On This Day 150 Years Ago: A Bad Day

My last post celebrated a good day: the day the Civil War ended. Our newly reunited nation rejoiced and nobody was more grateful than our President, Abraham Lincoln. Even before the war ended he was outlining the plan to bring back the states that wanted to secede. He articulated a process that would echo the Biblical parable of the Prodigal Son.

In one of the cruelest twists in American history, a man who hated Lincoln killed him 150 years ago today. John Wilkes Booth first devised a plan to kidnap the president as a bargaining chip to force the Union to ransom him in return for Southern emancipation. When the South surrendered on April 9th, Booth’s plan lost its purpose. Booth, a frequent actor at Ford’s Theater, found out on the morning of April 14th, that President Lincoln would attend the play This American Cousin that evening. He took that opportunity to kill Lincoln instead of kidnapping him. The plan was greater than that. He devised a plan where he would kill President Lincoln. George Atzerodt would kill Vice President Andrew Johnson, and Lewis Powell would kill Secretary of State William Seward.

George Atzerodt got drunk and didn’t attempt to kill Johnson, Powell was able to wound but not kill Seward, and only Booth carried out his mission.

Booth was shot to death on April 26th. Azerodt and Payne were executed on July 7th (along with Mary Surratt and David Herold)

On This Date 150 Years Ago the Civil War Ended

On April 9, 1865 two men met at Appomattox Court House and signed a document that silenced thousands of guns and ended possibly the worst era in our history.

Confederate General Robert E. Lee (1807-1870) surrendered the forces of the Confederate States of America to Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885) and the Grand Army of the Republic.

Four years earlier the nation was torn apart when eleven states succeeded from the union in an effort to preserve states’ rights and slavery. Neither side expected the other to last long and both expected to win the war handily. The union didn’t think the confederates had the resources or commitment to fight a long war and the confederates didn’t think the union had the desire to preserve the union. They were both wrong.

By the winter of 1865 the nation was in shambles. About 620,000 soldiers died from combat, disease, or starvation. The confederates suffered the lion’s share and its troops were starving. General Lee recognized that he had no choice and asked for terms of peace. He had no idea what that would mean for him or his troops.

General Grant rose to the occasion. He told General Lee that his troops could go home (and not be prisoners). His officers could keep their sidearms. And the union troops fed the starving confederate troops. You can read more about this in an article written by Douglas Brinkley.

In fairness this was not their first meeting. They were both graduates of West Point (Lee in 1829 and Grant in 1843). They fought together in the Mexican American War from 1846 to 1848. As a matter of fact when they met at Appomattox they began to talk about that war.

Libraries have been written about this day but I have two recommendations. Bruce Catton (1899-1978) wrote several books on the Civil War and his last volume recounts the last days of the war. It’s called A Stillness At Appomattox. My next recommendation is a work of fiction that details a man who is walking home from the war. Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier gripped me from page one.

We Are All Ferguson

Today is Thanksgiving Day, but many of us can’t shake the images we’ve been seeing from Ferguson, Missouri.

For those living under a rock, take heart: almost none of us had heard of this suburb of St. Louis before August 9, 2014. On that date police officer Dennis Wilson responded to a call of a young black man stealing cigarillos from a local store. Arriving on the scene Officer Wilson found two young men walking in the street, one of whom (Michael Brown) fit the description of the man who stole the cigarillos. Two minutes later Officer Brown had redness and swelling on his right cheek and Mr. Brown was dead from at least six gunshot wounds.

Protests began almost immediately. Many in Ferguson, and elsewhere, believed Mr. Brown was killed by law enforcement because he was a young black man. Had he been white he would still be with us.

This perception was exacerbated by the fact that the city of Ferguson is 69% black (according to the 2010 census) while the police force is 6% black. This is due, in no small part, to the changing demographics in Ferguson. In 1980 the population of Ferguson was 85% white, but by 2010 it had plummeted to 30% (I got this from a New York Times article).

This led to a perfect storm where the majority of the population was black while the majority of law enforcement was white. I call this a perfect storm because it brings back reminders of the history of slavery. From 1630 to 1865 the majority of Africans experienced America as a place of enslavement. From 1865 to the present day many of them have experienced America as a place of discrimination.

This is not universal and the fact that our President is African American gives us proof that we live in a nation that accepts people of different races.

That said we should never forget that discrimination continues to exist and seemingly random events focus us toward this reality.

The events of August 9th gives us just this reality. In the last few days I’ve read some of the testimony of the grand jury (and I encourage you to do the same. You can access much of the testimony on this New York Times article).

