Earliest known pictorial representation of Saint Valentine, from the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493)
Originally published on Open Salon 13 February 2011
I look back on Valentine’s Day when I was a boy in elementary school, with something less than genuine fondness.
You remember the drill: your mother would buy you a package of mass-produced valentines, and you had to address one to each of your classmates (girl or boy), even the ones you hated. Every one of your classmates had to send you a valentine, even the ones who hated you. And at the end of the day, you came home with an armload of mass-produced valentines and threw them into the trash.
I used to wonder what was the point of this annual forest-destroying exercise.
A few years ago I was talking on the telephone to my mother, and she told me that when she was a child, you sent valentines only to the classmates you liked. What a concept.
It’s not too hard to imagine what happened here. Sometime between my mother’s childhood and mine, I guess one mother too many called up and complained “My little Jimmy/Susie didn’t get a single valentine, boo hoo hoo,” and the principal threw up his hands in exasperation and exclaimed, “Okay, that’s it! From now on, EVERYBODY has to send EVERYBODY ELSE a valentine!”
The problem with this kind of thinking is it’s like trying to get rich by printing more money. That doesn’t make anyone richer – all it does is devalue the currency in question, whether we are talking about dollars or valentines.
Not that I’m blaming our public school principals and teachers. They have an impossible job. I sometimes think our public schools exist only to illustrate the maxim, “Try to please everyone, and you will please no one.”
But what if these parents had chosen to treat this situation as a teachable moment? “Do you want to be better liked? What do you think you could do to be better liked?”
Or, an even better question: “Does it really matter?”
I used to spent time on Yahoo! Answers, and occasionally young girls would write in and ask, “What can I do to be one of the popular kids?” I would always tell them the same thing: “Don’t worry about it. Just hang out with the people you like and do the things you like. Then the other kids will look at you and say, ‘Gee, I wish I were one of the popular kids, like her.’”
I realize this kind of thinking is going to be seen as unforgivably reactionary and Neanderthal, in an era in which everything is someone else’s fault, and no human interaction is too trivial to be policed by the state. But I fear that we are raising a generation of kids who will grow up lacking the inner resources to deal with even the smallest adversity. Face it, worse things will happen to you in life than not receiving any valentines.
Illustration via Wikimedia Commons
Originally published on Open Salon 24 October 2012
September 23, 2012
A marsh hawk comes zooming up from the valley below, executes a perfect hairpin turn, then vanishes seemingly into thin air. I don’t even try reaching for my camera, knowing there are some moments in life that cannot be photographed.
I’m at Hawk Mountain PA, home of the world’s oldest sanctuary for birds of prey.
There was a time within living memory when “sportsmen” would ascend this mountain and shoot goshawks by the thousands. In 1932, Richard Pough, a Philadelphia naturalist and photographer, came here accompanied by his brother and their friend Henry Collins. He took pictures of the hundreds of dead and dying hawks that littered the ground, and showed them at a meeting of the Hawk and Owl Society. Rosalie Edge, a poet and activist, was so moved she raised the money to buy 1,398 acres of land to establish the first raptor sanctuary in the world. Ornithologist Maurice Broun and his wife Irma were hired to guard the newly established preserve. The “sportsmen” did not take kindly to all this, but the Brouns stood their ground in the face of countless threats, and eventually the hawk killers got the message.
I began walking from the Visitor’s Center towards the North Lookout at 10:30 AM.
The trail soon divides in two: North Lookout Trail (rated “easy), and Escarpment Trail (rated “difficult”), which follows the mountain ridge formed by thousands of boulders left behind when the glaciers began retreating at the end of the last Ice Age. I have to admit that at first I walked right past the entrance to Escarpment Trail, not even recognizing it as a trail.
I soon figured out that the safest way of traversing the ridge was not to worry about tripping, but just to let myself go, leaping from rock to rock and trusting that I would be okay.
Along the way I saw only three other people, a young man and his wife and their little boy. I arrived at North Lookout a bit out of breath but not displeased with myself for taking the road less traveled.
The view was stunning.
Of course, all I had to do was turn around and see industrial-strength tourism at work.
