On a Tough Sergeant

Look at the photo. Man, Bob was tough. School bored him, so he dropped out in the ninth grade. As an 18 year old, in 1961, he joined the Air Force, and he quickly became a master sergeant. It was the perfect job for a guy that tough. He loved the authority, the power, the respect as well as the responsibility that his position gave him.

Stationed in Alaska, Bob also came to really love the sweeping vistas, the soaring mountain ranges, the closeness of nature that the Great Land displays in spades. You might think that the tough and mean master sergeant would not care about nature, but Bob grew to love it in Alaska.

Bob was that the guy in the military, in his own words, “Who makes you scrub the latrine, the guy who makes you make your bed, the guy who screams at you for being late to work.” He was so good at yelling, apparently, that, over his 20 year career, having to be the tough guy began to take its toll on Bob. He started to look for some way to unwind, someway to escape the responsibility and the pressure that came from the mean side of himself.

At a local USO in Alaska, classes were offered that provided the opportunity for Bob to pick up a hobby. So, almost on a whim, he took the classes. He found out that he was good at them. He found that he enjoyed the release that his new hobby and burgeoning talent provided him. He enjoyed it so much, that he decided it was time to retire and pursue his hobby full-time.

He also promised himself that he would never raise his voice again. The years of the mean, tough Bob were over. That yelling, tough guy was to be replaced by an almost Zen-like Bob who is today known all over the world and almost revered as an icon of calm.

Bob’s hobby? You know that, too. You see, Bob became a painter.

You know him as Bob Ross.

On Two Nerds

The popularity of nerd-chic can be easily seen in the numbers of views drawn to TV’s Big Bang Theory. Nerds are, ironically, now cool. That wasn’t always the case. High school can be incredibly rough, but it can be especially tortuous for those kids that get labeled “un-cool.” Bullies—usually the cool kids—picked on those they saw as weak and nerdy. Still do, sadly, and some kids in that powerless position today, when they find themselves bullied, they strike back in anger and violence.

Take Jerry. Typical high school nerd back in the day. Not athletic. Wore glasses. Bookish. Nebbish. And Jewish. Kept to himself. It’s almost never cool (unless it’s the cause de jour) to be conversant in politics in high school, but Jerry had an understanding of American politics that most adults envied. That made him even more of an odd-ball among his peers. He felt all alone and helpless as he made his way to class through the halls of his high school in Cleveland, Ohio.

Then, one day, Jerry ran into a kid who’d moved to Cleveland from Canada: Joe. Joe was much like Jerry, even down to his Jewish ancestry. But something about these two shy kids coming together and becoming friends made each of them feel empowered. Joe later said it was like the right chemicals coming together to make something new, something better than they were individually. The two chums talked often about the people in their lives who inspired them, the men and women they admired, those people in society they looked up to and wished they could be like. They felt saddened that they lived in a world that seemed to be losing its freedom as men such as Mussolini and Hitler and Stalin bullied smaller, weaker nations much as the bullies in school tortured them.

For Jerry and Joe, they both really admired President Franklin D. Roosevelt. They liked how he managed to deal with his crippling polio and still become successful and powerful. They felt a kinship with FDR’s desire to speak for the underdog, to fight for what was right and good and true. Another hero of theirs was the swashbuckling film star, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. They wanted to be the guy who swooped in and saved the day (and got the girl in the end) as did all the characters Fairbanks played in the films.

Over many days and nights, Jerry and Joe talked about what they could do to answer the bullies. So, the nerdy pair decided to answer their bullies with creativity. You see, Jerry Siegel was the writer of the pair, and Joe Shuster was the artist. They decided to create a hybrid of their two heroes, FDR and Douglas Fairbanks.

The character they created and wrote about really is a combination of those two men, and he is known today around the world as a seeker of truth and justice:


On a Retiree

Florida beckons the retiree. Just ask anyone of them who flock to the sun-drenched place. Older people like warmth, they like not having to face yearly snows and freezes. And the state has done a great job of marketing itself to these superannuated folks.

One such Florida retiree came a few years ago after he quit his career. Like many others, retirement wasn’t so much a choice or option as it was forced on him. As a child, this man had yawned so much that his family called him Yawny. So, late in life, Yawny found himself, somewhat against his wishes, on the sunny coast of east Florida in St. Augustine.

