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Just Another Manic Monday

President Donald Trump was largely out of the news over the long Thanksgiving holiday weekend, but he made up for with it a manic Monday of mostly embarrassing headlines.
The day began with Trump’s Office of Management and Budget director showing up at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to take control as acting director, which was already being contested in federal court by the woman who was tapped for the job by the outgoing director. Although Trump has every legal right to appoint a permanent director to the bureau, the specific law that created the bureau spells out that until the appointment is confirmed by Congress the the outgoing director’s choice is in charge, so there’s a good chance that the courts will quickly bring more embarrassing headlines about the matter over the next few news cycles.
Which is a shame, because there’s a strong case for the changes Trump is clearly eager to bring about at the CFPB. The bureau’s defenders can rightly point to cases where it’s helped out average folks, even if the big one is the Wells Fargo fake-account scandal that the bureaucrats first found out about by the reading the free press, but all those too-big-to-fail banks it was meant to combat keep getting bigger, and so do the fees they charge their customers, and the acting director Trump appointed rightly pointed out that the agency’s quasi-governmental status and non-congressional funding give it power that anyRepublican should fear a Democrat wielding, and any Democrat should fear a Trump appointee weilding
The smart move would have been to quickly appoint a permanent director to make the necessary changes and have all his good friends in the Republican majorities in Congress quickly confirm, and quietly suffer whatever indignities some President Barack Obama administration holdover might cause in the brief interim, but that’s not Trump’s style.
Later in the day Trump had a photo opportunity with three aging Navajo “code talkers,” who were one of the great stories of World II, and the smart move would have been to act solemn and grateful and not cause any racial controversy, but that’s also not Trump’s style.
The youngest of the nonagenarian Marine veterans was only 15 years old when he signed up for a bloody war in Guadalcanal and Iowa Jima and the worst of the Pacific theater, and was able to give an eloquent account of how he and his Navajo colleagues helped win that war by sending in-the-middle-of-it radio reports in their indecipherable-to-the-Japanese native language, and how it proved that America is invincible when all sorts of Americans are truly united. Trump was so moved that he said wasn’t going to use the speech that had been written for him, which he handed to one of the veterans as a gift, which would have been a moving gesture if he’d left it at that, but in his extemporaneous remarks he wound up slipping into his campaign rally insult comic mode with an oft-used joke about “Pocahontas.”
“Pocahontas” is of course  Trump’s nickname for Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth, who was largely responsible for the creation of the CFPB but has nothing whatsoever to do with Navajo code talkers’ heroism, and he couldn’t resist the opportunity of having Indians on hand to bring up his favorite Indian joke. During her first Senate campaign it was revealed she had long claimed some small amount of American Indian blood and counted herself among some group of Native American scholars or another, which was widely ridiculed at the time by such conservative outlets as this, so Trump has always responded to her frequent criticisms by taunting her as “Pocahontas.” The wittier wags used to call her “Faux-cahontas,” but that’s either too subtle for Trump’s tastes or he figures that hard-core fans wouldn’t get it.
By the now the joke is pretty much played out, and at a ceremony that was supposed to be about Navajo code talkers and a united America’s invincibility it didn’t play nearly so well as it used to at the campaign rallies. The honored guests couldn’t have looked more unamused if they were made of wood and standing outside a cigar shop, the National Congress of American Indians the president of the Navajo Nation was offended by the remark, so was Oklahoma’s Chickasaw and Republican Rep. Tom Cole. White House press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders assured her interrogators that the president didn’t indent any offense to American Indians, and that everyone should be more offended by Warren’s unsubstantiated claims “which should be constantly covered,” but no one in that audience found it convincing.
Trump had already “tweeted” routine gripes about the “fake news” media, this time singling out the Cable News Network, writing with his characteristically random capitalizations that “@FoxNews is MUCH more important in the United States than CNN, but outside of the U.S., CNN is still a source of (Fake) news, and they represent our Nation to the WORLD very poorly. The outside world does not see the truth from them!” The fans still love this familiar routine at the campaign rallies, but elsewhere the timing was once again a bit off.
Trump’s tweets came just after Russian dictator Vladimir Putin announced his intention to start restricting such foreign media organizations as CNN, and while the governments in Poland and Turkey and the Philippines and other countries that Trump has a similar affinity for are increasingly threatening their own independent journalists, so Trump’s media critiques have an ominously authoritarian tone. They also come at a time Trump’s Department of Justice is challenging a complicated merger of a couple of big-time media giants that involves CNN, and although it’s too complicated for us to say who’s right we can’t blame any court that suspects the administration is pursuing a political vendetta against a perceived enemy among the free press.
There were also stories about Trump telling friends that the notorious “Access Hollywood” tape with him talking about grabbing women by the wherevers and all the rest of it  is also fake news, even though he not only owned up to but actually apologized for it way back when it came out, with all the links to the related story about the credibly accused child molester he’s backing in an Alabama senatorial race. Not to mention the ongoing speculation about why his former national security advisor’s legal team has stopped sharing information with Trump’s legal team regarding a special counsel investigation into the “Russia thing,” which seems likely to generate a lot of future embarrassing headlines.
Today is Tuesday, though, and the rest of the week should be clear sailing.

