in the author’s account fails to connect the young nation’s economic and social conditions of the past to those that threaten to bring about an end to the two-party political system of the present—a system which, in truth, is actually a critical component of the same "rigged economy" that brought civil war upon the American People.

“Do you enjoy being forced to choose between one of two candidates,” asks author Eric Sanders in “Bipolar Politics: The Beginning and End of the Two-Party System.” “If we truly believe in democracy and freedom, and wish to do more than merely talk about them theoretically, then we have no alternative but to get rid of these archaic laws that force us to vote for only one candidate.”[x] Though the Constitution does not establish the party system we have inherited, it was the political climate of the years that immediately preceded the Civil War that gave rise to the two-parties that survive as a direct result of Lincoln’s “central idea” of “majority rule.” In truth, the stress put upon the electorate at that time was not dissimilar to what is being experienced today by individuals who are dismayed at the thought of having to choose between the front-runners in the 2016 Primary Cycle. There is no doubt but that the two-party system is an “establishment” device that directly supports the "rigged economy," a system that permits the Washington elites to better manage their chances of staying in power against the threat of "outsiders." If the electoral system permitted the people to vote for an Independent candidate in 2016, there is every reason to consider the likelihood that Senator Sanders would have run as an Independent (and not as a Democrat), and that he might even have reasoned that he would have a better chance of receiving more votes than either of the Super Tuesday frontrunners. There is also reason to believe that the shenanigans of both the Democrats and Republicans that helped to bring about the Great Recession might have been averted had the two-party system been reformed years before. There seems little doubt that the stress and financial wreck the American people are struggling to overcome has resulted from a political climate that leaves the electorate with having to choose between front-runners that Democrats, Republicans, and Independents feel they cannot trust.

“Too much stress, too little sleep, rushed meals, technology that seems to change faster than we can begin to keep up with,” wrote Greg Daugherty for the Smithsonian of March 25, 2015 to describe the effects resulting from the Great Recession of the present. “If those complaints sound familiar, chances are they’d have resonated with your great-great grandparents too,” he instructed his reader of the what took place generations ago. Medical practitioners in 1870, he reported, “suggested that the country’s legendary work ethic and go-getter spirit might be a form of mental illness they called Americanitis.”[xi] Some writers, it was noted, suggested that the condition was the result of “the hurry, bustle and incessant drive of the American temperament,” or “a consequence of the country’s incessant busyness.” But there was no mention of the psychological burden of guilt and shame or bitterness and hatred that arose from the years of war that took its toll on the families from both the North and the South. The horror of assassination and the aftermath of dark sorrow and psychological pain were unaccounted for in either of the articles named above.

Fast-forward to late March 2016, to two weeks after the election night speech in Phoenix where Senator Sanders addressed a large gathering of supporters who might otherwise have been dismayed by Secretary Clinton’s increased gain of delegates from Super Tuesday's turnout. Senator Sanders has since also gained significant numbers of delegates and added virgorous momentum to his campaign for the presidency by identifying the distress experienced by ordinary Americans, which he attributes to a “rigged economy” brought about by Wall Street speculators, banks too big to fail, and the Supreme Court’s disastrous decision in the “Citizens United” case–a ruling which granted evermore voice and personhood to the corporate entity. Yet there seems to be little voice for this view, that the present conditions of overwork and mental distress are connected in any way to the Americanitis of today that began when early financiers of the antebellum North pushed the country into civil war from which the nation has yet to recover its Revolutionary War identify and psyche. "Most of all," wrote Joel H. Silbey in describing the political life and times of Abraham Lincoln, "he fit a particular model endemic to his time: a new type of political activist that had replaced the great statesmen of the revolutionary era and their successors in the generations up to the 1830s." And though slavery was ended as an institution that had corroded the moral authority of the nation's character, it was not the economic cause that had brought about the conflict. Even Southern Aboltionists as early as 1795 were writing to General Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry to request that legislation be introduced to end the practice of slavery. There were numorous slave-holders who freed their slaves and voluntarily ended the practice for themselves decades before the war. As such, slavery was not the cause for the war. And, what is more, abolition of slavery failed to end segregation in the South and resulted in mass out-migration of African-Americans to the cities of the North where they also endured segregation, prejudice, and subsistance wages. Indeed, the power of the elites who pushed the nation into war was oppressive, as it continues to be so; and it is arguable that the economics of inequality has made financial slaves of the Middle Class itself, which, in effect, has been forced to sell its soul to the company store.

