Archives For General Interest

 

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines offended as: to cause (a person or group) to feel hurt, angry, or upset by something said or done.

There is a seemingly endless number of people these days who seem to live in a perpetual state of being offended. It must be exhausting. And burdensome. If there are words spoken or actions taken that can be termed as offensive, real or imagined, there is someone somewhere all too willing to take on that burden. Some of the offending causes are petty and laughable; some are legit. Some have resulted in Occupy Wall Street, overt thuggery aimed at Trump supporters, and now Antifa, all courtesy of the hard political left. Now, from the hard right we have white supremists and Neo-Nazis. Can’t we all get along here in our respective offended conditions?

Many soft-shelled college students are offended by the scheduled appearance of a conservative speaker on campus, and thereby insist that the speaker be turned away. Feckless college administrators have a long and shameful history of bending to the demands of loud students. Leaking a steady stream of pee and heading for the exits at the first sign of distress, many of these administrators ignore not just the tenets of free speech, but a worthwhile teaching opportunity as well.

Politicians are hardly any better. Some of the most prominent elected officials of the past decade have chosen to avoid naming the very enemy who is intent upon destroying this nation. Why? So as not to offend them, as if that would somehow make radical Islamists less inclined to murder our citizens, blow up our soldiers, and crash airliners into our buildings. Is it possible to defeat an enemy without offending them? It hasn’t worked thus far.

The recent spectacle in Charlottesville was alarming on several fronts. Seeing groups of Americans on the verge of killing one another is unsettling, to say the least. Just how much the issue of the Confederate monuments factored into the confrontation is still unclear to me, but what is clear is that some were offended by their existence and others by their removal. The cynic in me says that many of the agitators with clubs in hand were there only to bash some heads, unlikely as they were say, two years ago, to even know who fought whom in the Civil War. Or any other American war fought since.

ESPN saw fit this week to pull an Asian-American sports announcer named Robert Lee from his broadcast duties for the upcoming University of Virginia football game on September 2. ESPN stated that, among other things, they were concerned about Mr. Lee’s safety given the recent event at Charlottesville.

Has the act of being offended become such a fashion that virtually nothing is so small and insignificant that it can’t be found to be offensive? It would seem so, from Halloween costumes to silly jokes to Confederate (and soon other) monuments.

Or is it contagion? Again, it would seem so. Creating safe spaces on campuses doesn’t mean hardened bomb shelters. It means protecting students from ideas and speech that make them uncomfortable. This can, and likely already is, creating a level of intolerance in those who demand a sheltered existence.

Or is it admonition? If an innocent man cannot do his job for fear that his name will offend someone—his name!—and perhaps risk his safety as a result, well, this is a sign that the entire matter of being offended is potentially becoming far more dark and sinister.

It’s not a pretty picture. This nation has survived horrifically destructive wars, a Great Depression, a Great Recession, and 9/11. Can it survive the present dangers with some of its populace in safe spaces while others attack each other in the streets?

Good question, huh?

 

The removal of Confederate monuments from public spaces in several Southeast cities has sparked a vigorous debate. At its crux is the efficacy of paying homage to soldiers who fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War, and with it the Confederacy’s association with slavery.

I will add my two-cents worth, but first a bit of disclosure: I’m a Southerner whose ancestors fought on the side of the Confederacy. I’m also an American who proudly served this nation as a United States Marine. And I’m a novelist whose latest book, That Deadly Space, A Civil War Novel, makes this debate especially interesting to me.

Several years ago there was a heated debate over the Confederate flag, and its image as part of the design of several state flags in the South, including Georgia, my own state. In historical terms, the Confederate flag was a battle flag, but in a more contemporary context it has often been used as a sign of defiance, an in-your-face symbol that can easily be understood to have racial overtones. I get that. I fully understand the need to remove such divisive symbols from state flags, and I was pleased to see Georgia remove the image of the Confederate flag from our state flag to its present form.

Monuments, on the other hand, were typically erected not in defiance, but as a way of honoring soldiers. And not just famous generals, but in many cases and in many town squares, honoring common soldiers—scared, homesick, brave young men who did their duty as best they could. The Civil War changed this country forever and established what we are as a nation, and what we are not. The Confederacy was defeated, slavery was abolished, and the Union was preserved. That is our history. So, if all of the monuments honoring Confederate soldiers are removed, then what has really been accomplished? Would it make us any less divided? How much bitterness would be mollified, how much created? And, importantly, where does it all end?

