Sunday, November 23, 2014

THANKSGIVING


   By Arthur H.Gunther III
ahgunther@yahoo.com
Thanksgiving -- the traditional American one -- and any gathering in any nation among any people at any time that seeks to express individual and community gratefulness for their bounty, however small, is affirmation that we do not live by bread alone. That we can celebrate such awareness by breaking bread is further proof of thanks.
     When I was a child, my family’s Thanksgiving was simple and as expected in a blue-collar household where Thursday’s holiday was followed by Friday’s work: The day had special significance. That I had just one surviving set of grandparents made the moment even more of an anchor.
     The day in Spring Valley, N.Y., at my grandparents’ home, offered the fine, deep smell of slow-cooking turkey, though I never ate that, preferring American cheese, I am afraid. But I enjoyed cranberry sauce, without which there would have been no Thanksgiving, and my Nana’s well-mashed potatoes, which tasted just right, particularly so on this occasion.
     The windows, single pane, were clouded by condensed water, for the house was very warm with the oven and the people. My brother and I made circles on the glass and looked up and down the quiet streets of Summit and Ternure, just as my father and his brother had done years before.
     After the main course, there would be the homemade apple pie and a cake from Tancos Bakery downtown that my father had picked out for the day. Usually a lemon variety.
     The dessert would come a bit later, for dishes had to be cleared and hand washed, and our stomachs were full anyway. I spent the time waiting by getting awfully comfortable in my gramps’ recliner, next to a big standard floor lamp with a bright, 100-watt bulb. The stack of Saturday Evening Post magazines awaited, and I usually got through three.
     Dessert came, and while the adults had their usual conversation, I went back to the chair cocoon, happy that I had experienced yet another Thanksgiving in that wonderful 1914 house, in a very small town where my dad grew up, where I went to school, walked to school, where I had friends and where adult cares, challenges and the highs and lows and promise of all that were yet far off.
    Like I said, a traditional Thanksgiving, for no matter how you celebrate the day or something like it, no matter where you are, what happened on your “thanksgiving,” especially as a child, if you were so fortunate, eventually makes the man, the woman of you.
     But, first, it gave you precious childhood memory.
    The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached via ahgunther@yahoo.com
This essay may be reproduced.

Monday, November 10, 2014

'THE WAR TO END ALL WARS' AT 100 YEARS


By Arthur H. Gunther III

If, at the 11th hour of the 11th day in the 11th month of each year, from 1918 on when “The War to End All Wars” was over, you would toll a bell 20 times a minute for the 37,468,904 total in casualties, it would take more than 30,000 years to somberly do so.
Today, on the 100th anniversary of Great Britain’s declaration of war against Germany, and also the date that the United States said it would not get involved, but eventually did, the dead, the wounded, those with “shell shock” must not be recalled simply as numbers. Why didn’t this First World War prevent all others?
In one of the costliest battles of the 1914-1918 conflict, the Battle of the Somme on July 1, 1916, the British suffered 60,000 casualties on the first day. When it was all over and just six miles gained for the Brits, there were 1,219,000 dead and wounded. And that does not include the emotionally afflicted, people who in World War II we would term suffering from “battle fatigue” and now, as the wars continue, “post-traumatic stress syndrome.”
War does not end because greed is always with us, greed of nations, individuals, the military-industrial complex that profits so well. War does not end because of power and false pride, nations who are really little children taking affront in what begins as a playground insult and escalates into utter horror, as happened when the dominoes toppled in 1914. The entangling alliances of that time over Belgian neutrality and world trade, culture, ethnicity, old hatreds, were the excuses to rally patriotism. Soon enough, the voices of the eager volunteers became the shrill cries of the brave as they went over the top, and as quickly, the deep stillness of the forever graveyard.
War is folly, and in the end it creates little that could not have been gained by compromise and common sense, long before madmen such as Hitler have a foothold that can only be broken by war.
In “All Quiet On the Western Front,” the famous post-war novel by  Erich Maria Remarque,  which details his fellow German soldiers' physical and mental harm during the war and  the isolation and detachment from ordinary life when back home,  the character “Kropp” says, “"It's queer, when one thinks about it ... we are here to protect our fatherland. And the French are over there to protect their fatherland. Now who's in the right?”
     And, “We loved our country as much as they; we went courageously into every action; but also we distinguished the false from the true, we had suddenly learned to see. And we saw that there was nothing of their world left.”
     Now, 100 years later, the long trenches of the Marne, Passchendale, Verdun, so many other battlefields, still echo in history with their artillery fire, machine guns, death and madness, for war never disappears. The great still is indeed today’s all quiet on the western front, 2014, but the battles are stirring elsewhere.
      On this centennial of the beginning of a war meant to end it all, and, coincidentally the half-century mark of America’s accelerated effort in Vietnam, a nation with whom we now trade, the bells must continue to toll, for nations are ruled by men, too often by the folly of such.
    As in “All Quiet ...”:  “While they (the pontificating teachers and politicos) continued to write and talk, we saw the wounded and dying. While they taught that duty to one's country is the greatest thing, we already knew that death-throes are stronger.”
    The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at ahgunther@yahoo.com This essay may be reproduced.