It was then that we saw the marsh hawk.
I’ve been here before, many years ago, on a field trip we took for a course in Ecology I had as an undergraduate. I remember we walked all the way up to the lookout (we took the easy trail), peered out over the edge, and saw – nothing. The fog was so thick we could see nothing of the valley below. Then a great gust of wind blew up, and to my overactive eighteen-year-old imagination it seemed as if the mists of creation had just parted.
Unfortunately, that was the only worthwhile thing we did in that course. I still remember our professor – he was a brilliant scientist, and a Hell of a nice guy to boot, and yet I learned nothing from being in the classroom with him. He was so tired of the whole thing, he had nothing left to give the students. I wonder what his back story was? Guess I’ll never know.
Almost of the people there will go back the way they came, along Lookout Trail, but I elect to continue along Skyline Trail (rated “most difficult”). I follow the orange dots spraypainted on the rocks to the end of Lookout Trail, peer out over the edge, and think to myself, “Oh shit, I left my parachute at home.”
There was no way I was going to be jumping from rock to rock here. The only way down is to scuttle like a crab, my feet out in front of me, my arms extended behind me for support.
I climb up one side of a pile of boulders the size of Smart Cars and down the other.
Finally the trail starts looking like a trail.
It’s the first week of Autumn. Already a few leaves are beginning to change color. In just a little while the entire forest canopy overhead will explode into a riot of scarlet and gold and vermillion, and soon after that the leaves will turn brown and fall to the ground, to become part of the soil from which they arose.
I reflect on the fact that I now am older than our Ecology professor was when we took that trip. I wonder how my students will remember me when I am gone, or if they will remember me at all.
The trail takes me along more escarpments – by now I feel like an old hand when it comes to traversing these ridges – and finally splits in two. If I turn right and follow Golden Eagle Trail, I will eventually end up back at the Visitor’s Center. If I turn left and continue along Skyline Trail, it will eventually link up with the Appalachian Trail. I could keep walking all the way to Canada.
I turn right.
The entire time I am descending the mountain ridge along Golden Eagle Trail, I don’t see a single other soul. Everything is very quiet. The only sound I hear is the wind whistling through the leaves overhead. I pass banks of ferns growing in the sun-dappled shade.
At the end of Golden Eagle Trail I reach the landform known as the River of Rocks.
I turn onto the River of Rocks Trail and begin ascending the mountain once more. After a few wrong turns and much huffing and puffing, I arrive back at the Visitor Center.
This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. If her gloomiest predictions have not come true, that may be because of the environmental movement she helped create.
As I settle in my car for the drive home, I feel a pleasant tingling sensation in my legs. I definitely have more years behind me than in front of me, but seeing the marsh hawk gives me hope for the future.
All photos by author
Originally published on Open Salon September 17 2012
“A pandemic is slaughtering millions, mostly children and pregnant women — one child every 15 seconds; 3 million people annually; and over 100 million people since 1972 –but there are no protestors clogging the streets or media stories about this tragedy. These deaths can be laid at the doorstep of author Rachel Carson.” – Lisa Makson, Front Page Magazine 31 July 2003.
Can this be true? Could this mild-mannered author and naturalist from Baltimore really be responsible for more deaths that Hitler?
Aaron Schwarz of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting and John Quiggen of Prospect trace the genesis of the Rachel Carson = Hitler trope, which is largely the brainchild of two men: Roger Bate and Steve Milloy. Their thesis, briefly summarized, is as follows: hysteria whipped up by Rachel Carson’s book led the US Environmental Protection Agency to ban DDT. Mosquitoes subsequently multiplied out of control and as a result malaria resulted in the deaths of millions of impoverished Africans.
Bate is the founder of Africa Fighting Malaria. He originally pitched his idea for AFM to tobacco giant Phillip Morris, Inc. In a memo he wrote: “The environmental movement has been successful in most of its campaigns as it has been ‘politically correct’, if not always ethical.” At the time there was enormous controversy regarding the possible health hazards of second-hand smoke, and Bate touted DDT as a way to discredit preoccupation with what he called “Virtual risks.”
