Monday, May 25, 2020

Have we already forgotten? 

   I recently received a catalog offering piloting clothing, gifts, and mementos. This was from a company I’ve long respected and have occasionally bought items from. I was appalled at what I saw on one page that offered an autographed book, framed signed posters, and a model of a German WWII fighter plane. Here’s the letter I wrote to the company.

   To Whom it May Concern:

   Received your Wright Brothers Catalog today.

On page 22 you feature three Nazi pilots and write of them in glowing terms: Gunther Rall ". . . third ranking ace of all time . . . his 275 victories . . . ,” Hans Marseille "the Star of Africa,” and Erich Hartmann ". . . highest scoring ace fighter pilot of all time . . . the 'Blond Knight' of Germany." Between them these three Nazi pilots shot down 785 Allied aircraft, killing hundreds of American and Allied men who fought one of the most evil regimes of all time—many of those men suffering unimaginable agony, such as being burned alive in their cockpits or being maimed and disfigured for life—just so you would have the right to lionize that vicious enemy they fought so bravely.

   I suppose a few neo-Nazi skinheads with swastika tattoos who are also free to live and express themselves among us in America might want the overpriced mementos on page 22 glorifying these three Nazi pilots.

   But, as you choose to remember and praise these Axis pilots, I choose to remember rather the courageous pilots of the Allied Powers who fought and all too often died in the Battle of Britain and in Italy and in the Pacific, and in North Africa and in the lethal skies over Europe so I, too, could be free.

   Please remove me from your mailing list.

Phil Bowie, pilot
New Bern NC

   On this Memorial Day let’s pause to remember all the thousands upon thousands of men and women from our military services who gave their lives for us in way too many wars.
   And also let’s pause to remember the nearly one hundred thousand souls our nation has lost this year to a new global enemy we all need to keep fighting in every way we can.

Monday, May 18, 2020

A Crisis Perspective

   For perspective during these frightening and frustrating times, imagine you were born in 1900.

    In your 14th year, World War I exploded, and it only ended in your 18th year after killing 22 million people. In the same year that war ended, the Spanish Flu epidemic spread its deadly tentacles around the planet until your 20th year, sickening 500 million and killing 50 million in just those two terrible years. In your 29th year, the Great Depression began. Unemployment hit 25 percent and the World GDP plunged 27 percent. It persisted until you were 33. The country nearly collapsed along with the entire world economy. Many lost everything. Some committed suicide. People starved.

    When you turned 39, World War II erupted and two years later America was inexorably drawn into it. Between your 41st and 45th year, 75 million people died horribly. Millions were maimed. Millions were displaced.

    In your 50th year, the Korean War broke out, killing another five million people. In your 55th year the Vietnam War began and dragged on and on through four presidents and 20 years, killing four million more people to no purpose. In your 62nd year the Cuban Missile Crisis threatened nuclear Armageddon that was only narrowly averted, and a long cold war dragged on, shadowing our world.

    Think of all those souls born in 1900. How did people survive all of that? Yet many did and went on to help create a better world.

    Now humanity is under yet another global threat.

    Maybe we need to view it in perspective. Think of all those who came before us and their many trials.

    Maybe we need to help each other out while we each do everything we possibly can to defeat the common enemy. And try to build a better world on the other side.

Monday, May 11, 2020

The Anti-vaxxers

     My mother shared a hospital room with a woman named Dot when they both gave birth, Dot to a daughter named Cynthia. They vowed their kids would share birthdays together, alternating between our home and theirs in our nearby Berkshire villages. Dot and her husband Howard, who had a woodworking business as did my Dad, became close friends over the years. Cynthia and I did, too.

    Dot and Howard had been childhood polio victims, and the disease had left them severely disfigured and impaired. One side of Dot’s face was paralyzed, though it never dimmed her crooked but genuine smile. Howard was hunchbacked with a twisted torso and one leg shorter than the other, though he never let his condition interfere with business or family life. He walked with an awkward lurching motion, often with the help of a forearm crutch (a walking cane with a forearm brace added).

     Widespread fear of polio was quite real throughout my early childhood. It was a terrible virus, paralyzing and killing seemingly at random, and like the current virus there was no effective defense against it.

     Until Jonas Salk came up with a vaccine that could defeat it. There were no protests against using his vaccine. On the contrary, people were deeply grateful for it. They welcomed it and lionized Salk.

