Belle of Liberty

Letting Freedom Ring

Friday, June 04, 2010

All You Need is Love

“Satire is what closes on Saturday night.” George S. Kaufman
A few years ago, the Beach Boys, or their remnants, were playing at a balloon festival in New Jersey. The balloons were preparing for their evening launch and the spectators were in the mood for some good, summertime music.

Who better to supply it than the Beach Boys? They were playing along and the crowd was really happy: Surfin’ Safari. Fun, Fun, Fun. I Get Around. Barbara Ann. Good stuff. But then they turned to their post-British Invasion numbers, the political stuff.

Suddenly, the crowd stopped clapping and singing along. They stopped dancing and they stopped applauding at the end of the numbers. Hearing only the dribblings of applause, the leader asked what was wrong. Someone ventured to tell them. I think it was me. I was certainly annoyed, but I can’t remember because other spectators quickly took up the call.

“Get back to the fun stuff!”

The lead singer balked and explained all about the Beach Boys’ political views, how they were about much more than fun in the sun. Maybe. But who cared? The audience was into the fun in the sun stuff. That’s what they wanted to hear. They didn’t buy the bait-and-switch – the “commercial” for communsim - and made their feelings known. Finally, the band relented and the sun came out again.

Too bad “Sir” Paul McCartney wasn’t there to learn that lesson about mixing music and politics. His own band was only popular when it played popular music. A whole palette of drugs and booze had to be shoved down the throats of music lovers to convince stoned audiences that the Beatles’ later, screaming serenades for lunatics were “popular”. By 1970, The Beatles folded.

They had legions of addicted fans (who thought I Am the Walrus held some sort of mysterious, mystical meaning) and piles of money. They were “successful” - phenomenally successful – and their breakup was voluntary. Nevertheless, they were also history.

Age hasn’t lent “Sir” Paul wisdom. He managed to go on mixing the two elements at the Gershwin Awards ceremony, bestowed upon him by the Library of Congress, at the White House this week. He didn’t have the sense to realize politics and music don’t mix. All he needed to do was sing about love. However, he couldn’t keep his mouth shut.

Thank goodness for columnist Michelle Malkin and her readers who pointed out, in response to “Sir” Paul’s remarks about former President George Bush not knowing what a library is, that First Lady Laura Bush was a librarian. McCartney certainly did an excellent job of putting his foot in his famous mouth on that one. Let’s hear a round of applause for true stupidity.

Good to know there are people who know what homework is, unlike the woefully ignorant Sir Paul. He was in good company, entertaining a president who didn’t know where the automobile was invented (the first practical car with an internal combustion engine came from Germany; there was an even earlier, steam-powered model from France).

The White House probably felt it was fitting to serve as host when McCartney was awarded the Gershwin prize, established in 2007 to honor song-and-dance men. George Gershwin, while really just a musician, wrote the scores (his elder brother Ira wrote the lyrics) for some famously political Broadway musicals.

Gershwin was also famous early on for his piano rolls (I received a set for my birthday one year – love ‘em!) and his work in classical music (“Rhapsody in Blue”). But he was a prolific composer for Broadway, writing numerous tunes such as “I Got Rhythm.”

The Broadway show Strike Up the Band (1927) was a political satire that closed after one night during its pre-Broadway run in Philadelphia.  (Fortunately Strike Up the Band the tune survived the experience). Morrie Ryskind, the librettist, warned by its author George S. Kaufman that the story would fail, had to go back to the drawing board to make it work for audiences. He had to substitute romance for politics and chocolate for cheese.

Ryskind complained that he was being forced to substitute silliness for satire, the Three Stooges for War and Peace. However, the change worked.

Once it made it to Broadway in 1930, the show had a simply stellar pit band: the Red Nichols Orchestra, which included Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Gene Krupa, Jimmy Dorsey, and Jack Teagarden. If you know music: Whoa!  Now THAT'S a band!!

Originally, Kaufman’s book centered on a cheese tycoon who tries to convince the United States to declare war on Switzerland so he could corner the market on cheese. “The Man I Love”, now a Gershwin standard, was removed and the more romantic chocolate put in place of the cheese.

Strike Up the Band was followed up in 1931 by Of Thee I Sing. The history on this musical is a bit confusing (what can you do when you must depend on Wikipedia for facts) but apparently the original story pitted competing factions against one another in the quest to write a new national anthem.