The Civil War period, both the good and the bad, was a chaotic, bloody four-year chapter in a young nation’s story. Pushing it out of sight does not change it. Attempting to re-write it likewise does not alter it. Failing to teach it, all of it, in the name of political correctness, is disgraceful. And removing monuments to soldiers 152 years after the last shots were fired seems of a piece with the efforts of some to rename buildings and dishonor other historical American figures with an assumption, I suppose, that in doing so, all perceived wrongs will be righted and paradise will suddenly break out.

Hundreds of thousands of people protested the Vietnam War as being oppressive or immoral or racist, even to a point of cursing at and spitting on returning veterans. Many of the protestors viewed the war as criminal. Will there therefore be a movement to have the Wall in Washington D.C. dismantled and the names of 58,000 American servicemembers tossed aside?

Good luck with that.

It would be impossible to learn the full span of American history if parts of that history are deemed by some as too toxic or too politically incorrect, and end up as either blank pages in history books or revised to represent a version that has little historical accuracy or context. That would not be helpful. Leave the monuments. Teach the history, all of it. Give the vast majority of the American people credit for being strong enough to see the full sweep of the nation’s history without becoming convulsive. This nation has survived a revolution, a civil war, a depression, world wars, regional wars, and 9/11. It can deal with Southern monuments to Southern soldiers.

 

In researching certain particulars of the Battle of Gettysburg for my new novel, That Deadly Space, I came across a familiar figure who might very well have been the most consequential Union officer on the field during those historic three days in July, 1863. General Winfield Scott Hancock was that familiar figure. A battle-tested veteran of Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville, Hancock’s performance had earlier been described by General George McClellan as “superb.”

On the first day at Gettysburg, Hancock assumed temporary command of the Union I, II, III and XI Corps after General John Reynolds had been killed in action. While in command of the entire left wing of the Army of the Potomac, Hancock provided critically needed leadership while skillfully deploying his troops along the high ground at Cemetery Hill. He set in motion the “fishhook” position that spanned from Culp’s and Cemetery Hills to the Round Tops, and then recommended to the overall commander, General George Meade, that the fight should be made on the excellent defensive ground at Gettysburg.

On the third day, Hancock’s II Corps absorbed the brunt of the massive Confederate assault known as Pickett’s Charge. Hancock’s courageous personal example, even under heavy artillery fire, was inspirational to his soldiers. Again and again, Hancock was superb. When told by a subordinate that he was risking his life by calmly riding among his troops, Hancock was said to have replied, “There are times when a corps commander’s life does not count.” Hancock’s leadership did much to gain the Union victory, but not without cost. Hancock was seriously wounded in the thigh and refused to be evacuated from the field until the battle had been decided. He would be bothered by that wound for the duration of the war. In a strange twist of fate, Confederate General Lewis Armistead, a dear friend, was also wounded in the assault and died two days later. The two close friends, on opposite sides of that deadly struggle, were less than one-hundred yards apart when both were struck down.

The statue of the mounted Hancock at Cemetery Hill is impressive, all the more when the thoughts of Hancock’s uplifting presence among the dispirited Union troops on that hard first day are remembered. A marker also shows the location where Hancock was wounded on the third day. His presence can still be felt on the field at Gettysburg, even with the passage of 154 years. Winfield Scott Hancock is unquestionably one of the finest military officers this nation has produced.

He was, and still is, Hancock the Superb.

 

Are we a society that no longer has heroes? Have we become so indifferent and cynical that men and women doing heroic things are seldom reported and hardly noticed, and consequently neither celebrated nor emulated? Are we now too sophisticated to become caught up in something so yesterday as a “hero,” while news coverage goes to thugs who shut down a campus speaker and perhaps even destroy property, all while behaving in ways that they themselves consider virtuous and courageous?

So, where did our heroes go?

Admittedly, it’s a stretch to find public officials nowadays in politics or academia whose actions would qualify as heroic. Our Hollywood celebrity culture provides an endless supply of shallow, egocentric, sparsely talented individuals who provide us not only with the fruits of their “craft,” but with their standard, spineless lecturing as their enlightened gift to the rest of us, the great unwashed.

