Thursday, June 23, 2011

1942: Christmas on Guadacanal

When WWII broke out, Barney Ross could have gotten himself a cushy PR gig with any of the services, but he wasn’t buying any. He retired from boxing at the ripe old age of ’32 and enlisted, volunteering for the USMC. Early in his service, his military career hit a major bump: some ill-intentioned Marine NCO had the temerity to make a nasty anti-Semitic remark to Ross’ face. Ross cold-cocked him. He was in danger of being court-martialed when a member of the board pointed out to his colleagues that this could give the Marines a public relations black eye. Ross was given the choice of either facing a court martial or shipping out with the first marine division. He eagerly volunteered for the latter.

By the end of 1942, he was seeing combat on Guadacanal. In one instance, he and his section of three other marines were ambushed, and all four of them were hit. Ross was the only one still capable of fighting back, and fight back he did. He used both his own weapons and the weapons of his fallen comrades until enemy fire ceased, then dragged his one surviving companion back to American lines for treatment (though the fellow outweighed him by 90 lbs).

The next day, a Marine patrol sent out to investigate discovered the bodies of Ross’ two other squad mates along with about two dozen dead Japanese. For his actions that day, Barney Ross received the Silver Star, the US Military’s 3rd highest decoration.

However, before he was medically evacuated from Guada Canal, Ross became part of Marine Corps legend. While on Guada Canal, he had become good friends with a Catholic priest, Father Frederick Gehring, who asked him to help out with the Christmas show he was putting on for the marines. This is a story which no Hollywood screenwriter would dare make up. Amongst his inventory of chaplain supplies, Fr Gehring discovered he’d been shipped a pipe organ, and he soon learned that the only competent organist on the island was none other than Barney Ross. So, striking a blow for American ecumenicalism, a Jew was the featured entertainer at the 1942 Guadacanal Christmas pageant.

This really makes me wonder what was going on at the Rosofsky house. Would he come home bloody from a street fight and then his mom would make him practiced the organ, or did the local boys taunt him so much about playing the organ that he demonstrated he could play with his fists as well?

In another note Hollywood would not dare imagine, after Ross had played his full repertoire of Christmas songs, Fr Gehring prevailed upon him to play one from his own tradition. Sp Barney Ross played his personal favorite, “My Yiddish Mama.” The US Marines have a thoroughly well-deserved reputation as extremely tough customers. However, guys there said years later that by the time Ross finished playing, there was not a dry eye in the house.

After returning to the States and being decorated personally by President Roosevelt, Ross found he had to face an even tougher opponent than he’d faced either in the ring or the battlefield: his wounds were so severe that he became addicted to morphine, which led to heroin addiction. He managed to make it to a rehab center, which saved his life.

Barney Ross only lived to be 57. In the last years of his life, he was a speaker to high schools about the dangers of drug addiction. To me it seems Ross got not just a second act in life, but a third one as well.

Dove-Ber Rosofsky

F Scott Fitzgerald once said there are no second acts in American lives. He must never heard of Dove-Ber Rasofsky. Dove-ver, or Earl, was born in Chicago in 1909. His parents were Russian Jews who fled the pogroms Brest-Litosvst. His father was a Talmudic scholar and rabbi who had to operate a small vegetable store to support his wife and four children. In later years, his eldest son would recall that his father always urged him to be a scholar rather than a fighter and even told him, “Jews don’t fight back.” Doe-ver never, and I do mean never, got with the program on not fighting back. As he grew up, he proved to be extremely good with his fists.

In 1924, when Earl was still in his teens, life handed him an extremely bad break. His father was shot and killed when some thugs robbed his vegetable store. His mother had a nervous breakdown and was institutionalized, and Dove-Ver’s three younger siblings, Ida, Sam, and George, were all placed in an orphanage. Dove-ver decided he wanted his family back. At that point in his life, he was running with a *really* rough crowd, including a childhood friend named Jack Rubenstein who later shortened his name to Jack Ruby and moved off to Dallas, where everybody heard of him Nov 24, 1964.