Again, it didn’t work too well on the boards and the story was again changed to a rather ridiculous romance involving a beauty pageant in which the winner would marry the president of the United States.

The leading man candidate, who eventually wins, is running on the “Love” platform. He falls for the pageant organizer instead of the winner and marries her. When France expresses its outrage (don’t even ask why) and threatens war, the President uses a Constitutional amendment to turn his office over to his Vice President, who very gladly marries the beauty pageant winner.

In 1933, the sequel to this musical, Let ‘em Eat Cake, totally bombed. Although it had the same producer, writers, and stars, the tone was much darker and the issues were more complex. The president is defeated for reelection, and he and his vice president plot to overthrow the government.

The show carried a message that audiences did not want to hear – we’ll make you like us whether you like it or not - and it was a failure. You’d think the very title Ryskin chose would have been a clue as to what type of reception the musical would have.

Of Thee I Sing was the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Given Roosevelt’s blatant courting of the press (he used to take them on picnics), it’s hardly surprising that (harmless as it was) it won the Pulitzer. If the current trend towards “reinventing journalism” succeeds, we’ll probably see many more awards going to politically-favored artists like Paul McCartney.

Aspirants will have nothing to fear. If the audiences shut them down, the government will simply raise the curtain on them again. If The Beatles had been half as good as their hype, they wouldn’t have broken up. Some of their music was enjoyable. It just didn’t elevate them above the status of Gershwin, or Glenn Miller, or Grieg (a classical composer who wrote Peer Gynt Suite for Henrik Ibsen’s play about the adventures of a ne’er-do-well wanderer who tries to avoid responsibility).

When an entertainer, particularly one with a royal title before his name, starts dictating to you what sort of music you should like and who you should vote for instead of playing the music you paid good money to hear, it’s time to get out the shepherd’s crook and haul him off the stage.

This is not to cast aspersions on Gershwin’s music or legend or even the more enjoyable of the Beatles tunes – only a liner note to remind us that in a socialist government, you don’t need good acting, good writing, or good music to have a hit. Nor need you worry about critics, because they’ll be banned from panning your government-approved messages.

Nor do you need love to succeed, as those Gershwin musicals did. All You Need is Gov, love. Gov is all you need.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

An Apple for the Governor

I didn’t need to turn to the comics yesterday for a laugh. I only had to go to the front page of the Bergen Record and read their propaganda – I mean, account – of N.J. Gov. Chris Christie’s rejection of the school reform application (The Race to the Top).

Gov. Christie simply didn’t think it was worth $400 million to reward bad teachers. After weeks of allowing the schoolyard bullies – the teachers unions – to push around his Education Commissioner, Bret Schundler, Christie put his considerable foot down and tossed the whole package out.

The Bergen Record’s subsequent article was a comic strip page of laughable quotes from Liberal politicians and teachers union representatives. The Bergen Record said the 11th hour change came as a shock to New Jersey Education Association officials.

“Deep disappointment, utter frustration, and total outrage!” cried NJEA President Barbara Keshisian. “The biggest losers in this fiasco are the students!”

Yeah – motivated teachers. That’s a real game-changer for the kids, all right.  They have a right to be shocked, though, considering the coverage the Bergen Record gave their protests in Trenton, a full, two-page center spread, complete with color photos of union thugs in death masks. Now there's inspiration for you (the Tea Parties got one notice, and that only for the national rally, even though the Hackensack Tea Party took place in the Bergen Record's hometown).

“But union buy-in wins points in the stiff competition” for the grant, The Bergen Record reminded us, noting that it had taken weeks to hammer out the compromise to the satisfaction of both parties.

Nobody told me, Christie replied. He sent Schundler back to the chalkboard over the holiday weekend to restore the vital principles that had been replaced by schoolwide bonuses and seniority-based job protection.

“These are core principles I’ve been campaigning on since I decided to seek the job,” he declared. Laugh at that one, Liberals. I was there, at the Morristown Tea Party in April 2009, when he pulled the education question out of the hat and realized he had to answer it to the satisfaction of the 2,000 constituents on the Green that afternoon, and all those he’d meet later on the campaign trail.

New Jersey takes its education seriously. It has to laugh when it hears lines like this from union officials.

“Clearly there are enormous disagreements on how to proceed,” said NJEA spokesman Stephen Wollmer. “That doesn’t engender much confidence among the ranks of teachers.”