That’s a great town to those who’ve never been. It’s an interesting blend of history and weather and culture that produces great food and draws many people there for a trip, seasonally, or, as in Yawny’s case, in retirement.

And the tourists! My God, the tourists! Yawny found that he couldn’t turn around without some tourist getting in his way. No body seemed to be a native, he thought. All of these people seemed to be from somewhere else.

The worst thing was the separation from his family. Change is hard to take, especially the older we get, and Yawny really never quite got used to being away from his kith and kin and the scenery that he’d lived in all his life.

At least the weather was warm. And he found a place on the water, so he breezes were nice. The government helped him with his groceries. He had meat every day, and that was something that he didn’t always have back where he was from. Yawny also found that others in his situation were there, people who were from his neck of the woods, people who, like him, sort of had Florida forced on them. That helped with his homesickness some. But he grew miserable, as did the others from back home.

You see, the place Yawny was from was also warm, but it was not coastal. It was Arizona. It was in Arizona that Yawny had made his way in life until the government—the United States government—stepped in and put a halt to his activities there. They stopped Yawny—and the other Apache natives–from fighting them, arrested him and others like him, and imprisoned them in the old Spanish fort in St. Augustine—the oldest European town in the United States.

They also forced him to endure viewing by all those tourists to Florida.

Yawny—his native name means that—is better known to you by a Spanish/Mexican appellation.


On Two Criminals

Criminals can’t break the law and not expect to be punished for it. Ralph and his friend were indeed arrested for breaking the law. As with many prisoners, Ralph and his fellow arrestee felt they’d been arrested unjustly, but, no, the law was clear. The men clearly were guilty even without a trial. Shame, too. Both men had grown up in church and knew better than to break the law.

In fact, the authorities felt Ralph’s crime to be so heinous that both he and his buddy were put in separate jail cells, and the first twenty-four hours were spent in solitary confinement. Neither man was allowed any communication. They had no visitors, not even their lawyers. Those days were the longest, most frustrating and bewildering hours either man ever lived.

Ralph’s pal later said, “You will never know the meaning of utter darkness until you have lain in such a dungeon, knowing that sunlight is streaming overhead and seeing only darkness below.”

What terrible crime could these two men have committed that would warrant such conditions even before the trial? To the authorities, these two men’s actions attacked the very core of what it meant to be an American. It was believed that Ralph and his buddy stood for everything that America was against. So evil was the public perception of the two men and their crime that letters to the editor of the local paper often compared them (especially Ralph’s friend) to Lucifer. Many accused them of being in bed with the enemies of the United States. Even mainstream, respected clergymen, not only in the town where they were were arrested but also across the United States, publicity said that their unlawful act was shameful. They ought to have known better.

Finally, after a few days, bowing to pressure from bleeding heart liberal lawyers, the authorities allowed attorneys for the two men in the jail to see them. That’s when Ralph’s buddy wrote a letter in their defense and gave it to one of the attorneys. The attorney turned it over to the media, and the letter was soon published across the United States and beyond.

You see, the reason many people used the name Lucifer to describe the men who committed this crime was because Ralph’s buddy’s middle name was actually Luther. Ralph you know as Reverend Ralph Abernathy. And now you know that Ralph’s buddy was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, and his famous letter is Letter from Birmingham Jail.

On a Double Life

The entire town respected William—well, almost the entire town. Some people who knew him well knew that he lived a double life. By day, he was a member of the Town Council, a sort of judge for small claims made about his chosen profession, cabinetmaking. He was also one of the first members of the town’s Chamber of Commerce. However, by night, William spent the lavish sums his cabinetry made for him in drink, women, and gambling. That’s not an unusual story, perhaps. Other people have done the same: Respectable by day, reprehensible by night.

But William was different. Times were changing. Modern dress and even modern architecture were all the rage in William’s town and period, but William clung to the old styles and ideas.While his clothes were expensive, they kept the style of twenty years ago. He seemed, by his 40s, to be stuck in an earlier time. He remembered the period when a gentleman would have a mistress or two hidden here or there, when a man of means would lay a pound or two or three on a rooster fight, when a solid citizen would join a social club in order to drink among his fellows—even to excess. Even the music William liked and often hummed or whistled was from a generation earlier. But in more recent years, those distractions had become passé; the modern society man eschewed such activities as frivolous and unrespectable. A sort of “Puritan” ethic of solid citizenry had taken hold in his town and nation. So, William remained a throwback to a time when an earlier, more permissive and somewhat liberal mentality had reigned.