— Bud Norman

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Another Memorial Day

Today is a good day to take it easy, enjoy the arrival of another long-awaited summer in America, and to not bother with the mess we’re making of it. It’s also a good time to reflect on the men and women who once made America, so we’ll re-post an old essay once again. Nothing much has changed since we wrote it.
On a long walk through the old and picturesque Riverside neighborhood of Wichita, Kansas, you might happen upon a small monument to the veterans of the Spanish-American War. Located on a tiny triangle of grass dividing a street leading to Riverside Park, the memorial features a statue of a dashing young soldier armed with a rifle and clad in the rakishly informal uniform of the era, a cannon captured from a Spanish ship, and a small plaque thanking all of the men who served America in that long ago conflict.
We always pause at the spot to enjoy the statue, an elegant bronze work that has tarnished to a fine emerald shade, and often to reflect on the Spanish-American war and the men who fought it. Sometimes we’ll wonder, too, about the men and women who honored those soldiers and sailors by building the small monument. The Spanish-American War had been one of the controversial ones, and the resulting bloodier war in the Philippines was still underway and being hotly debated at the time the monument was installed, so we suspect it was intended as a political statement as well as an expression of gratitude, and that the monument builders had to endure the animosity of their isolationist neighbors.
We’ll also wonder, on occasion, how many passersby are surprised to learn from the monument that there ever was a Spanish-American War. The war lasted for only four months of 1898, and involved a relatively small number of American soldiers and sailors, so our current crop of history teachers might be inclined to give it only short mention as a regrettable act of American colonialism before rushing on to the more exciting tales of the ‘60s protest movement or whatever it is they’re teaching these days. The world still feels the effects of those four months in 1898, when that relatively small number of American soldiers and sailors ended more than three centuries of Spanish colonial dominance, commenced more than a century of America’s preeminence on the world stage, and permanently altered, for better or worse, the destinies of Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam, yet the whole affair is now largely forgotten.
If you keep walking past the park and across the Little Arkansas River toward the east bank of the Arkansas River, just beyond the Mid-America All-Indian Center and its giant Keeper of the Plains statue, you’ll find a series of similar monuments dedicated to the veterans of other wars. One features an old torpedo and honors the men who died aboard the S.S. El Dorado, “One of 57 submarines on eternal patrol,” during the Second World War. Another lists the names of the many local men who died while serving in the Merchant Marines. An austere black marble plaque beneath an American flag is dedicated to all U.S. Marines. There’s a rather elaborate area devoted to the veterans of the Korean War, with a statue, several flags, numerous plaques and a Korean gateway, which wasn’t erected until 2001, long after the controversies of that conflict had subsided.
The veterans of the Vietnam War are honored with a touching statue of an American soldier standing next to a seated South Vietnamese soldier, which was donated by local Vietnamese-Americans as an expression of gratitude to everyone of all nationalities who tried to save their ancestral homeland from communism, and that won’t be formally dedicated until the Fourth of July. We hope the ceremony will be free of protestors, or any acrimony, but even at this late date the feelings engendered by that war remain strong. Some American veterans of the war have publicly complained about the inclusion of non-American soldiers in the veterans’ park, while some who opposed the war have privately grumbled about any monument to the Vietnam conflict at all. Both the memorial and the attending controversy serve as reminders that the effects of that war are still being felt not just by the world but individual human beings.
Walk a few more blocks toward the old Sedgwick County Courthouse and there’s a grand monument to the Wichita boys who went off to fight for the union in the Civil War, featuring the kind of ornate but dignified statuary that Americans of the late 18th Century knew how to do so well, but a more moving memorial can be found clear over on Hillside Avenue in the Maple Grove Cemetery, where there’s a circle of well-kept graves marked by American flags and austere gravestones for the boys who didn’t come back. Throughout the city there are more plaques, statues, portraits, and other small markers to honor the men and women who have fought for their country, and of course a good many gravestones for fallen heroes in every cemetery. This city honors those who fight for its freedom and safety, and that is one reason we are proud to call it home.
There is no monument here to the brave men and women who have fought for us in Iraq and Afghanistan, and no memorial to those who died in those far-off lands, but there should be, and soon. Both wars, and especially the Iraq war, have been controversial, and any memorial will be perceived by some as a political statement rather than an expression of gratitude, but it is not too soon to honor the men and women who fought for us. The effects of the wars will outlive us all, and none of us will ever see their ultimate consequences, but there is reason to believe that the establishment of a democracy in the heart of the Islamic middle east and the military defeat of al-Qaeda will prove a boon to humanity, and that is the reason those brave soldiers, sailors, and airmen fought and died there.
If we wait until the ill feelings subside, we might wait until the war has been largely forgotten. In every city and town of the country there should be something that stands for those who gave their lives for America in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it should be something that will stand for a century or more. Something that will cause the passersby of the 22nd Century to stop and reflect, and to be grateful.

