Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Benjamin Franklin, Reluctant Revolutionary

If Benjamin Franklin had died at the age of 68, he would probably be buried in Westminster Abbey. Until that time, there had been no more devout servant to the crown than he. The aftermath of the French and Indian War (or as Europeans call it, the Seven Years’ War), several of the colonies had hired Franklin to represent their interests in London, where he spent eleven years of his life.

It was only when Massachusetts’ Governor Hutchinson began to act in an incredibly high-handed way towards the colonists that Franklin first leaked embarrassing letters about Hutchinson’s administration in an effort to force the British government to change its policies, and when that was unsuccessful he broke with the crown.,When he arrived back in PA, he was so furious with the British government that he declared that if the colonists ran out of muskets and gunpowder, they would need to fight with bows and arrows rather than submit to the crown’s tax policies.

Franklin was only back in the colonies for a short time. Shortly after he signed the Declaration of Independence, he caught the next ship to France to serve as the American ambassador in Paris for the next eight years. The irony is that if only British parliamentarians had listened to Franklin in the 1770s, all this trouble could have been avoided. Franklin argued that there would be no colonial uprising if the colonists just had representation in Parliament. Quite a few other American legal scholars made the same argument.

Franklin anticipated that someday there would be more Englishmen living in North America than on the island of Britain, and he recommended that there be a peaceful separation rather like the division of the Roman Empire into the Western Empire ruled from Rome and the Eastern Empire ruled from Constantinople.

Ironically enough, it took the British government a bit more than a century to catch up to Franklin. What he advocated was virtually identical to the present-day British Commonwealth.

“Smiling” Albert Kesselring’s Sense of Humor

In the last months of WWII in Europe, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels’ favorite tactic was to claim that while the German “vengeance” weapons (V1 and V2) had done severe damage, in just a few weeks they would produce the V3, a weapon that would completely change the course of the conflict and win the war for Germany.

In mid-March 1945, less than 2 months before the end of the war, Field Marshall Albert Kesselring, received responsibility for the entire western front. Allied troops were at the Rhine, American troops had taken the bridge at Remagen, and any competent general could see that the war would be over very soon. So when Kesselring met his staff for the first time, he proved he could smile in the face of disaster. He said, “Good morning gentleman. *I* am the new V-3!”

Melinda and Melinda

Two playwrights, one a comedian, and one a writer who specializes in tragedies, hear the story of a woman he walks in unannounced to a friends’ dinner party. The writers agree to make a story out of it. The movie stars Radha Mitchell (no relation), an excellent actress.

In viewing the tragic version of Melinda’s story, I found myself wondering Where on Earth did Woody Allen form his ideas about the legal system in this country, and to what extent do they reflect American society’s views as a whole? In the tragic version, Melinda is a married woman living in St Louis with her doctor husband and two children when she crosses the path of a charming international photographer. She leaves her husband and children to run away with this fellow who shortly thereafter proves to be a shameless womanizer who dumps her for someone else.

She then proves Kipling right: Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. She buys a pistol, tracks down the philandering ex-boyfriend, and cold-bloodedly shoots him to death. For this, she spends a long death in prison, and now that she’s out of parole, she’s asking one of her old friends’ lawyer husbands to help her regain control of her children.

As I watched the film, I thought to myself, if she was really lucky and got a sweet plea deal from the prosecutor, she’d probably get sentenced 15 years and be out in eight. After all that time in prison, she wants to take back her children that she abandoned from the husband she left? At one point in the film, she visits her lawyer in the office to ask how the case is going and the lawyer responds, “Well, your husband has a lot of political influence.”

I am not the comic genius Woody Allen is, but if I were in that lawyer’s shoes I’d say “Listen you crazy b***, you left your kids for Mr. Excitement, proved you were capable of murder, and now you want your kids back? I don’t think so.” Then again, maybe saying such a thing to a woman who owns a pistol wouldn’t be the best idea in the world.

Being a Boston Restaurateur

I’ve always enjoyed reading Bill Russell’s books, not just because of his exploits on hardwood playing for the Celtics. I find him to be a fascinating storyteller. He’s certainly lived an interesting life.