“Malaria kills 2 million a year and infects 500m[illion] – of whom 90% are in Africa – more than any other disease,” he wrote, then added “[S]praying DDT was banned under pressure from US greens.” He proposed recruiting journalists to draw attention to the “contrast of western indifference to death in LDC’s (regardless of rhetoric) and preoccupation with virtual risks in [the] west.”
Phillip Morris wasn’t interested, but Bate went on to found Africa Fighting Malaria anyway.
Milloy has worked as the executive director of The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition, which was established with seed money from Phillip Morris. TASSC sponsored the website junkscience.com, featuring “The Malaria Clock: A Green Eco-Imperialist Legacy of Death” which informs readers “Since [EPA Head William] Ruckelshaus arbitrarily and capriciously banned DDT, an estimated 16,000,000,000 cases of malaria have caused immense suffering and poverty in the developing world. Of these largely avoidable cases, 100,000,000 people have died.” The numbers continue to mount as the reader peruses the page. Prominently displayed next to the “Malaria Clock” is a photograph of Rachel Carson.
The effort of these two men bore fruit, in the form of a spate of news stories in the mainstream media casting environmentalists in general and Rachel Carson in particular as baby-killers. In 2005, the editors of the magazine Human Events assembled a panel of 15 conservative scholars and public policy leaders to name the most harmful books of the 19th and 20th centuries. Silent Spring made the cut, placing Rachel Carson right alongside the author of Mein Kampf.
Where do I even begin with all this? Have Carson’s critics even read her book? I have, and I can tell you that nowhere does she call for the DDT or any other pesticide to be banned. In fact, she writes:
“Disease-carrying insects become important where human beings are crowded together, especially under conditions where sanitation are poor, in times of natural disaster or war or in situations of extreme poverty or deprivation. Then control of some sort becomes necessary.”
Most of her book was not about the chemical control of insect vectors of human diseases at all, but rather the reckless broadcasting of toxins across agroecosystems, forests, and even suburban neighborhoods, all of which was standard operating procedure in 1962. She quotes approvingly the advice of Doctor C.J. Briejér, Director of the Plant Protection Service in the Netherlands:
“Practical advice should be ‘Spray as little as you possibly can,’ rather than ‘Spray to the limit of your capacity.’”
There never was any worldwide ban of DDT. The EPA did ban DDT in 1972, but the ban did not apply outside the United States, and even there an exception was made for insect vectors of human diseases. American companies continued to manufacture DDT for export well into the 1980’s. The 2001 Stockholm Convention outlawed the use of DDT, but likewise an exception was made for control of insect vectors of human disease. The US no longer manufactures DDT, but the Chinese and the Indians still do, and presumably they are happy to sell it to anyone who wants to buy it.
Writing in the New York Times, columnist Nicolas Kristof reports that he called the World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace, “thinking I would get a fight.” Experts at both organizations assured him they had no problems with the use of DDT to control malaria. Since that time, the Sierra Club has expressed guarded support for the use of DDT, while the Endangered Wildlife Trust has helped train workers to apply DDT safely in Kruger National Park in the safest manner possible.
Milloy’s figure of 100 million + malaria deaths since 1972 is a preposterous fiction. How do I know this? Because he admits as much, in footnotes in small print at the bottom of the page. He adds, ”[C]ertain in the knowledge that even one human sacrificed on the altar of green misanthropy is infinitely too many, I let stand the linear extrapolation of numbers from an instant start on the 1st of the month following this murderous ban.” This is on a website purportedly devoted to debunking “junk science.”
Milloy may not be stickler for accuracy, but he’s hardly alone there. In a diatribe against Carson in the Sydney Morning Herald, columnist Miranda Devine cites State of Fear, a work of science fiction by novelist Michael Crichton.
Every movement has its excesses, and the environmental movement is no exception. It is possible that somewhere in the world, sometime in the last forty years, a government decided to forego the use of DDT when it really was the best tool at hand for fighting malaria. It would be enormously helpful if Carson’s detractors would give us names, dates, and places, instead of simply railing against “Carson and her crew.” Wildly inflating the number of malaria deaths in the last forty years and attributing every single one of them to Rachel Carson gets us no closer to the truth, and spewing out invective at a long-dead woman and her unnamed “crew” is not an enterprise that takes a lot of guts – or brains.