The sporting world has become so soiled with cheating, pampered, self-absorbed athletes and coaches, and so driven by college and professional organizations that devalue longstanding virtues like loyalty and integrity, that past sports giants like Tom Landry, John Wooden, and Vince Lombardi would likely turn away in disgust. In addition, the corporate world has had its share of arrogant industry titans who have lied, bilked, and bullied their way to lifetime riches with astonishing collateral damage to their companies, customers, and stockholders.

There have been eighteen Medals of Honor awarded to American service members during the course of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and two more for service in Somalia. How many Americans have seen television or print media coverage of these men? How many Americans have seen the photos and heard the stories of all twenty? Or perhaps even two or three? Is this confirmation that we no longer have any heroes?

No, I don’t believe so.

Heroes are still among us. U.S. Airways pilot Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger landing his stricken airplane safely in the Hudson River is one of them. So are the 343 New York City firefighters who climbed up those smoky stairwells and perished on that hard, dark September 11th day at the World Trade Center. There was 75 firehouses in New York in which at least one member was killed. Were these not heroes? Or the three young American service members who prevented a terrorist attack on a Paris train?

Americans still pull their fellow citizens from rain-swollen rivers. Single moms hold jobs, raise kids, and sometimes even go back to school. Dads teach their children about faithfulness, kindness, and sacrifice. Cancer patients, both young and old, fight back against their disease, often against overwhelming odds, and still give much of themselves to their families, churches, and communities. They are heroes, all. We are still a nation that needs it heroes, even without the high profile, to provide us with examples to follow, to cause us to remember our past, to give us reason for hope and encouragement.

I am a proud former U.S. Marine who marvels at the story of Corporal Kyle Carpenter, USMC, one of the twenty Medal of Honor awardees referenced above. In Afghanistan in 2010, Corporal Carpenter moved toward an enemy grenade to shield his fellow Marines from the blast. Kyle suffered extensive facial and limb damage and underwent multiple surgeries, not to mention enduring enough physical pain to last multiple lifetimes. And I couldn’t possibly comprehend the mental agony he has also bravely endured. After a three-year hospitalization and a medical retirement, Kyle became a college student. He is a survivor, a fighter, and an inspiration. He is a Marine, by God, in the very best way. And he is a hero.

So, it’s a fact that all the heroes didn’t get up and leave. They’re still here. Just like always.

Look around and I’ll bet you can find one. And when you do, thank them for staying.

For more on Kyle and other Medal of Honor recipients, follow this link.

 

 

This is the tribute I wrote to my Druid Hills High School classmates for our 50th Reunion

To the Druid Hills Class of 1965:

When we became Red Devils at the dawning of the Sixties, little did we know what that tumultuous decade would bring because, literally, little did we know about much of anything. So we arrived in 1960 from among the caravan of yellow buses, braced ourselves, and climbed the front steps, walking between those ionic columns and into the “School of Champions.” We were ready for a new chapter in our lives, ready to start striding toward young adulthood. We were lowly sub-freshmen, mostly nervous and unsure of ourselves, but we were in high school. It made us feel big and small at the same time.

Druid Hills was a larger place, had different smells to it in the main building, even had a marching band. There were over three-hundred of us 8th graders, with lots of pretty girls and big athletic guys and smart people of both genders. The classwork was hard sometimes, but not overly so. The teachers were good and mostly helpful unless of course they were coaches who wanted to be seen as hardasses, with Jimmy Carnes one of the notable exceptions. We soon got our feet underneath us and settled in as we became more comfortable with the place and the pace and the prospects. Before long we could sense that we belonged, that indeed we were going to be okay here.

Pretty soon we were 9th graders, and pretty soon after that we were 10th graders. We were really starting to find our way by then, driving and dating and slipping into one of the various social strata that came either by design or by default. We loved it when Coach Rogers would show up and tell us yet again about Eneas Africanus. We were learning real stuff, about the universe, about conceptual things, about ourselves. And then all of a sudden we were juniors, convinced as we were that we were enlightened, undaunted, and indestructible. We thought of creative pranks, we found the scent of mischief enticing, and we liked the look of the opposite sex a lot. The boys would sometimes settle things at the tennis courts when all else failed. Zesto’s was a famous hangout, not so much for the food but for the swapping of stories—some truthful, some sorta, some not even close. Downtown Atlanta and the Varsity were only minutes away. But who can forget that surreal weekend in November, 1963, when the gunshots in Dallas changed more than a presidency.