It’s a complicated series of events but after reading Officer Wilson’s testimony I believe he acted properly. I think he had a reasonable fear for his life and did what he had to do.

At the same time I continue to understand that much of the protest is justified. This isn’t about Michael Brown and Darren Wilson: it’s about the state of race relations in the United States. And it has to be talked about.

All of my experience of law enforcement have been positive but mine is not everyone’s experience. People of color (of all ages) recognize “the look.” They know that they come under extra scrutiny when they walk into a convenience store and countless of them have had experiences with law enforcement that I would find more bewildering than offensive.

And when someone like Michael Brown is shot to death it feels like an attack on an entire community. I briefly lived in Memphis several years ago, less than a mile from the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968. I remember speaking with people from the neighborhood who lived there then. They felt that his assassination was the first shot in a war against them and this feeling was exacerbated when they saw National Guard troops in tanks rolling into the neighborhood. The residents of Ferguson certainly had the same feeling when they saw the National Guard roll into their town with weapons from the 1033 program. The 1033 program provides local police departments with weapons designed for warfare. If you’re in law enforcement it’s free stuff; if you’re a minority it looks like you’re unarmed and at war with someone who wants you dead.

We also need to view these events against another reality: race relations in this country are riddled with crimes against people of color where justice was promised but not delivered. In 1963 the civil rights pioneer Medgar Evers was shot to death in his own front yard. His killer was not convicted until 1994. That same year four young girls were killed when dynamite was placed under the washroom of their church. The first of the bombers was not convicted until 1977; two more were convicted in 2001 and 2002 (a fourth died in 1994 before he could be brought to trial). In 1964 three civil rights workers were slain in Philadelphia, Mississippi. In 1967 seven men were convicted but none of them served more than six years.

All these cases involved lies from law enforcement that these crimes would be investigated. I ambivalent about this, but I’ve been reading about the charge that the district attorney in Ferguson convened the grand jury with no interest in indicting Officer Wilson.

I write this with a certain amount of discomfort, and maybe that’s the point. The events of Ferguson in the last three months has shown a light on a topic many of us would like to ignore: we’re not done working to achieve true harmony of skin color.

As long as I don’t get “the look” when I walk into a store but someone else does, we’re not done. As long as I see a peace officer and feel protected while another looks at the same peace officer and feels unsafe, we’re not done. And as long as anyone believes the end of slavery 149 years ago means we’re done, we’re not done.

It's Been Nine Years, But Not Long Enough to Forget

In August of 2005 we learned the word “Katrina” isn’t just a girl’s name, but a horrific hurricane. She began in the South Atlantic and moved northeast. It moved over Florida and gained speed and danger: she moved over the Gulf of Mexico and struck New Orleans on August 29th.

The next few days were horrific to watch, let alone to live through. The administration of President Bush claimed to have responded well to this, but virtually nobody believes this. Thousands were stranded without basic needs such as food, water, or bathrooms. If you don’t believe me, check out my page on this. We are still living with his failures on this and many more events.

His decision to strip FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) of anyone except his cronies showed a breathtaking lack of compassion. The hurricane and aftermath made us all aware that our government was horrifically unprepared for a completely predicable event.

I’m impressed with those who lived through Katrina, those who were part of the solution, and those who continue to rebuild. And as an American citizen, I apologize for those members of our government who made promises they never intended to keep.

Tony Gwynn: 1960 – 2014

Monday we received sad news (though news many of us in San Diego knew was coming): Tony Gwynn died of cancer of the salivary glands at the age of 54.

This was sad news on several levels. He was much too young. We who love San Diego, baseball, or just loved watching a man who respected the game, his family, and himself with equal ferocity, will miss him.

He was a Los Angeles boy he grew up rooting for the Dodgers. After high school he came to San Diego State University where he played basketball and baseball. In 1981 he was drafted by the San Diego Padres in the 3rd round. After a year in the minor leagues he made his major league debut with the Padres on July 19, 1982. He never left. Even though he could have made much more money by moving to another team when he became a free agent, he decided to stay in San Diego.

From 1982 to his retirement at the end of the 2001 season he put up some incredible numbers. His career batting average was .338, with 3,141 hits (it’s assumed anyone with 3,000 career hits gets into the Baseball Hall of Fame). He made the All Star team 15 times and was the National League batting champion 8 times.

But the best thing about Tony was his character. He never stopped studying the game, even drawing the respect of the often prickly Ted Williams.

After his career he continued to contribute to the game coaching the SDSU baseball team. We knew things were bad in March when he asked for a leave of absence.

