Sunday, January 25, 2015

THE RELUCTANT ATHLETE: Part One


“Geez, Dan, you’re the only kid I’ve ever seen who can trip over his own two feet standing still!” Whitie said, laughing.  This struck the other kids at the picnic—cousins and second cousins all—funny to the point of hilarity.
He—my dad, Whitie—must have seen the hurt look in my eyes as I scrambled to my feet and brushed myself off, because he said, “We’re not laughing at you Dan’el, we’re laughing with you. And everybody “laughed with me” some more.  (If you were laughing, you were obviously one of the winners).
It was a family reunion and we were playing whiffle ball. Whitie was the only adult playing. The other kids had tried to talk their dads into playing too, but after a heavy picnic lunch—fried chicken, hotdogs and hamburgers, potato salad, deviled eggs, ham salad, beans and franks, huge bags of potato chips, heavenly hash, three bean salad, scalloped potatoes, macaroni and relish salad, Waldorf salad and an assortment of pies, cakes, cookies and brownies—on this hot July day, they got turned down flat.  But to my surprise, my dad was the only one to say, “Yeah, what the hell, I’ll play,” before stubbing out his cigarette, downing a cup of coffee drawn from a gallon Thermos, and following the kids over to an open area of the park where we quickly laid out an ad hoc baseball diamond: “That bench over there’s first, that bush is second, that maple’s third and this here’s home plate.”
I hadn’t asked Whitie to play like the other kids had asked their dads. I figured the answer would surely be “no,” so why bother? But Whitie could be full of surprises depending on his drastic mood swings. When he decided to play, however, I couldn’t help thinking it wasn’t that he didn’t like playing a little ball, it was just that he didn’t like playing it with me, since he always seemed to have better things to do at home than toss a ball around with me or show me some of the boxing moves he knew so well, or put up a backboard and shoot some hoops with me.
Today, by some odd bastardization of the rules, Whitie ended up being permanent pitcher as well as a sort of coach-slash-umpire for both teams. I found it incredible to see him on the imaginary mound calling the pitches as he threw them: “Fast ball...Slow ball...Curve...Look out, now, here comes a knuckle ball...Grab a towel, kiddo, here comes a spitball...hahaha, swing an’ a miss...” I couldn’t recall a single time he’d done this with me at home. Reba Mae, my mother, was the one who’d taken charge of teaching me enough about baseball so I wouldn’t be too embarrassed to play some sand-lot ball with my cousins and a few friends. She was always a good sport, playing some pitch and catch with me and popping me some flies to catch (she’d played some softball as a girl and could bat incredibly well, but she didn’t have a mitt so I had to throw the ball back to her gently).
Peewee League had been a short-lived disaster that was forced on me and in which I mostly haunted the sidelines until I got bored and quit...which, I suppose, was the coach’s ultimate idea. Somebody had given me a mitt. I was a southpaw and it was a right-handed mitt (in other words a mitt that went on the left hand), so I was obliged to learn to throw with my right. This meant I seldom missed a catch but couldn’t throw for crap. When I played the outfield (which was most of the time...the further out the better, my team-mates felt), if I accidentally caught somebody out it was difficult to throw hard enough with my right arm to pull off a double play, so sometimes, after the catch, I’d quick shed my glove and give the ball a heave with my more powerful left. But for lack of practice a long pitch with my left hand always went wild. Long story short, I could throw with either hand...though not good enough for anyone to be impressed. And the same was pretty much true of batting. No one seemed interested in helping me develop my switch-hitting potential, least of all the volunteer coach who was usually hung over and smelling of booze for morning Peewee League practice and pretty much left the playing up to the kids who already knew how, telling the others to “have a seat on the bench for a while.”  
On the drive home from the picnic, Whitie said, “That was pretty fun, wasn’t it Danny?”
“What was?” I asked, playing dumb though I knew exactly what he was talking about.
“Playing some ball,” he said. “You had a good time, didn’t you?”
I didn’t answer.
Didn’t you, Dan?” he insisted.
“Not as much as you, obviously,” I said with sullen apathy.
He clucked his tongue with irritation and then very ostensibly ignored me for the rest of the trip home, chatting with my mother and sister and now and then saying, “Whacha doin’, ‘Clody’ boy?” to my little brother, Jim (‘Clody’ to Whitie), who was dozing on Reba Mae’s lap on the passenger side of the front seat, as if to let me know I’d offended him and was being intentionally left out of the conversation. I kept wanting to apologize, to say I had indeed had a good time, mostly because it was nice to do something fun with him for a change, and why couldn’t  we do that more often? But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I was as angry and disappointed with him as he was with me. Kind of permanently angry, both of us. So why should I be the one to capitulate?
And that was pretty much the standoff that Whitie and I maintained as I was growing up. Baseball, that all-American link between father and son, blended into any kind of organized sport and became the barricade we erected between us for our impasse. When it first took shape, I can’t say exactly, but sometime between the time as a preschooler when I inherited Whitie’s love of boxing, sitting on his lap to watch the Friday Night Fights on our big black and white TV, and the time when I was old enough to play Little League baseball (and didn’t), that early rapport was lost and I decided not to do anything I knew he would want me to from then on. The feeling got to be kind of mutual.
He was passionate about organized team sports and had pretty much played them all in his youth and now watched them all on TV. But I viewed that as something he didn’t want to share with me in any hands-on way, so why should I feign interest? I saw other dads getting involved with their boys’ sports, encouraging them, pushing them to be as good as they could be, rooting for them at their games, correcting their techniques, buying them the best equipment, even coaching their teams. Whitie didn’t do any of that. It was as if he’d given up on me before I’d ever gotten started.
It wasn’t that Whitie didn’t want me to play. On the contrary, he would have liked for me to have been the “normal” sports-loving son most men want to be represented by. (Indeed, that was precisely the point of my rebellion). Rather, it was that, from the beginning, he let me know that he had no real expectations for me. In fact, he basically said I should just play for fun and try to do the best I could, because I was a guy and guys played sports, period. But he felt I’d probably “never be really, really good at sports.”  So...okay, I figured, game over!
The guys on his side of the family were, he observed, of the quick, light, agile kind. Even his dad, who’d never played team sports, was a lightning-fast, highly capable and very dangerous fighter, though he never weighed more than a hundred and fifty pounds soaking wet. It was, then, a question of genes. Not better or worse, he consoled me, just the way things were. Some guys had it and some didn’t.  Some were “naturals”. Others had to work at it. Still others would just never have what it took. The indication was that I formed part of the latter group. 
I took after my mom’s side, Whitie often clarified, “Big, solid, German farmers...Strong, don’t get me wrong, but pretty slow and pretty clumsy. I mean, don’t take it the wrong way, Danny, but let’s face it, you are pretty awkward.” Then seeing the look on my face, he might add, “Well, but don’t worry, you might outgrow that, once you grow into your hands and feet.”
When he said things like that, I used to picture Grandpa Vern, my mother’s father. By no stretch of the imagination could I think of him as slow or clumsy—German and farmer though he was. In fact, words like “rugged”, “rawboned”, “lightning fast” and “lethal” sprang to mind when you spent any time with Grandpa Vern. I figured the fact that he’d never played organized sports had more to do with his having grown up out in the country and only having gone to school for three years, and in a one-room rural schoolhouse to boot, than with any lack of the required physical prowess.
In my own case, it wasn’t that I didn’t like physical activity, but that organized sports had become my nemesis. I had been consistently convinced by someone whose judgment I couldn’t help but trust—my father—that I would never be any good at them. It sounded like a sentence and felt like an illness, a disability diagnosed by an expert on the subject: Whitie. So at first, I avoided them out of embarrassment, and then grew to hate them and to consider them enemy territory.
Instead, I turned to the activities that my city-raised father abhorred: trekking along rivers and creeks, camping, bike hikes to parts unknown, fishing with my father’s father, hunting with my mother’s father and both those activities with friends later on. The great outdoors was fine with me as long as it didn’t involve diamonds, courts, pitches, courses or playing fields.       