Monday, November 3, 2014

TWO WHO MATTERED MUCH


By Arthur H. Gunther III
     Many personalities and almost that number in characters passed through my Editorial Page desk at the old Journal-News in Nyack, N.Y., 1978-2006. Like a farmer pleased with a bumper crop, I was always provided with a fertile field of human emotion, accomplishment, sadness and elation for commentary. To a man, to a woman, to a child, all these people’s  stories made you feel humble, for the tales of the human world are life itself, no matter the age, place or time.
      So many unknown among us achieve without notice. So many suffer from this ailment or weight upon shoulders but get the job done. And so many do good, paying their own relative fortunes of whatever sort forward. Their stories are largely left untold.
     Editorial pages, which may soon no longer exist, the victims of cost management in the shrinking print media, traditionally have heralded the extraordinary who die in office, who have served the people. But the journalist writing those pieces, him(her)self usually a bit jaded by the hoi polloi and more attuned to the common folk, really chew better on testimonials for the ordinary achiever whose praise would otherwise be unsung.
     And, so, we come this day to two such people, presented here in appreciation and respect, not on an editorial page but at least in words. While both were Rockland County, N.Y., people upon death, each could have lived anywhere in the world for their kind are in every community.
     My first person of note is Albon Platt Man IV of Palisades, a community volunteer and peace activist for most of his 95 years. Albon was a most articulate fellow, precise in speech and manner, and a stickler for correct grammar and word usage. Yet his kindly ways nudged his criticism rather than applying it hammer-like. He spent a total of 45 years in two publishing and editing jobs. 
     He was a local historian who helped publish books for the Historical Society of Rockland. He volunteered in many community ways, including at a home for the developmentally disabled.
     Admiration for Albon Man comes easily, but for me it is anchored by his sacrifice for his beliefs. As a young man and then as a retiree, he opposed war, and he walked the talk by serving three years in prison for refusing induction into the U.S. Army. 
     When I was asked by the Historical Society to collect 100 of my newspaper essays and Albon and the late Associated Press writer Jules Loh edited them into a book, Albon asked me which was my favorite. “A fraternity of life and death,” I said, which was commentary on the World War II film, “Saving Private Ryan.” Though a pacifist, Albon, a man of dignity and great empathy, also understood “the fraternity of battle death,” of brothers in war but beyond it. In a way, I was talking about the ultimate peace. Albon knew. It is both the warrior and the peace-maker who can end all war and instead concentrate on the good the world can offer.
     Albon Man contributed much in his own ways. I have rarely met such a principled, selfless person.
     My second person of note is Jean Kathleen Sammes Gardner, a longtime Nyack resident who was born in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, England (what a wonderfully sounding location). “Top girl” at Reigate County School, Jean volunteered in the London Civil Defense Corps, helping manage underground subway stations filled with residents during the Nazi “Blitz” bombings. Later she was in the British Women’s Auxiliary Air Force where she was a radar reader in top-secret work. She met her husband, Harvey C. Gardner, an American, and moved to Nyack in 1953.
     Jean was an ardent community activist, fighting particularly for Rockland parkland and the Hudson River.
     Our paths met at a stop sign of sorts in the later 1990s when I editorialized that Nyack might remove some of the large oak trees in upper Memorial Park so that the Hudson could be better seen and more directly linked to the village proper.
     Jean, in a reply worthy of Winston Churchill’s bulldog stance against the Axis, quickly set me right. The trees had been there since just after World War I, when they were planted, each one of them, in memory of the men fallen in that “War to End All Wars.”
    I felt humbled. I felt ashamed. I vowed to research better. And I still stand up straight when I hear Jean Gardner’s name, as if a schoolboy chastened in proper fashion.
     What gifts we have on this earth when we meet such people as Albon Man and Jean Gardner.
     The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached via ahgunther@yahoo.com This essay may be reproduced.