Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day: Remembering What My Dad Will Never Forget

Article first published as Memorial Day: Remembering What My Dad Will Never Forget on Blogcritics.

There will be parades to mark Memorial Day, war movies will be playing on the TV, and many family members and friends will journey to graves to honor their fallen loved ones. It is a tradition each year that we stop and, no matter how we feel about the politics involved, we remember the soldiers who died while doing their duty. They had courage most of us do not have, and they possessed a sense of purpose to go forward into the mayhem and turmoil of war, perhaps even knowing they weren't coming home.

My father is a veteran of World War II, and he told me of a story that I think about many times during the year, but usually around Memorial Day it reminds me of the ultimate sacrifice some people have made. In this case it was an 18 year old boy name Bobby Sullivan. Four years younger than my Dad, he grew up across the street from my father in Queens, New York. He seemed to always look up to my father, who showed him how to swing a bat, throw a ball, and work on cars.

When my father was drafted in 1942, Bobby would see him come home for a visit wearing his uniform. At 15 years old he was in awe of my Dad, the great smile and glowing freckled face indicating that he was happy to see him but also proud that he knew him. He asked Dad questions about the Army, and Dad did not sugar coat the experience. He explained about the realities of boot camp and the impending prospect of going overseas. None of this seemed to faze Bobby or make him think that Dad was anything but a superhero.

Well, Dad went off to war, going over to Europe on the Aquitania. He landed in Scotland and took a 20-hour train ride down to the English Channel. Like so many others he went over to France and fought in the war. Eventually he was stationed in the chateau in Fontainebleau, and since his expertise was demolitions, he was kept very busy coordinating the disarming and disposal of unexploded bombs that littered the countryside.

The war was over in May 1945, but Dad's work had just begun. Since he spoke French fluently, Dad was put in charge of dealing with the French Forestry Service to help coordinate removal of bombs. He became very good friends with some of those local French people, and his efforts were essential in bringing life back to normal for the citizens in that area.

One day Dad got a letter from his mother with very bad news. Bobby Sullivan had been killed in action the month before somewhere in France. Dad did not even know Bobby had enlisted let alone had come overseas. His mother wrote that Mrs. Sullivan was distraught and asked if he could somehow find where Bobby was buried, take a photograph, and send it home to her.

Dad's new task was locating the grave. After much research and cutting through red tape, he located the grave in a cemetery near the palace of Versailles. He and one of his friends took the train there, and Dad stood over the grave and stared at the plain white cross, just one of thousands that spread out across the field. He squatted down and thought about the boy he had known, wondering what Bobby must have faced in the end.
My father's buddy took out the Brownie camera and took a couple pictures of my father. Dad had not wanted to be in the photo, but then he figured it would be good to send that to Mrs. Sullivan so that she could see my Dad had been there. He mailed both photos off to his mother, and Nana kept one which appears here. Mrs. Sullivan appreciated getting that photo and never forgot my father's efforts to locate her son's grave.

Now, all these years later my father gave me this photo. He looks so young, so vibrant in it, and yet the overwhelming solemnity of the moment is obvious, as is his reverence for a fallen brother. I told my father that was a great thing that he did, and he looked at me sideways and said, "It was the least I could do."

So now when I look at the photo I think that this is just one moment in a history of moments like it. How many mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, wives, children, and friends have had to makes these visits to graves? How many, like Mrs. Sullivan, never got to visit because their loves ones died overseas and were interred there?

This year I will be thinking again about all those lost over all the years as I stand and watch the parade with my children as I once watched the parade with my parents. It is a tradition, of course, but I will also be thinking about Bobby Sullivan, who barely had a chance to live his life, and how my father made certain to remember him that day in May 1945, and Dad never forgot the boy with the smile and freckled face, and I will never forget him either.

We should never forget all of them like Bobby, all the millions who gave their lives as he did. That is why we celebrate this last Monday in May. It is not just to commemorate the war dead but to honor those they left behind as well. Go to a parade, clap as the men and women go by, wave a flag, and salute them. It is the least we can all do.

Photo Credit:

Friday, May 18, 2012

Roger Clemens Perjury Trial: You Can't Make This Stuff Up

Article first published as Roger Clemens Perjury Trial: You Can't Make This Stuff Up on Blogcritics.

