Those who cannot remember the past…

Wendell Willkie was the Republican– yes, Republican— nominee for president in 1940:

“In the money-mad period of the Twenties the heads of some of our corporations forgot their primary function– that of running a business enterprise in a way that would be sound for the worker, the consumer and the investor. Instead of attending to the duties of management they began playing with corporate structures as with a child’s building blocks, becoming promoters rather than business men. And some financiers in Wall Street and elsewhere, instead of serving as a link between the savings of the people and the enormous capital needs of industry, became jugglers of finance, concerned primarily with making money and securing power for themselves.”  ~Wendell Wilkie, as quoted in Toward One World: The Life of Wendell Willkie by Bill Severn, ©1967

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The cause of an incident

I bought Sammy Davis Jr.’s autobiography Yes I Can at a charity sale for $1, and it has far exceeded my expectations.  I had no idea of the hell he went through on his way to becoming a headliner.

In this excerpt he has just begun to have some success as an entertainer, but is acutely aware of the racism that surrounds him.  He has been turned away from clubs and motels in the past because of his race, and was once severely beaten for a friendship with a white woman:

I finished my main course and asked for a check. Pete the headwaiter came over. “Compliments of Mr. Danny (Stradella).” On the way out I thanked him but he brushed it off. “Cut it out, willya? Thank you for coming in.” He put his arm around my shoulders and walked us to the door. “Now, don’t be a stranger. Please, I want you to think of this as your home away from home– y’know what I mean?”

Danny and Marty Mills caught the late show that night and drove me back to New York. Marty said, “How about a sandwich?”

The last thing I wanted was to be the cause of an incident somewhere. Especially in front of Danny. He thought of me as a winner…

He was saying, “Let’s go over to Longchamps, at 59th and Madison. They’re open all night. Most of the kids from the shows drop in. We’ll have some laughs.”

As we reached the East Side I asked them to let me out at 61st Street. “I’ll meet you in a little while. There’s something I’ve gotta do.”

“We’ll wait for you in the car.”

“No, please. You guys go ahead. Everything’s fine, no problem.”

They had to think I was crazy but they dropped me off at Fifth Avenue and 61st. I started walking toward a dark building as if I really had something to do there. When they were out of sight I looked for a phone so I could call Longchamps and leave word I couldn’t make it. But I was repulsed by the indignity of backing away. It was the defeat of everything I wanted. I killed twenty minutes walking around the block, and headed for the restaurant. At least if it’s a turn-away maybe nobody’ll see it.

I looked through the plate-glass window. Marty was sitting at the table talking to someone, but his eyes were glued to the entrance. By the time I went through the revolving door he was at my side, leading me to our table. Four showgirls from the Riviera were sitting there with Danny. I pointed to a table for two right next to it. “Let’s you and me take this one.” I didn’t wait for him to answer. He shrugged, not understanding, but he sat with me.

Danny gaped at us. “What the hell are y’doing?”

I gave it a Jack Benny reading.  “I hope you won’t take it personally but I can’t sit with those girls. They’re only in the chorus and I’m a star! I mean, you understand–” The girls laughed and I played it like I had something private to tell Marty and somehow I got lucky and Danny wasn’t insulted. Or, maybe he understood.

1934

It’s 84 years later.  Things should be a lot different.

They aren’t.

“God invited us all to come and eat and drink all we wanted. He smiled on our land and we grew crops of plenty to eat and wear. He showed us in the earth the iron and other things to make everything we wanted. He unfolded to us the secrets of science so that our work might be easy. God called: ‘Come to my feast.’ Then what happened? Rockefeller, Morgan, and their crowd stepped up and took enough for 120 million people and left only enough for 5 million for all the other 125 million to eat. And so many millions must go hungry and without these good things God gave us unless we call on them to put some of it back.”  ~Huey Long (source)

Paper, paper everywhere…

In this excerpt from A Journey For Our Times © 1983,  Harrison E. Salisbury describes visiting the Russian front after the battle to free the Crimea:

We went to the Crimea, the Germans finally driven out, corpses bobbing on the rock shores of the slim peninsula where the last stand was made, and over the stony land the Limburger stench of putrescent bodies; heavy, it got into your clothes, it clogged your throat, it hung in the air like plague. Here I inhaled the essence of war. I saw the pig-bellied bodies, eyes staring out of rotting heads, flaxen hair like wigs on a Kewpie doll, and the smell of piss-clotted uniforms, pants cruddy with excrement, with the pale worms of intestines, dirt, slime, paper, paper everywhere, brown-stained toilet paper, brown-stained newspapers with their Gothic print, broken bottles, jagged edges sparkling in the sun, rusty cans, the sleek white wood of ammo boxes, coppered coils of machine gun bullets, unmailed postcards, photos of girls stained with blood, here a splintered bone, the flesh torn like cotton rags, orders, commands, penalties, sentences (a sergeant sentenced to be shot; he had been apprehended trying to copulate with the captain’s mare on the village street), surrender leaflets, bits of green grass and dandelions, stinking fish floating in the gentle waves beside corpses gas-filled, buttons burst from faded green uniforms.