One of his best stories describes how he tried to cash in on his fame by opening a restaurant in Boston and putting his name on it. The first problem he ran into is that the local police expected to get free coffee at his establishment, and he wasn’t having any. Boston PD responded by zealously writing parking tickets for those parked illegally in the restaurant’s vicinity. This proved to be only a minor annoyance. Russell soon discovered his employees were legally blind. Despite making a habit of showing up in his restaurant and watching everyone like a hawk, he was not able to break even.
Shortly thereafter he got a visit from one of the local “wise guys.” Some organized crime figures told him that if he wanted to stay in business, they had a sure cure for his problem. This was coming from guys who’d owned multiple restaurants in Boston for many years. The solution, they informed him, was to catch someone stealing red-handed, and a few nights later, that thief would get jumped on the way home and receive a vicious beating calculated to put him in the hospital for a couple months with injuries that would never fully heal.

The key, this wise guy told him, was that they would suffer injuries severe enough that they would probably never be able to work the rest of their lifer and would have *visible* multiple injuries. The wise guys would then visit the thief’s hospital room, inform him there were no hard feelings, and they had a job guaranteed for life as the restaurant’s loss prevention manager. Nothing like hearing advice from a guy in a wheelchair with an eye patch and maybe a hook where his hand should be to deter future stealing. The boss even offered his services for free. Sadly, Bill Russell closed his restaurant rather than resorting to that measure.

Playing with a Ball of String

I heard this one 30-some years ago and it works best if you tell it with its protagonist sounding like Truman Capote.

The story goes that a gentleman who was extremely devoted to his cat went on a trip and asked a neighbor of considerably gruffer sensibilities to cat-sit for Pussykins. On the first night, Pussykins’ owner calls and says, “How is my darling kitty kat?” To which the neighbor replies “Pussykins is dead. He got run over by a truck.” At this point, the cat-fanicer howls “How dare you be so insensitive? You should’ve told me Pussykins was on the roof playing with a ball of string and fell off, that you’d rushed him to the vet’s, and he was in surgery. The second night you should’ve told me they called in a cat specialist for a consult. The third night you could have told me that Pussykins didn’t make it.” Neighbor says, “OK.”

The second night, the cat owner gets a call from his neighbor. When the cat-owner asks why he called, neighbor says, “See last night, your mom was on the roof playing with a ball of string.”

The Question

The answer is, Yasser Arafat.

The question is, has Ara Parshegian gained weight?

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Ms. Everest and Mrs. Barbara

When I read Winston Churchill’s My Early Life, I found the first chapter quite poignant. Churchill obviously loved his parents deeply, but his father Ranolph was an extremely stern taskmaster, and his mother Jennie Jerome was so distant from him that he described her as being like “the evening star.” Neglect by his parents was notable even by the standards of that time.

Perhaps his biggest childhood influence was his childhood nanny Elizabeth “Womb” Everest. He describes telling her of his “many troubles” (Editorial comment: Dude, your grandfather is Duke of Marlboro and High Commissioner of Ireland. How many people wouldn’t want to trade places with you?). Her role in his childhood is hard to exaggerate. He kept a picture of her in his bedroom until his death. When he read a quote in the memoirs of William Gibbons, author of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which read “If there be any, as I trust there are some, who rejoice that I live, to that dear and excellent woman their gratitude is due,” he thought of Mrs. Everest. “It shall be her epitaph,” he promised.

1895 was a tough year for Churchill. In Jan his father died shortly before Churchill was due to graduate from Sandhurst, the British military academy, so he never got to prove himself in his father’s eyes. The elder Churchill had died after a long bout with tertiary syphilis. That June, when Mrs. Everest’s sister wrote him that Womb was ill, he hurried to her bedside and was holding her hand when she died. Churchill not only organized the funeral, he paid for the headstone (she was from a family of modest means). Just recently, I learned that the day Churchill died, almost seventy years later, he had a picture of his beloved nanny in his bedroom.