"One's a born liar and the other's convicted." These are the infamous words said by Billy Martin, right before he became ex-manager of the New York Yankees. He was, of course, referring to Reggie Jackson and George Steinbrenner respectively (Jackson had served a five-game suspension for insubordination and "lied" about it; Steinbrenner had pleaded guilty to illegal campaign contributions). Although this was said way back in 1978 by the late Martin, it seems like it could be very apropos in Roger Clemens's perjury trial in Washington, D.C.

Defense attorney Rusty Hardin has tried to portray Brian McNamee (the personal trainer who has testified that Clemens took steroids) as a liar. Clemens could end up being convicted, so you can see the quotation connection here. The question is who is lying and, more importantly, if any of this really matters anymore.

The other night Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun was on the field playing in a game against the New York Mets at Citi Field. Yes, this is the same player who tested positive for performance enhancing drugs, received a fifty game suspension, but through technicalities got that ruling overturned. So there is Braun, an active Major League player, basically getting away with it. If MLB doesn't care about him, why did it ever care about Clemens, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, or any of the other guys who became bloated like Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons?

The problem is not that Clemens denied using steroids or HGH, but that he took an oath and did so before Congress, leading to this six-count federal indictment. You can lie to the press and MLB (and even to your teammates and the fans), but lying under oath before Congress is a whole different ballgame.

Hardin is getting in touch with his inner Clarence Darrow here, and he is taking the gloves off with McNamee because this guy is the prosecution's big gun. When Hardin asked McNamee, "Do you sometimes just make stuff up?" you could see his strategy, so when McNamee replied, "I didn't make it up," you have to wonder who is scoring more points with the jury.

U.S. District Court Judge Reggie Walton has tried to keep things civil in the court, telling Prosecutor Steven Durham and Hardin to behave. He said, "You don't have to throw dirt," but the way things seem to be going, they both need to take a good bath.

Lawyers can never be sure what goes through the minds of a jury, but this case is going to come down to whom they believe to be telling the truth. Someone is lying and someone may be convicted, and the real truth may never be known, but a former Yankee could end up in prison.  One day Clemens may be watching a game behind bars and see Braun running across the field and wonder how this all happened to him, like a scene in the worst soap opera. Unfortunately, this could be a painful reality for the Cy Young Award winning pitcher. You can't make this stuff up indeed!

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Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Mother of all Holidays

Article first published as The Mother of all Holidays on Blogcritics.

Like most of you, I love my mother. Even though she has been gone six years now, not a day goes by that I don't think about her, talk to her, and remember all the wonderful things she did for me. I do not begrudge others who still have Mom, though it is difficult sometimes to see women with their sons, or men in the Hallmark aisle looking at cards for Mother. I wish I could still be looking for one of those cards too.
Still, I think it is wonderful to have a day to celebrate motherhood. Mom's do so much for us even before we are born. Who but a Mom would allow her body to become distorted beyond recognition by this alien creature nestled in an amniotic sea crashing against the shores of her intestines? I always say that God chose the right sex for motherhood because, let's face it gentlemen, a tummy ache makes us all bent out of shape. Imagine an excruciating one over nine months long? No, only women can handle that.

So yes, motherhood more than deserves recognition, but Mother's Day itself is a problem for me because it has morphed into something of a retail juggernaut, akin to Halloween, Christmas, and Valentine's Day as a marketing miasma that sucks the joy out of celebrating all things Mom. It is also hard when you have lost your mother to walk around and see the "Mother's Day" advertisements splashed all over the place, to have to hear all the ads on the radio, and see them on Internet and TV.

Of course, there is also the difficult spot for men who are married and have wives who are mothers (or their daughters, sisters, and so on). The genius of marketing Mother's Day is that we are almost all required to buy something, take someone out to eat, or to a Broadway show, and so on. Yes, my inner Scrooge is boiling and thinking, "Mother's Day is a poor excuse to pick a man's pocket every second Sunday of May." But then I have also grumbled about Valentine's Day to no avail because, no matter how solid my arguments may be, in the end gifts are expected and are a prerequisite to marital peace and harmony.

Yes, I will trot out and get the expected (and perhaps even unexpected) gifts for my wife, will ask the kids to make cards (sorry, Hallmark, but these originals are so much better), and mark the day as I must, but I will also go to the cemetery and place an arrangement on the grave. I will pray and weep and then drive home, hear a song on the radio that reminds me of Mom, and then weep some more.
There is also the assumption that even though you may have been neglectful of your mother all year long, that celebrating Mother's Day with her will provide a panacea, a moment of redemption for you, but that is a big mistake.

