Jack and Ralph: Sung And Unsung

JFKandCard 2May 29, 2017 – President John F. Kennedy would have been 100 today.

For those who lived through his presidency, it is singularly impossible to imagine the smiling young chief as an old man. He is frozen in our memories, forever young.

Skeptics have observed that his assassination at 46 rescued him from an ignominious old age. He didn’t live long enough to see the unraveling of his secrets about his fragile health and assiduous sexual pursuits.

Then again, it may be his assassination and its turbulent aftermath that ended our innocence and turned us into a nation of cynics. As a result, we are suspicious of every politician. Had Kennedy lived, leaving our national psyche unmolested, we may not have been sufficiently motivated to peek beneath his sheets. We would have accepted Press Secretary Pierre Salinger’s response to a reporter who asked about rumors of JFK’s peccadillos: “Look, he’s the president of the United States. He’s got to work 14 to 16 hours a day. He’s got to run foreign and domestic policy. If he’s got time for mistresses after all that, what the hell difference does it make?”

Of course it makes a difference, although there is little evidence JFK’s relentless trysts detracted from his presidential decision-making. He did, after all, avert a nuclear holocaust in 1962, for which we can all be grateful. And 54 years after his death, we’ve seen enough quirkiness by a succession of presidents to be grateful if they when don’t start a nuclear war or melt the Antarctic ice shelf. We try not to think about what our presidents do in bed.

I try not to think about many of the secrets JFK maintained. I was 17 years old when he died and I must mark his presidency as the primary diversion of my high school years.

I yearned to shake his hand. I was jealous when our school’s foreign exchange student, Maria Christina Castro of Argentina, went to the White House because I knew she would meet him. For weeks afterwards Maria teased me about her close encounter with JFK before she finally admitted she was actually lost in a large crowd of foreign students and was too far away to see the President.

Maria knew I wrote to Kennedy weekly, hoping to elicit a response. I never wrote love letters so zealously, and love letters they were. Usually I received a boilerplate response on White House stationery from Ralph A. Dungan, special assistant to the president: “President Kennedy was glad to hear from you and regrets that he is unable to personally respond.” I collected a small pile of identical letters from Dungan, each signed lightly in blue ballpoint pen, before I decided to change tactics. I drew a political cartoon of JFK and sent it to the White House. The cartoon must have attracted Dungan’s attention because his next letter included a small White House card on which was undecipherable scribbling in black ink. It took me days to interpret the scrawl: “With Best Wishes – John F. Kennedy.”

I was pleased but I kept sending love letters to the president. A few weeks later I received a copy of the Fabian Bachrach official portrait of JFK with more scribbling near the president’s left ear: “John F. Kennedy.” (The card and picture appear above.)

I was pleased again and I should have curtailed my letter writing campaign. But there must have been other letters from me in the pipeline, and I think Ralph Dungan was beginning to recognize my name. The last letter I received from him said (as I recall):

dungan“Dear Philip, You must realize that President Kennedy is extremely busy and does not have time to respond personally to the thousands of letters and requests he receives each day.”

Point taken. I suddenly realized it could be my patriotic duty to stop writing to the president. Soon, of course, the president went to Dallas and it became a moot point.

My greatest regret is that I discarded the letters I received from Ralph Dungan. I didn’t appreciate who he was or the exceptional service he provided for President Kennedy and, later, for President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Dungan, who was an effective U.S. ambassador to Chile during a turbulent period in that country’s history, died October 5, 2013 in Barnados.

Robert Dallek, author of Camelot’s Court wrote of Dungan: “As a man of integrity and intelligence, a good liberal who was sensitive to the crosscurrents in our relations in Latin America, he was a man of consequence to both Kennedy and Johnson.”

Bill Moyers offered this assessment in Dungan’s obituary in the New York Times: “I knew him from when I was one of the founding organizers of the Peace Corps, dealing with issues involving foreign aid. He was a very strong presence without being conspicuous about it. And then during the transition, Ralph was the gentleman on the bar stool. If a fight broke out, he would try to negotiate. He knew who started it, he knew how to let everyone withdraw from it. He could get opponents on policy to see there was a principled compromise.”

For me, the lesson came late. All the time I was writing to John F. Kennedy, I was corresponding with one of the unsung heroes of American history.

I wish I had treated Ralph Dungan with greater respect.

At the very least I wish I had saved his letters.

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“The Americans” and the World Council of Churches

The_americans_title_cardThe Americans, the FX series about a Soviet spy couple posing as American travel agents in Reagan-era Washington, has reignited a lightning storm of ecumenical history that had all but calmed.

This week’s episode is blatantly titled “The World Council of Churches.” I could hear the wheezy gasps of my fellow seasoned ecumenists who for years denied right-wing claims that the KGB had infiltrated the council.

In the current episode of The Americans, protagonists Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (actually Mischa and Nadezhda) have arranged to protect their teenage daughter from the influence of Pastor Tim, a socially active Christian pastor, by arranging for Tim to be hired by the World Council of Churches and sent to Argentina.

oikoumeneThe daughter, Paige, is amazed that her atheist Communist parents have that much influence over a church organization. But it will come as no surprise to critics who thought the World Council was in cahoots with the Commies all along.

