Monday, May 27, 2013

GIFT OF THE 'CITIZEN SOLDIER'



This is a favorite column that I reshare on Memorial Day, certainly not because I wrote it but because those who sacrificed did, in the way such devotion, such lack of selfishness re-polishes humankind.


By Arthur H. Gunther III
thecolumnrule.com
columnrule.blogspot.com

ANYWHERE, USA -- It is the custom of the nation to pause this official Memorial Day and recall those who passed in our wars, then and now, and to take a gift from the men and women who sacrificed earthly living: some hours off for picnics, parades, fireworks, backyard ease. It may be said that the somberness of reflection is lost in such activity, but to accept that would be to also say those now gone would not be here themselves doing what we all do, if they could.

Ernie Pyle, the insightful G.I. Joe’s writing buddy, who sat in foxholes with the ordinary “citizen soldier,” as he put it, defined World War II and its great assemblage of draftees and enlisted from all over the country as a time to get a job done and then return to forging America and its never-ending frontier. Ernie, who took a bullet to the head in the Pacific in 1945, did not come back to resume his weekly newspaper columns of Hometown USA, but most of his “boys” did. If he were alive today, he would note the morphing of Joe the tail gunner or Bill the seaman into suburban great-granddads.

War can never be praised, as Pyle told us, though the valor of the individual cast in its acts must be. He never wrote of the rare gung-ho military fellow who somehow might enjoy death and destruction; instead, he spoke eloquently of men cast as leaders when they did not seek such a role. On Jan. 10, 1944, at the front lines in Italy, he told of Capt. Henry T. Waskow, company commander in the 36th Division and a Texas native: “In this war I have known a lot of officers who were loved and respected by the soldiers under them. But never have I crossed the trail of any man as beloved as Capt. Waskow.”

Just in his 20s, this citizen soldier “carried in him a sincerity and gentleness that made people want to be guided by him.”

Under a nearly full moon that night in Italy, mules brought down five bodies of ordinary citizen fighting men -- fellows who months before had been long unemployed in the Great Depression or just out of high school or in various trades or other jobs. They arrived from all over our America.

“One soldier came and looked down, and he said out loud, ‘God damn it.’ That’s all he said, and then he walked away. ... ‘I sure am sorry, sir,’ said another soldier. ... (one man) squatted down, and he reached down and took the dead hand, and he sat there for a full five minutes, holding the dead hand in his own and looking intently into the dead face, and he never uttered a sound all the time he sat there. ...”

On this Memorial Day, it is essential to recall such men as Capt. Waskow and those who gave him respect in life and death. That this nation endured and moved on from World War II is the true tribute to them. The “normalcy” they and others sought is still illusive -- witness that there have been and still are other wars. We must yet return to forging America and its never-ending frontier.

The writer is a retired newspaperman.

Monday, May 20, 2013

HOW A NEWSPAPER WORKS (OR SHOULD)



By Arthur H. Gunther III
thecolumnrule.com

A local (Rockland County, N.Y.) newspaper comment site brought a complaint from one concerned reader of its editorial page that an opinion questioning iffy funding for a controversial semi-pro ballpark was hypocritical since the paper had sponsored a “Name that Game” contest. Ah, a time to instruct here, just as I once learned.

I was with a newspaper -- The Journal-News -- for a long time, 42 years, and I served a lengthy stint as the edit page editor, but even before I was in that fortunate job, I was a strong reader of editorials in the Daily News out of New York City. 

I recall reading these edits as a 10th grader in Spring Valley High School, on lunch break at my nearby grandparents’ house. Occasionally, I would be struck by a fervent piece that seemed out of line with the news coverage. How could the paper shout in one voice and then do something contrary with its hands? 

I am not sure how I learned this  -- perhaps it was in the journalism activity class that we could take, or maybe in general reading, but I did come to understand that the editorials are the official opinion of the newspaper, and that the news-gathering side might be asked by editorialists for fact but that the editorial voice, in a most sacrosanct way, must be independent of the city desk, that it must be considered opinion, not driven by news gathering and certainly not geared to promoting the paper.

Now, this pure approach has not always been followed. Muckraker, yellow journalism has always existed, and opinion pages are also driven by the paper’s philosophy, even the publisher’s bent. So there can be Republican or Democratic -leaning papers, for example.