Our athletic teams won a few games and our band won all the halftime shows. We were now experiencing the very best teachers like Morgan and Hampton and Davis, tackling the most challenging subjects, and starting to think about what we would do after high school. We were becoming more fashion conscious. We looked around and noticed that we had a lot of talented people in our class, as students, musicians, artists, writers, singers, athletes, dancers, debaters, and emerging leaders. We were only one step away from being seniors—the rulers of the universe that was 1798 Haygood Drive.

And then came our turn, our senior year.

We did good work and had our share of fun in the ’64-’65 class year. Druid Hills was in good hands with our senior class. We had excellent student leaders and after four years of being together we were strongly bonded. We competed hard in the athletic arena and we showcased our previously noted talents in any one of a number of ways. We discovered alcohol, threw a few eggs, and did some things that we later dearly hoped our own kids wouldn’t do. We got a new gymnasium that made us proud. The music of Motown and the British invasion kept us moving to the beat. Many of us were hearing from colleges about our applications—sometimes happily, sometimes not so much. We honored Jack Wilks by dedicating the Saga to him, and we wrote lots of pithy phrases in the yearbooks of our friends and classmates. And before long we were singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and rehearsing our graduation exercise, trying not to become overly emotional, but mostly giving in to it, if even a little.

Soon it was all over, and probably for the first time in our lives we had a collection of years that, when looking back, had seemed to pass so very quickly, like the way our parents had told us about the passage of time.

Some of us went to college, some went to work, some went into the military. The times they were a changin’, and the nation was being pulled and stretched out of its post-WWII comfortable shape. The Civil Rights era was mostly civil, but not always. The Vietnam era grew more and more uncivil and seemed to usher in the most bitter and divisive time since the Civil War. Before many of us had reached the age of twenty-one, JFK, RFK and MLK had been felled by assassin’s bullets. The ‘68 Tet Offensive in Vietnam gave the USA a decisive military victory which oddly enough became a public-opinion disaster. We found comfort where we could—sometimes in sex, drugs, rock-‘n-roll, or cheap beer. There were heroes like Neil Armstrong, outsized personalities like Muhammad Ali, criminals like Charles Manson, and traitors like Jane Fonda. Some of our classmates were shooting dope, some were shooting NVA or VC, and some were working at jobs that paid the bills, but not much else. We were just doing our own thing, whatever that meant. We were the Baby Boomers, the sons and daughters of the Greatest Generation, and we would later be described as the most spoiled, self-absorbed generation in American history. I didn’t buy that description then, and I certainly don’t now.

Most of us made it through those challenging times—some more bruised than others, some changed forever. We got married, had kids, maybe got divorced. We went to work, some staying at jobs for years, some bouncing around looking for that elusive greener grass. Some of us went into the medical or legal professions, or became teachers or salesmen or stay-at-home moms. Some of us became entrepreneurs and got rich. Many of us made a decent living and enjoyed a certain degree of comfort, while others struggled with downsizing and rightsizing and all the other euphemisms associated with losing a job. We were scattered about the entire nation, following the twists and turns of fate and the lure of opportunity.

We had class reunions and by twenty years we guys laughed about the weight gains and the hair loss. In some ways it seemed like yesterday when we were at Druid Hills. By thirty years it no longer seemed like yesterday. We were saddened by the classmates and family members we had lost along the way, and much of the social layering that once seemed so important had diminished. By forty years it was gone altogether, most of us happy just to be alive and continent enough to fill in the gaps in our personal histories, including, of course, our most recent surgeries. Our memories of school weren’t quite as robust as before, nor were our knees and backs and hips. But thankfully there were now pharmaceuticals to help us lower things like blood pressure or cholesterol or chronic pain, or conversely to help other anatomical regions rise to the occasion, so to speak.

And now it’s fifty years. We grew up together, we sons and daughters of dear ole DH. And now we’re growing old together. It’s not so bad, really. We’ll miss the departed, to be sure, and we’ll remind one another of the many good times. And we’ll take some consolation in the fact that we’re able to join together once again in the warmth of renewed friendship. We’ll offer a toast or two, make a boast or two, and laugh a lot. A helluva lot.

Those were good years long ago, sweetened even more by the passage of time. Loyal, brave, and fair and true. That was us then, and here we are now. We’ve all had our successes and we’ve all been knocked around by life. But we’re still standing, we’re still friends, and we’re still the Devils that were once dynamite. It could’ve been worse—we could’ve been shipped off to Briarcliff, for cryin’ out loud, and be the bunnies that were once, well, whatever. But no, we were a great class from what was arguably the best school in the best school system in the entire South.