         To be continued...

Sunday, January 18, 2015

WHY I SAY ‘JE SUIS CHARLIE’

When eight of the highly creative people who formed part of the staff of the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo were murdered at their desks earlier this month—along with four other unfortunate people who were randomly killed in the attack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time—I couldn’t help identifying with them far beyond the normal anger and compassion that terrorist violence awakens in any right-minded person. My first thought was, in fact, “That could have been me.”
Nor did I think of it right away as merely another instance of Muslim fundamentalist violence. Rather, I “lived” the attack, first and foremost, as a violent assault on freedom of expression in a nation and a city that have long honored razor-sharp satire as a traditional and highly-developed art form.
Reading about the attack carried out by two fundamentalist gunmen, who claimed to be the agents of vengeance for the Prophet Muhammad and who invoked the name of Allah while slaughtering top members of a team of creatives whose only sin was the ability to think, reflect and question in a bright, audacious and humorous way, I couldn’t help recalling the first nine years out of a total of thirteen that I spent working as a journalist for what was then Argentina’s most outspoken newspaper, the English-language daily known as the Buenos Aires Herald. I refer to the years from 1974 to 1983, when I had the privilege of first standing shoulder to shoulder with and later helping lead a small team of journalists with an almost obsessive-compulsive interest in reporting what practically no one else was willing to, and in defying every kind of threat and pressure exerted in a vain attempt by the de facto government to get them to stop.
The great difference between then and now, I was thinking, was that back then we were facing an internal threat, first by a rogue populist government that suspended constitutional guarantees and took the law into its own hands even before the military coup, and then by a far rightwing dictatorial regime that overthrew the democratically elected if out-of-control administration. And we were also confronting the latent threat of violence from the urban terrorists who opposed both regimes—since our banner was that of liberal democracy, the rule of law, and egalitarian justice, principles that neither side in the civil strife of those days shared with us. The threat to Charlie Hebdo, meanwhile, came from an external source, one that is seeking to impose its will via terror and destruction on the world as a whole. But then again, as it becomes wider spread, the Muslim fundamentalist threat is also turning more and more internal, as brain-washed, self-disenfranchised losers like the two fanatical brothers who carried out this heinous act become the “enemies within” in Western democracies, only too glad to offer up their stunted, pathetic lives to serve the fundamentalist designs of the crazed “evangelists” of “faith by murder”.
While in contemporary use the term fundamentalism has come to be equated with religious fanaticism (and for some people—mostly those who have never read the history of the Christian Crusades or lived in the US Bible Belt—Islamic fundamentalism), there are clear basic elements of fundamentalism in every closed society. Or in other words, in societies ruled by an elite that doesn’t admit the rights of others to their own beliefs or to their own expressions, or to their own desires beyond the dictates handed down from the pinnacle of power (even when that pinnacle is only the toad stool on which village tyrants stand). Thus any sort of totalitarian or dictatorial political philosophy is essentially fundamentalist, since all of them are based on “a cause”, even when their only real purpose is to accumulate control and power.
That was certainly the case of “my” dictators, back in the days of what was known in Argentina as the “National Reorganization Process”: In what was clearly a dichotomous message, their pitch was that they had cut short an admittedly questionable “democracy” by armed force in order to “preserve the Constitution” (parts of which they immediately suspended and the rest of which they made subject to the decisions of the military junta) and to “defend Western and Christian values” against the advances of “godless communism”. The way they planned to do that was by jailing and/or killing everybody who didn’t agree with them. In the words of one of their most boisterous exponents, General Ibérico Saint Jean, who served as military governor of Buenos Aires Province during the worst repression, “First we’ll kill all of the subversives, then we’ll kill their collaborators, then their sympathizers, and right after that the ones who remain indifferent, and, finally, we’ll kill the faint of heart.”
This bears obvious, if ostensibly opposing, similarities to the “holy war” of the Islamists, the ultimate purpose of whom is to “destroy the West” and, according to the words and deeds of the most fanatical of their ilk, to kill all of those who do not convert to their brand of Islam. In the midst of this sort of government-sponsored or extremist-imposed lawlessness and terrorism, the task of authentic democrats is to become ad hoc “authorities” themselves: moral authorities, authentic defenders of democracy and of the basic rights that go with it, which is precisely what the editor of the paper I worked for did, and what we continued to do after he was eventually forced into exile after direct threats to his family. We continued to exercise our rights as democrats even when the country’s illegitimate rulers told us we no longer possessed any such rights. We continued to defend the right to free expression the best way anyone can, by exercising it fully and boldly in the face of tyranny. And we continued to do our duty as writers, thinkers and journalists by defending human and civil rights as a whole, in demanding that other people’s rights be restored and respected, despite the risk to our own safety that doing so signified.
