Veterans Day 2017: remembering Uncle Reeves

Uncle Reeves and Aunt Jewell, early 1970s

My family has about the average number of veterans and career military personnel. I’ll write another day about the long career of my mom’s brother John Brackbill and his service in the Army and Navy. But on this particular day-before-Veterans Day, I’m thinking about my Uncle Reeves.

Reeves Dennis Church enlisted in August 1941, leaving his life as a merchant in Hot Springs, North Carolina. He trained in Boston; near the end of his life he told us highly abbreviated and edited stories of the infamous Scollay Square. In June 1942 he sailed to New York on the USS Siren as a seaman first class. By September he was sailing from Key West to Cuba, still on the Siren, having been promoted to yeoman third class. He was still serving on the Siren in March 1944, but had been promoted to Yeoman First Class. By May of that year he headed back to New York, when the Siren was decommissioned, and he was discharged in 1945.

USS Siren was a patrol yacht, originally assigned to coastal defense in New England, then redeployed to convoy duty along the southeastern US coast and in the Caribbean. As part of the crew, Reeves traveled to Trinidad, Jamaica, Key West, Cuba, and even to Brazil, and helped to rescue survivors of a U-Boat sunk by a Navy patrol plane.

That was the most excitement my uncle had. After the war, he returned home and married my Aunt Jewell, and settled into a quiet life, working for the NC state highway department. After retiring he would frequently give Appalachian Trail hikers seeking a zero a lift from the trail into Hot Springs. By the time I got to know him, thirty years after his discharge, you’d never have known that he spent the war keeping our country safe.

Which is one of the unique privileges we have had in America: to be kept safe by those ordinary people who volunteered to do extraordinary things.

“Yankee Doodle” and the Liberty Tree

Old “Yankee Doodle” song sheet, courtesy Library of Congress

I was able to go see the Boston Camerata’s performance of “Liberty Tree” yesterday. The music and performances were stunning, evocative of an extraordinarily fertile time in the nation’s creative genius. The program mixed marches and political songs, Shaker songs, spirituals, shape note music and early American compositions from the likes of Billings and Jeremiah Ingalls, to great effect.

I especially liked the reminder, in this time when even taking a different gesture of respect for the National Anthem is met with howls of outrage (when the protesters are black), that our national symbols were not always so staid. Here’s the text of the, um, atypical but historical “Yankee Doodle” verses that opened (and closed!) the show:

Sheep’s head and vinegar,
Buttermilk and tansy,
Boston is a Yankee town––
Sing Hey Doodle Dandy.

Heigh ho for our Cape Cod,
Heigh ho Nantasket,
Do not let the Boston wags
Feed your oyster basket.

Two and two may go to bed,
Two and two together;
And if there is not room enough,
Lie one atop the other.

Removing the Confederate plaques on the Rotunda

Rotunda memorial plaques, courtesy Richard Dizon, Cavalier Daily

On Friday, the Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia voted to remove a pair of bronze memorial plaques listing the UVA students who were killed fighting for the Confederacy in the Civil War. Early Saturday morning, workers removed the plaques. Per the BOV resolution, the plaques will be “moved to a location at the University where they can be viewed as artifacts.”

The tablets in question were installed on the Rotunda in the early 1900s—the CD says “1903” but Philip Alexander Bruce says they were installed and dedicated by UVa’s first president, Edwin Alderman, in 1906, as a gift of the Confederate Memorial Association and the Albemarle Chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy. (Note that the Glee Club raised funds for the Confederate Memorial Association in 1890.)

The actions over the weekend are a direct outcome from the events that happened in Charlottesville over August 11–13, in which torch bearing neo-Nazis marched through Grounds shouting anti-Semitic slogans. Passing up into Grounds from the Bookstore and presumably passing the student center at Newcomb Hall on their way up the Lawn, they came around the Rotunda, which bore these plaques on its south side, and surrounded a group of 25 counter-protesting students at Moses Ezekiel’s statue of Thomas Jefferson. They jeered and chanted at the students, and then they threw kerosene and lit torches at them.

Tyler Magill, who was in the Glee Club with me in the early 1990s and who I count as a friend, had joined the students by this time. He was struck by a torch on the side of his neck, which eventually led, a few days later, to his suffering a stroke.

More horrors happened over the weekend, including 20 year old James Alex Fields driving his car through a crowd of protesters, deliberately murdering Heather Heyer and injuring many others.

I have been trying to write my feelings about what happened that horrific weekend for over a month, and have not been able to. Among other reasons, it feels as though once I started I wouldn’t be able to stop.