We are the Druid Hills Class of 1965, by God. And by the grace of God, we can enjoy it once again. And enjoy it we shall.

I SALUTE you, my fellow classmates!

And may we meet again on down the road.

Jerry Gillis

DHHS, ‘65

01-29-2010 12;30;27PM

The following is the eulogy I delivered at my mother’s funeral on March 7, 2015:

On behalf of the extended Gillis/Hughes family, I’d like to thank all of you for your kindness and well wishes, and especially for your presence here today. And so I’d like to offer the following as a remembrance, of sorts, with great love and affection for a little lady who was truly one of the giants of my life.

Evelyn Rebecca Hughes Gillis: Daughter, sister, sister-in-law, mother, mother-in-law, grandmother, and great-grandmother. Among family, she answered to Evelyn, Aunt Evelyn, Eve, sis, Momma, and Memomma.

Today we lay to rest this kind, gentle, Godly woman who loved her family and friends without condition, who served her church to her fullest, and who provided an anchorage of love and stability in a great number of lives, including, and most especially, my own.

Like many of you, the earliest images I retain in my memory involve my mother, in one form or another. She taught me about the Christian faith and the way it has shaped our family’s history. She stressed to me the value of education, and the importance of honesty and integrity. She gave me an early appreciation for the Big Band music of the Forties, and consequently any band of my own era which featured a horn section had me at the get-go. She broadened my world by teaching me about reading, about the joy of books and the power of the written and spoken word. She taught me about the kinder, gentler things of life, and then she turned around and taught me the finer points of fist fighting with the admonition that I use my new skill as needed, but always as a last resort. She took care of me when I was sick or injured, even when I was faking it, and I still associate the taste of her ginger ale with my being ill. She helped jumpstart my own lifelong love of history when she took me to see Gone with the Wind in the same downtown Atlanta movie theater where, as a teenager some years before, she had witnessed the actual live premier. She confessed to me that actor Clark Gable was her guy, and we made it a point to keep that little morsel a safe distance from Clarence. And I’ve never yet been able to see Gable in one of his movies without instantly thinking of her.

She told me often about the years of World War II, about the uncertainties and hardships, and especially about the way the nation pulled together in shared sacrifice. She told me about Russell High School, and the way the boys went into military service immediately upon graduation. She told me about the good people she worked with at Western Union during those war years. She spoke often about how much she loved and admired her own mother, our beloved Mamaw. She related to me what it was like as a young woman to suddenly find her family without a father, when he died and left behind Mae , Evelyn, Jack, Henry, and Jimmy in the prime of his, my grandfather’s, life. She told me these things without any self-pity or bitterness, but as a better way for me to understand who we were as a family, our history, and thus my history. And how sometimes we just had to deal with things as they are, as opposed to fretting about how we wished them to be. That bit of wisdom has served me well, never more so than when we were confronted with the brutal reality of the Alzheimer’s.

She allowed me to make mistakes without ever berating or humiliating me further. And as a matter of undeniable fact there was something about her that caused me to always, always fess up and tell the truth when I had misbehaved, even when I knew that a large dose of unpleasantness would eventually be arriving through that kitchen door. She taught us the great truth that although we all have freedom of choice, none of us has freedom from consequences.

As I got older, I saw how she and my dad worked and sacrificed so that Ben and I could attend college, something they themselves never had the opportunity to do. And I remember how overjoyed she was when the grandkids started arriving. I’m grateful she got the reward of grand-and great-grandchildren to enjoy and spoil and show just what a loving and classy Family Matriarch she truly was. And I’m likewise grateful they got the reward of knowing her.

That she was one of a kind is without question. She fussed over the appearance of her hair. She was picky about her attire. Even near the end when she was very ill, and had in her possession nearly as many pairs of navy-blue slacks as does the carrier USS Nimitz, she let us know she didn’t care for the brown slacks that we had quietly slipped into her wardrobe. “Must be somebody else’s,” she remarked dismissively, much as she would if the slacks had been made of the very finest of possum fur. Debby winked at me and said softly, “I guess we’ll stay with blue.”

