Sunday, July 12, 2020

Passport to the world

In my experience, God must have a deep and intricate sense of humor.

Think of elephants. And giraffes. And gooney birds.

Anyway, about a year ago a history-geek friend of mine mentioned that he wanted to go back to see Normandy – the site of the world-changing D-Day invasion – one more time before he was too old to travel. Hmm, I thought. So would I, and I asked if I could tag along. Visiting Normandy has been a substrata bucket list item for me for a while, lost in the layers of all the other things I need to do in my life.

But crossing the Atlantic would require getting a passport. I'd never done that. I've been to about 40 of the 50 states, including Alaska, but I've never been overseas. Until I picked up a history book, I'd never given world travel much of a thought.

Now there was an opportunity.

So in February, when the Clerk of Court's office offered its annual passport day, Kim and I stood in a relatively fast-moving line and applied for our passports. After the paperwork was filled out and approved, and money exchanged, the nice lady behind the counter said our passports should arrive in four to six weeks.

Our passports are here. Now what...???
 That's when God stepped in and said, "Slow down, son. Here, try this pandemic on for size."

The four-to-six week waiting period turned into a three-to-four month waiting period, since there was suddenly an embargo on issuing new passports because of the Covid-19 coronavirus.

I don't often hear the voice of God, but I swear I could hear him laughing this time. In my vision, He laughs with a deep, resonate voice, kind of like Geoffrey Holder did in those famous 7-Up cola nut commercials. Ha ha ha ha ha. Except deeper. I don't know how to make type face sound deeper.

(Incidentally, I don't see God as a corporeal entity, as if He were an old man with a long, white beard and shepherd's hook. To me, God is something more ethereal and exists primarily in our own spiritual context. But if He is a physical entity, then I hope She's female. A Black female. That would give those Confederates something to think about when they approach the Pearly Gates).

But I digress. Because of the virus, nobody was going anywhere. Especially, as it turns out, Americans, because we're stupid and we let the virus spike because we're going to Myrtle Beach and nobody is going to tell me to wear a face mask and I've got my rights. Europeans don't even want us to come over, even with our bulging wallets and unlimited credit and debit cards.

Anyway, in the middle of this current spike, guess what showed up in the mail? Yep. The passports arrived about two weeks ago. Ha ha ha ha ha.

Great. Now what? I'm not even going to Gettysburg this year. Now that's really saying something.

The trip to Normandy was never set in stone. It was always in the talking/dreaming stage, but if we did decide to go, at least I have my passport ready. The lack of one is no longer an obstacle.

Looks like for now, I have to go to Normandy in my mind, in the same way that James Taylor goes to Carolina.

I need some cola nuts, and I need them now.

Sunday, July 5, 2020

China syndrome

Back when I was in high school, during the Middle Ages in the 1960s, I had the choice of which second language I wanted to learn.

That's because a second language was an elective in the college prep curriculum. We could pick between German, French and Spanish, I believe. And to think I was still having trouble with English.

Since I was living in a place called Center Valley, in the heart of the Pennsylvania Dutch country (local farmers still had hex signs on their quaint but attractive barns), I figured German was the logical choice. I mean, we had regional breweries with names like Horlacher, Neuweiler, Piels and Rheingold, for cyring out loud, and bakeries that made pretzels with the names of Miller (no doubt anglicized from Meuller) and Wolfel.

Well, German would have been a great choice if I wanted to be a waiter in a Pennsylvania Dutch restaurant or a brewer in Allentown.

But as the world turns, Spanish might have been a better option with the gradual increase of Hispanic immigration. Didn't foresee that at the time, of course. So I ended up taking two years of German in the 10th and 11th grades, and later, a semester at Kutztown State College (ach du lieber. Kutztown?). Nearly 50 years later, I've forgotten most of what I learned, although I can still count to 10, auf deutsch. Yay, me. I can still translate words like Lufthansa and Volkswagen for you, if you want. Very helpful.

But even Spanish might have been a short-sighted choice. Maybe Chinese is the way to go these days. Especially if you order something from Amazon.

A couple weeks ago, Kim and I decided we needed a thermometer in the house, just to make sure we weren't running any Covid temperatures. We haven't had a thermometer in forever. I can't even remember owning an old mercury thermometer, the kind you shook out before placing it under your tongue.