But part of it is that today’s liberal Charlottesville sits atop a veritable Indian burial ground of undercurrents of racism and secession. This is, after all, the school where the Jefferson Society debated, on January 14th, 1860, whether a state had the right to secede from the Union (the conclusion was affirmative), and where the Washington Society decided in a November 1860 debate that the Southern States should secede; where students flew the flag of the Confederacy atop the Rotunda in February 1861. And it was also the school that was built with slave labor and that ran on the efforts of enslaved workers, and that was founded by a United States President who wrote “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” but who held both a peculiar definition of “all” and over 100 slaves.

So it is that Charlottesville seems a seat of that original sin of our country, and that our past is now coming home to roost.

The University’s actions to remove the names of those who fought to uphold slavery from its most central, symbolic building are a good start. I think the decision to display the memorials elsewhere is a good way to resolve the tension I have felt about removing public Confederate symbols. I don’t want us to forget our historic complicity in injustice and violence, but I also don’t want those reminders to continue their mission of oppression.

LaRC, and what my father did there

My dad spent more than 30 years, from the 1960s to the late 1990s, at NASA Langley Research Center, which turns 100 this year. During that time he worked on Apollo-adjacent technologies, atmospheric and environmental satellite based sensors, and diagnostic equipment for hypersonic jet engines.

That’s a grossly inadequate description of what he worked on. I got to know his work on coherent anti-Stokes Raman spectroscopy and its applications to high temperature sensors pretty well, because that’s what he was working on when I was in high school. And I’m old enough to remember his overnight or weekend trips to Wallops Island to fly missions to measure ocean environmental characteristics with lasers in the late 1970s, before funding for NASA environmental research was cut during the Reagan years. But he was also at the center when it was a hotspot of research for the Apollo program. I’ve driven by the huge concrete pad dwarfed by towering girders above where Neil Armstrong practiced manually steering the Apollo landing craft to a safe touchdown—skills he ended up using for Apollo XI.

Looking forward to watching this documentary about the center (narrated by none other than William Shatner) with my kids, if I can just get them to sit still long enough.

Preparing for the weekend

It’s been a light blogging month here, as I had to take on some additional responsibilities at work. I’m definitely looking forward to Memorial Day and our customary celebration, which for the past few years has involved barbecue. And not just any barbecue, but the only time each year that I make pulled pork, which this year will be served alongside homemade bread and butter pickles. And pulled chicken. And our quasi-semiannual pilgrimage to Karl’s Sausage Kitchen for grilled bratwurst.

I have some shopping to do.

My hometown POW camps

For every use of Facebook that is lamentable or just plain awful, there’s something like the Newport News group that I’m a member of. Filled with people whose memories of the Peninsula predate mine, it’s regularly full of surprises. None so big, though, as the pointer to a discussion forum on a Newport News High School site about World War II POW camps in my home town.

I think I had been vaguely aware that some prisoners of war had been housed in Newport News, particularly at Camp Patrick Henry (in my childhood Patrick Henry Airport, today known as Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport or “New Willie”). But I wasn’t aware of the scope: over 134,000 German and Italian POWs were housed in the camps at Camp Patrick Henry, Fort Eustis, a POW camp near the Port of Embarkation, Camp Hill, and other locations. According to one article, a major purpose of the camps was the “re-education” of former Nazis who were drafted into the German army unwillingly.

To my surprise, I also learned that there were enemy alien interment camps (like the ones in California that held a young George Takei) in New Market, Staunton, and Bath; these held German, Italian and Japanese natives.

History isn’t distant; sometimes it’s right where you’ve been all along.

Presidency of an “archaic” system

Salon: Donald Trump doesn’t like the “archaic” Constitution: “It’s really a bad thing for the country.”

Money quote:

Meanwhile, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus told ABC on Sunday that the president is thinking about amending or even abolishing the First Amendment to stifle what they consider to be unfair media criticism. When asked by Jonathan Karl whether they had considered a constitutional amendment so that the president can sue his critics, Priebus responded: “I think it’s something that we’ve looked at. How that gets executed or whether that goes anywhere is a different story.”

Never mind that the White House will stumble around figuring out how to amend the Constitution because none of them paid attention in civics class. Eventually they’ll figure it out.

And then we should impeach whoever moves that idea forward. Because that’s a long way from preserving, protecting, and defending the basic framework of our democracy.

S. Harris and the March for Science

This weekend’s March for Science felt familiar, but not because of its similarity to the Women’s March. A lot of the placards felt like S. Harris cartoons.

Sidney Harris, who generally signs his cartoons with his first initial, is one of those guys I read religiously when I was in physics and then subsequently forgot about. But there’s a real resonance in his cartoons about climate change.

Back from vacation

Just got done driving my family around Washington, DC for a few days. Slowly trying to reenter working life, but it’s challenging to focus for more than a few minutes at a time, which is about the length of time my kids will let me focus on anything.

But there were some cool things along the way, including what may now be my favorite room in the Smithsonian, the exhibit room inside the Castle (above and below). Note the Concorde model below and the flock of birds above.