This is an important point to bear in mind, because it has a lot to do with why je suis Charlie, and why you should be too, if you genuinely value freedom above all else. Because whether or not you agree with Charlie Hebdo’s politics, or viewpoint, or style of expressing itself, by doing so in defiance of every kind of legal and illegal warning and threat imaginable, its artists, writers and editors were also exercising your right to freedom of expression and mine, as do a number of other defiant and creative people around the world who day by day refuse to be told what they can and cannot say or represent. Like, for instance, Saudi Arabian blogger Raif Badawi, who was recently sentenced by a Saudi court to ten years in prison and to fifty lashes a week for twenty weeks, for writing frankly in his Internet blog. Or like the people around the world who publicly protested that sentence against Badawi and managed to get his case reviewed by the Saudi Supreme Court, despite his already receiving the first fifty-lash flogging and languishing in jail for exercising his and our right to free expression. 
This past week, I posted a controversial Charlie Hebdo cover on my Facebook wall and appended a je sui Charlie legend to it, inviting others to do the same if they were true believers in freedom of expression. Surprisingly few of my Facebook friends did this. And even fewer of the friends of those who did followed suit. One friend on whose wall I had posted it later posted the response of one of her friends on my wall, which made it clear that even if he was indeed repulsed by the Charlie Hebdo murders he wanted to make it clear that as far as he was concerned “Je ne suis pas Charlie” (he was not Charlie). Why? Because he didn’t believe in the “disrespectful way” in which the cartoonists and humorists of Charlie Hebdo treated the Islamic culture or, in fact, how the magazine disrespected everything many other people considered sacred or beyond reproach.
That is, of course, his opinion and, fortunately, his right. But sadly, I felt, he had missed the point, as had my friend, perhaps, in reposting his criticism on my wall as a kind of comment as to the possible error involved in my embracing Charlie unconditionally, even if I was shocked and disgusted by the murders. The point I feel they may have missed wasn’t whether or not I agreed completely with Charlie Hebdo’s often over-the-top satire, but whether or not I—and everyone else who gives frequent lip service to it—actually believed in its writers and artists’ right to free expression.
This past week, the US-based Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) conditionally defended Charlie Hebdo’s right to free speech, but called for greater understanding and respect. Some Muslims clearly consider Charlie Hebdo to be anti-Islamic because of the satirical cartoon images of the prophet Muhammad that it prints....
Which brings me to a brief aside: It has been pointed out that the most fanatical of Muslims would probably consider anti-Islamic any caricatures that Charlie Hebdo or any other magazine might print of Jesus as well, since Jesus, the key figure in Christianity, is also a minor prophet of Islam. So even if non-fundamentalist Christians were to take any such images in stride, if you were to poke fun at Christianity you might still get targeted, ironically enough, by normally rabid anti-Jewish Islamists for disrespecting the image of a prophet who was known in his day as King of the Jews. I mean, with fundamentalists, you just can’t win! They’re a touchy lot who are eminently offendable and defy appeasement, so why try?
And then there’s the viewpoint of unapologetic atheists like political comedian Bill Maher, who believes that if religions are free to publicly express, espouse and promote their beliefs in God, then atheists should and do have just as much right to publicly express their view that all such beliefs are a crock. By the way, what Maher said regarding the Charlie Hebdo massacre was, and I quote: “These assholes in Paris who shot cartoonists this week, they don’t like it [being on the wrong end of a joke], and as a jokester, I just have to say, the world needs to stand as one and—to quote the immortal Dick Cheney—say, ‘Go fuck yourself.’”
But anyway, what the CAIR’s Executive Director Nihad Awad said about all of this was that, “Just as Charlie Hebdo has the right to publish, we have the right to peacefully challenge negative portrayals of our religious figures. The answer to speech one disagrees with should not be violence, but should instead be more speech promoting tolerance and mutual understanding.”
Fair enough, and Awad is right. The whole idea behind free speech is just that: that it is free and open to everyone, so as to permit an exchange of opinions and ideas, which are the bloodline that nurtures a free society. And to paraphrase Voltaire, it’s my right to disagree with what someone else says or to question how they express themselves, but if I’m a democrat who truly believes in free speech and individual liberties as a whole, then it’s my duty to “defend to the death their right” to say what they say and to express it however they express it.  
Edgar Hopida, Communications Director for the ISNA, was quoted by the Huffington Post as saying that, “While we respect everyone's right to freedom of speech, even when it offends and disparages our religious traditions, we also have the right to address and peacefully challenge a narrative that encourages anti-Muslim bigotry, Islamophobia and xenophobia...” And up to there, I’m in complete agreement with him. But after that, his opinions wondered into the minefield of prior censorship, when he said that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons “only incite already increasing anti-Muslim sentiment...” adding that, “if [free] speech or expression incites people to commit violence and harm on others then it should not be allowed in our society.” The fact is that if Mr. Hopida were allowed to decide what was and wasn’t allowed in terms of “free” speech, according to whether or not it wounded his fragile sensibilities and those of his brethren, he wouldn’t be living in the United States, but in some fundamentalist state where telling others what they can and can’t say and do is the order of the day. And as long as Charlie Hebdo is published in France, he won’t be able to get away with deciding who can say what there either.