— Bud Norman

In Hiroshima and Trying to Find Where America Would Be First

President Barack Obama will soon make a visit to Hiroshima, Japan, and even if he doesn’t explicitly apologize for the atomic bomb that America once dropped on that unfortunate city his mere presence there will unmistakably imply it. This strikes us as not only an outrageously mistaken reading of history and an egregious diplomatic blunder, but also an unforced political mistake that hands a generous gift to presumptive Republican nominee Donald J. Trump.
Although we’re quite sure that Obama had no intention of helping Trump, and calculated that a lofty speech about the dangers of nuclear proliferation set against such a dramatic backdrop would contrast nicely with his would-be successor’s sometimes-bellicose and sometimes-isolationist and sometimes-entirely-incoherent ramblings on foreign policy, we think that he’s still not quite so adept at this reality television business as his would-be successor. Aside from the historical facts that the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima killed fewer people than the Second World War’s conventional bombings on the rest of the country and fewer people than the Japanese Imperialists had slaughtered in the “East Asian Co-Prosperity Zone” they had declared, and most certainly spared millions of Japanese and hundreds of thousands of Americans from the far greater carnage that would have resulted from an unavoidable invasion, or that the remade-in-America Japan which resulted has lately been a most stalwart ally that would prefer not to have any of this brought up, the political miscalculation is probably the most stunning failure.
Even such lone and still clinging to desperate straws conservatives as ourselves will freely acknowledge that Trump would never make any such even implied apologies for any of America’s past actions, except for that “Bush lied, peopled died” thing that by now even Obama and everyone else agrees with, apparently except for ourselves and his would-be-Democratic successor who voted for the war, but we’re admittedly confident Trump wouldn’t be apologizing for such an easily defensible action as dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Trump isn’t much for apologies, even after mocking the handicapped and bragging about his penis size and making menstruation jokes and dissing American prisoners of war and a year’s worth of similar incidents that would have demanded an apology for anyone less confident in his rightness, even, we dare say, Obama himself, so he’ll no doubt ramp up his rhetoric about those inscrutable Japanese and their wily ways and remind everyone once again that he is by our own admission the unabashedly pro-American of the major party candidates. Apparently Obama doesn’t think this will still sell after seven-and–half years of his strong man rule, but we believe that during that time he’s lost touch with the country’s mood. Few of us have any familiarity with the Second World War these days, but even fewer of us are bothered that we dropped that atomic bomb on Hiroshima all those years ago, and Trump’s more pro-American position will surely tick up a few points in the polls.
Stepping aside from the reality show and trying to ascertain the actual reality, however, we find it all too dismal. That anti-nuclear-proliferation and Noble Peace Prize-winning president who’s been hung up on nuclear proliferation since his dope-smoking college days swung that awful deal with the Iranians that will likely spark a nuclear arms race in the guano-crazy Middle East, the would-be Republican successor he’s just handed such a gift to has openly talked about withdrawing the nuclear umbrella from South Korea and Japan and suggested they’ll have to nuke up on their own and start a nuclear arms race in the slightly-less crazy Far East, because that’s the best deal, believe him, and the would-be Democratic successor has an equally awful record of her own that accounts for four of the past seven-and-a-half-years of Obama’s awful foreign policy, and at this point there really aren’t any straws left to grasp at. We’ll concede that Trump’s unapologetically “America First” stand is appealing, but we wonder if he knows that was the slogan of the isolationists who would have allowed the rest of the world to be dominated by the Axis powers, and we note that his “convention manager” was a longtime lobbyist for some of the world’s worst dictators and one of those “best guys” he brought in as a top foreign policy advisor is a business partner and longtime confidant of the similarly unapologetic Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, and we note he veers from Code Pink anti-neo-con talk to “take their oil” on a dime, and there’s that worrisome talk about getting rid of our longtime Asian commitment thing along with that North Atlantic Treaty Organization deal that’s been so awful, so we harbor doubts if he has any well considered notions of what there is in that stubborn reality is in the best interests of America. We’ll acknowledge that his predecessor and would-be successor don’t trouble themselves such questions at all, but that’s hardly consoling.
We’re sorry to end on such a glum note, but that’s where we seem to find ourselves at the moment.