Assuming the current episodes of The Americans take place in the mid-1980s, Pastor Tim’s exile to the WCC occurs shortly after CBS Sixty Minutes 1983 broadcast accusing the World and U.S. National councils of churches of pro-Communist leanings. Council leaders vehemently denied the accusations, which were inspired by the rightist Institute on Religion and Democracy. In the end, Sixty Minutes producer Don Hewitt suspected reporter Morley Safer had been deceived by right-wing zealots and expressed regret for the program. For the councils, the public relations damage was comprehensive.

But the question remains: did the old KGB actively recruit religious leaders in the cause of worldwide socialism?

I have never doubted it. The CIA routinely approached American missionaries with benign requests for their views about what was going on where they were posted in the Congo or India or El Salvador. “Nothing cloak and dagger,” CIA agents would say, smiling. “We’d just be interested in what you see and hear.” Some missionaries thought it was their patriotic duty to comply while others told the CIA to get lost.

Both the KGB and CIA took advantage of any information-gathering opportunities they could find. It was part and parcel of the times.

In the 1970s and 1980s, when I was on the staff of American Baptist Churches USA, we frequently hosted Soviet Baptists in their visits to the U.S. Whenever the Russians visited the American Baptist offices in Valley Forge, Pa., right-wing pastor Carl McIntire would lead scores of sign-carrying picketers to encircle the round building while he shouted anti-Communist slogans into his bull horn. My job was to churn out press releases on an old mimeograph machine to describe the Russians as “Christian sisters and brothers who have no ties to the Soviet government.”

Probably I lied. I’m sure they were Christian; even The Americans has in its cast a Russian Orthodox priest in the U.S. who has KGB ties. But there’s no way the Russian Baptists could visit the U.S. so often without some tie to the Soviet government.

The two Russian Baptists I knew were pastor Mikhail Yakovlevich Zhidkov and General Secretary Aleksey Mikhaylovich Bychkov. Behind their backs, we called them Stitch and Bitch. Zhidkov was a tall, nervous man whose eyes darted anxiously around the room when he talked to you. Bychkov was a compact charmer with a relaxed manner and constant smile. He’s my candidate for closet KGB agent.

I once sat next to Bychkov at a Baptist World Alliance dinner in Washington, probably at about the time the fictional Pastor Tim was hired by the equally fictional World Council of Churches. Bychkov and I walked out together to return to our hotel several blocks away. We got lost in the dark and ended up prowling behind Dumpsters and government buildings. The usually calm Bychkov began to sweat but he didn’t stop smiling. When I watch scenes of surreptitious skulking on The Americans, I replay my walk with Bychkov in my mind. I almost wish the police had stopped us, just to see what he would have done.

Actually, most scenes of The Americans are filmed in New York, not Washington, and filming often takes place – ironically – near The Interchurch Center on Riverside Drive. Some Manhattan parks look like Washington in the dark, and the dome of Grant’s Tomb, if the scene is cropped creatively, might be mistaken for the Jefferson Memorial.

This is good to keep in mind. So much of The Americans is an inventive illusion. This is also true of our memories of the Cold War eighties and the dubious accusations of Soviet leanings that were hurled like shrapnel by the Institute on Religion and Democracy against the World and National councils of churches and many other social-gospel oriented Christian denominations. It may be years before we know the whole truth about who was hoodwinked by the KGB and who was in the pocket of the CIA. (Just as an aside, it’s interesting to note that Mark Tooley, IRD President, used to work for the CIA. But that’s another story.)

In the meantime, The Americans is entertainingly escapist because it is well-written fiction based on vaguely remembered truths. The show will wrap up its fifth and penultimate season next week. Philip and Elizabeth Jennings are considering retiring from the spy business and returning home to the Soviet Union with their two thoroughly American teen-age children. That awkward transition might take years, they are told by their Soviet supervisor.

They’d better hurry. If Reagan is in his second term, the evil empire itself is cruising inexorably toward the ash heap of history. Next up: Gorbachev, glasnost, and sudden political collapse.

Both The Americans and the USSR are on the verge of cancellation. And I can’t wait to see how Philip and Elizabeth — Mischa and Nadezhda – and the World Council of Churches handle it.

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Memorial Day. Love it. Hate it.


War is contrary to the will of God. – World Council of Churches, 1948

When I was a professional ecumenist, I lived in a rarified milieu in which Memorial Day – so beloved on Main Streets all over the USA – was bitterly controversial.

Liberal Protestants and historic peace churches struggle to reconcile the words of Jesus with the reality of war. They resent the fact that Memorial Day honors not only the men and women who gave their lives in battle but also pays homage to the wars that took them from us.

This exaltation of war may work with “good wars” like World War II, but not so much when we honor those nasty wars that are harder to justify, like Vietnam, the U.S. invasion of Grenada, the war against Iraq, or America’s longest war in Afghanistan.