Our new thermometer. (Click to enlarge)
 So Kim put in her order. A couple of weeks later, we got our new digital thermo-meter. From BaiQen. I couldn't wait. I opened the box and unfolded the instructions. Everything – and I mean everything – was written in Chinese. Not a word of English to be found.

I googled BaiQen and found a short video on YouTube showing me how to operate the thermometer. Put it under your tongue, press the button, wait for the beep.

Okay. I did that. And the digital readout told me my temperature was 37.4.

Well, crap. Maybe it was broken. I tried it again, just to make sure. 37.6. Clearly, I was getting hot.

Then I looked at the picture of the thermometer that was printed on the box. The readout in the picture was in Celsius. Jeez. I went back to my computer and did a Celsius to Fahrenheit (a good German name) conversion. Turns out, I'm normal (in a manner of speaking). 98 point something.

The lesson here is that you have to be careful when ordering from Amazon. Kim also ordered hand wipe sanitizers, and what we got were those mini packages, each with a strip about two inches long and a half-inch wide. Fifty of them. Mostly, you use them to wipe down an area on your arm where you might give yourself an insulin injection, or something like that.

An acquaintance of ours told me she ordered a book on Amazon to give as a gift to her daughter. It cost $30. But she had failed to read the small print. When the book arrived, it was all in Italian, right down to the copyright.

Now I'm thinking we might have to order something else just to figure out the stuff we ordered: Rosetta Stone.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Wear a damn mask

To listen to some people, the idea of being told to wear a mask in the middle of a coronavirus pandemic is something akin to being told to stand in a corner like some malcontent 5-year-old doing a timeout.

Can't make me. Nah, nah, nah, nahhh, nah.

Don't Tread on Me collides with the Golden Rule.

But the COVID-19 infection rate in the United States is spiking so badly right now that many state governments are requiring masks in businesses where people gather – like in restaurants – to help stem the wave of the rapidly spreading contagion while the state tries to reopen from its original stay-in-place order a month or so ago.

On Friday, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper mandated that masks must be worn where six-foot social distancing is impossible. And, preferably, to wear masks in any social situation.

There's been some push-back. Some want Cooper to resign, some others want him impeached (even though several other states are also pausing in their reopening plans). All because he's trying to help keep you healthy. It's not like he's absconded with highway improvement funding or your mother's fine china. Sheesh.

The argument against wearing masks seems to be that wearing one is an infringement on our personal liberties. Well, so is wearing a seat belt. So is driving 80 miles an hour in a school zone. So is peeing on your neighbor's shoes. C'mon.

What seems to be lost in this argument is that this virus is particularly virulent and particularly insidious. It's not the flu. It's worse than the flu. Globally, the Rona has infected its 10 millionth person and claimed its 500,000th death today. In this country, we've surpassed 2.5 million infections and 125,000 deaths. All within four months. Last year, there were 60,000 deaths in this country due to the flu, for the entire year. Do the math.

There have been 87,000 new infections in this country in the last 48 hours.

Overall, those numbers could be on the conservative side. Some experts are suggesting the numbers could be anywhere form six percent to 24 percent higher.

And you really don't want to catch this thing. True, some people are asymptomatic. But others are susceptible. Everybody's different. If you do survive the virus (and odds are that you will), there's a chance you still could suffer lifelong lung scarring, liver damage, even brain damage.

But wearing – or not wearing – a mask has somehow become a political statement. If you don't wear a mask, you are supporting President Trump, who also isn't wearing a mask. If you do wear a mask, then you are one of the sheep following that fascist Dr. Fauci, or the Center for Disease Control, or any other health agency in the alphabet soup of responsible government. (By that logic, you are also a sheep if you follow Trump's example).


It's as if we've forgotten our high school biology. If a person is already contaminated, the virus can spread through microscopic droplets expelled from the mouth when talking, or through sneezing. Wearing a cloth mask helps capture the droplets, thus decreasing the chances of infecting someone else. Like a family member. Wearing a mask is an act of random kindness. Wearing a mask might have slowed the situation in which we now find ourselves.

On the local level, another argument I've seen is that while there is a Davidson County population of around 165,000, only 900 people have been infected. The part of the argument you don't hear is that while the county population basically remains the same day to day, the rate of infection is growing daily. A week ago, there were about 400 infections, and now there are 900, so the rate is growing, and probably exponentially. So now the question becomes, how many more people have to get sick before the maskless folks take this seriously?