It could be argued that the Civil War of one-hundred and fifty years ago has morphed into the Global War Against Terror we have today, and that the same "rigged economy" and its unintended consequences will continue to influence Central Banks of the West to struggle with making policy shifts for a sputtering economy that seems destined to grow slowly for an indefinite number of years ahead. It could also be argued that, since the end of World War II, China and India (indeed, the rest of the World) have had to fall in line under the political and economic pressures wrought by a rigged system that was instituted a hundred years earlier, which caused the disastrous War Between the States. What took place in Brussels recently is but one more incident in a conflagration of opposing values between the East and the West that goes back millennia. But the peculiar economic realities of the West are of but a few centuries in the making, and have contributed to an escalating conflict for the World that has brought death and terror upon European and American soils. To make matters ever more intense, Americans are faced with the burden of costs for its longest war, with the inequalities that come with such a financial burden; at the same time, they are faced with having to choose sides in the current political cycle which seems to foreshadow the end to an outdated two-party system that is arguably overdue.

Now that the middle-class has become painfully aware that the company store is soulless, it becomes understandable why the Senator from Vermont is drawing such large and passionate crowds of citizens, young and old, who know first-hand why the candidate is presenting a radical platform. There is no question but that the Senator has been consistently honest in his unchanging assessment that the "rigged economy" threatens to destroy or diminish our democracy while it asks for a sacrifice of low-wage labor and unbearable debt for generations already burdened by the excesses of a moneyed-class of elites who reap unfair rewards. But what is strangely ironic is that the “socialist” from Vermont is fighting against a rigged economy that is, in truth, a “socialized” system made powerful by decisions that were made during the Great Depression in preparation for World War II. The “managerial capitalism” of the 1930s, reported Buckminster Fuller in 1980 for Critical Path, welcomed new designs brought about “in the form of many new armament designs.” Just before the war, instructed Fuller, the Wall Street lawyers approached the Roosevelt administration and made certain demands that would obligate the government to reward the corporations for their cooperation. Those corporations, reported Fuller, “earned an average of 10 percent on every [product] turnover. This meant that in World War II for every annual war budget—running at first at $70 billion per year—10 percent, or $7 billion, was earmarked for distribution to the stockholders of the corporations. Complete socialization of the stockholders of the prime U.S.A. corporations was accomplished.” This “discreditation,” wrote Fuller, “has been brought about without the U.S.A. people’s knowledge of the money-maker-world’s invisible cheating.”

This “cheating” game made public by Fuller's account has continued to this day by way of actions our government continues to make for trade agreements that profit the stockholders of the corporations at the expense of the taxpayer. “By 1953 it became apparent that the Wall Street lawyers were moving the major American corporations out of America,” reported Fuller. “Of the 100 largest corporation in America four out of five of their annual investment dollars in new machinery and buildings for 1953 went exclusively into their foreign operations.” In Fuller’s critically-acclaimed book of 1980, he reported that this “four-fifths rate persisted for a score of years.” In illuminating the invisible cheating scheme, as documented, Fuller went on to note that “each new year’s foreign aid bill had a rider that said that if American companies were present in the country being aided, the money had to be spent through those American companies.” Foreign aid, he insisted, “paid for all the new factories and machinery of all the American corporations moving out of America.”[xii]

Senator Sanders is courageous in that he has always made it clear as an Independent member of Congress that he is a “democratic socialist” and that he is strictly committed to the well-being of the American taxpayer and to the United States of America. This would help to explain why Sanders was so put off by Donald Trump’s false accusation that the senator from Vermont is “a communist.” “He’s a pathological liar,” Sanders responded. By contrast, it is clear why Sanders can call his opponent a liar while Hillary Clinton cannot use the term in attacking the businessman from New York. Clinton has her own cross to bear with regard to whether or not she can be counted on to tell the truth. Indeed, it is imagined that Trump would jump at the chance to debate her on the issue of trustworthiness. They both score embarrassingly low by that measure.

But is it any wonder that Donald Trump has been able to stymie the GOP by lying and capitalizing on the fear and insecurity that the “American Economic Model” has brought into the World? “But all republics and democracies in history do have something in common,” reported Adam Gopnik for The New Yorker of March 24, 2016. “They’re fragile,” he suggested. “That’s why Lincoln could speak so solemnly at Gettysburg of government of the people, by the people, for the people perishing from the Earth.” Gopnik went on to suggest that whether “moved by rich men’s recklessness or poor people’s fearfulness—or a little of both—strong social arrangements do fall too easily apart.” But one is reminded of the story about the author of the Gettysburg address, and of comments Lincoln is reported to have made soon thereafter. “When I left Springfield, I asked the people to pray for me; I was not a Christian,” he said. “When I buried my son—the severest trial of my life—I was not a Christian. But when I went to Gettysburg, and saw the graves of thousands of our soldiers, I then and there consecrated myself to Christ.”[xiii]