My home village of Port Chester, N.Y., offers a heart-pounding Memorial Day celebration. It begins in a small memorial park on Westchester Avenue with the high school band playing patriotic music and the village veterans perspiring at attention in their size-62 blazers and legionnaire caps while politicians thank them for their service. I wear my U.S. Air Force Veteran baseball cap to the ceremonies and return the salutes of other vets as we throw sweaty arms around each other.

I love it. I hate it.

Some of my happiest memories of growing up in Morrisville, N.Y., are of Memorial Day. My heart swelled with pride when Dad dug out his legionnaire’s cap, as did other middle-aged men I knew and loved: Jack Irwin, my smart, gentle and nurturing pastor, or John Gourley, my high school history teacher, or Reg Dodge, my junior high history teacher, or DeForest Cramer, my Little League coach. I had little idea what they had done to earn their caps, but I was sure it was something heroic. And when I watched them walking together in the Memorial Day parade, laughing and joking with each other, I figured whatever they did in war couldn’t have hurt them much.

When I came of age, these good men inspired me to join the Air Force. Many of my contemporaries went to Vietnam that year. I spent three years in the rice paddies of England where the greatest threats to our base were agitated units of the Baader Meinhoff Complex.

Each Memorial Day when I was overseas, Legionnaires from Morrisville, mostly World War I and World War II vets, sent me a small U.S. flag and promised to “keep the fires of freedom burning at home while you keep it burning abroad.” Reading their note at my typewriter in the base chapel, it sounded like an invitation to arson. But I loved those guys. They made me feel a part of the Memorial Day tradition going all the way back to Bunker Hill.

I was in the Air Force for four years. I served in the 81st Tactical Fighter Wing under the command of General Robin Olds, who would go on to become the Vietnam War’s first hero “Ace,” shooting down numerous MiG fighter jets over the Delta, and General Daniel N. “Chappy” James, a giant of a man who would become the Air Force’s first African American four-star general. The troops loved the dynamic duo and, immune to ethnic sensitivities, called them “Black Man and Robin” behind their backs. I thought they were the greatest men I would ever know.

I passed many markers on the way to adulthood during those years, including developing chin hair and becoming a born again Christian. I had a pretty good Christian upbringing at home, thanks to my Presbyterian-Methodist parents and American Baptist pastors Jack Irwin and Walt Ketcham. But the Southern Baptists in the Air Force had a way of making you feel damned if you didn’t do it their way and respond to an altar call humming Just As I Am.

But the experience did expose me to ideas adolescents tend to overlook, including the dangerously radical rhetoric of the Sermon on the Mount. No sooner did Jesus enter my heart than I realized the truth he brought could be inconvenient for a member of the Aerospace Team. Jesus may have washed my sins away, but he left a nagging pacifism in their place.

I mustered out of the Air Force with an honorable discharge, an expert marksman’s badge, and a good conduct medal in August 1968. I enrolled at Eastern Baptist College the following month. Within weeks I became an active member of the anti-Vietnam War movement in college, wearing peace badges on my fading military field jacket. I graduated in 1971 and began work as a writer at the American Baptist national offices across the ridge from Eastern.

As an American Baptist journalist I began to discover other heroes who had exhibited as much courage as Olds and James. Foremost among them was Edwin T. Dahlberg, the brilliant pastor who was president of both the American Baptist Churches and the National Council of Churches. Dr. Dahlberg was a pacifist in World War I and later a leader of the peace movement in World War II. That took more than a deep commitment to the Sermon on the Mount. It took guts.

Another Baptist hero with guts was L. Stanley Manierre, who was my wife Martha’s Area Minister (auxiliary bishop) when she served as a young pastor in Massachusetts. Stan was a genial man with a quick smile and a kind word for everyone.

What many of his friends didn’t know was that he was a radio operator and top turret gunner on a B-24 bomber that was shot down over Saipan on May 29, 1944. He was a prisoner in a Japanese prison camp in Yokohama for the duration of the war. After his release, his resentment toward his cruel Japanese captors endured for years – until he ended up a traveling salesman and a junior high Sunday School teacher in Hartford, Conn.

“I was teaching these young people about the love of God and love for our neighbor and I came to realize I was still harboring hatred for the Japanese two years after returning from the prison camp,” he wrote. “I confessed my sin, and through God’s amazing grace I was forgiven.”

Stan Manierre went on to become a missionary to Japan where he was reunited with one of the camp guards who had offered protection to the prisoners. “Kanoh Yukuta was a Buddhist,” Stan wrote. “He was just another illustration of the truth we already know: God will not leave himself without a witness.”

Stan returned from Japan and remained a great American Baptist leader in Massachusetts – one of the true heroes I will always remember on Memorial Day.

But I had known Stan for years before I realized the trauma that haunted his youth. His spontaneous grin made you think he never had a worry in his life.

It was about that time that I started thinking about others who took their broad smiles into Memorial Day parades back in Morrisville.

