FIRST PERSON: THE LOSS OF JFK

By Arthur H. Gunther III
ahgunther@hotmail.com

Nearing the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, so much reflection has already been written, some by younger writers who were not alive to absorb the year 1963, the 1950s and God, what happened in the killing’s aftermath, that turbulent continuation of a decade still changing America.
Kudos to scribes who analyze and who get it right, especially if they did not feel the earth, smell the air, taste the water of the time. Yet, first-person reflection is as valuable as primary research, for setting the record, for authenticity. It’s a check on analysis after the fact. So, here goes, from someone who was there, before, during, after.
Fifty years ago, Nov. 22 was a Friday, as it is in 2013. About 12:30 p.m. I was flipping TV channels when I paused at WCBS-TV, New York. A soap opera was in progress, of no interest to a young fellow age 21, but the long thread of its story line, including every emotion there is, caught my interest and I lingered. But not for long. Quickly, on the simple black and white set, with just seven channels available through a rooftop antenna, came a bold screen with large letters shouting “CBS-TV NEWS BULLETIN.” Then the signal switched to a live newsroom, Walter Cronkite at a small desk, professional but with almost incredulous tones, reading wire service copy: “There has been an attempt on the life of President Kennedy . …” The venerable reporter and commentator did not leave his post for a day, and this America remained glued to the TV for even longer, over an increasingly somber weekend and through JFK’s burial.
So much changed on Nov. 22, 1963, when 90 minutes later, after numerous news flashes of increasingly negative tone,  Cronkite read another bulletin: “From Dallas, Texas, the flash is apparently official: President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. today, Central Standard Time, 2 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.”
As a young man, idealistic as so many of us were in that folk-singing era when youth had infused stodgy government, when hope seemed a sure bet despite a lingering recession, the Cuban missile crisis and still-distant war drums in Vietnam, the president’s death shortened our sunny days, coinciding with the coming winter solstice. In JFK’s place was an older man, the less articulate, old-style politician Lyndon Johnson. He reassured the country as an uncle might after you lose your cool dad, and perhaps that made you get into bed, feel a bit tucked in and have some sleep. But the next morning you knew things would never, ever be the same.
And they have not been the same. Presidencies since JFK have become increasingly isolated, surrounded by necessary security to protect our national leader from nuts but in the process putting the person into a cocoon apart from the people. Elect a president and you never see him (her?) again except through the filters his advisers employ. They have his ear, these special interests of whatever bent, not the citizens who cry when their presidents are taken from them.
Ever more complex is our government today, and the super economic power concentrated in the secretive military/industrial complex that Eisenhower the old warrior warned us about is much stronger and deeply entrenched. Moneyed lobbies increasingly rule the nation.
Today no president has simple choices, for the world is so very complex. Idealism seems reserved for the political stump, not for the Oval Office.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy, may he rest in peace, kept the stump with him for much of his short tenure, continuing his well-phrased speeches, strumming the rhythm of the song of hope. What success or failure or a mixture of both he might have brought to the nation – in the economy, in dealing with the Cold War, in Vietnam – can only be conjectured. Was his the last approachable presidency? That, too, is speculative.

  The writer is a retired newspaperman. Reach him at ahgunther@hotmail.com This essay may be reproduced.