It’s not clear exactly how deep his involvement was, but Dove-Ver knew some guys who knew Al Capone. Fortunately, he chose to make a living in an honest, but extremely tough game after making some success as an amateur fighter.

Even as an adult he was only 5’7” and his fighting weight was between 130-140 lbs. He was not a big man, but he could scrap. ,In September of 1929, two months before his 20th birthday, Dove-Ver started fighting professionally under the name of Barney Ross. Three and a half years later, he was lightweight champion of the world. By the time he hung up the gloves after 10 years as a professional fighter, he had 79 fights with 72 wins and only 4 losses. Nobody ever knocked him out. He’d won two world championship belts as a lightweight and a welterweight, and he succeeded in reuniting his family.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

A Salute to Lance Corporal Ainsworth

This past June 12 marked the 90th birthday of one of the unsung heroes of the Battle of Normandy. 67 years ago, a young man named Ainsworth went ashore in Normandy as part of the East Lancaster Regiment. He was not destined for high command—he made lance corporal twice and private on three occasions. However, as anyone with any knowledge of military history knows, it takes *all* kinds of people to win an award.

Ainsworth was a big man and a very talented amateur boxer. His greatest contribution to the war effort may have been his extraordinary gift for sneaking up behind German soldiers and capturing them. The fact he grabbed guys and took them back alive no doubt made him popular with his battalion’s intelligence section. I'm not sure exactly how many he captured, but it was enough to make him famous within his batalion for it. If you want to know how good he was, consider this: he’s still alive more than 66 years after the war ended. Need I say more?

Before the end of the Normandy campaign, his luck ran out: a blast from an artillery shell injured him badly enough to get him discharged from the Royal Army. Of course, in combat, luck is a relative thing: I’ve heard that he and the company cook were just about the only survivors of that outfit.

I once saw a picture of the senior Mr. Ainswroth with his late wife. I noticed two arms, two legs, no eye patch. He had a career teaching school, and he fathered three children. I thought to myself, Well, apparently the Krauts did not hit anything too important. In the US armed forces, any injury serious enough to get one out of combat but not cripple you for life is known as a “million-dollar wound.” Sounds like that’s what Lance Corporal Ainsworth got.

I’ve never met Mr. Ainsworth, but I’ve heard quite a bit about him because he had a son named Phillip who managed to attend Hartford College, Oxford, and while helping out with the Ohio State summer program there, managed to win the heart of a Ohio State co-ed named Diane Spring. I was tapped to be best man the day after St Patrick’s Day, 1978. That is one summer romance that turned out very well indeed: 33 years and two children later, Phil and Diane are still together.

Most of my American readers are familiar with Ed McMahon’s prize patrol giveaway: once a year, he’ll knock on some randomly (?) selected household and give them a check for ten million dollars. My readers will please forgive my bizarre sense of humor, but it has occurred to me that Private Ainsworth was a battlefield philanthropist for the Germans he captured. Anyone who’s ever seen Saving Private Ryan might have the smallest inkling of what a living hell combat in Normandy 1944 must have been like. In that situation as a German soldier, would you rather have a) all the tea in China b) all the gold in Fort Knox, c) all the Rockefeller money d) all of the above or e) a free ocean cruise to a POW camp in Canada where you’d get three meals and a bed for the next year? (all-time creditable towards German pensions).

I usually call my friend Phillip right before Christmas—December 24 is his birthday—and I think of his dad and the fact that somewhere in Germany, there are probably still a number of elderly men getting to celebrate Christmas with their families because LC Ainsworth took a prisoner didn’t kill them (any of those guys ever go to the trouble of sending Phil’s dad a Christmas card? Those ungrateful Kraut bastards!)

I’ve heard that only one German soldier, a soldier in the Waffen SS, who resisted, and LC Ainsworth had to kill him. I’ve also heard that’s an incident that haunts his dreams to this day.

I’ll probably never get to meet Phil’s dad. If I do, I’d like to say, Congratulations for making the world a better place. The destruction of Nazi Germany is one of the noblest causes man has ever fought for (I’m proud of the fact my father and uncle both fought in that conflict). What I’d say to him is if killing a man haunts him, then he should be glad he is not a complete sociopath. There are people who actually enjoy that sort of thing, and they are very scary creatures indeed. It’s a shame that German soldier passed up a chance at life, but that’s the choice he made. A whole lot of men had to die to win WWII.