I had the pleasure to meet him several years ago at a charity event. We just spoke for a minute, but he made me feel like I was the only person in the room. You can read my account of that meeting here. Though he and his wife were the keynote speakers, they carried themselves with the kind of class I’d always heard about.

One final note: He was inducted in the Hall of Fame in 2007. A few months after that San Diego experienced a fire that destroyed dozens of homes. Tony put the word out that if anyone lost an autograph of his (from a picture to a baseball to a bat) in the fire, they should let him know and the would replace them. As an added bonus, he could put “HOF” on the autograph (Hall of Fame). The fire came close to his home and his showed his character in that he was concerned so much with the fans.

He was Mr. Padres and we will miss him.

God Bless Tony, and I’m glad you’ll be reunited with your father.

D Day Plus 70 Years. A Day To Remember

The airwaves have been filled today with remembrances of June 6, 1944. These anniversaries are becoming more poignant as the number of those who were there are dwindling. It won’t be many years before we lose our last survivor.

The numbers are staggering. By early 1944 it was clear that the allies would need to make an amphibious landing on the shores of France, but it was not clear where or when. Adolf Hitler believed it would be at Calais, the narrowest part of the English Channel. He was wrong. Around 6:30 a.m. that morning, allied troops began landing on Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword Beaches, south of Calais.

On that day 160,000 troops landed and began an inch by inch conquest of France. About 9,000 died on those beaches. We should never forget that.

D Day is also a reminder that landmark events sometimes turn on small, bizarre decisions. Hitler’s personal doctor, Theodore Morell, regularly injected Hitler with something he called “Vitamultin.” There is good reason to believe that one of the ingredients was amphetamines. On the night of June 5th, Hitler left instructions not to wake him. When reports began to come in about the invasion, Hitler was not awakened. When he finally did wake up, he believed the invasion was a trick and the real invasion was going to be at Calais. He refused to move troops to the invasion, and this eventually made the allied victory happen.

A few years ago I met a man who was part of the invasion. He told me that he was transferred to England with the understanding that he would be part of the invasion. During the day he drilled and prepared for the invasion. At night he was housed with an English family. They were not thrilled to house an American: all they knew about America was what they saw in movies about organized crime in Chicago in the 1920s. His room had only a bed; the rest of the room had been stripped of everything else. The good news is that as they got to know him, they recognized that this American was a good guy. He got home one day and found his room had the bed, and also a dresser and art on the wall. He was pleased to have dispelled their prejudice.

On the night of June 5th he remembered boarding the transport ship. He told me that some of the troops prayed the rosary. Others played cards. They were all scared.

The invasion was horrible. The sea was red with blood and the sand was littered with bodies. But he survived. Eventually the war ended because D Day achieved its purpose: it started with a beachhead and ended with the liberation of France and Germany.

My thanks to him and all those who spent the night of June 5th wondering if they would live another day.

San Diego On Fire

If you accessed the news in any format this past week, you’ve been hearing about wildfires in San Diego. For those of us who live here, we’ve spent at least part of the week watching the news if only to know what to say to well meaning relatives and friends who think we are toast.

Every part of our country, and indeed every part of our world, brings challenges. Maybe it’s hurricanes, or earthquakes, or tornadoes, or blizzards. Here in Southern California it’s becoming wildfires. Many found their way here out of love for the weather and the false assumption that watered lawns and full taps magically appeared.

Many also falsely assumed that any fire would be put out before it costs us anything. Since I moved here in 1995 we’ve had a few years where we’ve had fires that have gone out of control. The years 2003, 2007, and now 2014 will remind me of uncontrollable fires. They will remind me that the price of a house with a spectacular view comes with the acknowledgement that a fire may begin far away but hungers for a house with a spectacular view.

Out of good luck more than anything, my home is generally pretty safe from these wildfires. But the homes of the patients I serve are not. I’ve gotten used to the process of learning about the location of the fires and determining which of my patients are in danger. I’ve gotten used to spending hours calling cell phones hoping to find where they went after getting word in the wee small hours of the morning that they have to leave. I’ve gotten used to preparing conversations with people in the last chapter of their lives who need to understand why they can’t die at home because their home no longer exists.

Is there something I can’t get used to? Yes. I can’t get used to hearing politicians who insist that dramatic changes in weather patterns are not due to our actions. I can’t get used to those who have the ability and willingness to trash the futures of our (and their) descendents because the cost of honesty is their re-elections. I can’t get used to the fact that their ambition for wealth or power is more important than anything else.