Throughout her entire life Momma could never pronounce words like “handkerchief” which came out “hanchekuff”, or “sauce”, which came out “salts,” and she often dropped the “g” from words like pudding, which of course became “puddin’.” And she sometimes liked to add a “You know” when she would finish a sentence. But what she could say was the phrase “When are y’all comin’?” which never came later than the third sentence of any conversation I ever had with her when I called from goodness-knows-where to check in. And she greatly surprised us when, after becoming a resident in the Alzheimer’s unit, she would from time to time utter a profanity or two that she must have picked up from one of her saltier fellow residents (or maybe from one of her eldest son’s novels). If she had heard such a word from me as a child, she would have threatened to wash my mouth out with soap. When the roles were reversed, however, I just smiled and let it pass.

She was never more beaming or buoyant than when she had her extended family in her home on Wood Trail Lane, with all the attendant food and noise and good tidings that enveloped and uplifted every single one of us. She loved Christmas more than anyone I’ve ever known, and she would start singing “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” right after the 4th of July. Michael McDonald sings a Christmas song entitled “House Full of Love” which is what I’m reminded of when I think of Momma’s Decatur home. That description was never more evident than during the holidays when the house was full of Gillises and Hugheses and their derivatives, with the loud laughter, tall tales, ham, turkey and turnip greens, mahogany and coconut cakes, Bulldogs and Yellow Jackets, touch football in the front yard, the ladies in animated conversation in the living room and the gentlemen falling open-mouth asleep in the den, looking every bit as if they’d all been gassed. It was in every way, and on every day, truly a House Full of Love. And the one who gave it that texture and richness of flavor is the one we so honor today.

As she neared the end of her natural life, I would often hear caregivers and others remark what a sweet, considerate lady Miss Evelyn was. Her kindness, unselfishness, and courtesy toward others were noticed and appreciated. Don’t confuse her gentility with a lack of good ole Southern toughness, however. In the last third of her life, she overcame colon cancer, a heart attack, multiple skin cancers, became a widow, survived two broken hips and the necessary hip-replacement surgeries, and bravely fought Alzheimer’s Disease well past the averages. Some of her parts may have broken easily, but not so her will. Through it all, she never lost her unwavering love for her family. She was a great treasure to those of us who knew and loved her, for to know her was indeed to love her. And while her passing leaves a hole in our family and in our hearts, she’s left far more by her living than she’s taking in her leaving.

The writer Christopher Buckley noted at the passing of his own mother, “There is an apparent universal aspect about parental mortality—namely, that no matter how much you prepare for the moment, when it comes, it comes at you hot, hard, and unrehearsed.” Mr. Buckley’s words could hardly be more descriptive.

In Proverbs 31:10, the question is asked, “Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies.” Evelyn Gillis was, by any objective measure, a virtuous woman—as a wife, mother, friend, relative, church member or secretary. She was a beacon of light, an unselfish giver of her Labors and her Loyalty and her Love.

The American poet Emily Dickinson wrote:

“I had a jewel in my fingers—

And went to sleep—

The day was warm, and winds were prosy—

I said ‘Twill keep’—

I woke—and chide my honest fingers,

The Gem was gone—

And now, an Amethyst remembrance

Is all I own.”

Rest In Peace, Mom, and know that, as our Gem, our remembrance of you is a great and abiding gift. But it’s by no means all that you bequeath us. The values and traditions you handed down will remain with us and endure for generations to come. And the love you showered so easily upon us is returned in even greater measure, both by those you leave behind in an earthly sense, and by those you now join in our Father’s Kingdom of Heaven. And yes, I can hear you softly saying, “When are y’all comin’?”

 

ChurchillI had the rare pleasure yesterday in an Atlanta museum to get a close-up viewing of 30 paintings from one of the most consequential figures in modern history. No, his name was not Monet or van Gogh or Picasso, and he was not recognized as much for his art as for his political career, writing, and oratory. Many of the 30 paintings that I viewed have never before been on public display, comprising but a few of the 500 works he produced in his lifetime.

So who is this painter? Or, more aptly, who is this famous person?

He is Winston Churchill, and one could easily make the argument that he was not only a consequential figure of the 20th Century, but indeed the consequential figure of the previous century. He helped save the world from totalitarianism as a British politician, more specifically as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during World War II. His soaring oratory inspired not only the people of the British Empire and his close American allies, but freedom-loving people everywhere.

On painting, he was quoted as saying, “I know of nothing which, without exhausting the body, more entirely absorbs the mind. Whatever the worries of the hour or the threats of the future, once the picture has begun to flow along, there is no room for them in the mental screen.” It was in his painting that he found relief from the strain of political life and the growing menace of Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

Many of his paintings are oil-based impressionist scenes of landscape, and many were painted while he vacationed in the South of France, Egypt, or Morocco. His easel and other artifacts were also on display and helped to personalize the exhibit all the more.