To Whom it May Concern

My father was trained as a gunner on a B-24 Liberator Heavy Bomber. Originally, he’d been assigned to be the ball turret gunner, but by the time his unit arrived in Great Britain in late December 1944, the Luftwaffe had taken such heavy losses that the 8th Army Air Force had moved the ball turret position from almost all B-24s, so Dad flew his missions as a waist gunner.

That was fine with my father. The ball turret position was by far the most difficult position to get out of in case a bomber crew had to get out of a damaged aircraft. There’s a poem, “Death of a Ball Turret Gunner” by Randall Jarell, that shows the danger well:

From my mother's sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

Because of that change, there was one less crewmember, and each bomber had an extra flak jacket. My father immediately claimed his plane’s surplus flak jacket and made a point of standing on top of it when they hit it into their targets. My father was 25, the oldest man on the plane. The youngest was a 19-year-old form Georgia named Blaylock who felt the need to adopt a tough-guy persona while on the ground. Maybe he was just trying to cover up the fact he was as scared as anyone else.

Anyhow, from the very first mission they flew, Blaylock said to my father, “Mitchell, if a bullet’s got your name on it a flak jacket won’t do you any good,” and felt the need to repeat the comment several times on subsequent missions. Finally my father said, “All right Blaylock, I don’t care about the bullet with my name on it. What bothers me are the ones that say ‘To Whom it May Concern.’” That was the last time Blaylock ever mentioned that particular subject.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Last Chapter in Sal Mineo’s Life

Anyone who’s seen Rebel Without a Cause will remember Sal Mineo’s performance as the sensitive young kid who meets a bad end when he is fatally shot by police. He came to a violent end in real life as well: he was stabbed to death.
I recently saw a biography of Mineo and browsed through it. Since I’d heard of his murder, I wondered if they’d ever found the culprit. I discovered that a pizza delivery guy named Lionel Williams was convicted of not only Mineo’s murder, but more than ten robberies, all carried out at knifepoint. He got a fifty-three year sentence, but he only served nine (and you wonder why people get cynical about the criminal justice system).

After the jury delivered its guilty verdict, Williams asked for a chance to speak, and after calling his public defender everything but a precious child of God, he felt the need to comment on one aspect of the prosecution’s case. Williams had multiple, visible tattoos, and the prosecutor had repeatedly pointed out that after the murder, Williams had purchased a new tattoo of a bloody knife on his arm. Mr. Williams just couldn’t help himself: he denounced the prosecutor for mentioning the tattoo, and added, “Besides, it looks nothing like the knife that killed him!” I don’t know how his defender managed to keep himself from banging his head on the counsel table.

The Best Twilight Zone Episode Never Written

Many years ago there was a Twilight Zone episode that depicted an alien race making contact with earth. Initially the aliens proved quite helpful as they provided supplies which eliminated food shortages and starvation throughout the world. The visitors seemed quite altruistic, but a skeptical scientist found that the visitors brought with them a book entitled To Serve Man. It was only in the last minute of that episode, after the scientist had boarded a spaceship headed back to their homeland, that his assistant gave him the horrible news that To Serve Man was a cookbook.

It occurred to me that the episode ended where a fine one could begin. The human race has so many conflicting races, religions, and ethnicities that the only thing that could truly unite us is an external threat. For example, if someone had told Alex Haley’s great-great-great-great grandfather Kunta Kinte the day before he was kidnapped that he was an African, he would have had no comprehension of what that term meant. It won’t be until a hostile species shows up that homo sapiens will realize that we are all Earthlings.

Katyn, Jimmy Carter, and Kulaks

I have been politically aware for just under 50 years now, and the two most mind-bogglingly clueless statements I’ve ever heard a President of the US make were both from James Earl Carter. During the 1976 presidential election campaign, he said that he hoped America would be able to overcome its “excessive fear of communism.” Seeing as how at the time he made that statement, the Soviet Union had the capability of hitting the US with several thousand nuclear warheads, I can only wonder about his definition of “excessive.”