I thought of this because a very dear friend of mine operates her own daycare center in San Diego, where she manages to provide an environment for preschoolers, which strikes me as ten times more fun than Disneyland could ever hope to be. There are numerous kiddies, tricycles in the backyard, good-natured doggies, and all kinds of treats coming from the kitchen. I recently heard that her retired Marine drill sergeant husband had to pinch hit for her, and at the end of a six hour ordeal his reaction was “Just shoot me now.” That’s the amazing part of Barbara’s ability with children: she makes it look easy.

Caring for children is like dropping a very big stone into a large pond—you never know how far the ripples will extend.

Booth and Lincoln: *Beyond* Ironic

One wintry day in 1864, one of America’s foremost actors was trying to get on an evening train in Jersey City, NJ. A short distance away, a young man who was on his way home from his Harvard studies to visit his parents in DC slipped and almost fell into the gap between the station. The actor proved himself capable of quick thought and quicker action, grabbing the man’s shirt collar and bringing him to safety. The young man recognized the actor and thanked him profusely. That actor’s name was Edwin Booth, who was generally recognized to be the most talented member of the family. Sadly for him, after the night of Good Friday 1865, he would never be the most famous.

As a fervent supporter of the Union cause, Edwin was devastated by the news that his brother had murdered President Lincoln. Some days after the assassination, however, he got a letter from a friend of his who was serving on staff of General Ulysses S Grant that gave him some consolation. The friend informed Edwin Booth that one of his fellow staff officers had spoken often of Booth’s good deed, because he was the young man that Booth had saved from death or serious harm. His name was Robert Todd Lincoln, the President’s son.

Debauchery in Delaware County

Delaware County lies on the northern border of Franklin County, where I live. I have handled several cases in this quieter part of Central Ohio. Recently a woman named Stephanie got herself seriously inebriated at a wedding party, and when the police arrived, committed an act that gives whole new meaning to the term disorderly conduct. She sprayed them… with breast milk. She was released from jail after acknowledging to the judge that she had a serious problem with alcohol (Did‘ja think?)

I recently learned that Ms. Stephanie is an elementary school teacher. I hope she doesn’t lose her job—I’ll bet all of her students were looking forward to the next scheduled show and tell.

Tower Fed

When I was stationed at Fort Mead, Maryland, I did my banking at the local branch of the Tower Federal Credit Union, which is located inside the main building of the National Security Agency. It is in a hallway about 50 ft from the central security office where you will always find an armed guard and every exit to that building has at least two armed guards at all times. During banking hours, there are several thousand people inside that building, and since it’s on a military base, I can only imagine that a very highly armed SWAT team is only minutes away. I was therefore always amused by the fact that on the wall of the bank, there is a sign which reads, “Tower Federal will pay $5,000 for information leading to the arrest of anyone who robs this institution.” It’s been decades since I left NSA, but I’ve always wondered what breed of total mad men it would take to try to rob that particular federal branch.

Getting to Know My Great-Grandfather

In recent years, I have managed to learn quite a bit about my paternal great-grandfather, William Terry Mitchell. I certainly never met him, because he died in 1921, thirty years before I showed up. I had known that he’d served as a Confederate officer, and the family tradition had it that he had fought at Shiloh, but it wasn’t until I really started digging through archives that I came up with some interesting facts.

William was born in 1835, and according to the census of 1860, he was not a slaveholder. He was, apparently, a slave overseer in one of the largest plantations in Giles County, TN, a fact that I’m sure would appall one of my politically correct sisters-in-law. He joined the 3rd Tennessee Infantry in April 1861, almost exactly the same time as Fort Sumter. There were 112 men in his company. He was one of four officers. Each company had a captain, first lieutenant, second lieutenant, and believe it or note, a junior second lieutenant. My great-grandfather was the junior second lieutenant. In the OSU main Library, I read a description of what that unit went through. Of 112 men, 9 died in battle and twelve of disease. That’s a twenty-two percent mortality rate.