Getting information about that wasn’t easy. The only time Elmore, my Dad, talked about his experience in the South Pacific was when we were watching “The Big Picture” on our black and white Admiral TV. The show offered grainy newsreels of World War II, and occasionally Dad would comment, “I did that,” or, “I was there,” so I knew he had climbed down the netting of a troop carrier or crawled through the jungles of Papua New Guinea. He also had some souvenir Papuan cloth that had been pounded out of the bark of a local tree, and a pair of Japanese Army chopsticks in a narrow wooden case.

Toward the end of his life I discovered Dad’s canvas-covered GI diary. I suspect it was a sanitized record of his life in the South Pacific, especially his version of his R and R in Melbourne, Australia – a GI Bacchanalia portrayed on HBO’s Pacific – because he knew his mother might read it someday. But what he did record was horrifying.

In his familiar handwriting, in blue fountain pen ink, Dad – a second lieutenant – wrote about a night patrol he was leading through the jungle. (I have placed the full text of his journal on line at http://bunadiary.com.)  It was wet and dark and Dad ordered the patrol to dig in for the night.

According to the diary, Dad and another soldier had concealed themselves in the roots of a tree when a Japanese patrol crept by. An armed Japanese soldier, naked except for a loin cloth, appeared in front of him. Dad pulled the trigger of his machine gun and the man dropped into the mud. As the sweat dripped down his face, Dad lay motionless in the dark. The Japanese soldier began to groan.

Dad wrote little about what it felt like to hear the man’s agonized whimpers all night long, not knowing if his enemy was still able to shoot his rifle or if he was losing consciousness.

Would Dad have put him out of his misery if he could see him? Did the thought cross Dad’s mind that this so-called “Jap” was actually another human being like him, perhaps with a wife and loved ones back home? Did Dad – always good with irony – think about how insane it was that this stranger had been trying only moments ago to kill him, and would have if Dad hadn’t shot first? And how badly wounded was the man? And why wouldn’t he just die?

I don’t know how often Dad dreamed about that night over his remaining six decades. And I will never know whether it was the worst of his combat experiences, or just one he thought his mother could tolerate if she happened to find the diary. The few words that are there are enough to answer the riddle why Dad spent the rest of his life battling the bottle. But the few words don’t explain why, each Memorial Day, he laughed and joked breezily with his fellow cap wearers.

When the sun same up on Papua New Guinea that morning, Dad could see that the gut-shot soldier had died in the night. He searched the nearly naked body for grenades and discovered the man’s chopsticks. I’m not sure why he needed them, but a souvenir is a souvenir and Dad kept them for the rest of the war. I still have the chop sticks on my book shelf at home.

I’m not sure what the other father figures in my life did during their war years. I know Reg Dodge was a sergeant in the Army Air Force in England, stationed close to the base where I lived for three years. Dee Cramer was a sailor. John Gourley was an Army sergeant.

And for years, Jack Irwin said nothing about what he did during the war.

Jack was a great pastor. I remember spending an afternoon with him as he helped me prepare a sermon for youth Sunday. He discussed each point with me, wrote notes in his precise handwriting, and presented me with six green note cards which I held while I delivered my first sermon. Jack was working on his Ph.D at Syracuse while he was pastor in Morrisville, but he always had time for his parishioners, regardless of age.

I wonder how old I was when I asked him, “How old is God?”

Jack answered, “You have to consider that God has always been and always will be.” How many can remember where they were and what they were doing when they first considered that?

Jack was also willing to offer advice to the teen-aged lovelorn, and at Halloween he was the best teller of ghost stories I had ever heard. I will not forget the All Hallows Eves we spent in the darkened Grange Hall while Jack terrified the Youth Group with stories that made Poe pale by comparison.

Then each Memorial Day Jack would appear with the other vets in his Legionnaire’s cap, smiling and waving and exchanging jokes. What, I would wonder, had he done in the war? Was he even old enough to serve in World War II? Had he been a typist or even a chaplain’s assistant?

No. Years later it was revealed that Jack Irwin had been a teen-age tank gunner in Europe after the Battle of The Bulge. After his retirement as a professor of philosophy at Lock Haven, Pa., University in 1990, he wrote an astonishing memoir, Another River, Another Town, a Teen Age Tank Gunner Comes of Age in Combat – 1945 (Random House).
Jack’s 90 mm guns were not only responsible for untold numbers of German deaths (he estimates in the hundreds), but his outfit was a liberator of the Nordhausen Concentration camp where he saw human depravity on a scale his parishioners would never imagine.

I wrote to Jack when the book came out, both to admire his writing style and to hint at my amazement of the stories he told. (What shocked me more? That Jack killed hundreds of Germans? Or that when he was among his fellow GI’s, Jack said, “Shit”?)

Jack replied that he had never told anyone those stories, not his wife, not his children. “But I was getting closer to the bone yard and I figured it was time.”

With more than a thousand World War II vets dying each day, I thank God Jack is still around and still writing books.

But as another Memorial Day is upon us, I’m remembering many others who served. Dad and all the other father figures I loved are long gone, and so are millions like them.

All were caught up in cataclysmic human events that were contrary to the will of God, and all were damaged in ways they could never tell us. They all had experiences they clearly wanted to forget on Memorial Day.