WARS CONTINUE — SO DO OUR VETERANS

By Arthur H. Gunther III

ahgunther@hotmail.com

On the 11th day of the 11th month at the 11th hour in 1918, World War I mostly ended with the hope that such a dramatic finish would cement the promise: “The war to end all wars.” No such luck, and World War II, Korea, Vietnam and all the conflicts to the present in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans and elsewhere continue the folly of some — too many — leaders, the failure of diplomacy, the effects of special interest that profit from conflict but surely, too, the bravery of the grunt soldier, airman, Marine and seaman, all the military men and women of wartime/peacetime.
I say leaders’ “folly” because even in good intent, the mistakes — repeatedly — are many and often disastrous. Consider the Hurtgen Forest campaign of September-December, 1944, during World War II, which saw 33,000 U.S. killed or wounded — including my Uncle Winfield, who lost three fingers — and 28,000 for the Germans. Historians contend that the American  battle plan never made strategic or tactical sense, though the sacrifice and bravery of the fallen can never be challenged. Had the generals thought it through and established an objective rather than fight as if replacements were unlimited, the battle might have been won. Actually, it did not need to happen in the first place.
And so it is in any war. Name any, and you will see mistakes, lack of good sense, why it might have been avoided, and in some rare cases, why it had to happen. What is most common, though, is that everyone who serves in  a war theater and those who do so in rare, blessed  peacetime, deserve all the applause, if you can applaud a war or the preparation for it.
Today is Veterans Day, which is the old Armistice Day in the United States, the day that commemorated the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of the last war ever. Now, after the wars that have followed, it is Veterans Day, honoring the living and the dead. The focus is on the ordinary man or woman who shows up to do his or her duty, not so much the generals and almost never the politicians.
What happens in war can only be understood by those who have been there, absolutely no one else. Stephen Crane, the Civil War author, came close when he described the thin line between bravery and cowardice in “The Red Badge of Courage,” but the rest of us who have never been baptized cannot. Those who have gone to war return far different, changed forever. Perhaps more thankful. Perhaps more forgiving. Perhaps hateful. Perhaps possessed by unseen but constant demons.
My uncle lost fingers in the Hurtgenwald but went on to live a productive life as a husband, father, worker, son, citizen. Surely he had his emotional difficulties, but he was able to handle them. Other vets were — are — not so fortunate.
When we die, the hope is we pass over to the other side. The believers call it Heaven. If we could return having gone there, we would be changed forever. Well, our veterans, so many of them, have gone to hell, and they came back changed in certain ways. Know that, appreciate that, and until they use their free pass to Heaven, nod in respect, this and every day.

The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at ahgunther@hotmail.com This essay may be reproduced.

COULD NOT GET THEM DOWN

By Arthur H. Gunther III
ahgunther@hotmail.com

New York City — With the April Boston Marathon bombings still pulling at the heartstrings of runners everywhere, some 45,000 of them rallied Sunday in indomitable spirit in the resumed New York City event, canceled last year in the lingering dark clouds of Superstorm Sandy.
My son, Arthur 4th, was among the participants, and we are proud to say that he finished 134, 114 in his gender, 17 in his age group (40-44), with a 2:43:14 time in 26.2 miles. Awfully good, considering a headwind for the first several miles and those hills in Brooklyn and Manhattan. And the fact that he ran past his mother’s early childhood home in Bensonhurst, my mother’s birthplace in DUMBO and my great-great-grandparent’s home in  Yorkville’s “Little Germany,” well that covers a lot of family history.
But my son would leave the applause to others, as humble as he is, and which makes him a great man, father, husband, teacher. From the time he began running with Coach Bob Hudson in the Tappan Zee schools, he has always been there for teammates, and they for him.
This race certainly was about team spirit, though runners, of course, are individual sorts. But this year, following the tragedy in Boston, knowing that so many remain displaced by Superstorm Sandy, and in a nation where, frankly, government cannot seem to get to the finish line, it is most reassuring to see that some people at least will not let themselves become dispirited by the nation, by the world, too.
Perhaps it should be a requirement for public office that one complete a marathon, even on foot, so as to know what team spirit, what individual drive means and can achieve.

The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at ahgunther@hotmail.com Any or all of this essay may be reproduced.

LITTLE FALL COLOR, BUT HUES ANYWAY

By Arthur H. Gunther III
ahgunther@hotmail.com

Whether it be global warming, the Tea Party, the Democrats, cranky Mother Nature or nothing at all, fall color seems to be coming later every year. We were in old industrial-town North Adams, Mass., and Stockbridge, last home of Norman Rockwell, during what was supposed to be peak “peepers” season, but it wasn’t. Nippy mornings, yes, and the usual fog that comes in Berkshire land with its mountains and valleys, but most leaves were still on the trees. It was as if the Washington shutdown had furloughed the process, and time was suspended.
Actually, time has moved on in North Adams, once a very large industrial center where the fabric for Union Army clothing and then electronics for atom bombs and missiles were manufactured. More than 200 years were invested by workers and industry in this community, with 26 original buildings along the Hoosic River now part of MASS MoCA, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, The site includes courtyards, bridges, viaducts and Industrial Age architecture that are works of art in themselves. So, while we found so little autumn foliage to see, the visit was worth it for the richness of the art installations and the results of preserving and enhancing American history. In a nation that has always been on the march, building and building, it is reassuring that some record of the past is kept.
In Stockbridge where artist Rockwell had a home and studio, continuing his Saturday Evening Post covers and later a 10-year association with Look, there also was little fall color, though the artist’s museum offered enough of every hue from the palette of America’s chronicler of what makes us who we are. As Rockwell said, “Without thinking too much about it in specific terms, I was showing the America I knew and observed to others who might not have noticed.” And that includes Americans. His Look covers, coming as they did in the 1960s after the John F. Kennedy assassination, depict a nation in transformation, and the worry and uncertainty of that, including major work on civil rights and other social issues.
This trip brought light traffic, a rare delight, and while we did not fill up on the great reds and yellows of autumn foliage, there was fine color for the soul — the art work and historic preservation in  North Adams and the catalog of a national treasure in Stockbridge. It made us forget the drab grayness of a forlorn Washington, D.C.