Parents love it, though. This is what Christie wrote on the application:

“…no single factor influences [a] student’s academic success more than the quality of his or her teachers…Special interests that have selfishly thwarted that reform should not be permitted to hold good ideas hostage.”

That engenders plenty of confidence in the voters. By enhancing schools’ ability to measure student learning and use that data to evaluate teachers, merit pay would reward the best teachers and motivate other teachers to improve.

But according to the NJEA, and the Bergen Record, “Merit pay…undermines teamwork” and “penalizes teachers facing challenging kids.”

So it’s all the fault of the kids, after all. Imagine that? Thought it was the kids being punished here, but it turns out it’s the teachers. The kids challenging the teachers instead of the teachers challenging the kids. Well, since the teachers won’t challenge the kids, then the governor will have to challenge the teachers.

Democrats for Education Reform spokesman Charles Barone called Gov. Christie’s approach “ham-handed.” Still, Barone thinks the application has an outside chance without union support. He expressed surprise at Schundler’s many compromises, in light of Christie’s conservative education agenda.

His quote in the paper doesn’t quite make sense. He claims the state needed NJEA support so badly that they shredded the application. But it sounds as though that’s what Christie did after the unions signed off on the application. He claims that now it is a strong application, albeit with a lot of collateral damage.

But Frank Belluscios of the N.J. School Boards Association asserts that union support was never integral to the application.

But on to the comics.

N.J. Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Sheila Y. Oliver blasted the application rejection as an “abrupt about-face” by Christie, saying it seriously jeopardized New Jersey’s chances of winning the gold ring.

They further claimed he was influenced by conservative pundits who sing his praises in their columns and on the radio.

Sweeney, a Democrat, groused, “The governor apparently has decided that hearing good things about himself over the radio is more valuable than $400 million for our schools.”

He goes on to say that the compromise “was crafted in ‘good faith’ among everyone involved and now that ‘unity’s’ been blown up because some talking heads disagreed.”

Reading good things about themselves and their unions in the pages of the Bergen Record is more valuable than merit pay, apparently.

And here’s another howler from Sweeney: “If the governor was as thick-skinned as he likes to make people think, he would shrug off the criticism and stand by the team that put together the application.”

The final laugh of the article goes to U.S. Education Secretary Anne Duncan.

“This took a lot of hard work and political courage,” she said in a news release after the deadline. “It required administrators, elected officials, union leaders, teachers, and advocates to work together and embrace a common reform agenda.”

It required a courageous governor in a corrupt state to throw the unions overboard. I hope somebody puts an apple on Gov. Christie’s desk.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Donkey Dust

Since ancient times, drugs have been a boon and a bust, a cure and a curse, for civilizations. Doctors have experimented with them to ease pain and cure diseases. Opium was used in ancient times as a legitimate anesthetic, enabling the ancient Egyptian to perform surgery.

Dead beats have used them as an easy and lucrative means to create an insatiable market of addicts clamoring for their “product.” How stupid do you have to be to fall for their sales pitch, this bill of goods they’re pedaling?

Judging by the wealth drug dealing crime syndicates have amassed (enough to create small armies), there are an awful lot of stupid people in the world, and their numbers are growing exponentially.

Last week, I listened to my young co-workers extolling the virtues of marijuana and lamenting and lashing out at its illegal status. I wondered if they realized how their normally genial faces had transformed into ugly, malicious sneers.

I was becoming incensed. The young co-worker across from me noticed it and I had to remind myself that I’d fallen into a Generational Void. Not just a gap, mind you, but an impassable void.

There is some component of marijuana – not being a scientist, I don’t know what it is –that once inhaled or ingested, transforms the mind. The first act of this drug is to convince its users that they’ve undergone no change, that they’re exactly the same as they were the moment before they took that puff.

But it’s a lie, one scientists would have to prove, but it’s a lie. I do know it’s true of nicotine, that once you inhale it, the addiction is instant and complete. Proponents of marijuana claim that it’s totally harmless, that all you come away from it with is an addiction to munchies

That, of course, depends upon your definition of harm. Marijuana has a great propaganda machine, with a lot of money and corrupted science behind it. Those who deal it and the Liberals who would advance it to legal status know exactly the kind of harm it can do.

For its dealers, pot is all about the money. For the Liberals, it’s all about manipulation and control. Years ago, I found myself arguing with a Weed Wacko about his drug of choice. He went through all the usual arguments: it’s not addictive, it’s not harmful, it’s not dangerous, it’s not a “gateway” drug.