Each year I experience Memorial Day with ambivalence, especially when the speeches and celebrations are used to celebrate the wars that make it necessary.

But I’m not ambivalent about the men and women who served. Dad, Jack, John, Reg, Dee, Stan, so many others.

I wish I had had a chance to tell them: Even if it was so bad you tried to hide it from us, and even if we will never fully understand what you went through, we will never forget you.

And we know that whatever you did in the war, and whether or not you were aware if it when you grew old, Jesus always held you close with loving arms and an understanding heart.

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All War Is Sin


All War is Sin.

The Church of the Brethren did not equivocate in 1970 when it characterized the nature of war.

This generation has seen enough of war to sense the truth of the declaration. Big wars and little wars forever fester around the globe and the United States has been a vigorous contributor.

From My Lai to Abu Ghraib, the U.S. has also been unable to hide the atrocities its warriors have committed. More recent atrocities have been veiled in smoke when drones kill hundreds of innocents who happen to be near targeted terrorists.

Now the Syria government has elevated the very definition of atrocity by attacking its own people with poisonous gas, flooding the world’s social media with images of babies dying in agony.

Even the U.S. government, often inured to war’s cruelties, blanched. President Trump abruptly abandoned his hands-off policy toward Syria and its President Bashar-al Assad and launched a missile attack on a Syrian air base. In the twinkling of an eye, and without any Congressional approval, the President catapulted the U.S. into yet another war.

Even the New York Times’ liberal columnist Nicholas Kristof said Assad’s chemical attacks on babies were too appalling to be ignored and he approved the missiles of Trump.

But many questions remain, including whether Mr. Trump has a plan for what happens next. In a military sense, the missile attacks may have been more symbolic than punitive because the U.S. warned Russia an hour before the launch and the targeted base had reportedly started to evacuate before the missiles hit. Thus millions of Defense Department dollars were spent without bloodying Assad’s nose. But were they enough to teach him a lesson?

We must also ask why the babies of Syria had to be gassed before President Trump noticed them. He showed no compassion for them when they were potential refugees. While Mr. Trump is making precipitous shifts in his long standing policies, let him consider this: if millions can be spent to blow up an empty air base, why can’t millions be diverted to bring suffering Syrians to safety in the U.S.?

One thing I’m fairly sure Mr. Trump will not consider is the Church of the Brethren declaration that war is sin. Mr. Trump has already told members of his right-wing church base that he doesn’t believe he sins, and he probably thinks of the missile launch as a godly act.

And perhaps to some extent it is.  In 2007, the National Council of Churches recognized that stronger nations have a godly responsibility to protect innocent people who suffer in wars or at the hands of cruel despots. In a resolution, Responsibility to Protect, the Council endorsed a United Nations resolution to protect the innocent. Without side-stepping the idea that war as sin, the Council declared:

The National Council of Churches USA endorses the Responsibility to Protect and, recognizing that war is always a failure to find peaceful resolution to conflict, encourages the US Government and the international community always to first seek non-violent means of intervention, and exhaust all opportunities for peaceful resolution, as a means of protecting those threatened by genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity.

The responsibility to protect should lead to interventions that are not impulsively chosen, and only after efforts are made to protect innocent people by nonviolent means.

Perhaps this could have been accomplished if Mr. Trump had not signaled to Assad that his removal is no longer a U.S. government priority and that getting involved in Assad’s war is not in the U.S. interest. If that led Assad to think he had free reign to attack his people, then Mr. Trump must accept that he shares part of the blame for Syrian atrocities. But we know him too well to think his conscience is pricked.

Regardless of where Mr. Trump is going to take his new war on Syria, and regardless of whether it occurs to him that all war is sin, he should not ignore those he now has an even greater responsibility to protect. Millions of Syrian refugees are suffering the ghastly consequences of this war but are barred from safe haven in the United States by a cowardly policy that dismisses them as potential terrorists.

Mr. Trump is only human and he’s entitled to shed a tear or two over images of babies in agony. Certainly the world weeps with him.

But if he doesn’t reach out to the others who are suffering, he will have failed his moral responsibility to protect the innocent, and he will never escape the sin of the war he has now joined.

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Remembering the Great War

By Philip E. Jenks


Actually, there’s no one around who remembers the Great War. It has been a hundred years since the United States joined the cataclysm in April 1917, and that generation is long gone.

The anniversary is historically momentous and it certainly should be commemorated. The world was comprehensively changed after World War I. Monarchies collapsed, empires fell, and colonial holdings began to crumble. The sedate years leading up to the war are branded the fin de siècle – the end of an age that collapsed under its own weight.

Now the grainy newsreels of archdukes, kaisers, tsars, and Wilsonian democrats on our plasma screens are all we have left. The humans who occupied the era are gone and only their digital shades survive.

There are no World War I veterans left to tell the story and I’m saddened that my grandchildren will never meet one.

Nor will they meet other courageous figures of the era, the nurses, the medics, the pacifists who opposed U.S. entry into the war, the war widows, the gold star mothers.