Nancy and I don’t have children. But we do have nieces and nephews. We do have neighbors, friends, and loved ones who do. We care about the world we’re giving them. We love Southern California. We love the idea that this is a part of the world that welcomed us. We grieve that this may well be a part of the world that will no longer be liveable. We grieve that, unlike our ancestors, we cannot give to the next generation better than we were given.

We don’t see the recent fires in the context of a random event. We see them as the natural result of climate change that our leaders choose to ignore. And we see the need to elect leaders who won’t do that.

Oh, and one more thing: a few days ago I had occasion to drive through one of the areas that burned. The burned areas look like the surface of the moon but I was amazed at how few homes were lost. Part of the reason is that the homeowners followed directions to keep brush away from their homes. But we also need to give a shout out to Cal Fire for their heroism in defending these homes. It’s going to be a long, hot summer and I’m grateful they are on our side.

Boston Strong? You Betcha!

I’m writing this on the evening of April 15, 2014. Last year at this time we were looking with horror at the Boston Marathon bombing. If you’ve never lived in Boston it’s hard to imagine how much the marathon means. Trust me, it’s a big deal.

And it was made even harder to see that two cowardly terrorists used this iconic event to spread terror. In the blink of an eye we lost Richard Martin, Krystle Campbell, Lingzi Lu, and Sean Collier. Officer Collier died a few days later, but he was every much a victim of the marathon as the others.

Of the terrorists, one is dead and the other is in custody. The justice system will deal with him, and I know the good people of Boston will do the right thing.

In the meantime the city moves on. The courage Boston showed 240 years ago when they formed the Sons of Liberty has been present over the last year.

Next week they will run the marathon again. Our prayers will be with all of them.

The Los Angeles Book Festival: Really Guys? Did You Think This Through?

For the past several years I’ve joyfully attended the Los Angels Times Book Festival. For many years it was held on the campus of UCLA but a few years ago it moved to USC. It was a weekend devoted to books, publishing, meeting authors, and just soaking up literary wisdom.

Also for the past few years I’ve gone there on a bus trip sponsored by my favorite bookstore, Warwicks here in La Jolla. A few weeks ago I learned, to my dismay, that Warwicks is cancelling the bus trip. My dismay isn’t that they are cancelling it, but why.

If you click on the “authors and performers” tab on the Book Festival page it takes you to a page that lists authors who will attend part of the festival. And then next to their name is a button to order their books through Amazon (I’m not hotlinking them. You’ll have to find them on your own). Yep, you heard it right. You can, with the click of a button, completely undercut the efforts made by Warwicks and hundreds of other independent bookstores.

I’m sure the festival will get a cut of books purchased through Amazon, and I’m sure this was a business decision. But so much of the flavor of the book festival surrounds independent bookstores and publishing houses, exactly the places Amazon is trying to kill. The festival should be promoting independents, not hastening their demise.

In fairness they later added a link to IndieBound which does benefit independent bookstores, but that still doesn’t level the field. If you click on the IndieBound tab it takes you to a page where it asks for your zipcode and gives you a list of independent bookstores in your area. If you click on Amazon it takes you to their webpage where you can order it at a deep discount and have it shipped. While it may not be the right thing to do, it is certainly the cheapest. The book I’m reading now, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism by Doris Kearns Goodwin retails for $40.00 (and is worth every penny). You can buy it from Amazon for $22.60.

I won’t return to the festival until or unless they change this. I hope it’s not long.

Jerry Coleman: The Streets of Heaven are Rejoicing

It is, perhaps, fitting that this afternoon I finished reading Tom Wolfe’s book A Man in Full.

I strongly recommend the book, but its title became all the more poignant a few hours later when I got the sad news about Jerry’s death.

Tom Wolfe describes a man in full as someone whose accomplishments are larger than life, someone who causes everyone in the room to stand up when he enters the room.

Jerry did that.

He didn’t command people to respect them. He lived his life in a way that caused us to see him that way.

He started his public life in baseball. He joined the New York Yankees in 1949 and played in the the All Star game in 1950. He also played in 6 World Series. His playing career ended after the 1957 season.

He delayed his entry into major league baseball for World War II; in the middle of his career he was called back for the Korean War. He was an aviator in the USMC. He traded some of his best baseball years to defend his country. Hard to imagine that would happen today.

For those of us who weren’t alive for World War II or Korea, Jerry was a fixture with the San Diego Padres, as both a manager and a broadcaster.

He never bragged about his accomplishments and was honestly embarrassed by the attention he was given. We who followed the Padres knew well the phrases “Oh Doctor” and “You Can Hang a Star on That.”

Jerry, you were a man in full and we will miss you.