And winter, with a potential second wave, is just months away.

This isn't that hard: Wear a damn mask.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

What's in a name?

As far as I know, there are 10 military installations in the continental United States that carry the name of Confederate officers.

They are, in no particular order (except alphabetical): Camp Beauregard in Pineville, LA; Fort Benning in Columbus, GA; Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, NC; Fort Gordon in Groveton, GA; Fort A.P. Hill in Bowling Green, VA; Fort Hood in Killeen, TX; Fort Lee in Prince Georges County, VA; Fort Pickett in Blackstone, VA; Fort Polk in Leesville, LA; and Fort Rucker in Dale County, AL.

To tell you the truth, I'd never given much thought to the names of these bases. Sure, through my interest in Civil War studies, I was aware that most of the names were of Confederate generals. If I did give it any thought, it was probably that I figured it was quaint Southern quirkiness to name bases in the South after Confederate military men.

But now, with the recent revisiting of anything Confederate, in part through the Black Lives Matter movement, a closer inspection is worthy. There is even growing congressional interest in changing these names to persons perhaps more deserving. Why, indeed, would you name an United States military installation after a Confederate soldier who ultimately failed? What kind of motivation does that set for a soldier?

And the Confederacy, after all, lost the Civil War – a war for the oppression and enslavement of an entire race of people. (And, it should be noted, that the Confederacy was never legally recognized internationally. Its only recognition came from within its own borders. Even the United States flag carried all 35 stars of the country during the course of the war. What Confederacy?)

As odd as it might be to name military bases after generals who lost, these particular names are especially curious:

General Braxton Bragg, of Warrenton, NC, was a commanding general in seven battles or campaigns in the Civil War, mostly in the western theater. He won just one of them – Chickamauga – and even that victory ultimately led to his defeat in the Chattanooga campaign several weeks later. So, yeah, let's name a military base after him.

Bragg, a surly sort who was often held in contempt by his own men, did not get along with politically appointed Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk, who served in Bragg's army and with whom he often quarreled. Polk was also an Episcopal bishop, and he just might have been a better bishop than a general. A rebel without a clue. Yet he has a base named for him.

Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard's claim to fame is that he was in charge during the bombardment of Fort Sumter when all hell broke loose. He did win at First Bull Run, too, but then more or less fell into disfavor with CSA president Jefferson Davis sometime after Shiloh a year later. He did convince Davis that the fall of Richmond in 1865 meant it was time to surrender. Kim and I have visited Charleston a few times, and we once took a horse-drawn carriage ride through The Battery where the tour guide told us that the PGT part of his name was ridiculed by locals as Peter Goof-off Two-timing Beauregard. So, yes. Camp Beauregard. Of course.

Ambrose Powell Hill and his Light Division were the stuff of lore early in the war, especially in the Shenandoah Valley under Stonewall Jackson. But then Gettysburg happened, and during that battle, he was virtually invisible. Maybe it was because he was suffering from a flare-up of the STD he acquired when he was a student at West Point. So, yeah, why not Fort A.P. Hill?

Major General George Pickett had long, golden locks that he regularly perfumed, which might have raised eyebrows in the Don't Ask Don't Tell era. His memorable moment came after the failed charge at Gettysburg that bears his name. After the charge, Gen. Lee asked him to recover his division. "General Lee, I have no division," replied Pickett. After the war, Pickett complained about Lee in an interview: "That old man ... had my division massacred at Gettysburg." Well, Fort Pickett does have a certain ring to it.

The Boll Weevil statue.
 Colonel Edmund Rucker was an acting brigadier general late in the war, but his higher rank was never confirmed by the Confederate congress. He served in the cavalry under Nathan Bedford Forrest and lost his left arm in the battle of Nashville. Fort Rucker is located near Enterprise, AL. There is no statue to Rucker that I know of, but Enterprise does have a statue to the Boll Weevil in its downtown square. The boll weevil statue was erected in 1919, during an era when the rest of the South was raising statues to Confederate soldiers. The insect was honored by the good people of Enterprise because the pest had devastated the area's cotton crop a few years prior and a different cash crop was needed. Consequently, struggling cotton planters became successful peanut farmers, thereby saving the local economy. The statue to the insect could be seen as witty satire by grateful locals.