— Bud Norman

Memorial Day

Among the fallen heroes we honor today are some who fought in the Iraqi cities of Mosul and Ramadi in order to bring democracy to that country and cease its support for terrorism. Lately both cities have fallen into the hands of a sadistic terrorist gang calling itself the Islamic State, presidential candidates from both parties are questioning the decision to send American troops into Iraq in the first place, nobody seems to be asking it if was a good idea to withdraw them, and those who survived the ordeal are feeling forgotten and disrespected. We won’t take up time on a holiday best spent with barbecue and beer by arguing the wisdom of the American efforts in that country, or their apparently premature end, but we would like to let those who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan know that they are well remembered by re-running a post from a Memorial Day past:

 

On a long walk through the old and picturesque Riverside neighborhood of Wichita, Kansas, you might happen upon a small monument to the veterans of the Spanish-American War. Located on a tiny triangle of grass dividing a street leading to Riverside Park, the memorial features a statue of a dashing young soldier armed with a rifle and clad in the rakishly informal uniform of the era, a cannon captured from a Spanish ship, and a small plaque thanking all of the men who served America in that long ago conflict.
We always pause at the spot to enjoy the statue, an elegant bronze work that has tarnished to a fine emerald shade, and often to reflect on the Spanish-American war and the men who fought it. Sometimes we’ll wonder, too, about the men and women who honored those soldiers and sailors by building the small monument. The Spanish-American War had been one of the controversial ones, and the resulting bloodier war in the Philippines was still underway and being hotly debated at the time the monument was installed, so we suspect it was intended as a political statement as well as an expression of gratitude, and that the monument builders had to endure the animosity of their isolationist neighbors.
We’ll also wonder, on occasion, how many passersby are surprised to learn from the monument that there ever was a Spanish-American War. The war lasted for only four months of 1898, and involved a relatively small number of American soldiers and sailors, so our current crop of history teachers might be inclined to give it only short mention as a regrettable act of American colonialism before rushing on to the more exciting tales of the ‘60s protest movement or whatever it is they’re teaching these days. The world still feels the effects of those four months in 1898, when that relatively small number of American soldiers and sailors ended more than three centuries of Spanish colonial dominance, commenced more than a century of America’s preeminence on the world stage, and permanently altered, for better or worse, the destinies of Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam, yet the whole affair is now largely forgotten.
If you keep walking past the park and across the Little Arkansas River toward the east bank of the Arkansas River, just beyond the Mid-America All-Indian Center and its giant Keeper of the Plains statue, you’ll find a series of similar monuments dedicated to the veterans of other wars. One features an old torpedo and honors the men who died aboard the S.S. El Dorado, “One of 57 submarines on eternal patrol,” during the Second World War. Another lists the names of the many local men who died while serving in the Merchant Marines. An austere black marble plaque beneath an American flag is dedicated to all U.S. Marines. There’s a rather elaborate area devoted to the veterans of the Korean War, with a statue, several flags, numerous plaques and a Korean gateway, which wasn’t erected until 2001, long after the controversies of that conflict had subsided.
The veterans of the Vietnam War are honored with a touching statue of an American soldier standing next to a seated South Vietnamese soldier, which was donated by local Vietnamese-Americans as an expression of gratitude to everyone of all nationalities who tried to save their ancestral homeland from communism, and that won’t be formally dedicated until the Fourth of July. We hope the ceremony will be free of protestors, or any acrimony, but even at this late date the feelings engendered by that war remain strong. Some American veterans of the war have publicly complained about the inclusion of non-American soldiers in the veterans’ park, while some who opposed the war have privately grumbled about any monument to the Vietnam conflict at all. Both the memorial and the attending controversy serve as reminders that the effects of that war are still being felt not just by the world but individual human beings.
Walk a few more blocks toward the old Sedgwick County Courthouse and there’s a grand monument to the Wichita boys who went off to fight for the union in the Civil War, featuring the kind of ornate but dignified statuary that Americans of the late 18th Century knew how to do so well, but a more moving memorial can be found clear over on Hillside Avenue in the Maple Grove Cemetery, where there’s a circle of well-kept graves marked by American flags and austere gravestones for the boys who didn’t come back. Throughout the city there are more plaques, statues, portraits, and other small markers to honor the men and women who have fought for their country, and of course a good many gravestones for fallen heroes in every cemetery. This city honors those who fight for its freedom and safety, and that is one reason we are proud to call it home.
There is no monument here to the brave men and women who have fought for us in Iraq and Afghanistan, and no memorial to those who died in those far-off lands, but there should be, and soon. Both wars, and especially the Iraq war, have been controversial, and any memorial will be perceived by some as a political statement rather than an expression of gratitude, but it is not too soon to honor the men and women who fought for us. The effects of the wars will outlive us all, and none of us will ever see their ultimate consequences, but there is reason to believe that the establishment of a democracy in the heart of the Islamic middle east and the military defeat of al-Qaeda will prove a boon to humanity, and that is the reason those brave soldiers, sailors, and airmen fought and died there.
If we wait until the ill feelings subside, we might wait until the war has been largely forgotten. In every city and town of the country there should be something that stands for those who gave their lives for America in Iraq and Iran, and it should be something that will stand for a century or more. Something that will cause the passersby of the 22nd Century to stop and reflect, and to be grateful.