Heading to DC

We have a rare family vacation next week. We’ll be taking the kids to visit some family and then to spend a few days exploring our nation’s capitol. There’s a part of me that will always be excited to visit the seat of our government and of so much of America’s identity, and to expose my kids to our history as well as all the riches of the American Museum of Natural History.

That’s not to say that I don’t feel any uneasiness about the trip. My feelings toward our government are definitely tarnished by the current occupant of our nation’s highest office and the horrific car wreck of an administration he’s surrounded himself with. But this will be, I hope, a good opportunity to push reset on some of those feelings and just take in the reminder that we can be better than we are.

100 years’ anniversary: James Rogers McConnell

Some members of the fighter squadron N.124, “l’Escadrille Américaine,” in May 1916. Corporal James Rogers McConnell is at the right. (Courtesy Air Force Times)

Yesterday was a solemn anniversary of sorts, covered in the Cavalier Daily (Ceremony honors 100th anniversary of alumnus’s death in WW I) and UVA Today (UVA Honors Inspiration for “Winged Aviator” Statue, 100 Years After His Death). I’ve written about McConnell before, both as student and martyr. On this hundredth anniversary of his slaughter, it seems fitting to reflect on his legacy and what he represents.

First, McConnell was at once the last and first of his kind. First because he was the first UVA student to be killed in that awful war; last because he was the last American airman killed before the United States officially entered the war April 6, 1917, just 18 days after his death. He was also effectively the last American warrior-as-adventurer, in the model of Teddy Roosevelt or the other early 20th century military leaders who held greater fame in civilian life.

Indeed, his decision to head to France, and later join the Escadrille after serving as an ambulance driver, is best read through the lens of Roosevelt as a role model. As he is quoted in the introduction to his memoir Flying for France, “These Sand Hills will be here forever, but the war won’t; and so I’m going.” But later he was converted to the belief of the absolute rightness of the French cause, and so he entered his combat role.

He was last in another way too—probably the last prominent UVA student to partake so fully of UVA’s extracurricular offerings. As King of the Hot Feet he was part of the University’s tradition of revelry; as one of the earliest known members of the Seven Society he was a founder of the tradition of more sober and secretive organizations that focused on good works.

The UVa Library has a comprehensive exhibit on McConnell’s life online, showing not only his letters home and artifacts from his plane and personal effects, but a memoir from his frequent correspondent Mademoiselle Marcelle Gúerin. Reading the material is a sobering reminder of a time when causes were just and consequences were mortal.

Sounds of anguish

Christopher C. King, Oxford American: Unearthly Laments. It’s easier than you might think to connect the dots between the earliest known complete musical composition—the Seikilos Epitaph—and “Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground.” I’ve got a mix almost in the can that explores some of these connections.

But that isn’t why you should read King’s piece. His tale of discovery of a 78 of the Blind Willie Johnson record is: a little physical remnant of sorrow, left to rot in a sharecropper’s shack until saved from fiery destruction.

‘Do what thou wilt’ not, in fact, the whole of the law

The New Yorker: The Ninth Circuit Rejects Trumpism. The enumeration in the article of the constitutional principles challenged by Trump’s executive order on immigration, aka the “Muslim ban,” is long. The scarier bit is the repeated note that the administration was given every chance to argue in a serious way for its side and offered no more than “because I said so.”

Václav Havel and the path forward

New Yorker: Václav Havel’s lessons on how to create a “parallel polis.” A perspective of hope drawn from Havel’s response to both Communism and Cold War capitalism:

The spontaneous and vigorous opposition to Trump, whether at the women’s marches the day after his Inauguration or at the protests at U.S. airports in support of a viciously demonized people, has already manifested many of the qualities that Havel wished to see in civil society: trust, openness, responsibility, solidarity, and love. Many more people realize, as Havel did, that arbitrary and inhuman power cannot deprive them of the inner freedom to make moral choices, and to make human community meaningful. They are shaping a redemptive politics of dissidence in the free world, nearly three decades after the fall of Communism. To measure the American dissidents’ success in electoral or any other quantifiable terms would be beside the point. For they are creating a “parallel polis”: the vital space where many, over the next four years, will find refuge from our age of anger, and learn to live in truth.

I like this perspective very much. Here dissidence isn’t just opposition to the actions of an “enemy,” it’s assertion of moral values and enacting positivity. Definitely a lesson here.

Wait, what?

New York Times from yesterday: Trump and staff rethink tactics after stumbles

Key quote:

Mr. Bannon remains the president’s dominant adviser, despite Mr. Trump’s anger that he was not fully briefed on details of the executive order he signed giving his chief strategist a seat on the National Security Council, a greater source of frustration to the president than the fallout from the travel ban.

Read that again. 

Trump demoted the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the US Director of National Intelligence to give Steve Bannon, a white nationalist, a seat on the NSC, then complains he didn’t know what was in the order he signed?

Jesus.