“How do you know it’s harmful?” he challenged. And then he hit me with the hooker argument. “How do you know until you try it?”

I guess he thought I was stupid, or that I looked stupid. I do look stupid. Sometimes I am stupid. But not when it comes to drugs.

“I don’t have to try it to know what it can do. I can see the effect it has on you.”

He had no answer, so I pressed my advantage. It wasn’t like beer, I argued. Beer comes in a can. Pot is invasive. It’s a “communal” experience. You can pass on the beer and unless your comrades intend to chug it down your throat (it’s been known to happen at frat initiation parties), there’s nothing they can do about it. Maybe kick you out.

But with pot, you’re pretty much stuck with it. Maybe you won’t actually inhale (like President Clinton), but apparently being in the vicinity will do the trick. Pot is no respecter of individual rights. In fact, it’s main effect appears to be the destruction of individuality and independent thought.

When one brain is muddled, they’re all muddled. “Why can’t we all just get alonnnnng?”

Weed wackos have their propaganda arsenal ready at hand, though. Reefer Madness, the 1936 film produced by a church group warning parents about what can happen with the use of marijuana, was recut and redistributed to make anti-pot crusaders look ridiculous and help the “cause”.

Cheech and Chong are the heroes of the Weed Garden. All of Hollywood is involved in the effort. Medical marijuana use I believe is already on the books in California and they’re poised to make the drug completely legal.

I pressed this fellow hard enough and he admitted the truth, or at least a less warm and fuzzy reason for wanting to get America high. It was a deliberate campaign. He claimed it was the Communists’ revenge for the Opium Wars of the 19th Century.

Less than 70 years after Columbus discovered the New World, in his quest for a martime route to the Far East, trade between Europe and China began with the Portuguese, who leased an outpost at Macau in 1557.

European traders found themselves in competition with Arab and Japanese traders in local Asian commerce. After the Spanish conquest of the Philippines, trade between China and the West accelerated.

China would not permit a trade of goods; they were hungry for silver, even though most of Europe was on the gold standard. Newly-discovered silver mines in the Americas made this trade possible; silver was actually more precious than gold, as it was harder to find in greater quantities.

Still this demand for silver caused on drain on European commodities. The Spanish began to trade in opium, from India, along with New World products such as tobacco and maize to the Chinese in order to prevent a trade deficit.

The Qing Dynasty, like its predecessor the Ming Dynasty, was ambivalent towards overseas trade and maritime activity in general. From 1661 to 1669, in an effort to cut off Ming loyalists, the Qing issued an edict to evacuate all populations living near the coast of Southern China. Though it was later repealed, the edict seriously disrupted coastal areas and drove many Chinese overseas.

Qing attitudes were also further aggravated by traditional distrust of foreign merchants and traders. They believed trade incited unrest and disorder, promoted piracy, and even threatened China's defenses. The Qing instituted a set of rigid, though inconsistent regulations regarding trade at Chinese ports. Four maritime customs offices were established and a 20 percent tariff placed on all foreign goods. These policies succeeded establishing a system of corruption. Kickbacks and purchased monopolies enriched the officials who administered coastal regions.

Although foreign merchants and traders dealt with low level Qing bureaucrats and agents at specified ports and entry points, official contact between China and foreign governments was organized around atributary system. This affirmed the Emperor as the son of Heaven with a mandate to rule on Earth; as such, foreign rulers were required to present tribute and acknowledge the superiority of the imperial court. In return, he bestowed gifts and titles upon foreign emissaries and allowed them to trade for short periods of time during their stay within China.

Foreign rulers generally abided by these terms. Gifts from the Emperor tended to be of greater value than the tribute received. Trade to be conducted while in China was extremely lucrative and exempt from customs duties. The political realities of the system varied from century to century, but by the Qing period, with European traders pushing to gain more access to China, Qing authorities denied requests for trade privileges from European embassies and assigned them “tributary”status with missions limited at the will of the imperial court. This arrangement became increasingly unacceptable to European nations, particularly the British.

British ships began to appear infrequently around the coasts of China from 1635; without establishing formal relations through the tributary system, British merchants were allowed to trade at certain ports. After Taiwan came under Qing control in 1683, maritime trade restrictions were reduced even further and even the “tributary status" of Europeans was reduced.

