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.

Yosemite 2015: Fun, Too Warm and Dry, and Tinged with Sadness

I write this a few hours after Nancy and I returned from our annual pilgrimage to Yosemite National Park for its annual Chef’s Holidays. We’ve been going for several years and have always enjoyed it. Their staff is second to none and now several of them recognize us. It’s three days of good hiking, superior food, and an opportunity for Nancy to interact with some of the best chefs in the country.

That said we did see some disturbing things there. First was the weather: the elevation on the valley floor is nearly 4000 feet above sea level and from there we can see peaks of over 8000 feet. Several times over the years we’ve seen snow on the valley floor and I don’t remember ever not seeing snow on the top of Half Dome; this year we didn’t see any snow that high. To be fair Half Dome has had snow this season but it melted within a few weeks. Simply put it’s too warm.

It’s also too dry. Much of California has been suffering a drought for a few years. Precipitation that falls as snow in the higher elevations gives the rest of us water for much of the year as the snow melts and flows down to lower elevations. We can see this clearly in Yosemite Valley through the falls, Bridalveil and Yosemite being the most common. Water flow changes dramatically during the year, but they should be fairly robust at this time of year and they weren’t. This past year wildfires have come dangerously close to popular areas of the park. It’s hard to imagine but there is no way to avoid the reality that climate change is badly affecting the park.

My next concern follows from a conversation we had with one of the park rangers. We often joke with park rangers about silly questions they get from park guests, but a few struck me as more concerning than silly. The ranger was walking along a trail and met a group of hikers; she told them that she saw a bobcat nearby and hopefully they would too. One of the hikers said: “Oh, did you just let him out?” Later that season (in the autumn when the falls often run dry) a woman asked her to “turn on the falls” since she had come all the way from England.

Both these encounters point to a troubling reality: we’ve become so acclimated to being spectators in a planned experience that we don’t recognize when we are truly “in the wild.” I call this the “Disney effect.” Instead of going into the wilderness and observing what nature has to teach us, we think that the whole thing is a staged event we can manipulate. Do you want to see the falls? Don’t worry that you’ve come at a time of year where water rarely falls, we can turn it on. Do you want to see one of the native animals? Let us know and we’ll release him.

This reality robs us of the opportunity to do exactly what the early Yosemite caretakers wished: to see how natural beauty and breathtaking scenery can transform our lives long after we leave the valley. John Muir (1838-1914) and countless others dreamed of a place that would teach us, not entertain us. They wanted us to leave the valley with a greater understanding of and respect for nature; this understanding and respect would compel us to treat the rest of the earth with the wisdom we gained there. It has with me, and I hope it has with others.

At the beginning of this post I spoke of a “tinge of sadness.” On our trip to Yosemite I received word that my Aunt Eva died after a short illness. She was married to my father’s oldest brother, Uncle Ed. Aunt Eva was a wonderful woman. She was born in Gardner, Massachusetts to immigrants from Kent County, New Brunswick (Canada). She married Uncle Ed in 1952 and had two of my favorite cousins: David and Terry. I don’t remember visiting Gardner (as a child or an adult) without a trip to 69 Baker St. I also don’t remember not being treated to her famous fricot. If you’ve never had the joy of eating fricot you need to put this on your bucket list. It’s not a dish for the wealthy. It’s a dish for good, hardworking people who want a simple, elegant meal at the end of a hard day’s work. It always made me feel loved, and in touch with those ancestors whose hard work made my success in life possible. Aunt Eva, I’ll miss you.

Happy Anniversary to this Blog

As of yesterday it’s been 10 years since I started this online blog. At the time I was on the cusp of leaving my job as a chaplain at Odyssey Hospice, which is now part of Gentiva Hospice. I wasn’t sure where my path led, but I knew it didn’t follow the same path as Odyssey Hospice. I wasn’t sure if I was meant to be a hospice chaplain and I took some time off to explore my next step.

I was “between jobs” from November 13, 2004 until February 14, 2005. I learned a number of things, but mostly I learned that I don’t do unemployment well. I caught two colds, suffered several days of indecision, and learned that I like the simple pleasure of a good days’ work. As I look back on the blog I have to admit a certain amount of embarrassment over the blog posts in the first few months: it had a “dear diary” flavor to it. That only changed when I started working again; I posted less, but thought more.

Since then the blog has turned into my honest thoughts. I’m pretty proud of what I’ve written, and in 2007 my friend Chip suggested that I move my page to his server. Since then I’ve had a page that gives you the ability to search my page and give me feedback. It’s been good.

Hopefully everyone who reads this will keep reading. I love writing, and I love (even more) getting your feedback.

Happy Labor Day To All

Today many of us have the day off from work to celebrate Labor Day. For many it’s the traditional end of summer and the beginning of the campaign season for November’s election (even though campaigning these days seems to be continuous).

But it got me thinking about labor and the role of work in our lives. Earlier this year I read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s excellent book The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism. Both men were members of the Republican Party and both were President (Theodore Roosevelt served from 1901 to 1909 and William Howard Taft served from 1909 to 1913).