In his reply to Quiggen, Bate does not provide us with any specific examples, but he assures us that the number of people who have died as a result of the DDT “ban” “must be in the millions.” The article by Lisa Makson I linked to above does mention an incident in which environmentalists tried to block the government of South Africa from using DDT, although they went ahead and sprayed anyway. Milloy does not give us even that much.
Indeed, one example after another cited by Carson’s detractors breaks down upon closer examination. In 1963 authorities in Sri Lanka stopped using DDT for mosquito control, on the eminently reasonable grounds that malaria appeared to have been virtually eliminated (they continued using DDT to control pests of farm crops). In 1968 there was a resurgence of malaria and they resumed using DDT to control mosquitoes, but by then the evolution of resistance had rendered DDT ineffective (just as Rachel Carson had warned us) so they had to switch to the more expensive malathion.
More recently, the European Union threatened import sanctions against Uganda if they used DDT to control mosquitoes, but they went ahead and sprayed anyway. In Zimbabwe tobacco farmers complained that DDT residues were contaminating their crop (!) but again they went ahead and sprayed anyway.
Malaria continue to be a scourge, but great strides have been made in controlling it using a multi-pronged approach including insecticide-treated bednets and artemisinin-combination therapy drugs. (I can attest to the efficacy of these medicines. While I was teaching in Ghana I was stricken with malaria. I came into the hospital wondering if I was going to die, I took eight pills, I rested for thirty-six hours, and I was as good as new.)
This multi-pronged approach also entails the judicious use of insecticides, including, yes, DDT. But this sort of integrated pest management is a world away from the “More-is-better” paradigm that reigned in 1962, and in fact is precisely the approach Rachel Carson advocated in her book.
“The most striking feature of the claim against Carson is the ease with which it can be refuted. It takes only a few minutes with Google to discover that DDT has never been banned for anti-malarial uses, and that it is in use in at least 11 countries.”
This is true, but it’s also true that it takes only a few minutes with Google to discover that the Rachel Carson = Hitler myth is alive and well.
Milloy remains unrepentant, but now that the Rachel Carson = Hitler myth has taken on a life of its own, Bate has found it expedient to back away from some of his more inflammatory positions. No big surprise there. As a famous politician once said:
“[I]n the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods. It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously. Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation. For the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down, a fact which is known to all expert liars in this world and to all who conspire together in the art of lying.”
Bate and his crew seem to have taken that lesson to heart.
Photos via Wikimedia Commons
Originally published on Open Salon 15 September 2012
This month marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. As a youth, Carson enrolled at Johns Hopkins University, originally intending to major in English but later switching to Biology and eventually earning a master’s degree in 1932. She supported herself for a time as a freelance writer, authoring pieces for the Baltimore Sun about the natural history of Chesapeake Bay. Later she found work writing radio scripts on life in the oceans for the Bureau of Fisheries. This led to a full-time position working as a biologist for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, where her facility with the written word earned her a spot as editor-in-chief of all the agency’s publications. Silent Spring was the capstone of her career as a writer, and her most enduring legacy.
The book begins with a parable about a pastoral village in which the wildflowers, the fish in the streams, the songbirds, the farm animals and finally the people begin to sicken and die from mysterious maladies. No one community has suffered all of these disasters, she adds, but all of these disasters have occurred in at least one community, and many communities have suffered through a number of them.
Carson proceeds to lay down the gauntlet:
“The most alarming of all man’s assaults upon the environment is the contamination of air, earth, rivers, and seas with dangerous and even lethal materials. This pollution is for the most part irrecoverable; the chain of evil it initiates not only in the world that must support life but in living tissues is for the most part irreversible….
“The chemicals to which life is asked to make its adjustment are no longer merely the calcium and silica and copper and all the rest of the minerals washed out of the rocks and carried in rivers to the sea; they are the synthetic creations of man’s inventive mind, brewed in his laboratories, and having no counterparts in nature.
