A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Monday, August 16, 2010

Remembering the "Good War"

(Above: the USS Hornet, now docked at Alameda, California)

This weekend is the 65th anniversary of V-J Day, the end of World War II.
It's called "The Good War," which is a bitter irony because it was the most horrible war in history. Deaths were estimated at anywhere from 60 million to 100 million. And the overwhelming majority were civilians.So why do we call it The Good War? Because it's one of the few wars in history that, even in hindsight, absolutely had to be fought.
It has been perceived as a case of good vs. evil but even the "good guys" had some skeletons in their closets. The Soviet Union was a brutal dictatorship, Britain had a colonial empire and, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, we imprisoned more than 100,000 of our fellow citizens behind barbed wire because of their ancestry.
But that just shows how truly evil Hitler really was -- he made a monster like Stalin look good by comparison.
As Churchill said when he heard Hitler had invaded Russia: "If Hitler were to invade hell, I would find something favorable to say about the devil the next day in the House of Commons."
The real good guys of World War II, of course, were the men and women who won it, both over there and here at home.
To call them "The Greatest Generation" doesn't even begin to describe the debt we owe them. Hitler predicted his Reich would last a thousand years, and were it not for the heroes who defeated him, it very easily could have happened.
But oh, how they suffered to give us this priceless gift of freedom.
Try to imagine yourself on a B-17 bombing raid over Germany without any fighter planes to protect you from the German fighters, who would attack you all the way to the target and all the way back home.
Or in a foxhole in the Voges mountains of Alsace as German 88 shells shattered the treetops overhead, sending millions of jagged splinters raining down on you.
Or on a Liberty ship in the North Atlantic, a helpless sitting duck for the U-boat wolf packs roaming at will through your convoy. Imagine knowing that if your ship was sunk, the convoy was under strict orders not to stop and pick up survivors.
Imagine yourself on a flattop in the South Pacific, fighting off attacks from kamikazes.
Or as a Marine on Okinawa, waiting for the next Banzai charge from an enemy so tenacious that even even the civilians were killing themselves rather than surrender.
"You assumed you weren't going to make it," says Dr. Gordon Binder of San Francisco, an army field surgeon operating just a few hundred yards behind the front line. "You knew you were going to get killed. It was just a question of when."
Finally, imagine yourself as a Rosie the Riveter at the Kaiser shipyards in Richmond, exhausted after another hard day's work but a little reluctant to go home because a telegram might be waiting for you from the War Department beginning with the words "We regret to inform you "..."
They don't think of themselves as heroes because in their eyes, the real heroes are the guys -- and gals, too -- who never came back.
And they're right, of course. But while we still have some of them with us, let's tell them that in our eyes, they are heroes, too.
Bless them all.

Thumbs Up For A Gentle Man

It was with mixed emotions that I watched the final program of "At The Movies," which ended its television run on Sunday after 45 years.
I couldn't help thinking, "I wish Gene Siskel were still here."
Gene was one of the guys who founded the show, and he was my friend. (We were in the same class in college.)
In 1975 he was the film critic for the Chicago Tribune, and a producer at the local PBS station named Thea Flaum got the brilliant idea of pairing him with his rival critic from the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert. For a half hour each week, they'd argue about the movies and give each film a thumbs up or thumbs down.
The show was an instant hit, and no wonder: Gene and Roger were the original odd couple.
I'm hopelessly biased, but I think Gene usually got the better of the argument. He championed films that appealed to the mind and heart, and occasionally other parts of the body.
The most honest review I've ever heard anyone give is the thumb's up he gave to the soft-core French film, "Emmanuelle."
Instead of tiptoeing around the truth by talking about the cinematography or lighting, he looked into the camera, shrugged his shoulders and said sheepishly, "What can I say? It turned me on."
For me, the most memorable review is the one he gave to another French film, "Rififi," which depicts a jewel robbery, moment by moment. He said the reason it's so exciting is that we love to see the behind-the-scenes details of how people in exotic professions do their jobs. And what profession could be more exotic than jewel robber?
It's a lesson I've applied to everything I write. Whenever I interview someone, I always ask them to describe the details of how they do what they do. Thank you, Gene.
I'd run into him whenever he and Roger came into town on a promotional tour, and what most impressed me is that he never thought of himself as The Famous Gene Siskel.
He treated everyone, down to the go-fer who brought him a cup of coffee, with complete respect. He was a true gentleman, and you don't find that very often, especially among celebrities.
Gene died from a brain tumor in 1999, and Roger carried on with a succession of co-hosts until he, too, got sick and had to retire in 2008. For the last few years the show has been hosted by a series of critics who are very good, but not in Gene's league.
At our 25th college reunion, Gene passed on some precious wisdom he received from the master of his residential college, novelist John Hersey, and I'm passing it on to you:
"1. Don't do anything for money. In America if you do anything well, money will follow - if you want it."
"2. Have more than one career. Don't be trapped into working for one company or in one profession for your entire life."
"3. Don't view life as a test on which you can get a perfect score. Life is problems. Therefore, don't be unhappy when you're unhappy. Strive for and appreciate moments of serenity, a much more reasonable goal."
P.S. The last movie Gene reviewed was a romantic comedy called "Simply Irresistible." He gave it a thumbs down.