I miss them. In my youth I knew hundreds of them, women and men who were around a century ago, and I took them for granted. I wish I had talked with them more. I wish I could ask them the questions I never thought to ask them when we were together.

Both my grandfathers served in the Great War but I rarely asked them about it.

Once I asked Grandpa Jenks what his army rank was and he scoffed.

“About as low as they could make me,” he said.

He was a corporal, which is not that low. He was a non-commissioned officer with responsibility and authority over others. What really bothered Grandpa, I think, is that he remained in the United States during the war, as did many soldiers and sailors.

I can understand that. At the height of the Vietnam War I was assigned to an Air Force Base in England where the primary menaces were black ice and left-turning roundabouts.

“There is always inequity in life,” President Kennedy famously said. “Some men are killed in a war and some men are wounded, and some men never leave the country, and some men are stationed in the Antarctic and some are stationed in San Francisco. It’s very hard in military or in personal life to assure complete equality. Life is unfair.” But I don’t think Grandpa Jenks ever accepted the unfairness.

Grandpa Emerson did serve outside the U.S., in France, during the Great War. Beyond that, I know very little. Pictures in old family albums show he was in the Navy, and at least one picture shows him in a shore patrol uniform with a sidearm. Thus I am tempted to imagine him bursting into Parisian bars, grabbing AWOL drunken sailors off the dance floor and throwing them in the brig. But what else did he do? What made him so willing to go back to his Minnesota farm after he had seen Paree? Who is the woman who is not Grandma in one of the pictures? Did he sow wild oats in Paris? Or was he the only doughboy in France who didn’t get laid?

I may not have asked him any of those questions, but I would have liked to know more about his Navy days, especially what he did in France. He did learn French in Paris, and later my mother learned French, perhaps so she could converse privately with her Dad.

Besides my grandfathers, there were scores of World War I veterans who enriched my life. When I was in the Air Force, the members Morrisville, N.Y. American Legion Post – many who served in 1917-1918 – would send me cards and miniature U.S. flags to thank me for my service, and to promise “to keep the fires of freedom burning here at home.” I would smile because it sounded like geriatric pyromania to me but I should have taken them more seriously. They were all war heroes in their way, and they were as old then as I am now.

And now they are all gone.

In 1970 when I was in college, I attended an anti-Vietnam War rally at Valley Forge National Park in Pennsylvania. Some people thought it was unpatriotic to hold a peace rally on such holy martial ground, but more than a thousand people participated. Jane Fonda, known then as “Hanoi Jane,” and Donald Sutherland, fresh from the filming of Klute, were there to address the crowd. And so were a half-dozen elderly gentlemen wearing American Legion caps.

I sat next to one of the legionnaires to see if he had wandered into the rally by mistake.

“This war is a terrible mistake,” said the man. “We fought the Kaiser because he had no right to march into other countries to subdue them. And the U.S. shouldn’t do it either.”

These old guys might not have been typical World War I vets, but they came to a controversial peace rally to take a stand.

And now they are all gone.

In 1990, when I worked for American Baptist Churches in the USA, I traveled to Johannesburg to interview South African Baptists for The American Baptist magazine. On the way back home I decided to spend a couple days in London to revisit some of my old haunts.

As I stepped out of my hotel room on one of those damp, cold London mornings that makes your bones ache, I encountered a parade of veterans of the Battle of Gallipoli who were marching to commemorate the 75th anniversary of that epic disaster.

Most of the marchers must have been in their nineties. Some were pushed in wheel chairs, but most walked stiffly in the cold, many of them dressed in their old uniforms with short pants. They walked in silence without a drumbeat, and we on the sidelines watched in silence. I thought they looked like phantoms of an ancient tragedy. I was deeply moved by their indomitable courage, both in 1915 and now.

And now they are all gone.

This month PBS The American Experience will offer a six-part documentary on The Great War.

For this we thank the precious but threatened Corporation for Public Broadcasting and viewers like you who make such memories possible.

The miscalculations that caused the Great War and the incalculable effects it had on the last hundred years cannot be overstated.

Even so, it would be surprising if this anniversary attracted a lot of attention because it was, after all, so long ago.

In my youth, there were still people who lived through it who could sit with us and tell us what a momentous event it was.

But the sad – if inevitable – thing is that now they are all gone.

There’s no point in complaining because every 150 years the world gets a whole new set of people and nothing can stop that.

But as the Great War anniversary commemorations continue, I will pause to remember fondly the persons I knew who lived through it, and to be profoundly grateful for their presence in my life.

I only wish my grandchildren could have known them.

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Air Force Memory: a lesson in Humility

humilityI was a very young and very low-ranking airman when I first arrived at RAF Bentwaters/Woodbridge in Suffolk, England, in January 1965. 

The convenient thing about the Air Force was that you always knew who was more distinguished than you: their status was clearly marked on the shoulders or sleeves of the uniforms. One thing was clear to me: Everyone was far superior to me in rank.

And there were giants on base who didn’t need the eagles on their shoulders to look important.