Churchill was not only a painter and great wartime political leader, but he was also a writer and historian. He was prolific as a writer, and he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953.  In a BBC poll of the “100 Greatest Britons” in 2002, he was proclaimed “The Greatest of Them All” based on approximately a million votes from BBC viewers.

The paintings are good, much like the results Winston Churchill achieved in his many other endeavors. But what made the exhibit most enjoyable to me was that the paintings came from the head, hand, and brush of the incomparable Winston Churchill. For me, that was the treat that exceeded all else and made the trip entirely worthwhile.

The paintings are on display at the Millennium Gate Museum in Atlanta, through February 1, 2015.

Dear Mr. PresidentTop Hat:

Since I’ve always considered you the wisest among all American presidents, I respectfully seek your counsel on several troubling matters.

The United States is in the throes of a bitter ideological feud between those who lean toward a more progressive, socialist left and those of a more traditional, conservative right. It involves many things, to include the charge and size of government, the U.S. role as the most powerful nation in an increasingly unstable world, and the likely destructive consequences of years of gross fiscal irresponsibility. Too, we have deep divides on matters of religion, marriage, and the termination of unwanted pregnancies in what is termed, appropriately enough, abortion (or, as some would prefer, the right to choose, not unlike being of age and deciding upon whiskey or beer, except, of course, the difference in consequences).

Mr. Lincoln, since your time the United States has won two world wars, cured polio, given women the vote, enacted legislation to ensure equal rights to all citizens, and sent men to the moon and back (really, we did, and more than once!). We built the most powerful economy in world history, and in the process assimilated countless millions of immigrants from all parts of the globe. Those immigrants came here in the belief that ambitious, hardworking individuals can move from poverty to relative prosperity based upon effort, not birthright. And by the way, we have twice elected a U.S. president of African descent.

But we’re far from perfection. We can quite literally transplant hearts and other vital organs, but we don’t do as well transplanting values. Our prisons are crowded, our young are too often poorly educated, and there is still racial prejudice, just as in your day, though more subtle. We bend over backwards in a near-comical attempt to avoid “offending” anyone, and in the process offend or inconvenience nearly everyone. Our citizens are increasingly suspicious of and alarmed by a federal government in which powerful components have been used to gather highly personal information and to sometimes intimidate or penalize innocent people for purely political reasons.

We seem to be at a crossroads, sir. Thankfully we’re not at war with one another as we were in your day, but we do have counties in some states who feel so ideologically and culturally detached that their citizens now speak of secession. I know you remember (and detest) that word. Our elected representatives seem more concerned about being re-elected than in solving the real problems that threaten our well-being as a nation. There is a certain smallness about Congress, and I’m sure you would recognize much of the pettiness and posturing, even the vitriol. There is also a smallness to the president, who seems aloof and detached from the actual governing and leadership aspects of his role. Like you, he won the job with great skill, but unlike you, he governs with virtually none of it.

Throughout the days of your presidency, would you have avoided engaging members of the opposing party as if they were poisonous reptiles, even if you thought dealing with snakes would be an upgrade? Would you have been able to raise an army and the revenue necessary to fight it without some level of bi-partisan support?  To ensure the abolition of slavery in all of the U.S., didn’t you push for passage of the Thirteenth Amendment which Congress passed by the necessary two-thirds vote in 1865?

Mr. Lincoln, is it conceivable that any sort of budgetary crisis would have ever convinced you to close Gettysburg National Cemetery and turn away veterans and family members from paying their respects?

We need your help here, President Lincoln. What should we do? Change the people? Change the terms under which they serve? It’s not getting better; the divides are becoming deeper.

Is there anyone out there like you who could step in and provide some desperately needed leadership? Can you recommend a person–any person–who could step forward and fill the void? If so, will you send me a text? Oops, sorry, make that a telegram.

And please, sir, hurry.

 

 

My Uncle Jack, RIP

April 4, 2013

Jack Hughes, a beloved uncle and the eldest of my mother’s three younger brothers, died Easter weekend of natural causes. He was 86 years old.