“To adjust to these chemicals would require time on the scale that is nature’s; it would require not merely the years of a man’s life but the life of generations. And even this, if it were by some miracle possible, would be futile, for the new chemicals come from our laboratories in an endless stream; almost five hundred annually find their way into actual use in the United States alone. The figure is staggering and not easily grasped – 500 new chemicals to which the bodies of men and animals are required somehow to adapt each year, chemicals totally outside the limits of biologic experience.”
In elegant, poetic prose, with crystalline clarity, Carson explains how these poisons accumulate in living cells; how they potentiate each other; how they permeate the water and the soil, wreaking havoc on living things in their path, from the vast network of soil microorganisms and green plants upon which all life depends, to crustaceans, insects, fish, birds, and mammals, and finally to ourselves.
“Our attitude towards poisons has undergone a subtle change. Once they were kept in containers with a skull and crossbones; the infrequent occasions of their use were marked with utmost care that they should come into contact with the target and with nothing else. With the development of the new organic insecticides and the abundance of surplus planes after the Second World War, all this was forgotten. Although today’s poisons are more dangerous than any known before, they have amazingly become something to be showered down indiscriminately from the skies. Not only the target insect or plant, but anything – human or nonhuman – within the range of the chemical fallout may know the sinister touch of the poison.”
“This barrage of poisons is not just sickening and killing individual organisms but altering the material of heredity, the very thread that is the continuity of life on earth.
“No longer are exposures to dangerous chemicals occupational alone; they have entered the environment of everyone – even of children as yet unborn. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that we are now aware of an alarming increase in malignant disease.”
Carson argued that the indiscriminate broadcasting of poisons as a means of eradicating species labeled “pests” was not just incredibly destructive in the long term but often self-defeating even in the short-term, as the populations of undesired species came roaring back at levels higher than ever. The phenomenon of insecticide resistance is well-known, but an even more important if less well-known factor is the is the destruction of predators, parasites, and competitors which formerly held populations of destructive species in check.
All too often, the response to this sort of thing is more poisons, stronger poisons, higher doses. She noted that the men who decide what, when, where, and how much to spray almost always are on the payrolls of the same companies that manufacture these toxins in the first place.
Just months after the publication of Silent Spring, Rachel Carson died of metastatic breast cancer. In 1980 she was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award given in the United States of America. At the awards ceremony, President Carter declared:
“Never silent herself in the face of destructive trends, Rachel Carson fed a spring of awareness across America and beyond. A biologist with a gentle, clear voice, she welcomed her audiences to her love of the sea, while with an equally clear determined voice she warned Americans of the dangers human beings themselves pose for their own environment. Always concerned, always eloquent, she created a tide of environmental consciousness that has not ebbed.”
Not everyone has such a sanguine view of Rachel Carson’s life and work. This is a matter we will take up in Part Two.
Photos via Wikimedia Commons
Originally published on Open Salon 22 February 2012
Did I ever tell you about my one degree of separation from the late Dwight David Eisenhower? That’s right, between me and the 34th President of the United States of America there is but one degree of separation — thanks to my friendship with Old Mrs. Knight.
She was born over a century ago, in 1907 (I’m relying on memory here – I’m not gonna look up any dates). She was a member of the United States Women’s Olympic Fencing Team, making here the only Olympic athlete I’ve ever known, and she was a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, from a time very few women even went to college. She was definitely a daughter of wealth and privilege, but she was also from a time when the wealthy and privileged taught their sons and daughters a sense of noblesse oblige, a conviction that they had a duty to use their skills and talents to make the world a better place.
She married Eric Knight, the author of Lassie Come Home, and the two of them moved to an old stone farmhouse called Springhouse Farm, located at the foot of Ghost Mountain. Lassie later became the basis of a number of movies and TV series, and somebody made zillions off them, but not the Knights. Eric Knight had sold all movie and television rights for the princely sum of five thousand dollars.
