Operation Homecoming, Stella's Game, and Tideline

The war was over; the last American combat casualties were months before; the POWs were coming home.

It was 1973, and the last negotiations had scheduled the return of some 500-plus American prisoners of war from North Vietnamese, Viet Cong, Laotian, and Chinese captivity. As the men were flown to the Philippines to be debriefed and treated, the medics were surprised at how resilient they were, how mentally healthy despite debilitating injuries and malnutrition.

Burst of Joy

LTC Robert L. Stirm, left, greeted his family at Travis AFB 17 March 1973, after six years of captivity. This photo Burst of Joy by Slava “Sal” Veder, won a Pulitzer Prize, and did more to encapsulate the end of America’s “Vietnam experience” than any other image. The cameras were more than happy to record every heartfelt greeting, every fragile survivor, every dash across the hardstand into the eager arms of fathers barely known; of husbands weak and tired; of sons and brothers who had experienced isolation that few could appreciate…

And not a protester in sight…

And frankly, THAT was weird as I recall. Though most of the protests had sputtered out after 1970 and the Kent State shootings, we seriously expected to see protesters outside the air bases and hospitals…but nothing. Maybe because we were tired, all of us in America were; tired of the division, of the shouting, the screaming, the whiffs of smoke and tear gas for no end other than to protest a draft that sent less than 30% of its inductees to a conflict that would see no victory because it wasn’t supposed to…

And there were those bracelets again…

The POW bracelets that many people wore, starting in 1970, nickel plated or copper, they were engraved with the name of a POW or a missing American; some five million of them were sold by Voices in Vital America (VIVA). They vanished from most wrists for unknown reasons in about ’72, but during Operation Homecoming, out they came again. Those who had bracelets engraved with men who came back celebrated; some sent their bracelets to “their” PWs. Those with bracelets engraved with names that didn’t come back got blue star stickers…and by July those bracelets were back in the drawers.

But there were still more than five hundred men missing…

“Missing” in war means a lot of different things, and in the mid-20th century it could mean burned up in their aircraft; suspended bleeding in a parachute harness until death overtook them and they were consumed by the jungle; blown to smithereens and unidentifiable by any means at the time, or even just took off, making a life elsewhere.

But some were still held captive…

In his book, Henry Kissinger stated that he knew there were still Americans captive in Southeast Asia, but the North Vietnamese could wait; Kissinger, Nixon and the whole Western world needed an end to the carnage. So, he signed the best treaty he could get for himself, Nixon, and the whole Western world…and for Vietnam, for that matter. But as a result of that treaty, the Saigon government almost certainly saw the writing on the proverbial wall. Most sources say that the Saigon regime gave itself no more than three years to live after January 1973. They were right.

Cover of Stella's Game:
Cover of Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships, Available Now from fine booksellers everywhere

In Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships, watching the POW’s come back is a family matter, hearing the commentators mention that this guy’s mother died while he was in a cage; that one’s family was so excited about his return that they took out a two-page ad in the local paper; that one’s wife didn’t want to wait and divorced him. These were teenagers–high school seniors–glad that the draft was ending but unsure about their own futures. Both the girls and the boys would watch the joyous reunions, be happy for the bracelet-owners whose men came home, and try to feel for those who did not. But it was hard: they had nothing to compare that agony to.

Tideline..Ever Rising

Footprints in the sand along the Tideline

Guess where this beach is for an autographed copy of Tideline: Friendship Abides. The kids grow up, as happens when you keep feeding ’em. But they have lives of their own, and they write letters to friends and loved ones wherever they are.

They write lots of letters…

They write because between 1974 and 1986, the Internet was still called DARPANET, there was no World Wide Web (hypertext wouldn’t come along until a decade later), no cell phones in general use, no blogs (I know; ancient history), so no e-mails. “Social media” was, well, sitting around and shooting the bull. But they still had fun, fell in love, fell out of love, went to war, and worked for success in their chosen professions: three of them in the Army; one in the Navy. And they wrote letters.

Tideline: Friendship Abides is the second part of the Stella’s Game Trilogy, and should be available at you favorite booksellers by mid-April.