His unit was at Fort Donaldson in February of 1862 when General Ulysses S Grant commanded that post’s unconditional surrender. Great Grandfather Mitchell was in no condition to fight that day: records indicate he was sick in quarters. As a Union POW, he spent some time in a federal army hospital in St Louis, then got shipped across the country to join his fellow officers at Jonson’s Island in Lake Eerie, where he spent the next seven months. They were all exchanged in September 1862. Incidentally, he lucked out in where he served his time: Johnson’s Island had the lowest death rate of any Union POW camp. I’m almost certain that either on his way to or returning from Johnson’s Island, great grandfather Mitchell passed through Columbus. He lived long enough to hear of my father’s birth in 1919. I can only wonder what he would have thought had someone told him that his grandson would settle in a Yankee city in 1958 and live there for more than half a century.

Over the next 2 years, 3rd Tennessee Infantry fought in the Vicksburg campaign as well as at Chickmagwa. I know that Great-granddad Mitchell had a stay at a Confederate Army hospital in Atlanta. In the Nashville archives, I saw he had a receipt for having drawn pay from the Confederate Army’s paymaster general. I certainly hope he spent that money in a big hurry. The 3rd Tennessee Infantry started the war with about 900 men. Over 700 were exchanged, and by the time of the Battle of Missionary Ridge, they were down to 270. Most, after seven months, said “OK, let’s pick up where we left off.”

I fervently wish great-grandfather Mitchell had kept a diary, or that someone had collected his letters. They would make fascinating reading a century and a half later. Lt Mitchell resigned his commission on Sep 7 1864, five days after Sherman took Atlanta. He did not leave a letter of resignation so I don’t know whether it was due to illness or recognition of the Confederacy’s dim prospects. Be that as it may, I would call that a very wise career move: Over the next three months, John Bell Hood, commander of the Confederate Army of Tennessee, established that as an army commander he was a great charge leader but a horrible strategist. He ordered his troops to carry out attacks that led his troops to a terribly bloody defeat at Franklin in November of 1864, and about 2 weeks later his command effectively disintegrated after a crushing defeat at the Battle of Nashville. There’s a book called From the Heat of Battle to the Fiery Cross that describes how by the Battle of Nashville, the Tennessee Infantry was down to 21 men ready for duty, and 3 “colored volunteers.”(I wish again that there were records for these three men, to find out their motivations for staying on when they probably could have run away by that time). Great-grandfather got out just in time.

Sometime in 1866, my great-grandfather took an oath of allegiance to the Union. I was mildly surprised to see the card identifying him lists his height at 6 feet and a half. Shows I’m not the only member of the family to reach that height. While I’m no admirer if the Confederate cause, I respect my great-grandfather’s tenacity.

There’s one more PS about my grandfather would appall my PC S-I-L big time. As a one-time confederate veteran, and an officer no less, there’s a strong possibility that great grandfather Mitchell might have joined an organization founded in Giles County either in late 65 or the summer of 66, which achieved notoriety not just throughout the state and country but internationally. Although they don’t keep membership rolls, there’s a distinct possibility my great-grandfather may have been a Klansmen.

Patrick Cleburn’s Plan

Now that we’re in the midst of celebrations on the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, I think it’s an excellent idea for all students of history to closely examine the causes and consequences of that conflict. Last year I hear a friend of mine state quite vehemently that the Civil War was not about slavery, it was about succession and states’ rights.
In discussing anything with this particular friend, it is a good idea to make liberal use of the phrase, “You’re partially right.”

When somebody says the civil war was about states’ rights and succession, I say, What were they succeeding about? When they say the cause was economic, I say, what was the South’s economy based on? The key issue, in my mind, was the EXPANSION of slavery. Lincoln and the Republican party hated slavery but could tolerate it where it already existed. Their platform was to be unalterably opposed to any expansion of the “peculiar institution” into further territories.

In 1820, Congress thought they’d settled the issue by declaring there would be no slavery north of the line 36 degrees. It would allow slavery, but nowhere north of the current northern boundary of Oklahoma. 25 years later, America’s seizure of the northern half of Mexico reopened the issue. Henry Clay and Daniel Webster engineered the Compromise of 1850 that California would be a free state and slavery would be allowed into the new territories (however, as a practical matter, Clay knew that the land in those areas would be totally unsuited for a plantation society). Throughout the 1850s, some ambitious pro-slavery factions sponsored filibustering expeditions to seize Caribbean islands and parts of Central America to further expand slavery.