Pope Francis, for his part, was disappointingly unhelpful as well. One has come to expect bold, out-of-the-box thinking from the Argentine pontiff, but this time his response couldn’t have been more mundane and tended to reflect his own latent fundamentalism. While he indicated that it was unacceptable, of course, to murder a group of writers and artists armed only with their pens and pencils, he tacitly justified the fundamentalist rage that ended their lives by going on to say that religious freedom and freedom of expression were fundamental human rights, but that they were not total liberties. “There is a limit,” the Pope said. “Every religion has its dignity. I cannot mock a religion that respects human life and the human person.” And then, to bring his point home he cited a colloquial example by saying that if somebody called his mother a dirty name, “they’re going to get punched in the nose.”
Whether the pontiff meant it to be or not, this last hinted that, in a way, the dead artists and writers at the French weekly were asking for what they got, which is a little like saying, I don’t think the girl next door should have gotten raped and I’m sorry it happened, but then again she did wear her skirts awfully short and her neckline awfully low. It might have been more excusable coming from someone who had never lived through a period of harsh repression, but back in the days when he was still a priest, riding the subway in Buenos Aires and carrying his lunch, Pope Francis lived through the same dictatorship that I did and should know the price paid for intimating that victims are the authors of their own fate and he should know too the value (all too often in human blood) of free expression and the uncompromising nature of its genuine defense. Overwhelming silence in the Argentina of his day cost tens of thousands of lives and ruined tens of thousands more. Even as Pope, he hasn’t earned the privilege of overlooking that.  
The other point that needs to be made here is that Charlie Hebdo’s satirical criticism of Islam is aimed, not at Muslims, but at Muslim fanatics, whose modus operandi is to attack, vanquish and murder anyone who doesn’t agree with them. In fact, the French weekly’s editorial policy as a whole is aimed at poking withering satirical fun at everyone and everything that seeks to violate the natural rights of the individual to do what he or she pleases and to believe (or not believe) whatever his or her own heart and mind dictates.
The fact is that the magazine’s editorial policy is all about taking to task and “ridiculizing” everything that it feels undermines liberal thought. It is all about being stridently anti-establishment and non-conformist, about boldly representing, by its own description, left-wing, anti-racist thought and about satirically jerking the chains and punching the readily-emotional buttons of the foremost representatives of contemporary religion, politics and culture. It is not an “anti-Muslim” publication, but an anti-establishment one, taking on—with the same even-handed, poison-pen precision—the political extreme right and the established religious dictates of Roman Catholicism, Judaism and Islam alike. Murdered former editor Stéphane “Charb” Charbonnier described the magazine as reflecting the viewpoint of “all components of left-wing pluralism, and even abstainers.”
The other thing worth pointing out is that, despite the fact that Charlie Hebdo has ridiculed just about every icon possible and incurred the anger of leaders and celebrities from all walks of life—and while they might get a papal punch in the beak if the dare insult Bergoglio’s mother—the only two instances of violence that the magazine has suffered (a bombing in 2011 and the mass slaughter carried out this month) were both perpetrated by Muslim fundamentalists, who thus win the je suis Charlie prize for intolerance.
A voice that Voltaire (and George Washington) might well have applauded was that of writer Salman Rudshie, who, himself, long lived under death threats from Islamic fundamentalists. This past week, Rudshie said: “The French satirical tradition has always been very pointed and very harsh, and still is...The thing that I really resent is the way in which these, our dead comrades ... who died using the same implement that I use, which is a pen or pencil, have been almost immediately vilified and called racists and I don't know what else...Both John F. Kennedy and Nelson Mandela use(d) the same three-word phrase which in my mind says it all, which is, ‘Freedom is Indivisible.’ You can't slice it up. Otherwise it ceases to be freedom. You can dislike Charlie Hedbo...But the fact that you dislike them has nothing to do with their right to speak.”
From mid-1974 through early 1983, I lived in a climate in which I became accustomed to existing, first, with the threat of death by proxy involved in being part of the support team for courageous editorialists, and, later, with direct threats to my own life and to the newspaper that I worked for, as I devoted my own efforts to expressing the paper’s political and moral line. Asked, on occasion, why I did it, when it wasn’t my country or my fight, I’ve always replied that, on the contrary, opposing tyranny and violent fundamentalism of any kind is everyone’s fight no matter where it happens, and that for writers, journalists and political humorists, it’s not a choice, but a moral and professional obligation.
Seen from that vocational viewpoint, I fully identify with the murdered staffers at Charlie Hebdo. But I also identify with and am grateful to them for defending everyone’s right to free expression by exercising theirs with such uncompromising passion and self-sacrifice. And that’s why je suis Charlie. How about you? 