In his post at lincolnstudies.com, Samuel Wheeler noted that the statement by Lincon came from an article in the Freeport Weekly Journal of Freeport, Illinois. “Here’s the shocker,” he suggested: “the article appeared on December 7, 1864. In other words, during Lincoln’s lifetime. In my view,” reported Wheeler, “this lends substantial credibility to the purported quote. But what does it mean?” In quoting from Wayne C. Temple’s book, From Skeptic to Prophet, Wheeler repeated Temple’s remarks as a commentary upon the question that remains. “And the honest President did not rush to join a church after speaking at Gettysburg," the author reported. "For a number of years he had been a God-fearing mortal, and he often referred to the United States as a Christian nation, yet Lincoln still did not publicly acknowledge himself to be a Christian. Lincoln’s attitude toward Christ is most difficult to evaluate.” One can hardly ignore the involuntary thought about how President Lincoln's political acumen compares with the outrageous political audactiry of Donald Trump. But this then leads one to reconsider the fact that though the senator from Vermont is Jewish, he is, to his credit, honest and forthright in a professed commitment to his faith. And though it appears he has never confused the matter of his faith with his role as a politician, he freely admits that his faith, nonetheless, informs his character. He professes to be an admirer of Pope Francis, which is a perfectly reasonable tenet for any leader to profess; indeed, this tolerant view is refreshing, given the intolerant views expressed by some others. The senator, in fact, openly defends the rights of Muslin-American citizens devoted to the Islamic faith. Quite frankly, the Judeo-Christian vlaues of our forebears are actually brough to modern maturity by Senator Sander's patriotic outlook and tolerant views. Perhaps these matters of faith that are front and center in the campaigns of 2016 offer the electorate hope and optimism for the important questions about the pluralistic society the United States has brought to the world; that such an evolved national character will actually contribute in an open way to making the country great again. Indeed, if  Senator Sanders is successful in his bid for the presidency, such an outcome will present a hopeful and mature political model for the World.

In concluding these observations about "America's Rigged Economy," there is sound reason to consider that the effects the Civil War of a hundred and fifty years ago are still with us as they remain present by way of President Lincoln’s central idea of "majority rule" as enforced by the two-party system that grew solidified in the years just before the Civil War. Yet, little is said about the effects as they impact us still, or about the hundreds of thousands of Americans lives senselessly lost during the War Between the States; or about how this wound upon the people continues to divide the electorate; or that such wounds are unlikely to be healed so soon—or not until the excuses made for the conflagration our grandparents were forced to endure are articulated to become a common fact of history for all Americans: that both sides in War Between the States were at fault—one terribly wrong and the other horribly wrong. The terror of a war that wrought destruction upon the people a century and a half ago still resides within our present psyche. But surprisingly, the physicians of long ago failed to assign the cause of “neurasthenia” to the battle scars of a conflict between the North and the South that resulted in either death or disability for more than a “thousand-thousand” Americans. Lincoln, it appears, was too partisan to prevent the conflict, too politically loyal to party to properly assign blame for the conflict to the “rigged economy” of the Robber Barons who took control of the nation’s financial houses and began a rule over Wall Street that continues to this day.

It is clear to this writer that we need a New Economic Model, not one based on “more” of whatever it is that those who mistakenly judge what makes one successful might be, but one that is transformed and grounded in a realistic vision of better lives for workers in every corner of American life–indeed, for all people: a new system modeled on the American sense of fairness and justice and a respect for humanity and the natural world—not a system of greed and power that has driven our nation into the same disfunctional ditch that once resulted in the slaughter of nearly a million American citizens during a Civil War that ended with unintended consequences and economic enslavement of both Blacks and Whites who were set upon to work for the machine that goes on destroying nature and the consciousness of the American soul–a rigged economy and system that pays healthy dividends to shareholders of the corporations that run the show. A slower pace of economic life and good sense might be just what the doctor should order: a rational pace out of which the country elects a real leader who can inspire the nation to work together in building a future that brings about improved infrastructure planned upon what’s possible from producing more with less: a society that is happy with an economy no longer rigged against itself. In this author’s view, the senator from Vermont promises some hope that together we can move our nation forward to a fairer political system no longer rigged against the electorate of today or the generations that will follow.

[i] Walter E. Williams, “Abraham Lincoln,” February 20, 2013: http://www.creators.com/read/walter-williams/02/13/abraham-lincoln

[ii] John Ashworth, “What the North Got Wrong,” The New York Times, February 2, 2011; http://opinionator.blogs, nytimes.com/2011/02/02.