When Lincoln ran for president in 1860, he made his position clear: he was resolved to save the union. If he could do it by freeing all slaves, he would do so, if he could do it by freeing no slaves, he would do so, and if he could do it by freeing some and not others, he would do that as well. The statement might make Lincoln seem wishy-washy, but we must take into account what he did not say: he would not allow for the expansion of slavery, even if it meant fighting the bloodiest war in American history.

When Lincoln won the election of 1860 (with only 42% of the popular vote but a clear majority of the Electoral College), southern states, starting with SC in December 1860, started seceding from the Union. Lincoln made it clear he would not agree to peaceful succession. Fort Sumner followed, and 4 years later, 600,000 Americans were dead. So was the institution of slavery. The Union still stood.

For anyone who argues that slavery was not the key issue of the civil war would do well to consider the case of Confederate General Patrick Cleburn. He was born in Ireland in 1828, immigrated to the US at the age of 20. At the outbreak of the he war proved himself to be an extraordinarily talented soldier, rising from private to major general in just 3 years. On January 2, 1864, General Clayburn attended a meeting of senior officers of the Army of Tennessee, where he circulated an essay he’d written. Clayburn first pointed out that the Confederate cause was in a very bad way, a fact which no competent soldier could deny: Vicksburg had fallen, federal troops had taken Chattanooga and were poised to attack Atlanta, and the Confederate Dollar, which had been worth 40 cents US currency, could now be had for six cents. Confederate prospects were indeed bleak.

Cleburn pointed out that the Confederate’s most serious problem was a lack of manpower. Again, a self-evident proposition. He then proposed a solution which left his fellow officers speechless. He proposed any slave who volunteered to fight for the confederacy should receive freedom for themselves and their families. After Cleburn finished his presentation, the silence was deafening. One party present said it was as if someone had told a grossly inappropriate joke in front of a group of church deacons.

Ironically enough, several months later, Robert E Lee broached the subject of arming blacks in return for their freedom, as did Cabinet member Judah Benjamin (who had been a plantation owner but had sold it and his slaves before the war—good timing on his part).

On March 13, 1865, the Confederate Congress actually acted on Clayburn’s idea. Clayburn sadly had been killed in action four years earlier. By that time, however, the Southern cause was well and truly lost. Five days later, the Confederate Congress adjourned for the last time, and 15 days after that, Lee evacuated Richmond, the Confederate Capital. Comparisons between the Confederate cause and that of the Nazis 80 years later because they carry some highly emotional baggage. But the Confederate congress’ action that late in the day reminds me of Himler’s efforts to use Jewish concentration camp inmates as bargaining chips to secure his own safety. It’s a far-fetched historical “what-if” to wonder if Congress had manumitted slaves earlier in the war, and it’s useless. Slavery was the raison d’ĂȘtre of the Confederacy.

The Last Draftee

Last month, the US Army passed a small milestone. It is now an entirely volunteer force. The last man drafted into the US Army retired at the age of 59 after almost 40 years of service. He was forced into the Army but found it to his liking: he retired a sergeant major. I have read some 1970s commentators stating America could not survive without a draft. I am reminded of the adage “Truth is the daughter of time.” Happy retirement, Command Sgt. Maj. Jeff Mellinger.

This Saturday in the Horseshoe

Ohio State fans will have to get used to someone other than Tyrelle Prior taking snaps. Over three years, he proved himself to be a young man of positively amazing athletic ability but dubious morals and a fifth-rate intellect. What type of total moron endangers his athletic eligibility by accepting discounts on tattoos? OSU’s new starter QB will be either Joe Bauserman, largely inexperienced, or Braxton Miller, completely inexperienced.

This has inspired one Buckeye fan to an irreverent verse (to the tune of the old Spider-man theme song):

Bauserman, Bauserman,
If he can’t start, Braxton can,
Can he run? Can he throw?
Sad truth is: we don’t freakin’ know.

I was positively stunned to learn the name of the University of Akron’s starting QB. It is Clayton Moore. Good heavens, are we going up against the Lone Ranger? Will they play the opening movement of the William Tell overture? I guess as long as they don’t let him ride Silver onto the field, we’re probably in good shape.