Emperor Norton I of the US and National Create a Vacuum Day

February in the Great Lakes: still in the depths of winter, but there are rimes of ice around everything by now. Feet don’t fail me now, we gotta make it until spring.

On 4 February 1818*, Joshua Abraham Norton was born somewhere in England (Deptford, near London, is the best candidate). At the age of two, he and his family moved to South Africa as members of the 1820 Settlers, sanctioned by the British government.  Not much more is known about him until he arrived in San Francisco on 23 November 1849 with some capital in his pocket–though how much is unclear and at this point unknowable. What is known is that he was a savvy investor who did well in real estate and commodities, and by 1852 was one of the wealthiest people in San Francisco, which for that time and place is saying a great deal. But he tried to corner the market in rice and lost his shirt doing it, filing bankruptcy and was living in a boarding house by 1859.

On 17 September 1859, Norton declared himself Norton I, Emperor of These United States and Protector of Mexico

Emperor Norton I, circa 1875

Well, good for him: everyone needs an emperor now and then. Having been a prominent businessman just months before, the San Francisco newspapers were more than happy to publish his announcement, and like many others regarded him as a harmless crank. It didn’t take long for His Majesty to start issuing proclamations removing and appointing the governor of Virginia (17 September 1859), dissolving the United States (16 July 1860), forbidding Congress to meet in Washington, D.C. (1 October 1860), and abolishing the Democratic and Republican parties (12 August 1869). All the while, newspaper editors attributed scores of other declarations and decrees to him, few of which were his, many were amusing, others quasi-serious.

While it was clear to nearly everyone that the guy was unhinged, it seems that he was indulged well beyond what would be tolerated a century later. Police and militiamen saluted him on the streets; society swells doffed their hats and curtsied; restaurants fed him at no charge; workmen would stop their work as he inspected; his boardinghouse used him as free advertising. Even the 1870 census listed his occupation as “emperor.”

But all good things must come to an end, and on 8 January 1880, Emperor Norton I dropped dead at California Street and Grant Avenue, on his way to a lecture.  He was adequately eulogized in the newspapers and buried at the Masonic Cemetery on 10 January. The procession was two miles long, attended by some 10,000 mourners. Since then his body was moved to Woodlawn Cemetery, where it rests today, maintained by the city of San Francisco. The City by the Bay has never hesitated to suck whatever whimsey or publicity out of Norton that it could. Persons playing the role give tours of the city, dressed in whatever imaginary finery they could imagine. Businessman, crank, emperor and tour guide: quite a career.

*The year of Norton’s birth is in dispute: as early as 1814 or as late as 1819.

Create A Vacuum Day

Um…no, not necessarily the one on the left

Today is National Create a Vacuum Day because the good folks at the National Day Calendar say so.  As we all know, vacuums (the atmospheric state) are an absence of, well, principally gas. So why is it my vacuum cleaner is always full of something–hair, dirt, paper, dust or I just don’t know what? That’s because what we call a vacuum is an absence of air. A true or perfect vacuum which is devoid of all matter is only theoretical and can’t actually be created, exist or be detected…except by the US Congress, which makes one practically every time they meet.

Now, according to Doc Elliot’s Mixology, whose graphic I borrowed above, the reason your drink shaker creates a vacuum when you shake it is because the contents of that shaker cool and contract, creating a partial vacuum that holds the lid on. Have to take their word for it because I don’t do that: hard liquor just doesn’t appeal to me.

This look is something new: a new editor for WordPress that seems easier to use.  Every paragraph, graphic, quote or what-have-you here is a separate, reusable block. It makes moving the elements around easier, but I’m nowhere near bright enough to take advantage of all this stuff. So it might look different, but it’s still my same old rambling.

Benjamin Harrison and National Radio Day

August is nearly done, and so is summer in the Great Lakes. Still hot, still sticky, air conditioner still grinding away–thankfully. But I replaced the furnace this year, so at least I know that blower will run all summer–and is on warranty.