Wednesday, December 24, 2014

PEACE ON EARTH, A HUNDRED YEARS AGO TODAY


One of the most inspiring factual Christmas stories in modern history is, perhaps, that of the Christmas Truce of 1914. I know that it has been told many times before by journalists, novelists, screenwriters and others, but I feel that, as a parable, it bears repeating, more because of the implications of its meaning than as a mere anecdote, although it remains a singularly moving and colorful story as such. And if there was ever a holiday season in which it deserved re-telling, it is surely this Christmas, on the one hundredth anniversary of this extraordinary event.
World War I, known back then as the Great War, was one of the most intimately horrific wars in history. Still fought in extremely close quarters and, at the peak of battle, still a war about hand to hand combat and grim, bloody, “justified” murder, it was also the first war that introduced the technology to permit even more effective mass slaughter: tanks capable of breaking through firing lines and overrunning barriers and men, machineguns that could fire between 400 and 600 rounds a minute and out-match a hundred riflemen, mustard and chlorine gasses that choked the air and blinded, suffocated and incapacitated soldiers on the opposite side...in short, the things nightmares are made of, and all up close and personal.
Losses in the Great War were tragic and, for their generation, devastating. By the end of the conflict ten million combatants on both sides had died and another six million civilians had perished with them. Tens of millions of others would be wounded, mutilated or incapacitated for life.
This new technology necessitated keeping a low profile during battle, which, in turn, meant getting below ground level. It was because of this that World War I became, essentially, a trench war—to such an extent that, by the end of the war, the trenches built by both sides, laid end to end, could have easily stretched once around the circumference of the earth.  Trenches were usually built in threes and roughly parallel to each other on either side. The front-line trench was typically fifty yards from the enemy and was backed up by support trenches a couple of hundred yards back and a reserve trench several hundred yards farther back still, holding relief troops and equipment. They were purposely serpentine, snaking their way through the countryside in order to discourage direct frontal attack and to provide different angles from which to fire on the enemy. In between, no-man’s-land, a bleak strip of shell-cratered land strewn with barbed wire and other obstacles and surveilled by machine-gunners on either side.  
But the intimate nature of this arrangement meant that the men hunkered down in those trenches for weeks and months on end became “neighbors” with those who populated the enemy trenches across from theirs. And clearly, like nearly all other wars, the Great War wasn’t about any enmity among the individuals involved in the fighting, but about politicians doing the bidding of ambitious imperial leaders who set their sights on each other’s holdings and used propaganda to dupe common citizens into believing that it was their patriotic duty to fight and die for “king and country” and for a set of imposed “ideals” that served to invent “an enemy people” who only yesterday had been a neighbor, a fellow European, a brother or a sister.
It is worth recalling, nevertheless, that this was a time in which common individuals were starting to come into their own. It was the time of growing anarchism and Marxism, of movements toward increasing democratization, of unions and guilds to protect the rights of those whose toil and skills were augmenting the wealth of the powerful on both sides who were conducting this war for reasons of their own while adducing matters of patriotism and the glory of “just war”.
As such, there was no little concern among leaders on both sides regarding the “morale” of the troops in the trenches. And indeed those concerns, for anyone hoping to conduct a prolonged and widespread conflict in such conditions, were warranted. Nearly a half-year into the war, the two sides had reached a deadlock after British and French troops blocked initial advances by the soldiers of Kaiser Wilhelm. This was where the grueling trench war intensified, but ended up often being a waiting game in which no one could advance and no one could retreat and everyone had to become accustomed to periods of sitting out their days in cold, wet, filthy earthworks, randomly broken by the adrenalin of firefights or over-the-top hand-to-hand battles.
Odd though it may seem, by the latter months of 1914, verbal contact and even a certain amount of fraternization wasn’t unheard-of between opposing trenches, particularly between German and British troops, though there were occasionally such cases reported between the French and the Germans as well, to such an extent that a young French officer named Charles de Gaulle is said to have termed “lamentable” the attitude of a number of his troops who would have been perfectly content to let the enemy be. Incredibly enough, informal ceasefires were sometimes called just before nightfall to allow one side or the other to receive food or other supplies. And there were even reports of “visits” during lulls in the fighting by members of one army to the opposing army’s trenches, in a sort of courtesy-call etiquette respected by riflemen on both sides of the war.
As this sort of thing progressed, superior officers began being alarmed by reports of the practice and started sending down rigorous orders forbidding troops from any sort of fraternizing with the enemy. But that didn’t stop what amounted to a Christmas miracle’s taking place over the course of several days from Christmas Eve through Boxing Day (December 26th), 1914.
It all began with some of the German soldiers placing reminders of the Christian holiday up on the edges of their trenches—a candle here, a makeshift Tannenbaum there, and suddenly the rims of their excavations were beginning to look a lot like Christmas. It’s easy to speculate that some of the troops in the opposite trenches might have suspected a trick to get them to break cover. But then, the Germans began singing Christmas carols in their language. And soon, the British soldiers started answering them in English. Someone shouted, “Frohe Weihnachten!” And someone shouted back, “Merry Christmas!”
Finally, a few brave souls climbed up out of their trenches, negotiated the barbed wire and obstacles and met each other halfway in no-man’s-land, which was now converted into Every Man’s Land. Others came. They shook hands, smiled, shared and exchanged what they had—cigarettes, cigars, pipe tobacco, whatever liquor they had in their flasks, chocolate, small deserts from their battlefield rations. And they traded souvenirs, buttons from their coats, caps, scarves, whatever might serve as a gift.
They took advantage of these rare moments of peace and shared Christmas sentiments to gather and bury the bodies of their most recent dead and they held joint Christmas services to honor the day. Even the artillery fell silent as soldiers from both sides of the rolls of concertina wire greeted each other, not as enemies, but as fellow human beings and as brothers with this same tradition, with families, and with memories of previous years of peace in common.
A reflection of how touching these moments were, is the account of one British trooper who wrote, “I wouldn't have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything. I spotted a German officer, some sort of lieutenant I should think, and being a bit of a collector, I intimated to him that I had taken a fancy to some of his buttons...I brought out my wire clippers and, with a few deft snips, removed a couple of his buttons and put them in my pocket. I then gave him two of mine in exchange....I saw one of my machine gunners, who was a bit of an amateur hairdresser in civil life, cutting the unnaturally long hair of a docile Boche, who was patiently kneeling on the ground whilst the automatic clippers crept up the back of his neck.”
In the end, literally tens of thousands of opposing troops took part in the informal Christmas Truce of 1914, before their superior officers desperately imposed drastic measures to put an immediate stop to such an appalling display of...brotherhood. For a moment, men pushed into battle with other men just like them for unquestionable reasons neither understood and on the basis of fabricated logic and false justifications invented by their handlers, took their lives and their wills back and, responding to the higher orders of their own shared religious and social traditions, decided for a few days to no longer be enemies.
Imbued as they were with as much civic as religious doctrine, however, the brief silencing of the guns to celebrate Christmas would inevitably end, since they were, unfortunately, already past being free enough to believe in the power of one, by which individuals of like mind retain the power and the human duty to say “no” to their self-imposed authorities. Their upbringing, their schooled sense of patriotism, their feelings of contrived loyalty to anyone but their fellow man, led them back into war, and before they were through, millions more would die.
For a few days in December of 1914, however, the power of the Christmas spirit outweighed the power of warring empires and erstwhile enemies gave each other the gift of peace in the name of a common and loving human tradition.

MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL AND PEACE ON EARTH!


Monday, December 22, 2014

PART THREE: THE TEMPLE OF TOLERANCE






Read Parts One and Two at the following links:


Impressive though it was to spend time with Jim Bowsher inside his extraordinary home full of stories on Wood Street in Wapakoneta, Ohio, the really astonishing sight was still awaiting me on the other side of his unobtrusive back door. He led me through an old-fashioned kitchen—whose walls and shelves, like those of the rest of the house, were festooned with memorabilia, rather like proverbial strings tied around the digits of his memory so as to remind him of the stories that they symbolized and to hold them in their grasp—out through a classic back door (wooden with a windowpane in the upper half), and down some steps into the backyard.

Astounding and surreal...
From that point on, however, it was like in my most vivid and moving dreams in which doors that look commonplace so often lead to totally unexpected venues, whose impact is astounding and surreal. For such a sight as greeted me on stepping into that magical place, I might rather have expected a great gate, an imposing portal, huge bronze doors with ornate reliefs, or something, at least, other than a common, early twentieth-century kitchen door to give me a first clue as to the nature of the phenomenon that lay beyond it. But that only rendered it more surprising still, more like jumping down a rabbit hole only to find yourself in a whole new world that you had never imagined existed. 

Some people call it simply The Rock Garden. I would call it something more like “the Wapakoneta Stonehenge”, at the center of which stands the imposing Temple of Tolerance. The best description I’ve heard was provided by my high school friend Jane Siferd Maley, who said that, on seeing it for the first time, “I felt as if the earth was hard put to hold up those mighty rocks.”
Entrance to the temple proper


Without seeing it, this garden filled with natural stone “sculptures” (for lack of a better term) is hard to describe and harder still to imagine, unique as it is. Jim told me a story about a pilot who showed up at his door one day after clocking the coordinates of Jim’s house so that he could come and find out first-hand what it was that he had seen from the air. The guy had been so surprised the first time he’d flown over The Rock Garden and Temple of Tolerance that he decided to do a three-sixty and overfly it again. That’s how big and impressive a sight it is, even from thousands of feet up.
Jim explains that the millstones behind him are "the smoking gun"
regarding the usurping of Shawnee land by white settlers. 
(Photo by Mary Yo Knoch)
As for me, I tried, almost immediately, to imagine some archeologist centuries from now coming across this baffling find and speculating about what sort of culture might have erected it, and what its purpose might have been. That is, of course, assuming that, after Jim passes on, future generations of Wapakoneta and/or Ohio officials are wise enough to preserve it for posterity and that the town’s citizens will be savvy and tenacious enough to make them do so.

Whatever the case may be, it is unlikely—unless Wapakoneta historians are as meticulous about preserving Jim’s story and passing it on as he has been about preserving and recounting those of the generations before his—that far into the future anyone will immediately surmise that The Rock Garden and its centerpiece Temple of Tolerance are the brainchild and work of a single human being. They will likely jump to the conclusion that it is the product of a cult, because it would be ludicrous to think that a single man could have the strength, will and persistence to build something so intricate yet massive, so universal yet focused, so free-minded yet obsessive.
Standing atop the temple and in typically histrionic style, Jim 
explains the tremendous forces of nature that created a particularly
unique rock.