— Bud Norman

In Memoriam, Clyde Suckfinger

Today is Memorial Day, and we plan to charcoal some meat, drink a beer, and fly our Kansas flag from the front porch. In keeping with our holiday custom, we will also spend the day missing Jerry Clark.
Clark, who was also known as Clyde Suckfinger and Chief Two Toes, was a good friend from way back in our newspaper days. When we broke into the newly computerized newspaper racket at 19-years-old as glorified copy boys he was an aging photographer who’d been shooting since the days of those massive accordion-lens cameras with the searchlight-sized flash bulbs, but we hit if off immediately. He liked that we had been born in Manila in the Philippines while our father flew single-engine prop planes there to play of his AF-ROTC debt, for same reason, and that we were the last-ever hires for the old Wichita Beacon where he had started. The twenty-something college grads who then dominated the reporting ranks were often embarrassed to have him along on assignments, with his rumpled suits and conspicuously ugly shoes and his ties marked with holes from the chemicals that splattered around in the dark room, not to mention his ribald sense of humor and uncomfortable candor and unabashed Kansasness, so we naturally regarded him as the coolest cat at the paper. At every opportunity we’d hang out with him in the darkroom or the smokers’ lounge and swap jokes, the dirtier the better, and he’d tell stories of the old days when the reporters wore fedoras and shouted “get me re-write” into candlestick phones and everything was in glorious black-and-white. Most of the stories were funny, often risqué, and always infused with a necessary cynicism about the business he was in, but he’d still get choked up at the recollection of a murder or some other grisly crime scene he’d rushed to, or the sorry state of the slums he covered, or the tornado that wiped out the tiny town of Udall just south of Wichita.
The photographs Jerry took of the aftermath of that tornado were reproduced around the world and won him a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize, but you had to get to know him a while before he’d tell you about that, or anything else he’d done that was worth bragging on. Eventually we got to know him well enough to hear about his Great Depression boyhood in an Atchison orphanage, where all the kids rooted for the Detroit Tigers because the team was rough and ugly and all the town kids with parents rooted for the more respectable St. Louis Cardinals, and how he spent his sixteenth year in a sort of indentured servitude to a bakery in Hutchinson. When he turned 17 years old Jerry Clark was inducted into the Army and shipped off to the Pacific to fight a war, and after a while he even talked about that.
One hot summer day Jerry seemed less than his usual ebullient self, and we assumed it was because the young fools from out of town who were running the paper had pulled him off the street and relegated him to darkroom duty, but he scoffed at the idea and explained it was the anniversary of the worst day of his war. He told how a landing craft had stopped too far ashore of one of the Pacific Islands he was obliged to invade, and that he had gone charging out that deployed door and started sinking deep into the ocan under the weight of his helmet and boots and gun and pack. He managed to jettison all the gear and make his way to the beach, but found himself in the middle of battle without helmet or boots or gun or pack, and had to lie still in a shallow hole for a full day as bullets whizzed overhead and mortar fire landed close enough to spray sand on to his back. He had re-lived that experience on the same day every year since, he said, and nothing the young fools from out of town who were running the paper could do would be quite so bad. On another occasion he told of us his regular assignment to leap into enemy foxholes and personally dispatch the soldiers there to prevent explosive charges from being magnetized to the bottoms of the tanks that passed over. He preferred to talk about the time he got to see a zoot-suited Cab Calloway play swing music during a leave, or the time he was in the boxing ring with Joe Louis, who served as a referee during a morale-boosting tour of the training camp where he boxed in a lightweight tournament, or the friend and fellow soldier who contracted a particularly amusing case of testicular elephantiasis from a Singapore prostitute, but it was clear that he had a lot of bad days in the war.