The wing commander was Colonel (later Brigadier General) Robin Olds, West Point football lineman of the year in 1942, a fighter ace in World War II, and future Vietnam War hero. By the time he commanded the 81st Tactical Fighter Wing in England from 1963 to 1965, Olds was a figure of mythic proportions.

And so was his spouse, Hollywood doyenne Ella Raines, a cinema star of the forties and fifties. I had not heard of Raines in 1965, though my mother assured me the Lady was famous. Ella Raines was 45 and no ingénue when I met her. She was three years older than my mother. 

Raines’ residual Hollywood influence was such that Jimmy Stewart, a reserve Air Force brigadier general, frequently donned his blues to visit Bentwaters.  Stewart, who was also clear about his exalted place at the banquet table, schmoozed with Robin and Ella and other brass at the officers club while we GIs were assigned to clean-up details around the base.

Looking back, I wonder if Ella Raines wasn’t a little bored by life in bucolic Suffolk. She would occasionally visit the airmen’s mess hall, ostensibly to check the quality of the food and the morale of the troops. The mess hall was the lowest place at the Air Force banquet, so it could be stipulated that the quality of the food was not great. And the GI’s who didn’t eat and run were on KP for the day, so their morale was not great.

I was on KP one day when the Lady walked in on one of her peculiar inspection tours. I had just finished scrubbing a score of pots and pans larger than me and was standing beside a rack of bananas to catch my breath. Raines was immaculately coifed and dressed and (as I think back on it) quite beautiful. I was dressed in a wet, baggy, garbage-stained fatigue uniform, and I smelled of adolescent sweat. 

The Lady caught my eye and smiled. “Where are you from?”

I cleared my throat and muttered a half-truth. She would not have heard of Morrisville. “New York,” I said. 

She nodded thoughtfully and pulled a banana from the bunch. She peeled it and tested it aggressively with her tongue.

“Are these bananas fresh?”

I might have explained that we KP’s weren’t allowed to eat the bananas, and that she must have a better idea than I because she was pushing one into her mouth. But I just nodded.

She chewed on the banana and smiled. “Well,” she said, “I shall think of you the next time I’m on Broadway.”

I nodded again, and watched the Lady saunter out of the hall. I wrote to my mother to give her a highly embellished account of the incident. Later Mom told her bridge club, “Well, Phil knows Ella Raines.” 

Today what this dim memory invokes for me more than anything else is the realization that there are high places and low places at the banquet table of life, and it can be awkward to find yourself in the wrong place.

I had one other Air Force encounter involving Colonel Olds that confirms this even more clearly.

I was a chaplain’s assistant, an enlisted position akin to being the chaplain’s valet. 

Chaplain Joseph McCausland was a Catholic priest from Cleveland. Father Mac was tall and slightly bent-over, with prematurely white hair. I remember him sitting at his desk squinting through the smoke of a Camel cigarette while he used his elegant fountain pen to add items to his growing to-do list. One to-do item he never did in the two-and-a-half years I knew him was, “Get your shots.”

Father Mac had two hobbies: shortwave radio, which he used to keep in touch with friends all over the world; and flying.

He was an amateur pilot of small, propeller driven airplanes. That must have taken guts and, perhaps, a fair amount of humility when you consider that most of the men who sat at the bar with him in the officer’s club were jet jockeys.  On occasion, one of the fighter pilots would invite Father Mac to come along on a stomach-wrenching F-101 sortie to the Isle of Man, and the priest would glow happily for days. But on most afternoons, when he wasn’t counseling Catholic families or hearing confessions, Father Mac would jump into his Piper club and climb into the breezy skies of East Anglia. He always flew alone. None of us dared go with him.

One particularly windy afternoon, Father Mac brought the Piper club in too low and too fast and, amid a shower of metallic sparks, tipped the aircraft up on its nose. He was unhurt but when he rolled out of the plane to inspect the damage, he could see the prop was mangled and the nose was shattered. 

Colonel Olds happened to be driving his staff car on the flight line that day and he rushed over to the accident sight to make sure Father Mac was okay. The chaplain shook his head in embarrassment. “I’m fine,” he said. “Misjudged the wind sheer.”

Colonel Olds called out to one of the airmen who had also rushed to the scene. “Quick,” he said. “Get a picture of the fuselage. In case we need it for insurance purposes.”

I don’t know what kind of insurance covers Air Force accidents, but the picture was snapped.

That night, a poster-sized blow-up of the picture was delivered to my barracks. There in crisp black-and-white was the small plane balanced on its nose amid pieces of broken propeller, its tail pointed ignominiously at the sky. 

Accompanying the picture was a note from the Colonel: “Jenks, do some calligraphy for me. Some kind of Old English script. Ta, R.O.” The Colonel wrote out in block capital letters the message he wanted imprinted on the picture.

I had drawn cartoons for chapel and base publications, and Colonel Olds must have concluded – erroneously – that I was some kind of artist. I was not, and I was certainly no calligrapher. But orders are orders, and I stayed up most of the night, painstakingly inking letters onto the photograph. 

The next morning the Colonel’s driver pulled up in front of the barracks to retrieve the picture.

“What’s this about?” I asked.