She was a Quaker and defined herself as a pacifist, but she was willing to make an exception for Hitler. After Eric Knight died in an airplane crash in Suriname in 1943, she served as a major in the Women’s Army Corps and directed a team of cryptographers, reporting directly to General Eisenhower himself. My mother once repeated to me a story about the time General Eisenhower and his entourage were traveling across Europe by train, and Mrs. Knight was asked to be Ike’s dinner companion. Afterwards, Ike walked her back to her berth and stood there in her doorway, clearly expecting to be invited in. She shut the door in his face. Whether that story is true I cannot say, but I do know that in any event Ike bore her no malice.
After the war she got married a second time, to a man named Lindtner, and it was by him that she bore her only child, a son. She divorced him sometime later and re-assumed the surname of her first husband.
She taught for a while at Moravian Preparatory Academy and spent a decade working as a research associate for Lawrence Henry Gipson, the most famous historian Lehigh University has ever produced and author of a fifteen-volume history of the British Empire before the American Revolution. I believe Mrs. Knight met my mother through my mother’s environmental activism, and the two became fast friends.
For the 1976 Bicentennial, a multivolume history of Northampton County was commissioned, and Mrs. Knight was asked to write the volume on Communications and Transportation. She recruited my mother as co-author, and no, the book wasn’t a best-seller, but those two old gals had a grand time writing it.
I got to know her pretty well myself. She was rather tall for a woman, especially one nearing seventy years of age, with a strong voice and a regal bearing. When I was in the sixth grade, the first black family moved into our rural school district and I befriended their oldest son, and when we were in the eighth grade one day it snowed and the two of us dragged a toboggan up the side of Ghost Mountain. Given the steepness of the hill and the number of trees in our way, it’s kind of a wonder we didn’t kill ourselves, but we ended up fine, which is usually what happens to people who are not afraid. Anyway, Old Mrs. Knight invited us two boys in for a cup of hot chocolate. The TV miniseries Roots had just finished airing, and as we two boys sat there she began interrogating my young friend, earnestly trying to discern his opinions regarding the cultural significance of Alex Haley’s opus. Yep, she was the quintessential limousine liberal, but everybody who knew her loved her.
The summer after I graduated from high school Old Mrs. Knight hired me to work at her place. I have a sneaking suspicion that she really didn’t need anything done, but just wanted some company. She owned a collie dog, kind of a memento of Lassie or something, and part of my duties was to take the dog for a run every day. I had never liked dogs, but by the end of the summer I would tackle that dog and wrestle him to the ground, and a good time was had by all.
My first year away at college, for Halloween, I decided to go as the Grim Reaper. I got a hideous-looking rubber skull mask, and I borrowed my roommate’s bathrobe, but I still needed a scythe, and I knew where to get one. I drove out to Springhouse Farm and Old Mrs. Knight poured some wine for us and we sat up and talked. I was taking History of England then, with the incomparable Ian Duffy (just being in that man’s presence was an educational experience) and we discussed the Norman Conquest.
After my first semester in graduate school, I stopped by for a visit. Now, I remember my twenties as a time of unremitting failure, not to mention loneliness so egregious I considered killing myself, although somehow I managed to end that decade with the initials Dr. in front of my name, don’t ask me how. But all that was still ahead of me, in the unknowable future. Once again she poured some wine for us, and flush with all my new knowledge, I proceeded to lecture Old Mrs. Knight on the evolution of reproductive strategies in fishes, and she listened more attentively than any of my students ever have.
Right before graduate school had finished chewing me up and spitting me out, I flew back to Pennsylvania to interview for a faculty position (I didn’t get the job). I stopped by to visit Old Mrs. Knight, and for the last time she poured some wine for us and we sat up and talked. She reminded me that my parents were by then on the cusp of old age themselves, and she warned me not to be overprotective. “If your father wants to die with his boots on, you let him,” she admonished.
Shortly thereafter, I received a letter from her son. He and his wife had pinched his mother’s address book and contacted everyone listed therein, asking them to contribute some kind of memento for a scrapbook that would be presented to her on the occasion of her eighty-fifth birthday. I was still in Tucson at the time, and every week I would go to a laundromat managed by an elderly Mexican abuelita. She always had a flock of grandkids running around, and every week I had to come up with a new joke to tell them. Anyway, I gathered all the kids around me, and someone snapped a picture of us and I sent it, along with a card saying “FELCIDADES DE TUCSON ARIZONA!”