We’ve forgotten how Jerry Clark came to be known as Clyde Suckfinger, although we vaguely recall that it couldn’t be recounted in such a respectable publication as this in any case, but we clearly remember how he came to be known as Chief Two Toes. One day in the early ’90s Jerry took ill and was taken to the Veterans Administration, where we found him lying in bed with his feet sticking out of the blankets. One foot had only the big toe and the pinkie toe, and when he caught us looking he told how the missing digits had been blown off by the Japanese Imperial Army during the Battle of Manila. He gave us the full story, which is still troubling to remember and far too gruesome to recount here, but suffice to say that it ended with him spending two years in a Honolulu hospital recovering from his wounds. He told us that one of the poor fellows in the next bed hadn’t been so lucky, and when he passed away Jerry was given possession of the man’s camera and spent the rest of recuperation figuring out how to use the thing, so when he was eventually shipped back to Kansas he got off the train at Wichita’s downtown Union Station and walked a few blocks to the Wichita Beacon where he swore to the dubious editors that he knew how to use a camera. That’s how he came to be a newspaperman, and Jerry regarded it as one of the lucky breaks he’d had in life. Those Honolulu doctors never did get all the Japanese shrapnel out of his legs, though, which was why he was back in the hospital all those years later. The war was still trying to kill him, he said, and he was still determined that it wouldn’t.
Jerry spent the rest of his career in the dark room, where he always said he was doing “the three and the five,” which alludes to an old Army joke that cannot be told in polite company such as this, and was forced out before he wanted by the young fools from out of town who were running the paper. At his retirement party the Vietnam vet who was then the photography editor made sure everyone got a look at Jerry’s Purple Heart, along many of the remarkably good shots Jerry had taken over the years, and even the most callow twenty-something reporters were unsettled by how shabbily he’d been treated. We like think he got his revenge with a few good years of retirement, savoring the company of his longtime wife and a son who’d gone off to sea with the Navy, indulging in a variety of hobbies that did not involve photography or newspapers, and we are happy to say he was always in high spirits and low-brow humor when we’d see him.
Jerry died several years back in a seizure-induced automobile accident, and from what we heard that Japanese shrapnel and its ongoing effect on his bloodstream might have had something to do with it. The war finally killed him, but it’s a testament to the toughness and stubbornness and Kansasness of our friend that it took about 50 years. That it never stopped the hearty laughs he’d get from a dirty joke or the pride he took in his son’s military service or the pain he felt from the ordinary sufferings of his fellow human beings was all the more remarkable. He’d be annoyed to hearing us saying so, and quick to insist that he was no different from any of those other hard luck sons of bitches who had the historical misfortune to be called on to don the uniform at a time of war, so we’ll take a moment to day the miss the rest of them as well. We still miss Jerry, and the America he exemplified for us, and Memorial Day is an annual reminder.
This year the holiday is accompanied by newspaper accounts of gross mismanagement and substandard care at Veterans Administration hospitals such as the one where we visited our friend and discovered his missing toes. The same VA used to send Jerry two pars of those conspicuously ugly shoes every years, with one featuring a personalized padding to fill the space of those missing toes, which he also regarded as a lucky break, and it is infuriating to hear that they’ve failed so many of the men and women who made the same sorts of sacrifices and suffered the same lingering effects of war as our friend. We read that the President of the United States was 13 minutes late to a press conference to announced that he’s awaiting some bureaucrat’s report before being “madder than hell” about it, and that’s standing by the Secretary who has presided over the past five and a half years of this outrage, and the decline from the days of Jerry Clark seems depressingly apparent.
By all means enjoy some charcoaled meat and a beer today, and fly a flag from your front porch, if the weather perm is, but come tomorrow be resolved to inset that we do better by the likes of Jerry Clark. Not just in the VA hospitals, but everywhere in America where that hard luck son of a bitch toughness and unabashed Kansansness is lacking.