But if that ends up being their presumption, then it will only be because they’ve never met Jim Bowsher personally. Because meeting Jim, spending time with him, holding a conversation with him, is a little like standing on the verge of an enormously powerful whirlpool. You get as close as you can, teeter on the brink, so to speak, because his massive swirling energy is so magnetic that you want to peer over the edge into the vortex, but, caution! His force field is so potent that, if you don’t keep a firm footing, it can draw the energy of everything around it into its core, rather like some extraterrestrial phenomenon that unintentionally blacks out entire cities, just because it doesn’t know its own strength. And that’s precisely the kind of unique vigor, stamina and purpose required to create something like The Temple of Tolerance and its attendant Rock Garden.  
The imposing profile of Jim Bowsher's visiom, the Temple of Tolerance. 
(Photo by Michael Boruff)
Jim tells me that everything I see, there beyond his unassuming back door, was “a vision”. He saw it all before he built it—with the scant mechanical help of a World War II vintage dump truck and a tractor with a backhoe—and having seen it, felt compelled to make his vision materialize. Most of the “heavy construction” has been carried out with enormous stones (many weighing several tons) that form part of the story of Mother Ohio herself. These are the striped morainal boulders of Ohio’s Ice Age, stones dragged and sheared and compressed and worried by the gargantuan blocks of continental ice that carved, planed and molded the landscape from Lake Erie in the north to Hocking Hills in the south. Jim and his brother Walt and sometimes one or another of a handful of close friends traveled far and wide across the state culling the stones from farmers’ fields—and, in the process, gleaning the stories of some of the farmers themselves and of their ancestors.

Jim perched atop one of the stair columns from
our junior high school.
(Photo by Robyn Becker Scott)
But these geologically significant stones are combined with cut stones as well, pieces of carefully collected masonry with what might be called anthropological and historical meanings of their own: the stone entry columns from the Blume school building where Jim and I went to junior high and from which our parents graduated high school, the stone water fountain that used to sit on a corner downtown and where generations of kids on bikes stopped to quench their thirst, the slab that was the first step leading up to the meeting hall of the Ku Klux Klan headquarters above an erstwhile popular jewelry store on Wapakoneta’s main drag, random pieces of the old Cincinnati ball park where the Queen City’s baseball tradition was born, two huge mill wheels used by early Ohio settlers to grind the grain grown on land usurped from the Hog Creek Reservation (of which Wapakoneta formed part), ostensibly ceded to the Shawnee Nation after the Battle of Fallen Timbers, an obelisk-shaped stone post that is the only known surviving marker from that same reservation, theater-mask-like façade ornaments from some long-since demolished emblem of architectural history—pieces known to the Irish as “moon dogs” since they change expressions from jovial to sinister by the light of the full moon—a chunk of the Berlin Wall, wrought iron fences and gates and myriad other items, each with a story of its own, skillfully and artfully combined with the natural stone base-work.


"What's  this?" Jim asked, and I immediately recognized it as a counter
stool from the Teddy Bear restaurant that my father had owned and 
closed down in 1969.                                             (Photo by Mary Jo Knoch)
Speaking of items with a story of their own, as Jim and I are standing at the top of the 14-foot temple with our mutual friend, photographer Mary Jo “Jodi” Knoch, Jim suddenly says, “Oh wait, I’ll be right back,” and dashes off down the steps from the altar and out of sight. But he’s back as swiftly as he left, carrying something in his arms. What he sets down before us at the top of the temple looks immediately familiar to me.
“What’s this?” he asks, to which a dubious Jodi responds, with a palpable question in her voice, “A barstool?”

I gaze at the pitted chrome foot and cracked red leather seat of the piece and say, “One of the end-counter stools from my dad’s restaurant, the Teddy Bear,” a business that my father shut down for good in 1969. 

A barrel-shaped speakeasy...
(Photo by Mary Jo Knoch)
“Correct!” Jim says, and now I’m almost convinced that between his house and this garden, he must have a piece of every Wapakoneta son and daughter at his fingertips. Like the barrel-shaped wooden hut that sits just outside of Jim’s covered back patio (which is also crammed with objects whose stories he hoards more than the items themselves) and that once sat on Jodi’s Uncle Bum’s farm. In the Prohibition era it served as a kind of rural speakeasy and it still has the bullet holes in it to prove it.    
One other memorable piece is a marble slab salvaged from a demolished bank in nearby Bluffton, Ohio. The attraction to this piece was its connection with thirties gangster John Dillinger. Elsewhere in The Southern Yankee
(http://southernyankeewriter.blogspot.com.ar/2009/11/tour-1-defiance-street.html), 


The notorious John Dillinger
I’ve narrated, in detail and with a personal family anecdote, the story of how Dillinger’s reign of terror affected local history in our part of Ohio, mainly because of his gang’s murder of Sheriff Jesse Sarber at the Allen County jail in the city of Lima, fifteen miles north of Wapakoneta, where the gangster was being held in 1933. And Jim hasn’t forgotten it either. That particular slab was the one Dillinger hopped up onto before catapulting himself onto the tellers’ counter at the Bluffton bank and, for the first time in his brief but prolific criminal “career”, shouting, “I’m John Dillinger, and I rob banks.”