The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at ahgunther@hotmail.com. Any or all of this essay may be reproduced.

RECOGNIZABLE

By Arthur H. Gunther III
ahgunther@hotmail.com

Spring Valley, N.Y. —  The time: 2:55 a.m. Place: parking lot of the United Church. Reason: Tuesday start for the Rockland (County) Interfaith Breakfast Program. What’s unusual: a special whiff of fallen leaves returning to nature in early fall.
Deciduous leaves drop every autumn in so many parts of the United States and world, some in beautiful colors. And drying leaves, kicked about on sidewalks by youngsters and oldsters and those in between is common, too, as is the wind gathering a dozen or so and swirling them about as if in Dorothy’s cyclone. The  “taste” of all this is in the smell, even the fragrance of leaves losing their living liquid and drying to crispness, then morphing to mulch and renewal.
In Spring Valley, at 2:55 a.m. on a Tuesday that would soon be bustling at United Church as a cook and food preparers and servers volunteered in common effort, the leaves, some anyway, had fallen, and there was the expected whiff, so pristine though life of a sort was ending, as pristine as a spring and emerging flowers. With a slight chill in the air, you knew fall was coming, and wasn’t that just fine. For some of us, wonderful.
What made it unusual, this moment shared by so many thousands worldwide, was that I stepped out of the car at age 70 but in a millisecond I was again 12 and at this same church, then the Dutch Reformed. There for a Boy Scout meeting on a Friday night, I had walked from my home about two miles away and had rustled the leaves with my feet, taking in the smell of old oaks and maples.
Now I have done this, rustled leaves, hundreds of times since, and there is always the special fragrance. Yet, this time, at 2:55 a.m. in Spring Valley, in the parking lot of United Church, under an ancient oak that predates my grandfather’s time in the village, I instantly caught in my nostrils the very same smell I had in the very same place 60 years earlier. That fragrance has never been duplicated elsewhere.
Can one place, even in different times, give you the identical smell? Maybe. Maybe it’s in a community’s DNA.
A fine morning start that Tuesday was.

   The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at ahgunther@hotmail.com. Any or all of this essay may be reproduced with credit given.

SOMETIMES, NO CIVILITY

By Arthur H. Gunther III

ahgunther@hotmail.com

 

Civility is what it is these days, which generally means watered-down manners, some to the point of not being recognizable social behavior. It’s as if no one taught some clowns how to act toward others.

In my parts, north of New York City in the burbs, some public meetings become shouting matches and physical altercations as if town hall were the place for a street rumble. And there is always the incivility of the street, with impatient drivers, including myself.

But the lack of manners most distressing is in communication, or the absence of it. Too many people, “important” ones, too, fail to answer letters and e-mails, even when they solicit same. I have written or emailed (on required forms) to the president, to Ford Motors headquarters, to Ford engineers, to Dunkin’ Donuts and to others. All these business and people pay big bucks to solicit your opinion and some have flashy websites announcing just how “valuable” your view is. Yet write a constructive, balanced criticism with helpful suggestions, and you not only do not get a form-letter reply when you should receive at least a considered individual response, but you don’t get a reply at all. None of my letters or emails in the past few years have been acknowledged. That is bad manners, and it is not civil.

If people do not listen to others, there is no communication, and that is sloppy for society. The individual writer may have a harebrained idea, but if he or she presents it in a non-shouting, well-considered, non-offensive way, it should get a reply.

Adding to this social incivility are some tradesmen. I recently considered installing a gas fireplace insert to my home and requested quotes from three businesses, all local. Two never replied, though they run ads shouting for business. One firm sent a fellow who never got back to me, despite several calls to his office.

The bottom line is that my project is probably too small for their effort — the companies could use their staff on bigger jobs, with more profit. Not civil behavior. Bad business, too, as I won’t speak well of these outfits.