I’ll remember Jack as one of the most decent, honest, and loyal human beings I’ve ever encountered. While he wasn’t wealthy in a material sense, he was rich beyond measure in the love and admiration he received from his friends and family members. Family was important to Jack, and because I was his first nephew in what would become a long line of nieces and nephews, I was therefore important to him. He made my younger brother and I feel that importance from an early age onward, and I always loved him for it.

When I was a young boy and confronted with the death or serious illness of a family member, Jack would always be there, his caring and inner strength a much needed boost, in effect wrapping me in a blanket of comfort and well-being before such an event could overwhelm me. As I got older, Jack would still be there when those same conditions arose, still providing that calming, reassuring presence with such ease and dependability. When bad things happened, I looked for Jack. And, inevitably, I would always find him. I loved him for that, too.

Jack enjoyed a laugh, and after he married Barbara, he laughed a lot. Both he and Barbara had previously experienced the painful loss of a spouse, so they were ready to laugh, needed to laugh. We have an exceptionally strong tradition of storytelling in our family, and we found that Barbara could turn a tale to match any of us. Barbara was good for Jack, and good for our family. As for Jack, he didn’t have the sort of fragile ego that kept him from laughing at himself. He could needle and be needled, giveth and receiveth, and always in fun. A room was a brighter, better place with Jack in it.

When it came time to answer the dinner bell, Jack had no shame in being the first through the food line. In fact, if Jack wasn’t the first to spoon his way through the home-cooked Southern goodness spread out before him, who knew what might’ve transpired? Not to worry, though. It never happened.

Jack and I talked often of Chicago, a city he called home for a time in the Fifties, and a place I have visited often. In my childhood he sent me a baseball that had been fouled into the Wrigley Field stands by Hall of Famer Richie Ashburn of the Phillies. I still have that old baseball in my closet, safely ensconced in the pocket of my equally old glove. It’s not Richie Ashburn whom I think of when I see that ball. No, I think of Jack. Always Jack.

Any person would be truly blessed to have such an uncle as Jack Hughes. I was so blessed, and I’ll be eternally grateful for Jack’s presence and influence in my life. In fact, I was blessed with three such uncles, two of whom remain as friends and lifelong role models. Just like Jack.

Thank you, Uncle Jack, for the great example you provided for me. For all you gave me. For all you taught me. For all the times I looked for you and found you when you could have been elsewhere. You were greatly loved. And you will be greatly missed.

Jack, Jerry, Ben

I Still Miss John Wayne

June 15, 2012

The Duke, John Wayne, died 33 years ago this week. I miss him, still. And I still enjoy his movies, especially those World War II films where he and the good guys would always win. He was greatly popular with U.S. Marines, and there were at least two C-ration items named in his honor: the John Wayne can opener and the John Wayne cookie. Why? Beats me. We Marines didn’t question.

I read a biography about Duke several years ago and discovered the interesting tidbit that he really didn’t like horses. For an actor who arguably did more to popularize the Western film genre than anyone else, not liking horses came as a bit of a surprise. I suppose it would be akin to discovering Mario Andretti’s dislike of fast cars or Bruce Springsteen’s dislike of loud music. Or Bill Clinton’s dislike of a gorgeous, um, bacon cheeseburger. It just didn’t seem to fit.

John Wayne came along at the right time. He was an unabashed American patriot at a time when patriotism was widely understood in simpler terms than is apparent today. He smoked cigarettes, drank whiskey, and killed the bad guys in his films. He was gentle toward women (except Maureen O’Hara, with whom he had an extraordinary on-screen chemistry and off-screen friendship). Occasionally he would die a hero’s noble death at the end of a picture, which was never pleasant. And he would almost always provide a worthwhile life lesson somewhere between the opening and closing credits.

His friends in the entertainment industry spoke often of his loyalty and generosity as a friend. As big an international star as he became over a long career, he could poke as much fun at himself as he could others. Comedian Rich Little did a splendid impersonation of Wayne, from his voice to his gestures to his walk, and I can remember Duke roaring with laughter as he sat with Johnny Carson and watched Little’s hilarious routine. And the laughter was authentic, as was much else with Wayne.

That was then.

Now we’ve got the pretty-boy actors who spend a disproportionate amount of time doing little more in their films than eating. And their causes are rarely conservative anymore. Or often hardly even patriotic. Was John Wayne the greatest film actor ever? Nah, I won’t go that far. But he was darned good, and his screen presence was always infinitely more commanding than these contemporary lightweights.

Thanks, Duke, for all the great work you’ve left for us to enjoy.

Semper Fi, good sir.