[iii] William Saffir, “Essay: Lincoln the Party Hack?” The New York Times, February 14, 1986: http://www.nytimes.com/1986/02/14/opinion/essay-lincoln-the-party-hack.html.




[iv] Civil War Trust, “Civil War Casualties,” http://www.civilwar.org/education/civil-war-casualties.htm




[v] Nicholas Marshall, “The Civil War Death Toll, Reconsidered,” The New York Times, April 15, 2014.




[vi] CNN.com, “4 ways we’re still fighting the Civil War,” 2008 Cable Network News, http://cnn.site.printhis.clickability.com/pt/cpt?expire…

[vii] Paul B. Farrell, “Mighty America’s 5 stages of rapid decline,” http://www.marketwatch.com.




[viii] Ralph West, “Do We Want a Chameleon or an Authentic Person?” http://readersupportednews.org, February 21, 2016.




[ix] Allen Quelzo, “Did Religion Make the American Civil War Worse?” The Atlantic, August 23, 2015.




[x] Eric Sanders, “Bipolar Politics: The Beginning and End of the Two-Party System, http://www.bigthink.com.




[xi] Greg Daugherty, “The Brief History of Americanitis,” http://www.smithsonian.com.




[xii] R. Buckminster Fuller, Critical Path, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1980 (see “Socialism”).




[xiii] Samuel P. Wheeler, “Was Lincoln a Christian?” for Lincoln Studies at http://www.lincolnstudies.com.







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Mar 022016

Each weekday morning I go to the swimming pool to, well, swim.  I usually swim three miles, which takes me about an hour and a half. The lanes at my pool are 25 yards long. It takes 5,250 of these yards to make a three mile swim. That's 105 laps, a lap being down to the end and back. Often I get in the water and swim non-stop. Now many of my fellow swimmers swim faster than me, but not many swim longer or farther. I catch views of others as I swim. Many do a few laps and then hang on the sides of the pool talking. Many of them spend more time talking in the water than swimming in it. When I observe this, I feel proud to be such a dedicated swimmer.

New Yorker swimming pool coverThese are my fellow swimmers. But there are a lot of others taking up water space in the pool who are not swimmers. I call them the splashers. They get in the water to wade, chat, clap, bounce, float, splash, act silly, and dance around. Often they do these things in groups and with an overweight leader, and to loud and lively music. I think they pay money to join these groups, and they probably imagine they're getting in shape by doing this. From the looks of most of them, they have a long way to go. The New Yorker captured this phenomenon in a recent cover illustration. Count the number of individuals who are actually swimming, despite the inspirational image on the front wall. (click to enlarge the picture and better appreciate)

The men's locker room at our pool is a communal place. There are no privacy curtains or individual shower stalls. We dress and undress and shower together; we hear and overhear conversations; we may not speak with others, but we do hear and observe things.

On morning I was there getting dressed and I heard loud panting and wheezing. I looked around the corner and there was a large, overweight, out-of-shape man trying to put on his clothes. Even putting on socks was a great effort for him. His breathing was so labored that I wondered how he could swim at all. Lazy bastard! I imagined him lounging on the sofa, watching TV, and eating potato chips and ice cream and drinking beer. I assumed he was one of the splashers. Why did he even bother coming here?

Then some days later I was in the locker room and heard the same panting and wheezing. It was unmistakeable. Him again.

Then the man began talking with another man. His talking was labored, interspersed with the panting and wheezing. But I listened because the conversation was unexpected and startling, and it ended up making me feel ashamed.

The man explained about his brain surgery, and almost dying, and now he has all these health problems, including the loss of his short term memory. He apologized for making so much noise. And I felt like apologizing for my recent thoughts.

The next time I had a chance, I introduced myself to this man. He explained the same things to me about his surgery and his struggles. He once had had a good job, he said. Meaning he once had been normal like the rest of us. The surgery had taken all of his savings, he said. And I said that was too bad and I was sorry. But he smiled and said it was alright, as if to sooth my feelings. He said he was thankful he had the money, and it was worth every penny.

I learned that he is not a splasher after all. He does try to swim, though not very fast or very far. He does what he can.

And I was greatly shamed by this, because my health is mostly good, and my savings are unspent on brain surgery, and I do not struggle to put on socks. I sensed that although I may swim fifteen miles in a week, this man's effort is greater than mine.

I've spoken with him several times since then. And what I've learned is that he is grateful for the life he has, and does not wish to be pitied. 

When men leave the locker room at our pool, friends say: "have a good day." And when we say this to the brain surgery man, he always has the same reply. He says, every day is a good day.

So how do you explain the fact that with all his pain and misfortune, this man lives with more gratitude than most of us do?

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