Then in ‘79), when the USSR invaded Afghanistan, Carter was quoted as saying he had learned more in the past year about the Soviet Union than he ever had before. I was flabbergasted then, and am flabbergasted now, that an Naval Academy graduate, a man who spent more time in uniform than any other president that century (besides Eisenhower), could make that statement.

Since Carter had served as a professional Naval officer, I really wish someone could have sat down with him and shown him pictures of the Katyn Forest Massacre to educate him about what Soviets did to military officers of countries they found less than amenable. Thousands of Polish military were found with their hands bound behind their backs and bullet holes in their heads (along with police, government officials, and academics).

Furthermore, since after leaving the Navy Carter spent several years as a peanut farmer and achieved an impressive degree of success, I think he would have benefitted from an education in what happened to elderly survivors of the forced collectivization in Ukraine of the 1930s. Kulaks, or rich peasants, were either shot, systematically starved to death or shipped off to the gulag, from where only a miniscule percentage ever returned.

I happen to agree with G. Gordon Liddy’s judgment on Carter: “Fine Sunday school teacher, lousy president.”

Professor Fred Lansbury

Back in 1977, I attended the Ohio State Summer Program at New College, Oxford, England. New College was founded in 1379—the Brits have some very interesting ideas about what’s new and old (as I have previously mentioned in the blog, the lovely Kate Beckinsale studied at New College as well). Part of the program was a history course in Elizabethan England, and I prevailed upon our instructor, a Professor Fred Lansbury, to let me teach the class on the Spanish Armada. He was amiable enough to let me save him a day’s work teaching, and now I can truly say I have lectured on Elizabethan history at Oxford.

I had noticed that when Professor Lansbury was in the New College dining hall, he was always drinking port. However, at the farewell banquet, he was drinking scotch. When I asked him about the change in drink, he informed me that he had developed gout and didn’t want to aggravate the situation any further. I made a mental note of that, and four months later sent Prof Lansbury a fruit basket along with a bottle of Scotch and a note which read:

There was a prof with a gout of a sort
That kept him from drinking his port
He had a student named Kent
With a poetic bent
Who said, "Here’s some scotch, take a snort!"

Two Old Friends

Almost everyone has dreams of being rich, famous, or powerful, but I can only imagine what it must be like if you’re in that position knowing that a great many of the people you encounter are trying to get something from you. Clear back in 1957, then-Vice President Nixon met a man with whom he became friends who told him, “I’ll never ask you for anything.” That man was Woody Hayes (I heard that story straight from Woody’s lips).

Woody was every bit as good as his word. The two maintained a friendship for the rest of Woody’s life. I once heard Woody say he knew more about foreign policy than Nixon did, but Nixon knew more about football than Woody did. It’s entirely possible that both statements are true. Thirty years later, Nixon spoke at Woody’s funeral. He said, “When I met Woody, I wanted to talk football and he wanted to talk foreign policy. [pause] You know Woody—we talked foreign policy.”

While reading yesterday, I came across a story that made my jaw go slack. A few days before the 1976 Rose Bowl, Nixon sent Woody two dozen roses, along with a note saying OSU needed 24 points to beat UCLA (as well as complete an undefeated season and win the mythical national championship). Nixon’s note proved prescient: UCLA won that game 23-12.

Woody must have been devastated by the loss. He knew in his heart of hearts that would be his last chance for a national championship. He stayed in coaching for another two years, which turned out to be a mistake.

A postscript to that story: What, might you ask, did Woody do with the two dozen roses? He drove over to University Hospital and gave them away to 24 different patients. For the benefit of my readers who don’t give a hoot about football, maybe that will give you a small understanding about why so many people in Columbus loved Woody.

George Washington and Ora Judge

To be a slave must be a hellish experience. However, if you were destined to be a slave in early 1797, it would be hard to have a better gig than Ora Judge did. She was one of George Washington’s domestic slaves in the Presidential Mansion in Philadelphia. (at that time the US capital was in Philadelphia—the White House wasn’t to be built until several years later). Ora Judge was smart enough to know that at the end of Washington’s second term in office, he and the entire household would be moving back to Mt Vernon. So Ora ran away with the help of a sympathetic sea captain and made it clear to Greenland…Greenland, New Hampshire.