Yet, basically speaking, I can say that as editor of an opinion page for 20 years, having also worked on it for an additional 9, my predecessors and I tried to ignore the paper’s news-bent, even its marketing. 

So, when the commenter recently questioned how a local paper could rail against ballpark funding when its marketing department ran a “Name that Game” contest, I wanted to look the fellow in the eye and tell him what’s what.
Of course, you can't do that online.

Newspapers make many mistakes daily, and they can be high and mighty, even hypocritical. But day in and day out in this daily birth there are standards that we newspaper people hold dear, and most of us try to keep to them, mistakes or not.

Churchill once said that a democracy is imperfect, but it is the best we have. Newspapers, too, are troublesome, but if we did not have them, think how much more secretive government would be, how much deeper special interests would burrow into our lives without a light shining on their ways?

The writer is a retired newspaperman. 

Monday, May 13, 2013

FINE DAY IN AMERICA'S NYACK



By Arthur H. Gunther III
thecolumnrule.com

NYACK, N.Y. -- On a recent day in “town,” in this later 1800s village not long ago of antique charm and just now of mini-cosmopolitan ambiance with restaurants and some small shops but back in memory of a working-class, traditional American commercial/industrial community, I found solace in a $1 container of coffee to go, any size. And call it just that, coffee, not grande or pocachino or whatever moniker is offered at $2.50. 

Though the palate is not extensive, I’ve at least managed to sit at enough fine dinners to appreciate what has been offered even if I was not eating it all. And there were some well-connected people, too, given the reasons for the political, etc., dining in the first place. But the urge to keep it simple, and in that to seek a certain honesty, is more this life’s theme, and so it is that a $1 container of coffee to go from a basic but as American-as-apple-pie eatery on Main called Johnnycakes did more for the soul on this one recent day in Nyack.

Now, you don’t have to live in this village or even to know what it looks like to enjoy it. From Alaska to Hawaii, to Texas, Colorado, Maine, Florida, there are Nyacks and Johnnycakes in them, ordinary places that are anything but since it is within those doors and outside them -- on the sidewalks, on Main, on the back streets, down by the river, in the park, on a bench, outside the community (not international) bank, by the church, the synagogue, across from the hair salon, next to the lottery store, in the aisles of the hardware place, in the small bakery and all about -- that so much of this nation shows its heartbeat.

I took my walk, with my container of coffee at $1, and went past my old newspaper building, now an architectural office with additional uses, at 53 Hudson. I recalled the steps I made as a little boy with my parents, buying things for Christmas in what were then many stores, soon to be replaced by suburban strip shopping. And I remembered that just yesterday, literally, my son, his wife and the grandchildren were with us on Broadway. Way back a long time ago now, my own grandfather walked in Nyack, too.

That container of coffee was a fine companion on my travels, for just $1 helping me obtain what is priceless on a fine day in America’s Nyacks.

The writer is a retired newspaperman.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Undue influence, no matter what


By Arthur H. Gunther III
thecolumnrule.com

It seems undue influence can be both legal and illegal in these our “democratic” United States. It depends on whether you offer cash, gifts and sweet deals to one who writes and passes laws or are a registered lobbyist who is well paid to get some legislator’s ear in efforts that go beyond free speech.

In New York State, where last week politicoes, including a state senator, assemblyman and $125,000-a-year mayor of a village 70 percent in poverty were arrested on bribery charges, Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney, declared, “How many other pending bills were born of bribery? How many passed bills were born of bribery?” In those cases, which include allegations of trying to buy influence in the New York City mayoral election, a wired informant with ties to serious wrongdoing spilled the beans and may have saved himself some jail time.

Meanwhile in just about every state capital, there are registered lobbyists, many of which employ former legislator staffers close to key chair people. Sometimes these lobbyists practically write the language for various laws. The people, the ordinary people in this our “democratic” society, cannot hope to wield such influence. 

In Washington, on the famous (infamous?) K Street, lavish buildings, one after another, are the homes of firms that run a continuous lobby pipeline to Capitol Hill. 

Yesterday, the New York Times reported in its second front-page lead story that 28 former aides to Max Baucus, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, are registered as lobbyists. This as Congress readies a rewrite of the tax code.

Clearly it is illegal to offer cash or other payment to influence legislation or government decision in favor of one person, persons or companies. Why is it not illegal to hire and employ former government staffers in the know, who are close to their ex-employers, to twist arms on legislation and decisions?