Guangzhou (Canton) was the port of preference for most foreign trade, its geographic position at the mouth of the Pearl river trade network and Guangzhou's long experience in balancing the demands of Beijing with those of Chinese and foreign merchants providing a distinct advantage. From 1700-1842, Guangzhou came to dominate maritime trade with China, this period became known as the "Canton System."

Official British trade was conducted through the auspices of the British East India Company, which held a royal charter for trade with the Far East. The EIC gradually came to dominate Chinese-European trade from its position in India.

Low Chinese demand for European goods, and high European demand for Chinese goods, including tea, silk, and porcelain, forced European merchants (as the Spanish had previously) to purchase these goods with silver, the only commodity the Chinese would accept. In modern economic terms the Chinese were demanding hard currency (gold or silver coinage) as the medium of exchange for the international trade in their goods. Britain's problem was further complicated by the fact that it had been using the gold standard from the mid 18th Century and therefore had to purchase silver from other European countries, incurring an additional transaction cost.

In the 18th century, despite protests from the Qing government, British traders began importing opium from India China in order to balance their purchases of tea for export to Britain. Because of its strong mass appeal and addictive nature, opium was an effective solution to the trade problem.

An instant consumer market for the drug was secured by the addiction of thousands of Chinese, and the flow of silver was reversed. Recognizing the growing number of addicts, the Yongzheng Emperor prohibited the sale and smoking of opium in 1729, and only allowed a small amount of opium imports for medicinal purposes.

Due to the Qing Dynasty's trade restrictions, whereby maritime trade was only allowed to take place in Canton (Guangzhou) conducted by imperially sanctioned monopolies, it became uneconomical to trade in low-value manufactured consumer products that the average Chinese could buy from the British like the Indians did. Opium “solved” the problem.

British sales of opium in large amounts began in 1781 and between 1821 and 1837 sales increased fivefold. The drug was produced in traditionally cotton-growing regions of India under British government monopoly and was sold on the condition that it be shipped by British traders to China. The Qing government had largely ignored the problem until abuse of the drug had spread widely in Chinese society.

Alarmed by the reverse in silver flow and the epidemic of addiction (an estimated 2 million Chinese were habitual users), the Qing government attempted to end the opium trade, but its efforts were complicated by corrupt local officials (including the Viceroy of Canton). The Chinese entertained the notion of legalizing the drug, but decided against this move.

In 1839, the Qing Emperor appointed Lin Zexu as the governor of Canton with the goal of reducing and eliminating the opium trade. On his arrival, Lin Zexu banned the sale of opium, asked that all opium be surrendered to the Chinese authorities, and made the trading of opium punishable by death. He also closed the channel to Canton, effectively holding British traders hostage in Canton. The British Chief Superintendent of Trade in China, Charles Elliot, got the British traders to agree to hand over their opium stock with the promise of eventual compensation for their loss from the British government.

The British traders were not compensated by the government and eventually Britain declared war on China. In 1842, the Treaty of Nanking—the first of what the Chinese called the unequal treaties—granted an indemnity to Britain, the opening of five Chinese ports to foreign trade and the cession of Hong Kong Island to Great Britain, ending the monopoly of trading in the Canton System. The war marked the end of China's isolation, the beginning of modern Chinese history, and according to Communist history, the road to rebellion against the West.

Communists gladly recite this history as their defense of today’s drug wars. My mother told me about all this, so I have no doubt this is a credible version of the history. She said it was a black mark on Western civilization and a disgrace.

Today, we face the same problem with China’s concept of “equal trade”. They produce much and consume little. Addicting an entire population is hardly the answer to balancing that trade.

Although it was a disgraceful episode, I can’t see why Americans must commit national suicide to make reparations, any more than they should become slaves themselves to make up for slavery. I’d be darned if I’d throw myself over a cliff for what happened 150 years ago.

Young Americans are notorious lax in their knowledge of history, however. I doubt they know anything about the Opium Wars, or that they’re the pawns in this next-generation battle over it. I doubt they know where Canton is and are only marginally acquainted with Queen Victoria.

Americans of the time said that China had it coming. They take the same view of that war as Americans had of the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima. I don’t know about that. Chinese and American communists of today say that Americans have it coming. I definitely don’t know about that.

I do know young Americans of today, including their parents (my generation) are one stupid breed of people to be sucking up the Donkey Dust without a fight. If we were talking about some pill that they were popping, I’d say they were going to get what they had coming to them. I wouldn’t really care.