Old Mrs. Knight died not long after that. But my mother told me she had enjoyed the picture.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Originally published on Open Salon 8 April 2009
Lately, for no particular reason, I’ve found myself in odd moments thinking about my Grampa – Thomas Aloysius “Hap” Coburn of Manasquan, New Jersey.
He actually wasn’t a blood relative of ours. Both of my grandfathers died before I was born. Tom Coburn married my father’s mother when they were both in their sixties. He had served as the Fire Chief of Harrison, New Jersey, but he was long retired by the time I was born. He was always just Grampa to us.
I still remember him vividly. He stood all of five feet two inches tall, with a barrel chest, long hairy arms, deeply lined face, and a fringe of white hair around his ears. In March of 1967, National Geographic Magazine did a cover story on Snowflake, the world’s first white gorilla. I have to admit that, for a while, Snowflake and my grampa were conflated in my five-year-old mind. There was more than a passing resemblance.
Most of all I remember his hands – great big thick calloused working man’s hands. He could make anything with those hands. He built for me a succession of toy boats, each one more detailed than the last, until the last one, a sloop which featured real cloth sails, a jib and a mainsail with a functional boom that rotated on the mainmast.
But these were mere diversions. He built the bed I slept in until the last time I left home at the age of twenty-four. He built an eight-foot solid wood table for our dining room, patterned after an old Shaker design. He and my mother ripped out the floors in our kitchen and living room and put in all new floors. These are just a few of the countless home renewal projects he did for us, too many to remember. I can’t recall him ever asking anyone for anything in return.
The ceaseless hours of labor inevitably led to a few careless moments. He had lopped off a couple of fingers over the years. It never slowed him down.
He liked his cigars and his whiskey. But I have to say, I never saw him touch the stuff before eight o’clock in the morning. An “eye-opener,” he used to call it.
He was a character, that’s for sure. When I was a little boy, my mother explained to me that when people get old, they shrink. I asked Grampa if that was true. “Sure!” he roared. “Last night I was shrinking so much I couldn’t stay under the covers!”
His years as fire chief had left him with a healthy distrust of politicians. I remember watching Gerald Ford’s inauguration with him on television. Ford looked into the camera and gravely intoned, “My fellow Americans – I stand before you tonight – to solemnly swear…“
“… to steal all I can steal,” Grampa muttered.
I have to marvel at the easy mantle of masculinity he wore as comfortably as an old bathrobe, in stark contrast to the men of my father’s generation, these organization men who were the first generation in their families to go to university and who seemed so uncomfortable in their button-down shirts and ties, and even more uncomfortable out of them.
He and my grandmother went to mass faithfully every week, but I have no idea what his metaphysical views were. Perhaps he didn’t think about such things at all. I know he was stoic about the inevitability of death. I once heard him say to my grandmother, “Ah, geez, Mary – you gotta go sometime.”
My grandmother died when I was eighteen, and Grampa went to live with my father’s sister, my Aunt Mary Ellen. My father was estranged from his sister, and for most of my life I was only vaguely aware of her existence. Truth to tell, I didn’t think about him too much after that, being at an age in which one’s primary concerns is one’s gonads.
Only recently did I learn much about the last years of his life. Still vigorous in his late eighties, he had about four good years after that. My Aunt Mary Ellen’s two younger sons were in the Boy Scouts back then, and Grampa used to attend the meetings, and even had his own uniform. Her sons are now in their forties, but they still have fond memories of “Pop-pop,” as they used to call him.
I saw him once more, at the very end of his life, almost by accident. I had gone to Florida to collect some specimens for my research, and I knew that Aunt Mary Ellen lived nearby, and on impulse I looked her up in the phone book. She was delighted to hear from me, and invited me to come over. I was welcomed into her home and treated like – well, like one of the family.
Unfortunately, Grampa had gone into a steep decline in the previous year. By the time I got there he was all skin and bones. He had no idea who I was. But as I bent over his prostrate form, and saw the leathery hide stretched over his skull, as dry as parchment, for a fleeting moment I thought I had a glimpse of the young man who had joined the Fire Department, over seventy years before. He died just a few days later.