When Washington first got word that one of his slaves had escaped to the Granite State, he sent a letter to the US Marshall for NH, asking for help in recovering his “property.” Interestingly enough, the Marshall wrote back, suggesting that Washington take a different tack because the people in New Hampshire, even back then, tended to take that whole “Live Free or Die” slogan very seriously. Washington then wrote a letter to Ora herself, telling her, in effect, that while he favored eventual abolition, she was setting a bad example for the rest of the slaves and would she please come on home? Ms Judge was not buying any. She stayed in NH and made a living as a seamstress.

Ironically enough, at the time Washington left office he only had another 2 years and nine months to live, and his will contained ironclad language that upon the death of his wife Martha, Mt, Vernon’s slaves would have the choice of manumission (freedom) or a chance to spend the rest of their lives at Mt Vernon being provided for from the state’s revenues.

Most people don’t realize that before the end of the Revolutionary War, Washington could be classified as a lukewarm abolitionist. He favored emancipation with compensation for slave owners. Mt Vernon’s records indicate that Washington’s estate was still making payments for elderly slaves into the early 1930s. Washington had a better retirement plan for his slaves than do a great many modern corporations.

Ora Judge spent the rest of her life in New Hampshire. She married and had two children before her husband deserted her. When she grew too old and sickly to work, the townspeople of Greenland provided for her. Shortly before her death, she gave an interview to an abolitionist newspaperman saying she had never regretted running away.

I believe the story of Ora Judge proves that the best stories are the ones you don’t find in the history books.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

General Charles Napier—Feminist???

I relish the story of British general Charles Napier’s duty in India for both its irony and political incorrectness. The Hindu custom of Sati is a funeral practice once popular in India. It goes like this: when the husband dies, you take the widow and her burn her on the funeral pyre. Which makes me think: Girlfriend, if you’re going to marry a Hindu guy, marry one a lot younger than you.

In today’s politically correct environment, British imperialists are the most evil men in world history. Perhaps one might expect to see them cackling over the funeral pyres and twirling their proverbial mustaches. Thanks to General Charles Napier, overseer of India for the British army, this was not the case.

British reaction to the Sati practice was actually quite mixed. The Church of England was having a conniption fit, saying you can’t allow this to happen. The East India trading company was saying it’s not involved with business, leave them be. Napier took matters into his own hands. Napier says, “OK, you have your customs, we have ours. In my culture, when a man burns a woman, we HANG him. You can build your pyres, and next door we'll build our gallows. We'll respect your tradition as long as you can abide by ours.” Afterward, the practice of Sati saw a sharp decrease.

I wonder about two things: 1 did Charles Napier qualify as a feminist? And 2) if they made a movie, wouldn’t it be cool if the American actor Charles Napier played him?

The Ironic Legacy of Rear Admiral Horace Lambert A. Hood

This story might only be of interest to hardcore military history geeks like myself. In designing warships, designers must always deal with the triangle of firepower, mobility, and protection. American battleships of the 20th century tended to be slow but well-armed and well-protected. German battleships tended to be fast with good protection and relatively light armament. Since one of the Royal Navy’s primary missions was commerce protection, it made perfect sense to design some ships as battle cruisers with excellent speed, great firepower, but very little protection, which can backfire horribly.

That’s something Admiral Spee found out in the Battle of the Falkland Islands in 1914. A year and a half later, the Royal Navy committed a serious blunder at the Battle of Jutland—they put battle cruisers in the battle line alongside better-protected battleships to exchange fire with German battleships, and the results for the cruise was positively ghastly. In very short succession, the Queen Mary, the Invincible, and the Indefatigable, battle cruisers all, exploded.