But they’re dragging me, and America, down with them. No matter what happened in 19th Century China, this is today, and I love my freedom. I’ll be darned if I’m going to sit silently by while a bunch of apologistic idiots blow that freedom up in smoke.

Had there never been an Opium War, I think we’d still be facing this problem. Pot is an opportunistic drug, exactly calculated to the ambitions of Liberal Communists. Although it could be distributed in pill form, its “communal” nature answers their quest to subdue an entire population without a fight.

A bloodless coup, with an entire nation of fools nodding their goofy, addled pates up and down like bobble head dolls. It’s no wonder I was so incensed listening to my colleagues discuss the wonders of pot.

Those who take on the drug culture face a formidable enemy. Just as in 19th century China, every campaign to end the practice of using drugs has been a dismal, laughable failure. The drug lords are well-known for murdering their adversaries.

People who use drugs may as well take a sickle to their foreheads and self-induce a lobotomy. Ask anyone who has become addicted how hard it is to battle that addiction. Ask Glenn Beck. The drug culture acts like attorneys cross-examining a witness. Those who’ve used drugs are contaminated; those who haven’t are dismissed as ignorant and laughed out of the court room.

The drug culture is witness, attorney, jury, and judge, all rolled into one. Any scientists who might have evidence against marijuana probably must fear for their lives to speak. There’s that much money and power at stake.

“Mr. Butthead, have you smoked marijuana?”

“Duhhh.. Yes, sir.”

“Do you think using it has had any permanent effect on you?”

“Heh, heh! Not that I can recall. Everybody should try it!”

“Have you replaced your incandescent light bulbs with fluorescent light bulbs?”

“Oh absolutely! Save the environment!”

“Even though the fluorescent bulbs are more dangerous?”

“Saving the earth comes first.”

“Do you drink bottled water?”

“Sure! Water’s the first, best drink. Next to beer, that is.”

“Do you know how many tons of plastic bottles are sitting in landfills now?”

“Uh – no. I guess we kinda miscalculated on that one. Think before you drink.”

“Do you drive a hybrid car?

“I will when I get my license back and can afford one. Heh, heh!”

“Even though they ultimately use more energy?”

“No way? I dunno. I only read the Huffington Post.”

Ipso facto.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has put the medical marijuana law on hold for the time being. The N.J. Star Ledger pleaded its propaganda on behalf of the “sick people” of New Jersey. My mother was trained as a nurse, albeit years ago. She thinks the whole claim is bogus; that pot is a placebo that does nothing for patients except trick their minds.

Christie went on record as saying that he supports the medical marijuana bill and has no plans to make it more restrictive. The only debate is the timetable for rolling it out. Proponents claim it is already the most restrictive medical marijuana bill in the nation.

There are already drugs on the market, available and heavily regulated, to treat the conditions proponents say marijuana will help. We’re simply advancing one more step towards that cliff over which lemmings recklessly plunge.

Psychologists say this kind of psychological addiction (the new label for pot is “psychoactive drug”; another, newer name for a hypnotic drug, just as alcohol is, and the date rape drugs) is linked to a desire for euphoria, for paradise.

If so, it’s a fool’s paradise.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Memorial Day Memories

A day late and a dollar short is the saying. That’s today’s blog. The dead can’t speak so we must speak for them and as commander-in-chief, that was Obama’s duty, at which he failed miserably this Memorial Day.

Apparently, God didn’t think too much of Obama’s Memorial Day plans. Upon arriving at Lincoln’s cemetery, God made his presence known and our liar-in-chief was forced to decamp after a few, brief remarks.

Good for God.

Meanwhile, the nation was forced to endure the second-best for the wreath-laying at Arlington National Cemetery. We had beautiful weather here in my neighborhood. Hot, but beautiful. After the first parade, a war veteran invited me to sit with him in the shade of the beverage tent.

I was a little embarrassed. He was 87 – the same age as my mother. I hardly regarded myself as being in such a bad shape that I couldn’t endure a little heat and humidity. Though I was warm, it was actually my back that was bothering me.

Finally, finding an excuse (a friend for whom I was waiting returned), I excused myself. On reflection, I wish I had stayed to talk to him a little longer about his service in the war, an opportunity I generally have not failed to take advantage of.

Happily, not all veterans are reluctant to speak of their war experiences. This fellow was certainly talkative and undoubtedly Providence placed me there to hear his story. I failed in my duty as a writer. Well, maybe next year. He says he’s planning to live to 90.