A long time ago my grandmother Josephine told me that it was not good to celebrate Mother's Day if I wasn't a good boy the rest of the year. I took what she said seriously, and for the rest of my Mom's life, every day was Mother's Day. Even if I was far away I would make sure to call her, because I knew if she heard my voice it would ease her worries. I did everything I could for her and then, when she died, I somehow felt that maybe what I did was not enough. I still think that way sometimes.

So, yes, in the end most of us will celebrate Mother's Day, and each will do it in his or her own way. I will remember what Nana said and, even though Mom's gone, I will continue thinking that every day is Mother's Day. It's just that I miss Mom everyday and it's much harder on this day, and despite what other people say, it doesn't get easier each year and I doubt that it ever will.

Photo Credit:

Monday, May 7, 2012

Hindenburg Disaster - My Grandfather's Little Piece of History

Article first published as Hindenburg Disaster - My Grandfather's Little Piece of History on Blogcritics.

When I was a little kid, my grandfather Fred (my mother's father) once sat me down and showed me an old piece of what looked like jagged sharkskin. He stared down at it and said, "This is a little piece of history."

"Really?" I asked. Loving all things to do with history, I was hooked. Pop proceeded to tell me the story about this frayed fabric, which turned out to be from the infamous airship, the Hindenburg.

On May 6, 1937, Pop and his brother Charlie made the trip from New York City to Lakehurst, New Jersey, to see what they thought was going to an historic moment - the arrival of the airship Hindenburg at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station. Pop was a New York City firefighter and Charlie was a stage actor. Being of German descent, they wanted to see the great airship from the old country that they had heard so much about.

"The Hindenburg was like the Titanic in the sky," Pop had said. "We could never afford a ticket (about $400 during the Depression was totally out of his ballpark), but we wanted to see it just to get a glimpse, and maybe get a little souvenir for Margaret (my grandmother)."

Of course, due to bad weather, Pop would never have had to leave Manhattan. Because of encountering turbulence and rain, the airship made a detour and did fly over the city, giving office workers and pedestrians ample time to get a glimpse of its enormous length and breadth. It was indeed like a Titanic in the sky.

The difference was that the Hindenburg was not on a maiden voyage. It had logged in over 200,000 miles of successful voyages back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean. Wealthy and famous Americans had travelled aboard it in a luxurious conditions, and most people (including Pop) had an idea that this type of travel would one day eclipse ocean liners as the most popular (and much faster) way to cross the ocean.

So Pop and Uncle Charlie stood on that field waiting in the rain to see the legendary airship from the old country. Pop was a World War I veteran, serving on a submarine chaser in the Navy. He and his brother had been invited by Pop's old friend Andy who was still in the service. The men lit cigars and talked over old times, remembering their dangerous but exciting days of dropping depth-charges on "the heads of the Krauts."

Despite Pop's service, he still was proud of being German and of his family history. Since his relatives had come to the United States in the 1860s, Pop had no contact with anyone in Germany, but he lived in a neighborhood in Queens (Glendale) where storefronts had signs in German and English, the conversation on the street was usually held in German, and he would come home from work to meals of sauerbraten, knockwurst, or wiener schnitzel served by my grandmother.

Pop described watching the great ship come in and at first being totally in awe of something "bigger than Ebbetts Field in the sky." He said that all at once he saw it "buckle" and heard it making a horrendous noise, as if "an engine were being dragged over cobblestones." Suddenly the whole thing was on fire, listing upward and down, and the cigars dropped from the men's mouths as they looked at one another in disbelief. Instinctively Pop wanted to run forward, but Andy pointed to all the sailors running toward the burning wreckage and said, "Let us handle it, Fred."

Pop and his brother watched Andy run into the crowd of other sailors heading toward the burning skeleton. Amazingly, sixty-two of the ninety seven people on board survived, in large part due to the courage of those sailors who were first responders in every sense of the word. Later on Pop and Charlie walked closer to the smoldering remains, and Pop noticed pieces of the singed outer skin of the airship all over the ground. He leaned down, picked one up, and slipped it into his pocket. This would be the only souvenir he could show my grandmother, instead of a postcard or some other memorabilia he thought he would bring home.