When some of us went to school, we were taught how to write personal and business letters. We also penned replies. The point was not only to learn how to compose such missives but to reinforce the standard that in a civil society, communication — the back and forth of it —  is necessary and expected.

Not today, it would seem.

The writer is a retired newspaperman. He can be reached at ahgunther@hotmail.com. Any or all of this essay may be reproduced at will if credit is given.

WORDS AND SILENCE

 

By Arthur H. Gunther III

ahgunther@hotmail.com

 

Always in an age, a theme. In 2013 it is the words and non-words from Rome and Washington. What the new Pope Francis is saying is not being said in D.C. The theme is survival of the middle.

The pope is trying to regain the Roman Catholic middle, the core that is the engine for the church’s mission. In Washington, no one — the GOP, the Democrats and especially the Tea Party — is courting the middle, that class which rose largely post-war and which drives the American (and world) economy, which assures stability for achievement and human progress and which, most of all, protects democracy from the wackiness and jaw-boning of mostly non-accomplishing rightists and leftists. The middle class is the hope of the lower and the check for the upper.

Francis offers a message to the church: Lose the pomp and regalia, think forgiveness, empathy, giving, humility, simplicity, which is the message of Christ. It is also pragmatic since the wish is that the lapsed middle’s ears will hear and hopefully agree, and then act on such faith. And, if it does, the entire world, not just the Roman Catholic church, will benefit, leaving behind the decades of “me” and excess.

In our nation’s capital, no one is courting the middle class save the false voices from talking heads, largely propped by the puppeteers of special interest, who care not a whit for the workers, citizens and families that offer stability and who can carry the banner toward an ever-new American frontier. In a “governing” system that is so broken that it must be re-invented, a handful of strange politicoes has seized the great Congress, our Congress. And, we the people seem as impotent as were the good German citizenry following the burning of the Reichstag.

The crazies tell us Obamacare will bankrupt a nation already spending beyond its debt limit, rescued only by printing more money. They want large entitlement cuts; reversal of laws protecting gays, lesbians and women’s reproductive rights; abandonment of environmental protection to drill for oil (for China); and severe limits on federal budgeting, pushing a balanced spending plan but one that first grants banks and super corporations tax perks which no one in the middle class would ever see.

As with all messages that galvanize one section of the public or another, there is some truth in our overspending, in sometimes mismanaged entitlements, but in this time so long past the Founders’ declarations on the American mission, the social progress, the betterment that has been the American Dream must not be abandoned to let the odd ones win their hollow, selfish argument. We have to figure out ways to provide opportunity and show humanity, but without overcharge, special interest, mismanagement and personal irresponsibility. There are riches for all in such selfless pragmatism, financial and otherwise. But first, the middle must hear the call to action. And there is but a whimper in D.C.

Pope Francis may prove disarming. His humble message, so welcome in a world that seems off its nut, may in the end be rhetoric, however earnest the man. Still, his is the language of hope. In Washington, there is no such tongue.

 

The writer is a retired newspaperman. Reach him at ahgunther@hotmail.com. Any part or all of this essay may be reproduced at will, with credit given. 

 

VERSE, FOR A CHANGE

 

By Arthur H. Gunther III

ahgunther@hotmail.com

 

Though I am a newspaper writer — editorials and essays mostly — I do verse from time to time. So, this week, with not much else to ponder about, I’ll offer three pieces, the last of which  is song verse. Thanks for reading.

 

#1: A GLIMPSE

 

I saw a love

of long ago.

She moved swiftly

between my dreams

and reality, appearing

clearly, although

the facts were otherwise.

I reached out,

grasping for a moment

never realized.

She looked at me,

then left so quickly

that I knew she was

never there. Nor was

the moment.

 

#2: ARMCHAIR GENERALS

 

War drums begin, the old come alive.

Visions of battles never fought.

Now the chance to march

from the safety of a desk.

Young go to fight, marshaled

by the marshals of battle,

exacting in righteous allegiance

to what they insist is just.

Old men who pick up no weapon

beyond pen and phone

to issue this order or that.

Great destruction is their right,

these old men say, for the fight

is to save us all. Trust demanded.

Mistakes by command cannot

be undone. Limbs, psyches torn asunder,

continual dying for the lifetimes

of the once young.

 

 

#3: GONE

 

I locked the door last night, though it never had a key. You are gone, and I must forget.

Forget the soulful moments, the depth we reached without a word said.