These veterans are now being forced to settle for second-best at their wreath-laying ceremonies. Although our band occupied the same position in the parade it has for decades, the organizers decided to hold the wreath-laying ceremony earlier in the line-up.

That meant no Taps, as far as we knew. Rumor had it they were going to use a deejay recording, although our band has several trumpet players capable of playing it. It’s not all that easy playing it on a trumpet or cornet, as it was originally written for bugle.

Still, our trumpet players were ready, willing, and able. They consider it an honor to play Taps. If the organizers had selected a young high school musician with more stamina, they would have understood. But to be replaced by a recording was a sour note for them.

I was disappointed that I missed the ceremony. Usually, we’re right there, rifle volleys and all. The cemetery where my father and my grandparents are buried is right down the street and I consider the ceremony an opportunity for a personal tribute to my father and grandfather.

Even though Grandpa didn’t serve, he was an instructor at a military academy and I make it a point to put a flag on his grave every Memorial Day. His instruction meant the difference between life and death for many seamen during World War II. Alas, this year, I was late and wasn’t able to get there in time to do it. I didn’t even have time to pick up the flowers. Again, I failed in my duty, as a daughter and granddaughter (I think they’d have understood, though).

I might pay a visit on the Fourth of July – Grandpa’s birthday – to make up for the lapse. Grandma gets flowers, just for having put up with him and his tempers, and for having been a musician.

Memorial Day is supposed to be a solemn observance. Yet here we were marching down the middle of a street with crowds cheering on both sides. They had spilled out into the streets so that they were practically looking over our shoulders as we played.

They’d been waiting expectantly for the roll-off that would announce the next march. The whistle came and the snare drummers did their thing. A woman on the other side of the street gave a great whoo-hoo! in perfect time to the roll-off cadence – followed by “Now they’re going to play!” (evidently she was a Mom person) just before the final cymbal crash and the opening strains of the march.

Often I find my three selves competing with one another on parade – the writer, noticing things like that, the photographer, seeing a perfect shot of a tiny tot with an American flag marching along in time to our beat, and the musician, trying to do the job I’m out there to do.

This year, I even offered to take pictures rather than play, but the sound of the bells carries a full block farther than the rest of the instruments. I had to do my duty. In this duty, I did not fail, though not feeling well, I didn’t perform at full capacity, at least not in the first parade.

Likewise, the picture of cheering crowds, blue-sky days like these last two we had, and gravesites bearing American flags, seem to distract from one another. How can you feel solemn when a marching band comes along the street playing “You’re A Grand Old Flag”? (Or when you’re in that marching band, playing the bells, of all things, the least solemn of all the instruments in the musical spectrum).

I can’t help thinking, however, that it’s somehow fitting that the spectators, if cheerful rather than solemn, were at least cheering for the right, patriotic reasons. My father the reporter would have considered that jingoism.

He fought willingly in World War II. He recognized that Hitler had to be defeated. But he hated the war itself and saw no reason to glorify its hellish aspects, even while he refused to describe them. War is no picnic and silence, he would claim, is the best tribute to those who died.

I don’t know about that. Silence obscures truth. If war was hell, I’d rather know it and not be spared. It’s difficult, and unwise, to describe the agonies of war to very young children, indeed, and it’s mainly for them that we crash cymbals and wave flags and play Taps.

We can instill the love of our country in our young children now with music and songs and parades and teach them later about the sacrifice many made to ensure that the American flag flies freely and to not take that freedom for granted.

There is no music without the silence of the grave. But that silence must not mute the sounds of freedom, either, nor the joy we feel for it. On Memorial Day, both tributes are correct and proper. Dad, the soldier, Grandpa, the military instructor, and Grandma, the musician, are all buried near one another along the parade route.

On parade, my job is to play, even when the sun glares off the metal bars of the glock so that I can barely see what I’m doing. I must confess here that I almost wasn’t going to go because I wasn’t feeling well. Something told me though, that I had to do this parade, that it was my duty, and that if I didn’t do it, I’d regret it.

Once I got out onto the street, my sense of duty kicked in. Just as the soldiers whom I was helping to commemorate didn’t particularly feel like going out to die but went anyway, I had a job to do. Our woodwind ranks are rather thin, and when it comes to the solos in the trios, the band needs me to be there to help deliver them.