William had no wife, but he kept two women in town. Each woman had children by him, but the two women didn’t know each other despite the fact they lived fairly close to each other. He was at least (at most?) discreet about this. His gambling was a way to supplement his income because he was spending money hand over fist to keep up the two women and their families and also keep his own rooms, including servants, his cabinet shop supplied and manned, and also help support other family members. But, as it always does, the gambling began to go against William. That made him gamble even more to make up his losses. That strategy never ends well

Where else could William get money?

Sitting in his cabinetry shop one day, working on a lock set that a patron had ordered, it hit William right between the eyes: Working on doors and locks in his job meant that he had keys to some of the town’s most expensive shops.

And what better cover for his plan than to be a respected member of the Town Council? Because of his experiences in his town’s “dens of iniquity,” William had connections to his town’s more villainous element, and it was here that he found the men who would come to form his “crew” of burglars. Soon, he and his gang began using the keys William had to break into shops along the town’s main street at nighttime. The local newspaper began reporting a string of break-ins. The town soon became gripped in a panic over who might be broken into next. Of course, that meant that “daytime” William received more orders for more and better and newer locks for the doors to the town’s businesses. These poor saps! The business owners didn’t realize that they were merely giving the man who was robbing them even more access to their goods.

One evening, even the City Council offices were robbed.

And then, finally, the national tax office got hit. Luckily, only a few coins and bills were taken. The burglars missed a drawer that held all the cash. But the authorities managed to catch one of the robbers, and, in the town jail, the man began to talk. His tale sounded too ridiculous, so outlandish that it could not possibly be true. The ringleader of the group, he explained, was one of them, one of the town’s elites.

William had visited the man in jail the next day after the robbery. All the authorities knew him, of course, so he was granted access to the prisoner. “What a kind man,” they thought. “An important man like that showing Christian charity by visiting those in jail!”

William knew the jig was up. He left town and then the country. Eventually, the other accomplice was caught, and, when their stories matched, the authorities were left with no choice to believe the truth: William had been leading a double life. An arrest warrant was issued—a national warrant—because of the robbery of the tax office. Eventually, a bounty hunter tracked William down in another country and brought him back for trial.

William was tried by a jury of his peers—and that may have been his ultimate misfortune. The other prosperous, successful businessmen in town, many of them in the Chamber of Commerce with William and even on the Town Council, decided to make a public example of William. He was condemned to death by hanging for the robbery. His two accomplices were given prison sentences, but William was to become an object lesson.

As he was led away to the gallows, William, dressed in a fine silk suit in the old style, hummed his favorite old tune. In an extreme irony, the town gallows upon which he was hanged had been designed and built by his own shop.

You may have heard of William—at least about his character. You see, his name was William Brodie—Deacon Brodie. His town was Edinburgh, Scotland, in the late 1700s. And, some decades later, a writer from there, one Robert Louis Stevenson, would write a book, based on Deacon Brodie, about a man who lived a double life: Respectable by day, reprehensible by night.

You know it as The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.


On a Civil War Nurse

Hospitals in the American Civil War were most often the place wounded men went to die. The conditions were horrible. People such as Clara Barton and others worked to improve the sanitation in the hundreds of facilities in both north and south, but their efforts were largely superficial and ahead of their time.