When a 1,000 lb shell explodes in a ship’s ammunition magazines, the results are immediate, spectacular, and quite unfortunate for the crews (Admiral Beatty famously commented to his flag secretary on the explosion, “Something seems to be wrong with our bloody ships today, Chapfield.”).Out of 3,300 crewmen, there were only 16 survivors. The rear admiral in charge of that squadron, Horace Lambert A. Hood, was not one of them. Hood was the great-great grandson of one of the Royal Navy’s greatest 18th century admirals, the legendary Samuel Hood. Horace Hood was only 35 and likely would have had an extraordinary career if not for mis-positioning of ships by the Royal Navy.

I only learned about the 20th century Admiral Hood a few days ago. His legacy is ironic beyond words. After WWI, the US, Great Britain, and Japan tended to convert would-be battle cruisers into aircraft carriers, which proved to be an excellent idea, since aircraft proved to be the decisive weapon in WWII. However, in 1920, British government asked Admiral Hood’s widow (they had only had five years together) to christen a new battle cruiser named The Hood. Whether it’s named for Horace Hood, his legendary great-grandfather, or both is anyone’s guess.

The Hood had the same battlecruiser design as its predecessors , a speed around 30 knots (very fast), 8 15-inch guns that fired off thousand-pound rounds, and very thin armor. In May of 1941, the Hood was sent out to the strait between Greenland and Iceland to intercept the new German battleship the Bismarck. The morning of May 24, they Hood made contact with the Bismarck, and after exchanging a few rounds, a missile lodged in the Hood’s ammunition magazine. Of a crew of 1400 men, there were 8 survivors.

Lady Hood was alive, and she no doubt would have heard of the devastation. One hopes that the dry fatalism of British culture would have helped her accept that history repeats itself as long as nations refuse to learn from their mistakes.

The Falklands, Margaret Thatcher, and Ray Hamilton

Next year will mark the 30th anniversary of the Falkland Island campaigns, yet another example of how truth is much stranger than fiction. Who would have believed that Great Britain and Argentina would fight a war over such an obscure piece of real estate? My favorite cartoon from that era is from Bloom County, when the Opus the penguin explains he has relatives in the combat zone, and since penguins have no instinct for aggression, they find the whole conflict very confusing. The last panel has Falklands penguins poking their head out of a foxhole with missiles exploding overhead, screaming, “Was it something we said?”

I am sure the families of the men found it less humorous—649 Argentineans and 257 British were killed in the conflict. My British correspondent will be happy to know American sympathies were largely with the British (I once saw a news report about a British girl worried about her father. I’m sure Argentineans were worried about their fathers too, but they wouldn’t have been able to speak English with such a cute accent). The British were, after all, our allies throughout most of the 20th century. Indeed, German chancellor Otto von Bismarck once commented that the most important fact of the 20th century was that the Americans and the British speak the same language.

(If I had had the ear of the Argentine leadership in early 1982, I would have told them that they would be much better advised to agitate in favor of free elections for self-determination on the Falklands, then send a business agent to Port Stanley announcing they should pay x thousand pounds to each islander if the election turned out to be pro-Argentine—If you’re living on a windswept rocky island that sheep could barely live on, would you rather be poor on the Falkands or rich in the Haberdines? If you couldn’t make the islanders a financial offer they couldn’t refuse, the next step would be to hire Cuban troops as mercenaries. Whereas everyone hates the Argentine Junta, the left wing is so enamored with Che Guevara’s legacy that it would be impossible for them to object to Cubans going anywhere and doing anything they want. Maybe that wouldn’t have worked, but it would have been a lot more sensible than thousands of young men dying.)

One other result of the Falkland Islands conflict was the worldwide respect for Margaret Thatcher as being the most badass PM the Brits have had since Churchill retired. I’m reminded of a story I once heard from my undergraduate academic advisor, a fine black gentleman named Ray Hamilton. Ray is now old and grey, but in his youth he was a very formidable figure. He played varsity football four years at Ohio State (25 years after graduation, the University gave him a great job—Ohio State takes care of its own).