— Bud Norman

Mickey Rooney, RIP

Mickey Rooney died Sunday at the ripe old age of 93, ending one of the longest and most impressive careers in the history of American show business, and thus ends an era of American popular culture.
That era actually ended so long ago that Rooney’s death has been relegated to a few inches deep inside most newspapers, while the golden age of entertainment he exemplified is now seen only on the cable channels devoted to the old-fashioned movie buffs or the late-late-shows of the cheaper UHF stations. Those who do chance upon Rooney’s better efforts will likely find it a bittersweet experience, as it provides a stark reminder of our society’s decline.
Rooney started in show-biz way back in the vaudeville days, when he debuted as a 17-month-old in his parent’s hard-luck burlesque act, and he was a seasoned pro by the time he made his first move at the age of 6. As an example of his natural talent and precocious polish we recommend the 1935 production of “A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream.” It’s a slick Hollywood take on Shakespeare that stars Olivia de Havilland and Dick Powell and Victor Jory and all the high-toned stars you’d expect to see in a silver-screen Shakespearean epic, but the stand-out performances are James Cagney’s cocky turn as Billy Bottom and Rooney’s perfectly nasty portrayal of the supernaturally mischievous Puck. Such talent kept Rooney busy at the studios in a wide variety of roles for the next several years, including such notable flicks as “Captains Courageous” and “Ah, Wilderness,” and by the end of the decade he was arguably the biggest star in pictures.
The persona that made Rooney so popular was far from the evil sprite of “A Midsummer’s Night Dream,” however, and instead expressed the squeaky-clean earnestness of the era when America was coming out of the Great Depression and into World War II. He was the titular character of the hugely popular “Andy Hardy” series, about an all-American boy in an all-American small town, and co-starred with all-American girl Judy Garland in a number of wholesome musicals about all-Americans kids putting on a show in somebody’s suspiciously opulent barn. He got to revive his earlier tough-kid persona in “Boys Town,” opposite Spencer Tracy as the saintly Father Flanagan, but by the final reel he had reverted to suitably endearing form.
At the height of his box-office popularity Rooney went off help out with World War II, and by all accounts his service was brave and distinguished. Originally turned down for duty because of health problems, he joined the USO to entertain the troops until he was allowed to enlist, then continued to entertain his fellow soldiers on makeshift stages built atop jeeps in between battles. He declined to draw any attention to his war record when he returned to Hollywood, and although he retained his popularity for a while he soon found himself struggling to maintain his career in a rapidly changing world.
Part of the problem was that Rooney was now too old for the wholesome lad roles that had once been his specialty, and the barely-five-foot-tall actor was attempting to play prize fighters and race car drivers and other grown-up variations on the tough kids of his earlier career. By the mid-’50s the movies were taking a turn toward film noir and gritty-but-preachy social justice screeds, and by the early ’60s Rooney’s Andy Hardy character and the let’s-put-on-a-show wholesomeness of his musicals was slightly embarrassing to a properly hip movie-goer.
Rooney’s career probably would have ended there if not for his formidable talent, which enabled him to play a variety of character roles with convincing ease. He was one of the slightly disreputable characters chasing after a hidden treasure in the brilliant “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” a nosy Japanese neighbor in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” a gambling-addicted soldier in “The Bold and the Brave,” and countless other roles in movies and television programs ranging from outstanding to downright awful. The former kid actor proved adept at old-man roles in the ’70s, earning him praise as a horse trainer in “Black Beauty” and an Emmy Award as the mentally-challenged “Bill” on a television movie of the same name, but he never regained his superstar status or quite shook the lingering image of good old Andy Hardy.

<div-style=”text-indent:20px;>Rooney got some revenge in the ’80s, when he applied his still-strong talents for piano playing, singing, dancing, and stand-up comedy in the hit Broadway revue “Sugar Babies.” With co-star Ann Miller, who had been the top-billed star of B musicals at Columbia before moving on to second-billed roles in the A+ musicals at MGM back in the ’40s and ’50s, the show went on the road for years and routinely out-drew such rock ‘n’ roll acts as the Rolling Stones. There was still a gray-haired audience for old-fashioned entertainment, and it had the disposable income for the tickets, and even the grumpiest critics acknowledged it had a certain charm. Despite all the money he made from “Sugar Babies,” Rooney continued to work in small roles in such big-budget pictures as “Night at the Museum” and then take to the road to play dinner theaters in mid-sized cities. He was well into his 80s when he played a second-rate venue here in Wichita, which afforded us the opportunity to interview him, and although he was rather cranky at that early-morning appointment he gave an energetic and well-received performance.

According to the obituary writers Rooney found religion and a lasting marriage and some peace with himself in his later years, a marked change from the eight-times divorced life of debauchery that had characterized his earlier days, and we’d like to think his early roles had helped prepare him for the part. All those marriages and the seamier sorts of legends have often been cited as proof of the phoniness of those all-American movies that once made Rooney the biggest star in movies, and that whole era now seems uncomfortably cornball to a properly jaded modern perspective, with Andy Hardy and “let’s put on a show” reduced punchlines in the ironically detached hipster humor, and Father Flanagan and “Boy’s Town” are deconstructed by the post-modernist critics for any subtle signs of pedophilia or some other darkness lurking beneath the surface, but there’s no mistaking the sincerity of those pictures. That’s part of the problem, of course, as sincerity is another one of those cornball qualities that offend the modern sensibility.
Call it progress if you want, but we have our doubts. In an age when “reality” stars become celebrities without any noticeable talents, it’s sobering to look back at an age when a singing, dancing, piano-playing, joke-telling actor who could play anything from Shakespeare to slapstick was what Hollywood was looking for. That gosh-golly gee-willikers enthusiasm of those great Rooney-Garland pictures and the Andy Hardy series got America through the Great Depression and whipped the Axis, whatever else you might say about it, and it’s hard to imagine that ironic hipster detachment that has replaced it will work as well in the coming challenges.