All these years later I think about seeing that piece of fabric, its jagged gray surface slightly burnt, with a few threads dangling from the sides. Pop kept it in a clear plastic bag in a drawer in his bedroom, and he said that every once and a while he would take it out and just look at it. The grandeur of its fame, the awesome scope of its size, and the lore of the flying airship all came back to him, but also the horror of a fire that seemed worse than anything he had seen in New York buildings in his twenty five years as a firefighter.

I do not know what happened to that little piece of history. I grew up and went to college, and when Pop died I did not think of it until many years later, and by that time all his things were gone, and only pictures and memories remained. Pop and his brother had gone down to Lakehurst, New Jersey, for what they thought would be an historic moment, but they got much more than they ever expected - a spectacle that seventy-five years later we still remember as one of the great disasters of the twentieth century.

Photo Credit -

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Junior Seau Commits Suicide - Will the NFL Take Notice Now?

Article first published as Junior Seau Commits Suicide - Will the NFL Take Notice Now? on Blogcritics. Junior Seau Commits Suicide - Will the NFL Take Notice Now?

The death of former San Diego Chargers player Junior Seau is a horrific story on many levels, but it is most alarming because it is a part of a more vast tableaux, one that leads back to the source and catalyst: the National Football League. I am not blaming the NFL in this death. It is not like the league took the gun, put it in Seau's hand, and helped him pull the trigger; however, there has to be growing concern about this worrisome pattern of former NFL stars dying by their own hand.
Also, in light of the New Orleans bounty scandal (in which players received financial incentive to hurt opposing players), there has to be a spotlight on what the NFL has done and what it will do to protect its players during and after their careers.

American football is the most lucrative sport in the world. It has eclipsed all other sports, and in the United States one of the most watched TV programs is the Super Bowl. Absolutely nothing - baseball, hockey, basketball, soccer, etc. - comes close to the revenue generated, the fervor of the fan base, and the excitement created by the sixteen-game season and playoffs. That said, this is also the most dangerous of all sports, where a player can become paralyzed or die in an instant. Think of Darryl Stingley as one of the most powerful examples of what can go wrong in this sport.

So the most lucrative and most dangerous sport in the world should also have a league that sets an example and makes the field as safe as possible for its players. This is like trying to make a soldier on the battlefield safe to be sure, but you would not send out a rookie soldier without any training or protection with a pistol and put him in the middle of a combat zone. Yes, Roger Goodell and the NFL have taken a strong stand in the New Orleans case. Penalties notwithstanding, more needs to be done to make sure something like the bounty scandal never happens again.

Of course, Seau played a long and illustrious career. Few NFL players can make it for twenty seasons as he did, but you must wonder about the toll all those years took, the hits that he sustained, the damage that was done. When a fighter gets hit too many times they say he becomes punch drunk. Well, what about the number of times Seau must have got hit. Though known as an "iron man" and being compared to baseball's Cal Ripken for his stamina and longevity, it must not be underestimated how devastating twenty years on the field in the NFL must have been to his body, especially his head. Though he suffered no known concussions, how many did he have we can never be sure, but he must have had at least one during that time.

Once an NFL football career is over, it has to be a major depressor. Though Seau opened a restaurant and probably could have had many avenues to go down, it appears that the end of his playing days took a toll. To make a strange connection, Joe Paterno stopped coaching and was dead only weeks later. Yes, the man was old and sick, but the loss he suffered was irreparable. The game becomes the life; the life is the game. Trying to take on life afterwards must appear monumentally difficult and, at times so depressing, there seems to be nothing else that matters.

I am sure more will come out over the days and weeks ahead about Junior Seau's situation. He was so well loved in San Diego, perhaps as loved as any player could be. The crowds gathering outside his house there are testimony to that. But just as in the famous poem "Richard Cory," we have no idea of his troubles, no inkling of his demons, so despite seemingly having it all, Seau ended things as did Cory, leaving the rest of us shattered and dumbfounded.

Junior Seau was a great player, destined for the Hall of Fame. He is dead by his own hand, but the NFL must be held complicit in that it needs to do more. What can be put in place for retired players? What options can there be for them considering their usually short careers (Seau's twenty years being an anomaly)? It is definitely a Titanic moment for football. After the great ship sank, sufficient lifeboats were placed on all ocean liners. Now it's the NFL's turn to provide their own life saving process for former players. Hurry up, Mr. Goodell, "iceberg dead ahead!" Photo Credit -