When Ray was just a little kidster in a tough neighborhood in Warren, Ohio, he was once set upon by several older kids who roughed him up considerably and chased him home. He managed to lock the door behind him, although he had to listen to his tormentors stand near the front porch and talk trash about how they were going to get him. In Ray’s neighborhood, kids learned very early to either get tough or accept that life would be a living hell—in those parts of town, people do not call the cops. So Ray found a cinderblock inside the house, carried it up to the second floor, and threw it out the window, narrowly missing one of his tormentors. They ran screaming for their lives. A few minutes later, those hellions’ mother showed up. After realizing the methods Ray had used to keep her boys at bay, she dragged them from the front porch, shouting, “Don’t mess with him, he’s CRAZY!” Those particular guys never hassled Ray again.

I don’t know what Lady Thatcher would think of me comparing her to an OSU football star, but I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to think “My God, she’s ready to fight a war over the most obscure piece of real estate on earth?” What would she be willing to do if the stakes were higher? Don’t mess with her, she’s CRAZY!

The Inspiring Story of Annie Glenn’s Stutter

John Glenn has to rate as one of the most famous and accomplished Ohioans of the 21st century. After a great career as a Marine fighter pilot in both WWII and Korea, he was one of the original 7 astronauts on the Mercury program and was the first American to orbit the Earth. Did I mention he had 139 combat missions?

After retiring from the Marine Corps, he served 4 terms as a US Senator from Ohio. Then, at the age of 76, he became the world’s oldest astronaut when he returned to space onboard the space shuttle Discovery. Among the ironies of his life is that his closest brush with death came not as a fighter pilot or an astronaut, but in 1964, when he slipped in his own bathroom, hit his head, and almost died.

While every Ohioan knows his name, if not for the fact that Annie, his wife of (check) close to 60 years, had a stutter, he may have been known as one of America’s greatest presidents.

In 1976, Jimmy Carter had Glenn on his list of choices for a running mate. I’ve heard that the story is when Jimmy’s wife Rosalynd learned that Annie Glenn had a severe stutter, she prevailed on her husband to pick Senator Walter Mondale of Minnesota instead. This gave Mondale the leg up to win the Democratic nomination for the 1984 Presidential Election. Election night 1984 was not a happy one for Democrats. Mondale managed to take one state and the District of Columbia, Regan took the other 49.

In January of 1984, the political writer Richard Reeves wrote a fictional account og Ronald Regan flying back to California at the end of his one term in office and mentions that he’d lost in a landslide to John Glenn. It’s not certain that Glenn could have defeated Regan. However, it’s hard to imagine he could have done worse than Mondale did. I can imagine that quite a few undecided voters would have preferred voting for a real-life fighter pilot over one who played one in the movies. Had that actually happened and Glenn had served two terms, he would have left office shortly after the disillusion of the Soviet Union. We would have one more Ohioan president in our history books, only he would have been remembered as one of the great ones.

Believe it or not,I have a personal link to John Glenn. Glenn’s fourth grade teacher was a woman named Ms. Quillen who later became Mrs. Hannahs, and who was still teaching at Barrington Road Elementary school more than 30 years later, in 1963. My third-grade teacher was Mrs. Hannis. My classmates and I heard a lot about John Glenn as a youngster. Apparently he was an extraordinarily funny student whom everybody liked. Even then he seemed destined for greatness.

The Quarry Tragedy

The word “tragedy” is greatly misused in the modern vernacular. It has come to mean any unfortunate event, whereas it originally applied to a tragic hero who, through his own hubris, meets a terrible fate. The story of the Quarry brothers is one f the best modern examples I know of to illustrate the original meaning.

If an athlete has the fortune to be the eleventh most talented player in the NBA, the result is a multi-millionaire likely to whine about not being a started in the NBA all-star game. If you are the eleventh best heavyweight in the world, you are likely to end up brain-damaged and dead ahead of your time. If Jerry Quarry had been black, he’d be remembered as a very good fighter not quite of championship caliber. Consider his record. In the mid-sixties he was the only fighter in the history of the Golden Gloves tournament to knock out every one of his opponents. He fought former two-time champion Floyd Patterson twice, with one win by decision and one draw. He fought his way to the finals of a WBA championship tournament only to lose a split decision to Jimmy Ellis. He knocked out Mack Foster when Foster was rated a number one contender, he knocked out Ernie Shaver in one round (the same Ernie Shavers who once decked Larry Holmes), he lost a narrow decision to Muhammad Ali, and once, giving away 20 lbs, gave Ron Lyle a one-sided boxing lesson for a 12-round decision (the same Ron Lyle who fought Ali even for ten rounds and who once decked George Foreman twice). Once, English heavyweight Jack Brodell called Quarry a bum before their bout in London. That match lasted 58 seconds, including both an 8-count and a full ten-count. George Foreman says today that Jerry Quarry was the only fighter he made a point of avoiding.