On 20 August in the year 2 (we think), there was a conjunction of Venus and Jupiter visible in the morning sky on Earth. This happens every three years and change, but this one was so close that it may have been visible in daylight and is one scientific explanation for the Star of Bethlehem. On 20 August 1794, near what is now known as Maumee, Ohio, the Battle of Fallen Timbers ended the Northwest War between the United States and the loosely-joined Native American tribes in the Western Confederacy and helped to open up the Ohio River country for American settlement.  The battle was fought by a purpose-built 2,000-man American force led by “Mad” Anthony Wayne, a famous Revolutionary War commander, and a similarly-sized Native American force that included a company of British regulars. Also on this day in 1914, Britain, France and Germany started the bloodletting in France in what would come to be called the Battle of the Frontiers. Simultaneously, the Russians and Germans had at each other at Gumbinnen, over in Prussia. The supreme irony here is that, on 20 August 1940, France would surrender to Germany. Today, for reasons surpassing understanding, is also National Chocolate Pecan Pie Day. But today we’re going to talk about an obscure but essential president, and about radios.

These assessments of blandness may be correct, but they obscure Benjamin Harrison’s many achievements.

Benjamin Harrison, born 20 August 1833 in North Bend, Ohio, is frequently said to have been something of a cipher. He was the grandson of the president with the shortest tenure, William Henry Harrison (31 days); a Civil War general of not great repute but enormous competence; and the president best known as the one between Grover Cleveland’s two administrations. These assessments of blandness may be correct, but they obscure Benjamin Harrison’s many achievements.

Harrison’s tenure as senator was lackluster, but as president, he was, for a 19th-century chief executive, remarkable.

Ben Harrison only held two elected offices in his life: a one-term senator from Indiana (1881-1887) and a one-term president (1889-1893). A more-than-competent attorney, Harrison always managed to be in the right place at the right time, and even though his friends in high office were few, US Grant was among them. He was a gifted orator, a better-than-average legal writer, a savvy investor who didn’t lose money in any of the various postwar panics, and a reliable campaign friend to have in Indiana. Harrison’s tenure as senator was lackluster, but as president, he was, for a 19th-century chief executive, remarkable.

The prevailing spoils system, where federal jobs changed with every new administration, was becoming not only awkward but obsolete because many jobs like postmaster and customs collector were becoming more technically involved.

Harrison wasn’t the first to be elected without winning the popular vote, but his election in 1888 may have been regarded as the most suspicious until 2016. The Electoral College vote wasn’t even close–233 to 168 in his favor. Then, as now, the losing Democrats wrote editorial after editorial arguing that the Electoral College should be disposed of. But Harrison ignored his party when selecting his cabinet, frustrating Republican bosses across the country by avoiding patronage. And patronage was at the heart of the civil service reform that was popular among politicians at that time, with a merit system being described and argued. The prevailing spoils system, where federal jobs changed with every new administration, was becoming not only awkward but obsolete because many positions like postmaster and customs collector were becoming more technically involved.

Harrison was the first president to have electric lights in the White House, was the first to have his voice recorded, and was the last for whom we have no moving pictures.

Harrison was in the White House when the last battle of the Long War between the Europeans and their African and Asian allies and the Native Americans broke the revivalist Ghost Dance movement among the Sioux at Wounded Knee, South Dakota on 29 December 1890. He didn’t have anything directly to do with it, but, like George HW Bush was in the scene when the Cold War ended, Harrison saw the end of the most protracted American war. But Harrison saw more states enter the Union than any other president–six–and his face appears on more stamps than any other Chief Executive–five. Harrison was the first president to have electric lights in the White House (though he was too frightened of electrocution to turn them off), was the first to have his voice recorded, and was the last for whom we have no moving pictures.

Harrison attended the first peace conference at The Hague in 1899, argued a boundary dispute case in Paris that won him international renown, and died of pneumonia on 13 March 1901 at age 67–not bad for a footnote in history.