Forget you in my arms, fitted like a glove, your heart in mine, my soul with yours, facing eternity.

Forget our plans together, though I never cared for detail as long as you were here.

Forget your eyes were blue and magnetic, that looking into them made me feel weak but so warm.

I locked the door last night, though it never had a key. You are gone, and I must forget.

Forget the calm we were at, our silence speaking for us.

Forget that being together was a book of understanding. Forget I came upon old doubt and could not trust real emotion. I left the embrace and could not return. Now I have locked the door, and there is no key.

You have gone away, and I must forget.

 

 

The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at ahgunther@hotmail.com. His work can be republished at will, in any form, with credit given.

 

THE APPLE DROPS

By Arthur H. Gunther III

ahgunther@hotmail.com

About this time of year comes the memory of the apple smell, sweet fragrance that for me opened the door a bit to Heaven when I was a child at my grandmother’s house. She made apple pies, as many nanas did and do, from scratch as my friend Elaine does as well in the present. And she is a grandma, too. My grandfather would peel the apples, quite slowly and deftly, within a few millimeters of the skin so as not to waste anything. I never have had the patience for that, my own pared apples probably about two-thirds of the original product. My gramps sat on an upturned apple crate to do the job, outside, of course. And that is where the apple fragrance came from.

Making an apple pie brings its own wonderful, delicious smells, especially when the spices are added to the mix and, of course, when the pie is baking. And, then, oh then, when that pie just seems to sit forever on the windowsill awaiting our tasting. But the real eau d’apple came from the drops, those decaying, over-ripened, never-picked discards from my grandfather’s small tree. The drops always landed near his 1900s garage, its old, wooden floor soaked with the car oil of decades gone by. The garage, particularly when it was warmish, offered its own beckoning smell — of automobiles, wrenches, human labor, all a promise of what was to come for a future motorist, even at age 5.

When I visited my grandparents, a few miles from my own home, the whiff of the garage in fall made me feel extra welcome, not that it was difficult to achieve at that house, at that home. And when I also smelled the drops, all was extra sweet, and my fingers almost crossed that my grandmother was making a pie.

She usually was, and on those days, at that time of year, even without introduction to any of God’s religions, I knew there was a Heaven.

Contact this retired newspaperman at ahgunther@hotmail.com

SOWING THE FIELDS/2013

 

By Arthur H. Gunther III

ahgunther@hotmail.com

 

ANYWHERE, USA — It’s back-to-school, and while many cliches can be uttered about that, the fact is this is like spring planting. The renewed hope is there that the new field of fertile, young minds will see germination in gained knowledge, reasoning and a healthy outlook on life. Hope they have fun, too.

Teachers will tell you, and you will recall yourselves that each school year and each collected class is different. The feeling is not last year’s, the classroom is physically apart from others, the mix of students may have been altered and the teacher is probably new to the group.

And the world has changed, and the individual student’s self and environment, too. Likes, dislikes, friends, needs, desires, what has happened over the summer, how the community has morphed, and the state, the nation, the world — all this bears on the back-to-school moment of any particular year.

This means some students will fare better than others, and some will do very well, others not and probably the majority will be fine. The chemistry of the new school moment will help decide, though free will, as free as it may be, can turn the tide, too.

Nationwide, school budgets continue to be slammed. Inflation in supplies, health care and other benefits, utility charges and the costs of this program or that seems 50 to 100 percent against the  recorded U.S. rate (August) of 2 percent. Doing more with less is yet another challenge for teachers, students and parents in this back-to-school moment.

And then there are the tests, the push to have students meet some sort of standard, though those who set them do not seem to agree on what they should be. In-the-trenches teachers will cringe at lost time “teaching to the test” and will wonder why so many non-educators, or those so long out of the classroom, decide on the test. Yes, standards are required, goals must be in place, but the best teaching comes from teacher to student and  student to teacher. Too much gets in the way — parental over-managing, distracting environment at home and in the streets,  extra-curricular overload,  too hands-on administration. Teachers should be trusted more to teach and given the support to do so.

Good luck to those going  to school 2013, particularly the ones just beginning the journey in kindergarten. When you first get ready to sow a field, you till the soil well and then you fertilize. You don’t simply cast seed willy-nilly on hard pack. In this nation of the growing rich, the accumulating poor and the disappearing middle class, not enough attention has been paid to preparing schools and our young for the first years. Will the crop be what the children need, what the nation requires?

 

The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be e-mailed at ahgunther@hotmail.com