Ironically enough, if Quarry had been twenty lbs lighter, or if boxing had a junior heavyweight division of under 205 lbs, Jerry Quarry would have been a world champion. Instead, since his best fighting weight was between 196 and 200 pounds, he was always up against bigger, heavier opponents with longer reach than he had. He lost two fights to Muhammad Ali, two to Joe Frasier, and one to Ken Norton in a fifth-round TKO (Quarry was, perhaps, foolish to take that fight on short notice).

Because of his repeated losses in big bouts, Jerry Quarry became a punchline to many. Richard Pryor even made a joke about how Quarry “love getting beat up by n******s”. Quarry stayed in the game far too long, and he paid for it with his health, mentally and physically.

But it wasn’t just Jerry who was ruined by boxing. Jerry’s younger brother Mike was a talented light heavyweight who, after winning 38 straight fights against opposition of questionable quality, managed to get a shot at light heavyweight champion Bob Foster. 4th round, he suffered a frighteningly severe knockout. If he’d had another way to make a living, or good sense, he would have found another way to make a living. Instead, he traded on the Quarry name, and it gave him too many paydays to walk away from.

Jerry and Mike’s younger brother Bobby was a talented athlete who figured he could parlay his name into easy boxing money, although he lacked his older brothers’ skill and work ethic. The fact that he was blind in one eye didn’t help his career much either. Bobby managed to come up with a good, albeit ironic nickname: when a sportswriter asked him if he wanted to be known by any particular moniker, he replied, “Yeah. I wanna be known as Booby “The Rocket Scientist” Quarry.” Any real rocker scientist would know if you’re going to make a living as a fighter, it’s an excellent idea to plan an early retirement. Whoever said boxing is the red light district of sports was dead-on.

The end result of this is that all three Quarry brothers wound up punch-drunk, which sounds like someone who had too much fun at the office Christmas party until you call it by its Latin name of dementia pugilistica. For the last ten years of their lives, Jerry and Mike needed full-time care, rendered incapable of even tying their own shoes. One of the saddest aspects of the whole story is that Jerry and Mike frequently sparred one another, and those sparring sessions usually degenerated into brawls, with Mike coming out worse for the wear. In one of his last moments of lucidity, Harry apologized to Mike for hitting him so hard. He had to live with the knowledge that he was rapidly losing his mind and because of him, his brother would have to suffer the same fate.

Friday, June 3, 2011

My Favorite Day in Bethel

Frequent readers and freinds will know that I once worked as a public defender in Bethel, Alaska, a large city in the center of the Yukon/Kuskokwim Delta. Whenever someone would ask, "What is today?" I would reply, "It's the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day..."

Herman Cain

One of the differences between the American political system and countries with a strictly parliamentary system is that here individual candidates have a great deal more power than the party leadership. The result of this is that a candidate can seemingly come of nowhere to seek the party nomination for President (as did Carter in '76 and Ike in '52).

This year's surprise just might be Herman Cain, who, in recent polls, is very close to 2nd place in the Republican field. (After the early primaries, it is usually the top two vote-getters who battle for the nomination.) Mr. Cain gave a good account of himself in the 1st debate, has a more extensive background in business than any candidate we've had in recent decades, and is, in my opinion, certainly not the *worst* candidate running. And he certainly knows how to make a good pizza.

I also think it is pretty hilarious that some people are referring to him as a "dark horse" candidate. (A recent poll of black lawyers in the Franklin County courthouse finds that 100% of them think that is just plain funny. So anybody tempted to give a PC speech, lighten up!)