He was from a different era, that’s for sure – one in which men used themselves up, poured out their lives by the bucketful until there was nothing left.
All photos via Wikimedia Commons
Gorilla photo by Salim Virji via Wikimedia Commons
Originally published on Open Salon 1 April 2009. Re-posted here Memorial Day 27 May 2013.
Reading this article in Discover magazine about life extension made me think of my Uncle Walter, simply because he was the absolute antithesis of the ideas presented therein.
Uncle Walter married my mother’s sister, my Aunt Nancy, when I was a little boy. He had grown up amid crushing poverty, back when being poor didn’t mean you couldn’t afford an xBox, it meant you couldn’t afford food. When things got too bad for him, he would go to a café and ask a sympathetic waitress to bring him a glass of hot water. He would then add ketchup to it to make “tomato soup.” This may have something to do with the fact that his adult height never exceeded five foot one.
The army was his avenue of escape. He dropped out of school and enlisted at the age of seventeen. His hitch was almost up when they had a little incident at Pearl Harbor. He ended up staying in for over five years.
Once, they dumped him and three of his buddies on an ammo barge and then forgot about them and left them there for four days with no food, no water, and no shade. They rigged up a makeshift shelter to escape the tropical sun, but it was so tiny that only one man could sit under it at a time. They could have swam for it, but the sharks would have taken care of them before they reached the shore. To add to the excitement, the Japanese warplanes were circling overhead constantly. One spark and they all would have been ashes. He survived. Another time he had a load of shrapnel blown into him. He survived that, too.
I think that having stared death in the face at such a young age left a lasting mark on Walter. He certainly didn’t seem to regard death as an enemy to be vanquished. He smoked like a chimney, drank like a fish, ate whatever he wanted, and never exercised if he could help it.
Like millions in his generation, Walter gave up the religious faith of his forefathers as soon as he reached adulthood. He had some hair-raising stories about the sadistic nuns who taught him when he was a little boy, but I don’t really know what his metaphysical views were. I do know that he once told the Jehovah’s Witness who came to his door, “Look – The Man Upstairs – I wanna have a talk with him, I have a talk with him. If he listen, he listen. If he don’t, he don’t.”
(Of course, to get the full effect, you have to read the above lines with a thick South Boston Accent.)
After the war, Walter returned to the United States, married, and fathered four children. That marriage ended in divorce. His second wife died of cancer. He married Aunt Nancy when he was just past forty, and they stayed together until death did them part.
More than a decade after they got married, Nancy went back to school part-time and became a registered nurse at the age of 50. Walter became a parking garage attendant at the hospital where she worked so they could go to and from work together. They weren’t much to look at, and certainly Walter never achieved much by the standards of a status-conscious world, but they loved the hell out of each other. We boys always were happy to see them, for no particular reason other than they were always happy to see us.
His relations with his own family were not so felicitous. I believe he was estranged from his own children for most of his life. I know that both of his sons were war heroes in Viet Nam. The older one came home and had a successful career, while the younger one spiraled into addiction and homelessness before ending his life at the age of 33.
After Walter died from complications from emphysema, there was some funny business about the title to the house Nancy owned when she married him, and which by then was worth a fortune. (Are you kidding me? Waterfront property fifteen minutes from downtown Boston? The developers didn’t even want the house. They just wanted the land, so they could knock down the house and put up a McMansion in its place.) I won’t go into the details, but suffice it to say that some people committed acts which today would land them in jail for elder abuse. The upshot was that Nancy got to live in the house until the end of her life, but when she died, those of us on her side of the family saw very little of the money.
But I don’t want to go into that here. I’d rather remember the good times.
So I had to chuckle when I read this article. I know that we are all supposed to pretend that we are going to live forever, that death is this rare and preventable anomaly, but you know something? I think hanging in there until sixty-five was enough for Uncle Walter. He’d seen a lot of this world, both the good and the bad, and I think he was ready to meet “The Man Upstairs.”
Photo via Wikimedia Commons