In the days of no antibiotics and often even distrust of antiseptics, even by so-called health care professionals, the Civil War hospitals became cesspools of disease and death. Men would lie in their own filth and, in the warm months, their own filthy sweat for days at a time, their bandages sometimes rarely changed. Modern nurses would be appalled at the situations if they would have seen them. One medical historian said, “The septic sins of the time [were] responsible for a harvest of death and suffering.”
Volunteer nurses–both male and female–would do what they could to attend to the wounded. If a family member could find where their wounded brother or father or husband was being “cared for”, the family member would go and assume the nursing duties him or herself. One such situation occurred in a family where a young lieutenant named George had received a wound in the Battle of Fredricksburg in late 1862, and his brother came from New York to Washington, D.C., to care for him.
The older brother cleaned his wound, changed the dressing regularly, fed him regularly, too, and George beat the odds and recovered. This man, in his mid-40s, his family obligation finished, looked around him and decided that too many young men needed nursing. Almost 14,000 young men lay in the hospitals surrounding the nation’s capital. Besides, George said, he seemed to have a knack for the profession, so the man decided to rent a room in Washington and work in the many city hospitals.
Much of the work this man did consisted of cheering up the injured young soldiers. The Civil War had invented newer and better ways of destroying the human body, and amputations, disfigurements, and cripplings became almost routine. The men needed a dose of cheer, and this New Yorker brought that to them every day.
His rented room was slightly north of the White House, and his daily walk to the hospitals took him by the place. He came to learn the routine of the resident there, one Abraham Lincoln, and to know when Mr. Lincoln would be coming and going and where. You see, Lincoln, too, visited the hospitals often, also trying to bring cheer to the men who were fighting for liberty and union. Once or twice, even, the New York man and Mr. Lincoln exchanged polite nods as their paths intersected near the executive mansion.
The New York man knew that the injured boys’ thoughts were often of home, so he would bring paper and pencil and, since many of them could not write or their injuries kept them from doing so, he would take their dictation and send the letter home to their anxious families. Because of George’s injury, he knew the fear and dread that news of having a loved one injured in battle brought to a family, and he wanted to help alleviate that fear if he could.
Finally, the war–and the suffering injured soldiers–ended in April,1865. The men in the hospital wards who managed to live through their wounds and surgeries and diseases were sent home to Ohio, Wisconsin, Indiana, New York, and all the other states in the re-United States. The brother-cum-nurse from New York decided to stay in Washington after the war and work in the federal government.
When President Lincoln was assassinated, this man saw Lincoln as the last sacrifice of that terrible war. He felt that since they had worked, each in his own way, for freedom and union, in the nation’s capital for those years, that he and the President were somehow cosmically linked, spiritual American brothers–as much as he was brother to George–George, who survived the war and went on to do heroic things in battle.
Lincoln’s death moved the man so much that he used his pencil one more time to write a poem about it:
O Captain! My Captain! by Walt Whitman.

On a Military Ruse

The Beach Jumpers were a talented group of allied soldiers during World War 2 that excelled at diversionary tactics.  Their job was to harass the enemy and cause them to become confused, often tricking the enemy into moving and committing troops that opened up zones of vulnerability in other places.  Take, for instance, the attack the Beach Jumpers made on the Mediterranean island of Ventotene.

The idea was that the group wanted the German and Italian military garrison on Ventotene to think that they were a much larger attacking force that they were and thus help the allies as they were taking the Italian island of Salerno as part of Operation Avalanche.  As they often did, the Beach Jumpers came ashore  with spotlights, fireworks, and as much noise as they could possibly make in an effort to convince the defenders of the island that they were a much larger force than they actually were. The ruse worked. The Italians, of course, gave up almost instantly, but the German detachment needed some coaxing from one of the large guns on one of the ships that was part of the group. Finally, the Germans also capitulated.

As the victorious deception experts were wrapping up their operations on the beach, a shell landed near a group of some of them, lobbed in their midst by a die-hard German mortar crew that had held out after their comrades had surrendered.   No one was directly injured—except for a war correspondent who had been assigned to cover the exploits of the Beach Jumpers.  The reporter had become concussed by the explosion; he appeared dazed, and he staggered about.

“Are. You. OK?“ the commander of the Beach Jumpers asked the reporter excitedly. “I think so,“ the reporter answered. The commander made sure that the man had proper medical care, and the commander and his outfit then left Ventotene and prepared for their next grand adventure.

Why, you might be asking yourself, would a group that practiced the art of deception want to have their exploits documented by a war correspondent? Wouldn’t that give the enemy secret information?  The answer to that question lies with the identity of the commander of the group. The commander’s father had been a very famous man. He had been a pirate, a thief, a king, a hero, and a villain all within the previous 20 years. And the commander himself had followed in his father’s famous footsteps. The commander, you see, was Douglas Fairbanks, Junior, the son of the famous movie star and, by the 1940s, a famous movie star in his own right.

The public thrilled to hear of the exploits of the Hollywood elite during the war, so war correspondents almost always followed famous servicemen into battle. It was great for morale, and it helped sell War Bonds. That’s why Fairbanks and his diversion experts had the tagalong correspondent who had the near miss from the German shell.

Oh, and the correspondent?  He was actually a friend of Fairbanks’s from back in Hollywood, a successful writer for the movies.  He wasn’t too bad at writing novels, either.

His name was John Steinbeck.