I could go on, but I think you get the point. There are any number of military heroes better suited to name bases after: George Patton. Dwight D. Eisenhower. Harriet Tubman. Better yet, there are 3,520 medals of honor recipients from which to choose. That ought to be enough.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

In their own words

The murder of an African-American man, George Floyd, while in police custody on May 25, has spawned national indignation and disgust, perhaps like we've never before experienced in this country, and that indignation and disgust have been manifested in nearly three weeks of massive – and diverse – protest marches from coast to coast.

All the while in the middle of a pandemic.

And, over the course of those several weeks, the focus of the marches has morphed from 400 years of racial injustice and oppression to the review of questionable police tactics toward constitutionally assembled civilians, and now, to Confederate iconography.

Is this social convulsion an indication of a national reawakening? Perhaps a national cleansing? A reformation? Those answers remain to be seen.

As a casual student of Civil War history, I am obliquely interested in the Confederate icons. I admit I've enjoyed my forays to Monument Avenue in Richmond and Fort Sumter in Charleston. But as someone from Pennsylvania who had two great uncles fight in the 153rd Pennsylvania Volunteers and a great, great grandfather who fought in the 129th Pennsylvania Volunteers, I never quite could grasp the memorializing of an army – and thus a grievous cause – that failed.

I understand the romanticism of The Lost Cause myth, which basically says the Confederacy ultimately yielded to superior Union numbers in manpower and industry while valiantly fighting for the preservation of states rights and a way of life (an euphemism for slavery) against hopeless odds. That's fine and dandy from a Southern white man's viewpoint. How's that work if you're black?

It may be useful to listen to the original Confederates themselves on this matter.

Alexander Stephens was the vice president of the Confederacy when he gave his famously infamous Cornerstone Speech at the The Athenaeum in Savannah, GA, on March 21, 1861 – just weeks before the bombardment of Fort Sumter that began the Civil War.

In his extemporaneous speech, which he used to define Confederate ideology after seven states had already seceded from the Union, Stephens said the Confederate government's "foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery – subordination to the superior race – is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical and moral truth."

Holy crap.

Then there's the Declaration of Causes for Secession from South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia and Virginia, expanding on the articles of secession presented by all 11 Confederate states. Mississippi, the second state to secede, pulled no punches. Right up front, the second paragraph reads:

"Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has long been aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin. ..." (See here):

Holy crap.

And, there's always the Confederate constitution. (See here for a side-by-side comparison with the United States Constitution.) Take particular note of Article I, Section 9, Paragraph 4 in the Confederate Constitution, which essentially guarantees slavery.

Holy crap.

In the past few days, Confederate statues have been falling like soldiers in Pickett's Charge. But maybe it's time to take note of what Robert E. Lee himself had to say about erecting statues to Civil War generals.

In 1869, four years after his surrender, he was asked to attend a meeting between Union and Confederate officers who were considering placing a memorial on the Gettysburg battlefield. Lee wrote: "I think it wiser not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered."

Lee declined the meeting.

Social change, when it occurs, seemingly moves at a glacial pace and mostly in fits and spurts. But it usually moves forward, sometimes forcing a tectonic shift in values and perceptions. I think we're seeing that now.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Protest, police, pandemic

We are living in remarkable times. Nobody needs to tell you this.

We are completing nearly two weeks of daily nationwide (and now global) protests following the death of an African American, George Floyd in Minneapolis, MN, while he was under police custody and handcuffed.

The first week of the increasingly growing protests were marred by looting and violence, unlawful activities that unfortunately almost always seem to follow in the wake of righteous, constitutionally protected protest.

But something seemed different this time. Most of the protest marches in major cities across the country seemed peaceful enough in daylight hours, but turned violently ugly as darkness came on. To me, that suggested a different element was involved, an element with agendas not related to the civil protests.

Consequently, a larger law enforcement presence was required. Consequently, frictions increased.

I think a turning point came on Monday when peaceful protesters in Lafayette Park in Washington, DC, were turned back by mounted officers and chemical agents that resembled (and might have been) tear gas, clearing a path from the White House so that President Trump could purchase an awkward photo op, with Bible in hand, in front of historic St. John's Church.

Since then, the wave of protests has been largely – and remarkably – peaceful. What has amazed me is the diversity of the protesting participants. Whites. Blacks. Asians. Women. Children. By the thousands. Nationwide. I don't know if we've seen that kind of protest before. It's powerful. And promising.

To a point.