“The old man wants it for Officer’s Call,” the driver said. He grabbed the picture and sped away.

Later that day, senior Chaplain John Donnelly returned from Officer’s call with the story.

After the Colonel called the meeting to order, he asked Chaplain McCausland to come forward. Warily, Father Mac stood beside the Colonel.

“Father,” Colonel Olds began sternly. Then he flashed a smile, and said, “Actually, he’s not my father.”

The officers roared in laughter (as they do when Colonels tell jokes). “I guess I can get away with that because I’m Episcopalian,” Olds said.

Then Olds took the photograph, freshly framed, and put it on the podium. The officers stared at the vivid picture of the mangled plane and tried to read the laboriously inscribed Latin message:

“Qui se exaltat, humiliabitur.”

Father Mac turned red and smiled through his teeth.

“If you don’t know your Latin as well as Father,” Olds said into the microphone, “it says, ‘he who exalts himself will be humbled.’” The officers in the room, mostly experienced fighter pilots, laughed again. Then they stood and applauded.

“I don’t think they were laughing at Joe,” Chaplain Donnelly said. “All these pilots, from Olds on down, knew it could happen to them, too. It was the Colonel’s way of reminding all of us: don’t get cocky.”

There are many lessons in life that I’ve learned through age and harsh experience. Now that I’m in my 70th year, I confess most of these lessons are the result of miscalculations and misjudgments, including the always hazardous assumptions that I knew more than others or was better than others.


But when I was 18 on an Air Force base inhabited by giants, I was certainly not prone to making those kinds of assumptions. Colonel Olds’ message to Father Mac contains words of wisdom that are not always easy to follow – and as those who knew him will remember, the old man was not always able to refrain from cockiness himself.


But the wisdom of the words endures: those who exalt themselves will be humbled.


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Pray for him? Sure. But …

resistttumpBy Philip E. Jenks

January 20, 2017 – Like most of us, I have a lot of friends who voted for the new President.

I don’t know why they did and, when I ask them, they tell me to give the guy a chance. And pray for him.

Well, I am praying for the new President, however illegitimate I think his claim to office may be.

But my conscience as a person of faith will not permit me to respect him or accept his authority.

This is not partisan obstinacy or even an manifestation of my dread of his unbalanced personality.

We’ve had lying, bullying, neurotic presidents before, and we survived.

Few presidents were as paranoid or mean-spirited as Richard Nixon.

Lyndon Johnson, like the current President, was an avowed racist who showed signs of borderline narcissistic personality disorder.

John Kennedy, like the current President, felt entitled to grab vag and press himself on random women he found attractive.

Even Abraham Lincoln, in the assessment of his biographer Carl Sandburg, was “a borderline psychotic.”

So what makes this president different from any other crazy person who has held the office?

Maybe it’s a matter of degree. The new president surpasses any of his predecessors in a myriad of personality disorders that – unlike his predecessors – he makes little effort to hide.

He has raised misogyny to an art, exuding contempt for woman who challenge him, unsubtly dismissing the criticism of one because she was spouting blood out of her “whatever,” dismissing other women for being fat or unattractive, or bragging that his star power permits him to grope and assault women he considers hot.

He is the most openly racist president since Andrew Jackson, associating persons of color with poverty, drug use, or inner-city violence. He began his pursuit of the presidency years ago by spreading the racist lie that President Obama was an illegitimate president because he was born in Kenya. He warmly accepted the support of white supremacist groups including the Ku Klux Klan.

He jeers with cruel condescension at persons with disabilities or anyone to whom he feels superior, most famously by mimicking a New York Times reporter whose arm is deformed.

He lies about everything, tweeting contradictory claims about his proposed views or policies, his relationship with the president of Russia, or the details of his vast international fortune, most of which will remain hidden so long as he refuses to release his tax returns.

One of his biggest lies is his claim to be an evangelical Christian despite his frequently demonstrated ignorance of Christian theology or the contents of the bible. He has yet to discover Jesus’ commandment to love his neighbor as much as he loves himself, nor does he understand who his neighbors are: immigrants, Muslims, Jews, persons of color, LGBTQ persons, and persons he and his legions consider “other.” Not only does he not read the bible, he says he never reads books. Which is truly alarming, unless he’s lying about that, too.

But what distinguishes him from his predecessors is that all who came before him were reasonably competent and qualified to serve. They read books. They attended regular intelligence briefings. They made some effort to understand the complex issues they were facing. They recognized their faults and tried to keep them under control, or at least compartmentalized.

The new President, as demonstrated by his tweets alone, is immersed in personal grudges and gossipy minutia while tweeting threats to Kim Jong-un as if he were Meryl Streep. He is psychologically and emotionally stunted.

We have never had a President like this one, and he now he appears on our horizons like a dark expanding cloud.

I know how much he is going to need our prayers, however unqualified and illegitimate he is, and I will not forsake him.

But I can never respect him or accept his authority over the land I love so much. He’s a human being and, as a person of faith, I must accept him as a child of God, a sinner like the rest of us.

But I cannot, will not, do not accept him as my president.

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