Being rather nervous of solos, and just nervous in general, I’m awfully glad for our lead saxophone player who helps me carry that melody along. We generally get applause for having the nerve to play alone like that, without the trumpets (who take that time to give their lips a break). The crowds enjoy it and displaying a sense of dynamics usually helps us win trophies.

That same sense of dynamics is what gives the Memorial Day ceremonies their gravity. Without the blaring of trumpets, we’d have no appreciation for the relative quiet of the graveside memorial tributes. We wouldn’t even be able to get the attention of spectators.

That is one reason so many Memorial Day services fail and fall by the wayside. A moment or period of silence, like that trio in the march, there must be, but it must be balanced with some sense of victory, or their sacrifice is for nothing. It’s a matter of common sense.

Celebration without sorrow is a disgrace. Sorrow without celebration will result in a permanent silence of forgotten graves and discarded medals. Obama and his ilk would gladly see Memorial Day silenced permanently and the surest way to do that is to remove the music.

Achieving that balance on Memorial Day – between ceremony and celebration, service and swimming, solemnity and sales, banners and barbecues, is never an easy task. The living parade with the medals they believe belong to the dead comrades they left behind.

Our band has been around so long and won so many trophies that we no longer even have the space to store them. A young, high school age musician on our band reproved us for not displaying enough discipline on the street.

“This is the way you stand at attention,” our little musician-soldier gravely informed one of our trumpet players, demonstrating the appropriate posture, “and this is the way you have to stand at ease, which isn’t the same as parade rest.” A long-time music teacher, he just laughed at her.

She chided us for not knowing what we were doing. Our discipline is sufficient, actually. During a judged parade, our drum major is pretty strict with the musicians and being adults, we do know when to stand at attention and be respectful. Particularly on Memorial Day. A pity we weren’t near enough this year to do so.

Still, it’s good to have the young around to remind us of propriety.

Our band doesn’t win so many trophies as we once did. Long ago, I told this girl, we melted most of them down and sold the brass, saving only the plaques indicating when we won the awards. Still, she scorned me for my lack of pride and decorum.

Little does she know that I thought the way she did, once upon a time. But then I began talking to veterans at Memorial Day parades and in my job as a writer. I began to look at winning awards differently.

I’ve spoken to veterans who struggled on the sands of Iwo Jima and navigated the snake-infested waters of Vietnam. I’ve spoken to seamen who lost limbs on battleships. One witnessed the sinking of the U.S.S. Arizona, watching as the entire ship was raised right up out of the water.

My father fought in Europe for four years. “Heroes in Dungarees” talks about the very seaman my grandfather taught. It talks about how quickly a stricken merchant ship filled with iron ore could sink and what happened to the engineers trapped below decks.

My godfather was ashamed of the disability that prevented him from serving during World War II when so many other boys wound up dying for their country. Some good friends of ours fought in the Dutch Underground, putting their lives at risk to help the Allies in Europe.

Many a veteran has died, his family only discovering Purple Hearts and other medals long after the funeral. They consider it a dishonor to display medals for bravery, when so many others did not return from the battlefield.

Veterans are proud to have served their country. But they consider it incongruous to wear medals on the day we honor those service people who gave the ultimate sacrifice. They regard it as their duty as they pass in review to receive the applause for their fallen comrades.

On Memorial Day, all the honor belongs to them. The rest is all bells, trumpet flourishes, and cymbal crashes from a band that has stood at attention for judges, for trophies, and for heroes, and after 126 years, knows the difference.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Keeping Memorial Day Alive

Some towns have had more trouble over the years keeping the spirit of Memorial Day alive then others. In some towns, the interest dwindles until only a few people gather on the village green to remember the fallen.

Other towns, like the village we now play in every year, the people are packed in shoulder to shoulder through the center of town so that the band can barely get through.

The secret? It’s the kids. The Girl Scouts. The Boy Scouts. The Daisy Scouts (they’re so cute). The Pee Wee League. The Little League. The high school band. And of course, the fire department and the first aid squad can always be depended on them.

Veterans may be dwindling, but the kids just go on forever. More and more of them, every year. And the moms and dads are out there to take their pictures. Tell the kids to just to stand on the sidelines and they’ll squiggle and squirm to go home.

Get them involved, get them out there, and you’ll have a crowd like this town’s, and the town yesterday. These towns were very different economically. One is a working class, blue-collar town; the other, strictly upper middle-class, white collar.

No matter; they all have kids and they all turn out.

And that is the secret to the future of successful Memorial Day Parades. Veterans associations, please take note.