     In recent years, routine mandated polio vaccination of children had eradicated it from America and had reduced the disease worldwide to relatively few cases. If the polio virus could be deprived of all hosts for a period of time, it would at last go extinct planet-wide, so the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation along with other charities and agencies set out to achieve just that, spending millions in a comprehensive effort. But anti-vaxxers and religious objectors and African terrorist groups interfered, intimidating and even killing vaccinators, so the valiant effort sputtered and failed. Leaving the polio monster alive and still lurking in the shadows. It’s on the prowl in several countries including Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan. In some areas, cases are stealthily on the rise.

     One faction of the recent widespread lockdown protest movement, vehemently objecting to the very measures meant to save them from sickness and death, has been the anti-vaxxers, those who have chosen to deprive themselves—and worse, their children—of vaccinations in general. They are apparently willing to sacrifice hundreds or thousands of others to scourging diseases like the current deadly virus on the altar of their own selfish beliefs.

     I wish they could have met Dot and Howard, who would have given anything to have had access to the vaccine with the power to spare them from the horrors of polio, but which came too late for them.


Monday, May 4, 2020

On Wearing A Mask
   I’ve never copied a post from elsewhere on the Net, but a friend sent out this message and I think it bears repeating:

   I wear a mask in public, not only for me, but also for you.

   I know I might have no symptoms and still give you the virus. I don’t live in fear of the virus. I just want to be part of the solution, not the problem. I don’t feel government is controlling me; I feel I’m being a contributing adult to society and that the world doesn’t revolve around me and my comfort. That if we all could live with other people in mind, this world would be much better. Wearing a mask doesn’t make me weak, scared, or stupid. It makes me considerate. When you think about how you look or how uncomfortable it is or what others think of you, just imagine someone close to you—father, mother, grandparent, sibling, or friend—cut off from everybody and choking on a respirator.

   Then ask yourself if you could have worn a mask and maybe protected that person.


Monday, April 27, 2020

Reporting Lesson Number One    

     When my mother, Edith, was hired on at a Massachusetts daily newspaper as a rookie reporter, her first assignment was to write her own obituary to be filed away just in case. It turned out to be a tougher assignment than she thought.

     It was a deliberate lesson that her editor taught her in humility and, more important, in empathy.

     She never forgot it when she was writing news reports about the unfortunate, the troubled, the oppressed, the misguided, or the people out there on the fringes of society. All those ordinary un-famous souls who still deserve a compassionate and objective appraisal of their lives.

     My high school class in Williamsburg, Massachusetts, numbered only 22. There were just 99 students in the whole high school. In my senior year school mates Mack Heath and Linda Sanderson died one night when their car struck a bridge abutment. It hit our school and our idyllic village hard. I’ve thought of them often since. They never had the chance to live and love beyond their teen years and experience the broader world and work at some fulfilling occupations and thus make their lifetime contributions to our society. I’ve tried to do a little living in their names.

    We’re losing too many among us during these terrible days. We see the raw statistics every day. The numbing numbers. We perhaps need to remind ourselves that each of those thousands of lost souls was a person in many ways the same as us, whose life was no less precious, and who faced the darkness all too often alone and suffering.

    In the years to come, those of us who make it through should maybe do some living for the lost ones and work some extra measure of good in the world in their stead.


Monday, April 20, 2020

Forty dollars and a pocket watch

   My father Erol was a twin. He and brother Irol were the next to youngest of seven, and there were often three or four state kids also living on the Lisbon Falls, Maine, dairy farm along with a hired hand. Father Bowie was an itinerant house painter, so was usually gone off in search of work. He sent money back when he could.

   Life on the farm was not easy. Winters were harsh and there was no heat in the bedrooms. Nor was there indoor plumbing. Each morning before dawn Mother Bowie had to rise, rekindle the fire in the large old kitchen stove, break ice in the well to bring in water, and get breakfast going for the whole crowd. Her work was never done, though she only had one good eye. Mending clothes and keeping them clean. Planting and tending and harvesting the vegetable garden. Cleaning house. Canning in the fall to last out the winter. Raising chickens and gathering eggs. Baking. Once, she was chosen Maine Mother of the Year.

   They all had chores from early ages, including the twins. Chopping stove and fireplace wood, haying, digging ditches, repairing the house and outbuildings, fixing equipment, shoveling snow. The never-ending milking. Dad had a favored cow he fed and milked twice daily besides his other work.