The protests now have kind of morphed a second branch focusing on police brutality, particularly in metropolitan areas with large populations. And not just the brutality of pressing a knee into the vulnerable neck of a handcuffed citizen, but the brutality that tazes and pulls college students out of a car, the brutality of rubber bullets fired into an unarmed crowd, or the brutality that knocks a 75-year-old man to a concrete sidewalk, rendering him unconscious.

This is protecting? This is serving?

So in addition to the specter of racism, the conversation now includes a discussion of defunding police departments. Minneapolis, for example, sees 60 percent of its annual budget go toward law enforcement.

I don't know what defunding the police really means. Clearly, we need law enforcement, otherwise there's anarchy in the streets. Good, honest policing is the bedrock of democracy. Police often put their lives on the line for ridiculously low pay. I don't want police not to exist.

But I think we also need police reform, and education, and training with a different culture and mindset to match the era we live in. It shouldn't be us against them, which is what it often looks like right now. If defunding means diverting funds to other programs for the public welfare, then I think it really does have a chance to serve and protect. But it's certainly a complicated issue, far beyond my pay grade.

All of this is happening, of course, in the dark shadow of a Covid-19 pandemic, which has taken the lives of nearly 110,000 Americans in the span of three months. I see face masks almost everywhere among the protesters, but I don't see much social distancing. Will there be a spike in the virus in two or three weeks? That remains to be seen.

But racism is also a pandemic. It means protesters are facing a serious decision when they take to the streets. Is risking your life worth the cause? North Carolina alone saw a new high of 1,370 cases reported on Saturday, and this while we're in Phase 2 of reopening the state. If the numbers spike in a couple of weeks as a result of the protests, then where are we headed if an expected second wave develops in the Fall?

Protests, police and pandemic. Where are we headed, indeed?

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Our vale of tears

I'm tired and exhausted. I'm angry and frustrated. And, even against the backdrop of a sadly and seemingly inevitable history, maybe even a little hopeful.

I didn't know I could feel so many emotions at the same time.

But the murder of George Floyd, yet another in an impossibly growing list of unarmed black people killed by over-zealous police who seem to be ignoring constitutional and civil rights, has unleashed these emotions. Again.

I say "again," because we've been here before. Too many times, in fact. A person my age can instantly recall images from the 1960s: of civil rights movements, the Harlem riots of 1964, the Watts riots of 1965, Chicago in 1968, and on and on it goes.

Why does it go on and on?

It's all rooted in racism, of course. In a country founded, in part, by the concept that all men are created equal and in a country supposedly sustained by Christian and Judaic values, we still have George Floyd. We still have Sean Reed. And Ahmaud Arbery. And Eric Garner. And Breonna Taylor. And Stephen Demarco Taylor, and Willie McCoy. And more. Many more.

All these people, supposedly equal under the law guaranteed by the 14th amendment, should have had the protection of the United States Constitution behind them (a constitution which, interestingly enough, was signed by 55 white male delegates, mostly wealthy property owners, and of whom 25 were slave owners. There might be a clue there – the ratification and perpetuation of America's Original Sin).

But they didn't.

Instead, all these people had is what seems like an empty promise. Incredibly enough, with a history of systemic oppression in this country dating back 400 years, most African Americans still pay their taxes (sometimes sustaining the very police enforcement that is killing them), they still vote (when it's not suppressed), they still serve their country (sometimes, without thanks).

We – all of us – should be angry. We should be frustrated. We know what the right thing to do is. Why are we not doing it?

With protests spreading nationally (even internationally. See Germany), I still see a window for hope. This feels different, somehow. The killing of George Floyd finally may have pushed us to a tipping point. The social unrest, coupled with the Covid-19 pandemic, may be the incentive it takes to change many social inequities. I hope so.

But history is a tough teacher. We never seem to learn from it. There was a World War II because there was a World War I (the Roman numerals speak for themselves); an unresolved Asian war in Korea in the 1950s was followed by an unresolved Asian War in Vietnam in the 1960s; an influenza pandemic in 1918 that had no vaccine and which was finally mitigated by wearing masks and maintaining social distance is requiring us to do the same thing now 100 years later.

When will we ever learn?

('Blowin' in the Wind,' written by Bob Dylan in 1962, is generally considered to be an anti-Vietnam War protest song. But nearly 60 years later, I think it serves us well as an anti-racism anthem. Dylan is for the ages).