— Bud Norman

Memorial Day

On a long walk through the old and picturesque Riverside neighborhood of Wichita, Kansas, you might happen upon a small monument to the veterans of the Spanish-American War. Located on a tiny triangle of grass dividing two short streets leading to Riverside Park, the memorial features a statue of a dashing young soldier armed with a rifle and clad in the rakishly informal uniform of the era, a cannon captured from a Spanish ship, and a small plaque thanking all of the men who served America in that long ago conflict.
We always pause at the spot to enjoy the statue, an elegant bronze work that has tarnished to a fine emerald shade, and often to reflect on the Spanish-American war and the men who fought it. Sometimes we’ll wonder, too, about the men and women who honored those soldiers and sailors by building the small monument. The Spanish-American War had been one of the controversial ones, and the resulting bloodier war in the Philippines was still underway and being hotly debated at the time the monument was installed, so we suspect it was intended as a political statement as well as an expression of gratitude, and that the monument builders had to endure the animosity of their isolationist neighbors.
We’ll also wonder, on occasion, how many passersby are surprised to learn from the monument that there ever was a Spanish-American War. The war lasted for only four months of 1898, and involved a relatively small number of American soldiers and sailors, so our current crop of history teachers might be inclined to give it only short mention as a regrettable act of American colonialism before rushing on to the more exciting tales of the ‘60s protest movement or whatever it is they’re teaching these days. The world still feels the effects of those four months in 1898, when that relatively small number of American soldiers and sailors ended more than three centuries of Spanish colonial dominance, commenced more than a century of America’s preeminence on the world stage, and permanently altered, for better or worse, the destinies of Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam, yet the whole affair is now largely forgotten.
If you keep walking past the park and across the Little Arkansas River toward the east bank of the Arkansas River, just beyond the Mid-America All-Indian Center and its giant Keeper of the Plains statue, you’ll find a series of similar monuments dedicated to the veterans of other wars. One features an old torpedo and honors the men who died aboard the S.S. Dorado, “One of 57 submarines on eternal patrol,” during the Second World War. Another lists the names of the many local men who died while serving in the Merchant Marines. An austere black marble plaque beneath an American flag is dedicated to all U.S. Marines. There’s a rather elaborate area devoted to the veterans of the Korean War, with a statue, several flags, numerous plaques and a Korean gateway, which wasn’t erected until 2001, long after the controversies of that conflict had subsided.
The veterans of the Vietnam War are honored with a touching statue of an American soldier standing next to a seated South Vietnamese soldier, which was donated by local Vietnamese-Americans as an expression of gratitude to everyone of all nationalities who tried to save their ancestral homeland from communism, and that won’t be formally dedicated until the Fourth of July. We hope the ceremony will be free of protestors, or any acrimony, but even at this late date the feelings engendered by that war remain strong. Some American veterans of the war have publicly complained about the inclusion of non-American soldiers in the veterans’ park, while some who opposed the war have privately grumbled about any monument to the Vietnam conflict at all. Both the memorial and the attending controversy serve as reminders that the effects of that war are still being felt not just by the world but individual human beings.
Walk a few more blocks toward the old Sedgwick County Courthouse and there’s a grand monument to the Wichita boys who went off to fight for the union in the Civil War, featuring the kind of ornate but dignified statuary that Americans of the late 19th Century knew how to do so well, but a more moving memorial can be found clear over on Hillside Avenue in the Maple Grove Cemetery, where there’s a circle of well-kept graves marked by American flags and austere gravestones for the local boys who didn’t come back. Throughout the city there are more plaques, statues, portraits, and other small markers to honor the men and women who have fought for their country, and of course a good many gravestones for fallen heroes in every cemetery. This city honors those who fight for its freedom and safety, and that is one reason we are proud to call it home.
There is no monument here to the brave men and women who have fought for us in Iraq and Afghanistan, and no memorial to those who died in those far-off lands, but there should be, and soon. Both wars, and especially the Iraq war, have been controversial, and any memorial will be perceived by some as a political statement rather than an expression of gratitude, but it is not too soon to honor the men and women who fought for us. The effects of the wars will outlive us all, and none of us will ever see their ultimate consequences, but there is reason to believe that the establishment of a democracy in the heart of the Islamic middle east and the military defeat of al-Qaeda will prove a boon to humanity, and that is the reason those brave soldiers, sailors, and airmen fought and died there.
If we wait until the ill feelings subside, we might wait until the war has been largely forgotten. In every city and town of the country there should be something that stands for those who gave their lives for America in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it should be something that will stand for a century or more. Something that will cause the passersby of the 22nd Century to stop and reflect, and to be grateful.

— Bud Norman