If Prett Bahara can ask, “How many passed bills were born of bribery,” cannot the average citizen wonder how many laws are written by special-interest directive? Isn’t legalized influence in Washington and in every state capital every bit as devastating to democracy and to the economy as is illegal bribe-seeking?

This is not a matter of free speech, as the latest Supreme Court decision on hidden-money campaign financing declared. There is no level playing field when big lobby funds are pitted against the plaintive cry of the citizen. The free speech quotient could be addressed by full, open, impartial public hearing.

 We the People of the United States of America, in General Congress, assembled not in one place but existing as free humanity in every state of the great union, should solemnly publish and declare, that we are, and of right ought to be free and independent of all special interests, that such lobbies have no right to demand that we be chained to thirst for bottom-line greed, that we give up our pursuit of happiness, that we forego any reasonable and secure future for our young, that we abandon the glue of the nation, that is, its middle class. 

We should therefore declare that We the People must soon require that all elections, from state office to Washington, be publicly funded, with no special-interest money allowed as influence of any sort. Nor should any ex-government official or staffer take a lobbyist position or a job with a government contractor for a period of at least 10 years.

Money talks. Power corrupts. Special interests rule, increasingly. And the ordinary, often unaware citizen is the victim, ill-served by his/her own government in this our “democracy.” Inestimable damage to society, to the economy, to a viable future has already been done.

Legalized influence in state houses and in Washington is every bit as devastating to democracy as is criminal corruption, most recently alleged in New York. 

The writer is a retired newspaperman living in Blauvelt, N.Y., who is reachable at ahgunther@hotmail.com.


Monday, May 6, 2013

'I LOVE MY (neglected) PARK'




By Arthur H. Gunther III
thecolumnrule.com


     Any park in New York State -- Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a hands-on, folksy, decent fellow who hops on a hog and motorcycles throughout the Empire State, rolled up his sleeves and joined the second-annual “I Love My Park” volunteer cleanup this past Saturday. Good thing the state chief wasn’t at Tallman Mountain State Park in Sparkill. His Harley tires would have blown on potholes growing for at least 30 years.

Great photo op for yet another official on whose watch the great, terrible neglect of once-well kept parks in New York continues. Yes, Cuomo is in deep budget quicksand, but even in flush times, state parks were not sufficiently funded.  Past governors and legislatures have cut budgets to meet overspending elsewhere and patronage projects. One bad example of this: In the late 1970s, park money was diverted to New York City to save nearly bankrupt Gotham. 

At Tallman Park, where I was yesterday, vehicles could end up with broken axles and damaged tires because the asphalt pavement of the 1930s is in such disrepair. A once-grand stone shelter, built dry-set with no mortar by Great Depression craftsmen, has lost its windows. Its fireplaces are a mess, and there is still debris left from Super-storm Sandy.

But don’t blame the weather, though it ravaged this park and even more so Hook Mountain just up the Hudson River, where a long-neglected, trail along the shore was heavily damaged. Truth is, that trail was also hit in the great 1938 “Yankee Clipper” hurricane that took away a swimming beach and a dock for tourist boats. World War II came and repairs were delayed. After the war, very little was done, and now the main feature of the park is the neglected trail, left over from a former quarrying operation in the early part of the 20th century.

Hike up to Bear Mountain State Park, and the famous Inn’s dinning room remains closed, still not renovated after almost a decade. A fine hotel has been established below, and a beautiful gift shop, too, but the people’s place, the area in front of a massive fireplace outside the upstair’s dining room, is still not open to the public.

Applause, surely, for the thousands of volunteers who turned out for “I Love My Park,” but they cannot undue the damage wrought by uncaring administrations and legislatures over at least the past 50 years. Most of these parks sit on land placed in the public trust by wealthy families like the Harrimans, Rockefellers and Perkins. The trust has been broken.

Maybe other volunteers can form a conservancy and save our state parks, as was done with Central Park in New York City. Government failed there, too, bringing the Calvert Vaux-Frederick Olmsted place of genius to ghetto status in the 1970s. Guess the only green some politicians see is the color of money. Perhaps Gov. Cuomo can break the neglect and bring a “New New York” to the sad state parks.

The writer is a retired newspaperman.