Johnny Depp in "PublicEnemies"
But this isn’t the only Dillinger story Jim knows. The best one he tells is how Dillinger, in a way, introduced him to actor Johnny Depp. It seems that when Depp was cast as Dillinger in the 2009 picture Public Enemies, part of the movie was shot on location in nearby Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Van Wert, Ohio. Someone involved in the motion picture’s production had heard of the Temple of Tolerance and decided to drive over to Wapakoneta and have a look-see. In the course of talking to Jim, the guy mentioned that he was working on the film and, typical of the ever-outspoken Jim, he told this fellow to give a message to Johnny Depp: “Tell him,” Jim said, “not to go turning that murdering gangster into some kind of folk hero.” Depp, Jim felt, should be honest in his portrayal, and show Dillinger for the hardened killer and thief that he was, not as some romanticized Robin Hood of the Depression era, which he wasn’t.
A short time later, Jim was working at his house with one of his volunteer helpers who, answering the phone, turned to Jim and said, “Hey Jim, there’s either some delusional guy on the phone who thinks he’s Johnny Depp, or it’s Johnny Depp asking to talk to you.”
Jim took the phone, said hello, and immediately got a batch off hell from Depp, who asked him who he thought he was sending critical messages to him about his interpretation of Dillinger when he had no idea who Depp was, the depth of his skills as an actor, his own thoughts as to how to play the role, etc. Jim unabashedly came back with his own thoughts on how Hollywood all too often turned scoundrels into heroes and vice versa, and, although his intention wasn’t to offend Depp, it wasn’t hard to figure that if Dillinger was to be the protagonist of a Hollywood feature film, the producers weren’t going to sink that kind of money into a film about a guy the audience would hate.
They argued on for a while and finally, agreeing to disagree, said their chilly goodbyes and hung up. A short time later, however, Jim got another call from Depp, who asked laconically, “So what the hell’s this Temple of Tolerance?” Jim invited him to visit it and find out. To his surprise, the actor showed up. When he saw The Rock Garden, he was blown away, and remained there talking to Jim, listening to his stories and asking numerous questions about this vision made reality. By the time Depp left, they had become friends.

Jim sits at the summit of his stone vision explaining the 18-year 
construction process. Just behind him, the only known surviving 
boundary marker for the Hog Creek Shawnee reservation of which 
Wapakoneta formed part.
(Photo by Mary Jo Knoch)
It took Jim Bowsher eighteen years to build The Rock Garden and Temple of Tolerance, frequently to the chagrin of city building inspectors, whose basic question was, “Just what the hell are you building anyway, Jim, and why the hell don’t you have a permit?” Jim basically told them to think of it as art rather than architecture, and somebody finally decided to set a standard policy of ignoring “whatever the hell it was” that this genial madman was doing in his backyard...even when he started acquiring other backyards and erecting his stone sculptures further and further beyond his own back door. By the time he was finished, Jim owned the entire center of the block and his maze of stone monuments had expanded to cover it all.
By the time Jim was finished, he owned the entire center of the block
and his maze of stone sculpture had expanded to cover it all.


The same dichotomous line that I had earlier discovered inside Jim’s house comes into full bloom out here, and the reason for it is the same as indoors. It is a combination of the sacred and the profane, of good and evil, of right and wrong, of, in the end, tolerance and intolerance. And the idea is that the good should assuage the bad and, eventually, cleanse and purify it.  The step from the KKK hall is a good example: Jim says that when he first saw black kids and white kids sitting on it together, he knew the karma cleansing had begun.
Anybody’s welcome anytime at the Temple of Tolerance, but kids have the run of the place. There’s only one hard and fast rule—besides no dope, no bullying and no bad vibes driving wedges between folks: No profanity. In "Bowsherspeak", that doesn’t mean you can’t cuss. What it means is that no racial epithets, no party politics, no religious intolerance, indeed, no verbal intolerance of any kind will be permitted. This is a place for peace, harmony and human fraternity.
As such, it tends to be a gathering place for writers, poets, photographers and “pickin’ people” who, when the weather is good, get together and jam on Thursday evenings. And even when it’s chilly, at the top of the temple there’s a pit for a fire around which people can sit and exchange their songs and stories, like people did in the earliest of societies.  
Jim no longer considers the vast garden—with its multiple emblematic natural and cut-stone structures—to be his. It is a privately owned property that he has conjured into a public space, where people come and go at all hours of the day and night and from all over the state, the country and the world, slipping in through a side entrance without having to go through Jim’s house. It’s now more like Jim belongs to the garden than it to him, in his role as the keeper of the temple—a sort of respectful but often irreverent, non-denominational but highly spiritual monk, charged with the task of imbuing others with the philosophy of tolerance that inspired its construction. 
It's now more like Jim belongs to the garden than it to him. 
(Photo by Michael Boruff)
At one point, as I’m sitting at the summit of the temple, in the golden light of a late autumn afternoon, looking around at the painstakingly modeled piles of massive stone—each a kind of “side altar” to the Temple of Tolerance proper—I’m reminded how necessary this instructional role of Jim’s might be in understanding what all of this is for, since I recall the dry stone pirkas built by pre-Columbian Native Americans and scattered throughout South America. The Spanish Conquistadores, who had no interest whatsoever in comprehending the local culture, were only capable, in their discriminatory and narrow-minded conquerors’ vision, of seeing the pirkas as walls. Conjecturing at what they might be used for, they referred to them as “corrales de piedra” (or stone corrals). But in fact, these open-air stone enclosures were carefully constructed as places of gathering and worship, social magnets of sorts, temples, as it were, integrated into the big-sky landscape of the Andean region.

Yes, stones have a magnetism all their own, but in the hands of humans, they are also imbued with other forces and may well require interpretation, philosophy and even cleansing when arranged with purpose, intent and aforethought. So Jim remains the Temple Master of his creation for now, with the hope that, when he’s gone, others will carry on the tradition of tolerance and growing empathy that his vision has bred in this unique garden and gathering place that he has lovingly built and nurtured to be shared with the world.