The Crimea did it. I had seen the winter corpses at Katyn, at Leningrad, in the Ukraine. Death in winter is clean. The bodies freeze in rigid forms. There is little stench. Except for the horses. The horses were the worst, winter or summer. They blew up like titanic counterfeits, the eyes still alive with terror. Snow quickly covered the winter dead. Now in the Crimea the dead were omnipresent.

German prisoners with dead eyes stumbled among the corpses, carting them off to endless trenches under the tommy guns of sullen Red Army men. I could not tell whether either Russians or Germans knew what they were doing. The Germans moved like sleepwalkers. The hardest thing, they told us, was the moment of surrender. Unless you were in a big group, a hundred or a thousand, you didn’t have a chance. The Soviet tommy gunners just mowed you down. The Nazis had been waiting for the boats to take them off, the boats that never came.

This was war and now I understood it. War was the garbage heap of humanity. It was shit and piss and gas from the rump; terror and bowels that ran without control. Here Hitler’s Aryan man died, a worse death than any he devised in the ovens of Auschwitz, anus open, spewing out his gut until a Red tommy gunner ended it with a lazy sweep of his chattering weapon.

There’s a reason governments censor the press.

There are things they don’t want us to know, stories they don’t want us to hear, sights they don’t want us to see.

“Hide me.”

“You can really learn something about a person when he’s put into circumstances in which civilized values place his own identity, even his very being, in jeopardy… I often think: How would a friend with whom you’ve drunk a lot of vodka and had a lot of fun respond when one morning you plant yourself on his doorstep and say, ‘Hide me. I’m being chased by the Nazis.'” ~Roman Polanski

Polanski’s mother died at Auschwitz, his father barely survived imprisonment at Mauthausen–Gusen concentration camp. Polanski himself survived by assuming a new name and hiding with a Catholic family for the duration of the war.

This was not just an idle contemplation for him.

The Good War

I worked with a man named Charlie years ago in Houston. I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten his last name. When we met he was nearing retirement age.

He was one of the very first Americans into Berlin at the close of World War II. He told me there were dead bodies everywhere; soldiers, civilians, dogs, horses, mules. The health threat was imminent, and there was no time for formalities. It was his job to drag the corpses, humans and animal, and toss them into the basements of bombed out buildings. Bulldozers would push rubble on top of them.

He was 18.

It was almost fifty years after those events when he told them to me. He didn’t tear up exactly, but his eyes became distant and vacant, like he was looking at something far off, near the horizon; the thousand-yard stare.

He wanted to move up in the chemical company we both worked for, but he didn’t have the cut-throat mentality that environment demanded. He was compassionate. He was empathetic. He was kind. They used him up and tossed him aside.

He contracted cancer and took early retirement, and died not long after. His stories went with him.

Too many people remember the victory parades. Too many people remember the arrogant posturing of generals MacArthur and Patton. Too many people remember the glory and the riches that followed.

Not enough people remember Charlie.

Just Like Buddy and Waylon

In her autobiography On Reflection, actress Helen Hayes recounts an incident from her childhood between theater producer Charles Frohman and actor John Drew Jr.:

I saw Mr. Drew angry with Mr. Frohman only once, from a great distance and with good reason. The producer cabled that he was returning from a European business trip.

“Stay there,” John Drew wired back. “Don’t come back now. It’s dangerous.”

“I’m on my way on the next boat,” Charles Frohman answered.

The star was ablaze with anger. “If the Huns sink you, I’ll never forgive you,” he cabled Mr. Frohman.

The Germans torpedoed the Lusitania, and our good friend was drowned. There are no words to describe John Drew’s shock. His flippant wire would haunt him forever.

Charles Frohmans last words, before being swept away by a giant wave, were a paraphrase from his play Peter Pan: “Why fear death? It is the most beautiful adventure that life gives us.”