   But it was a good life. They had a horse and buggy for hauling supplies and milk and butter. A sleigh to use when it snowed. The older kids tended the younger ones. There was a pond on their acres with fish and frogs in it, and they could skate on it when it froze over. They learned the essentials in a one-room schoolhouse. They put together a six-piece orchestra and played on Saturday evenings in the nearby villages. I have a 1909 poster in my office advertising a Vaudeville Show at the Pine Tree Grange Hall in Lisbon. Entertainment, fifteen cents. Dancing afterward to the Bowie Family Orchestra, thirty-five cents. One of the acts was a boxing match between the four-year-old Bowie twins, Irol and Erol. Equipped with baggy shorts and outsized gloves, they each took a half-hearted swing and then both started crying. Their elder sisters comforted them, and the match was called a draw.

   Hubert, the oldest boy, assumed the role of surrogate father and never left the farm, eventually opening a successful feed and farm supply store by the old house. Sister Celia opened a summer camp for girls across the hill road. The farm thrived.

   The other children left, one by one. And then in 1922, it was time for the twins to strike out on their own. Mother Bowie presented each of them forty dollars and a silver Waltham pocket watch, and words to the effect that how they’d spend their allotted time would define their lives. It wasn’t much of a stake, but it was all she had to give, and it proved sufficient.

   Irol got a job in retailing and rose to manage a Montgomery Ward store in New York State. Dad took a job in a Massachusetts cabinet shop to learn that trade and opened his own fine one-man woodworking shop in 1949, which he continued to work over the years while also teaching in a Northampton trade school. He always held down those two jobs, working long hours year after year. With my stone mason grandfather’s help, he even managed to also build our home during one year in the village of Williamsburg, where I grew up. Dad was a deacon in the village church. He became a rock of my generation in the family, always there when any of us needed anything. Dad’s apprentice, Gilman Smith, finally shut the woodworking shop down when he retired a few years ago.

   The twins were remarkably similar in many ways. Each had a daughter first and then a son, about the same ages. Each once chose a new car in the same color. Both became Masons. Often, they seemed to share the same thoughts, even over great distances. They played highly competitive golf over the years whenever they could get together, keeping track of scores. In the end they were dead even.

   They were sometimes cold on that Maine farm. Sometime hungry. Often exhausted. But never bereft of love or good humor. And every one of them turned out just fine, thank you, making their contributions to the world each in their own way.

    The family survived the terrible Spanish flu from 1918 through 1920, which infected half a billion people around the planet--a quarter of the entire world population--and killed 50 million. Nine years later they began to endure the Great Depression, which lasted almost a decade and made them frugal through all the years thereafter. They lived through the darknesses of World War II and Korea and Vietnam and the frightening Cold War years. They were tough and resilient and hard-working and appreciative of the free society they helped perpetuate. I’m immensely proud of them.

   Dad never forgot the lessons of his upbringing, and he kept his pocket watch until he died at 98. I have it now under a glass display dome near my computer. I had a jeweler give it a cleaning and a new crystal.

   It still works, both to keep time and to remind me to spend it well.

   As he did.


Monday, April 13, 2020

The Pandemic Gamblers

   Since it’s going to be some time before I venture out for a haircut, I’ve been thinking about possible hair styles and I’ve settled on having Naomi weave it into a long braid that will hang down my back, a sacred seagull feather lashed to the end with rawhide. Then I can pose as an Indian and open a casino on the outskirts of my hometown. I’ll be the last surviving member of the Wannascooter Tribe, known for organizing their grocery raids mounted on antique motorcycles.

   For my initial crowd of gamers, I’ll invite all those people who’ve been ignoring the social distancing and stay-at-home recommendations and orders, because they’re apparently inveterate gamblers.

   The preachers who insist on holding cozy services and funerals. Those who’ve been flocking to the beaches and the national parks. The spring breakers and the Mardi Gras revelers and the unnecessary interstate travelers and the public officials and governors who only reluctantly and recently joined the nationwide movement to suppress the virulent spread of infection with stringent preventive measures. Those who refuse to wear face coverings in public and who flout the minimum six-foot recommendation.

   These people are all great gaming prospects ripe for the picking because, against the obvious odds, they’ve not only chosen to gamble with their own lives but also with exponential numbers of other people’s lives as well. High rollers, indeed.

   I’ll make a fortune.

   Numerous as these gamblers are, though, they are far outnumbered by those stepping up with cooperation, courage, ingenuity, and determination. From the severely stressed health care fighters on the front lines to those working behind the lines to come up with inventions and treatments and badly needed products, and those risking their health daily in all those essential jobs that keep our nation running and keep our people fed.

    MLK Jr. said, “. . . only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.”

   There are thousands upon thousands of stars shining in the current darkness.