The election of 1892 was a low-key affair in no little measure because Harrison’s wife Caroline was dying of tuberculosis (she passed two weeks before the election). Grover Cleveland won both the popular and the electoral vote handily, reentering the White House in March 1893. Ben Harrison went home to Indiana, remarried in 1896 (at 62, to a 37-year-old widow), and fathered another child in 1897. Harrison attended the first peace conference at The Hague in 1899, argued a boundary dispute case in Paris that won him international renown, and died of pneumonia on 13 March 1901 at age 67–not bad for a footnote in history.


Something we can all identify with

Now, National Radio Day is today, 20 August. Once again, who first decided this is a mystery for the ages, though one theory is that 8MK, now WWJ in Detroit, first broadcast in the clear on 20 August 1920, and someone, some time decided to commemorate that day. The day has been observed regularly since the early 1990s, mostly as a promotional gimmick I would imagine.

The pretty young ladies on the beach in the lead picture, struggling to hold that (probably empty) boom box over their head, are posing for the camera. I do not know of anyone who gets that excited over commercial radio in the 21st century except maybe the broadcasters. Perhaps that’s the reason why there’s a website supporting National Radio Day that lists stations across the US that support National Radio Day in some way or another.

It’s been a long time since I listened to broadcast radio in any form, though I do get satellite radio in my car from time to time. Like most music-only consumers, I prefer commercial-free satellite radio or streaming these days. The babbling DJs, the shouting pundits I can do without.

Still, commercial broadcast radio has had an outstanding, salutary role in American society and the world. Most Americans first heard of the Pearl Harbor attacks and the death of Franklin Roosevelt on the radio. Many adults–especially those over 40–courted their current significant others to the sound of the radio in the car or the park or the basement. So you don’t have to listen to appreciate radio anymore, just know and recognize what a role it has played in our lives for nearly a century.

2 November: Two Presidents Born and One Killed

Two US presidents were born on 2 November: James K Polk in 1795 and Warren G Harding in 1865.  Another was murdered: Ngo Dinh Diem, in Cholon (then South) Vietnam,  Though not directly related, it made for a catcher headline.

Polk was the 11th president of the US, serving from 1845 to 1849, and had the misfortune of inheriting a messy dispute on the southern border between Texas and Mexico.  Correctly assessing the sentiment of the country, he forced conditions on Mexico that compelled war, ending in 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.  Never a particularly well man, Polk died of cholera 14 June 1849, scarcely three months after leaving office.

Harding was the 29th president, serving from 1921 until 1923, a term cut short by his death by cerebral hemorrhage. Harding was the first post-WWI president, and as such had his hand in the rapid demobilization of the country’s military–except at sea.  Even though he oversaw the Washington Naval Treaty proceedings, the Treaty’s effects in many ways were just the opposite of what was intended, triggering a massive scrapping and re-purposing of navies, it did not affect aircraft carriers, and the effects on fleet auxiliaries was minimal.  The result was a huge increase in support ships and the construction of some of the largest aircraft carriers built until the nuclear era.  This enabled the expansion of the fleet to its thousand-ship zenith in 1944.

Diem was one of the least likely and most corrupt, leaders on mainland Asia after 1945. Trained by the French he worked much of his adult life in either public administration or in hiding as an outlaw.   After the French collapse Diem was placed in power by the Americans in 1954, where he struggled for the rest of his life against the North, against the Vietnamese who despised him for whatever reason, and against the most egregious corruption.  At the same time, Diem realized that corruption and nepotism were endemic to Asia, that the North’s sponsors were more generous than the Americans, and that no matter what he did nothing could save a country that didn’t see danger.  His murder in 1963 was heralded in the Western press and only ended twenty-one days later with the death of President Kennedy,

Taken in sum these three men all had one thing in common: though their administrations were not particularity noteworthy what happened on their watches greatly affected the future of the United States.  The Mexican War under Polk blooded some of the best leaders of the upcoming Civil War, and exacerbated the tensions already present.  Harding’s naval expansion and premature death, leaving an even more hawkish Calvin Coolidge in charge, made possible the rapid recovery from Pearl Harbor.  Diem, barely able to control his country let alone lead it, left behind a legacy of tribe-like governance-by-bribe-and-threat in Saigon that would eventually erode into collapse, even as the Americans and other SEATO allies were trying to protect it.