They were also progressives and did much to advance the cause of the working man and woman. The late 1800s and early 1900s were very good if you were rich and very bad if you were poor. While we know the names of the wealthiest, Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and J.P. Morgan (among others), we don’t know the millions of people whose labor made their fortune.

It was commonly held back then that if you went to work for someone, he told you how much you were getting paid and you accepted it, even if if meant you and your family were going to live in abject poverty with little hope of relief. The Bully Pulpit gave me a quote that succinctly describes this. George M. Pullman developed the railroad sleeping car and dining car and founded the Pullman Palace Car Company. When describing the conditions of his workers he made it sound like a paradise. The lived in homes owned by Pullman, shopped in stores owned by Pullman and worshiped in churches owned by Pullman. The problem was that Pullman cut their wages in 1894 claiming that the company needed to do that to survive. It was later learned that the company paid out dividends to its stockholders that year of over $2,000,000 and reported profits of $25,000,000 (this in 1894 dollars).

When the workers attempted to arbitrate with the company, Pullman responded that there was nothing to arbitrate. He insisted that workers have nothing to do with the amount of wages they shall receive; that is solely the business of the company (you can read this on page 186 of Doris’ book: she footnotes Ray Stannard Baker). This, and hundreds of other examples, launched the labor movement in the United States and the organization of unions. We often look at this time as the era of Robber Barons.

Even the Vatican weighed in. In 1891 Pope Leo XIII wrote an encyclical called Rerum Novarum, commonly translated as “On Human Labor.” The Pope was concerned that workers were being exploited and wrote about the dignity of the individual worker. Truth be told he was equally concerned that the backlash against the Robber Barons would be acceptance of socialism, but his words are worth a read.

In the time since there have been incredible reforms. We now have a minimum wage. Child labor is (at least legally) almost nonexistent. Most of us work a 5 day, 40 hour week with paid vacation, holidays and sick leave. Most of the time we have recourse if we feel we are being treated unfairly. Most of the time we work in safe environments and are compensated if we are injured on the job. But none of this came easy. Our parents and grandparents had to fight for every one of these reforms and none of them are guaranteed to our children and grandchildren.

In my family I am the first generation who never had to work in a factory. My parents grew up in Gardner, Massachusetts where almost everyone, at least at some point in their lives, worked for the Heywood – Wakefield Furniture Company. The work was repetitive, exhausting, and boring. I am who I am because they worked hard to give me a chance to move beyond that. I will never forget that.

We honor Labor Day not by cooking hot dogs or going to the beach. We honor Labor Day by honoring laborers. Let’s all agree to keep fighting for the things they fought for.

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.

Forty Years Ago Tonight: Where Were You When President Nixon Resigned?

OK, so you need to be at least as old as me, and probably older to answer this question. As for me (I was 14), my family was on vacation in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. That afternoon my father told me that President Nixon was going to speak on national television.

I had known that the noose was closing on him and I believed that he was guilty of a cover up. I asked my father if Nixon was going to resign and he said it’s hard to believe that he asked for time on national TV to do anything else. I was swimming in the hotel pool when my father peeked his head out the door and told me he was coming on TV. I got out of the pool and wrapped a towel around my shoulders; I went into the hotel room, watched him resign, and went back into the pool. The next morning I saw the headline in the New York Daily News.

Because I grew up in northern Virginia and started reading the Washington Post from the time I could read, I had a front row seat on the Watergate scandal. I know way more than anyone should about it, but I’m amazed at how badly President Nixon handled this.

On June 17, 1972 five men were caught and arrested in the Watergate office complex, more specifically, the offices of the Democratic National Headquarters. Almost everyone believes that President Nixon knew nothing about it and was caught off guard when he got word.

It was silly on several levels. President Nixon was running for re-election against Senator George McGovern and was expected to soundly defeat him (which he did). The burglars were looking for information that the McGovern campaign had on Nixon, but if they did have anything, it would have been at McGovern headquarters, not the DNC offices.

In any case President Nixon saw the arrests as an attack on him and ordered his staff to pay the burglars to make sure they didn’t testify in their trial that they had been ordered by anyone to do this. Over the next 2 years it all unraveled. We learned that while President Nixon didn’t order the break in, he tried to cover it up. We call that obstruction of justice.

Forty years ago today he was facing the real possibility that he would be impeached and removed from office. In a decision that I supported then (and now) he chose to resign, fearing that an impeachment and trial would divide the nation. The next day Gerald Ford took the oath of office and became the next President. In another decision I agreed with, President Ford pardoned Richard Nixon. It may have cost him his re election in 1976 but I think he did the right thing.

In the last 40 years I’ve come to recognize the strength of our nation. Not many nations could survive the voluntary resignation of a sitting President and the orderly transition of power to another without the fear of a military takeover. Watergate gave us an unprecedented Constitutional crisis but the next day the government opened for business and did well. Its employees showed up for work just like every other day. The national parks open for business, Social Security checks were processed and mailed, and everything was worked like it should.

August 7, 1974 was a bad day for many reasons, but a good day for the confidence we all should feel in our government.

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.

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.