Governor Jenks and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Cloak

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Even before Ancestry.com, my family was steeped in genealogical lore.

Grandpa Addison Jenks and his sister, Aunt Ava, spent their lives searching courthouse records for birth certificates, wills, and deeds that bore the Jenks name. Addison liked to do family research in graveyards, noting the birth and death dates of subterranean Jenkses. This creepy predilection led my mother, who was an Emerson, not a Jenks, to whisper, “The only people he cares about are dead.”

That was probably untrue, and when the Divine M* and I prowled the West End cemetery in Oneonta, N.Y., we immediately grasped the joys of tombstone prowling. One of our favorite graves is in that cemetery and I wrote about it here.

There are other macabre idiosyncrasies in the Oneonta cemetery. On at least two Jenks graves the birthdates are etched but death dates are blank. I theorize the practical decedent had purchased the stone as a hedge against inflation but died somewhere else. The Divine M theorizes they were vampires.

Addison was a farmer in South Side, Oneonta, and he ran the Oneonta Armory for most of the time I knew him. Both were reputable callings but I suspect he wanted to prove his ancestors were tinged with greatness. He traced the family name back to Wales and believed he could prove he was descended from a line of Welsh kings whose long names he could not pronounce because they contained no vowels.

He made a better case that an ancestor had “come over on the Mayflower” (her name was Elizabeth Tilley). He was happy about that, although, logically, if one’s ancestors have been procreating in America since the 17th century, the massive and infinitely snarled web of familial connections makes a distant Mayflower connection almost unavoidable.

I was 16 when Addison died, but I had shown a sufficient interest in his research that his papers eventually found their way to me. I quickly discovered the family has its share of heroes and anti-heroes.

One of Addison’s heroes was Major Lory Jenks,** a Revolutionary War veteran who moved the family from Rhode Island to Oneonta where he owned a popular pub. On the less heroic side, there was Jeremiah Jenks, a cousin of Addison’s father, George. Jeremiah was a blatant eugenist who wrote books explaining why non-white, non-European, non-Republican, and non-Jenks people were naturally inferior. I’d like to think Addison did not agree because he doesn’t mention Jeremiah in his research.

Most Jenkses in the United States trace their ancestry back to Joseph Jenks (1599 -1682), who – as Addison tirelessly reminded us – was awarded in 1646 the first patent in North America, for a new design for making scythes. In 1654 he also built the first fire engine in North America for use in Boston, and in 1647, in order to manufacture his scythes, he built the forge at the Saugus, Mass., iron works.  My family and I have often visited the Saugus restoration, now a national historic site. One hot summer I followed an exhausted guide around the site and decided it would be good to introduce myself by surname. Before I could approach him, he told the crowd, “There are thousands of Jenks descendants in the U.S. And some summers it seems like every goddamned one of them comes here.”

For me, the most interesting Jenks of yore was Joseph Jenks III (1656-1740), the first of the line to be born in North America. As governor of the Rhode Island colony, Governor Jenks presided over the first geo-political entity in the world founded for religious liberty. There’s no evidence Joseph knew Rhode Island’s spiritual founder, Roger Williams, or that he was a Baptist. But he was an early hero of church-state separation.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Governor Jenks was that he was six-feet, seven inches tall, and looked much taller because of the Charles II wig he plopped on his head.

According to family lore, Governor Jenks was concerned that his cloak of office, designed for much shorter men, exposed his skinny calves and made him look ridiculous. When the wig was added to his attire, he was undoubtedly right,

Grabbing his quill, he scrawled out an order for a six-foot, seven-inch cloak suitable to his office and sent it via tall ship to England where the best cloaks were made.

No one knows how long it took the ship to make its way to England, or how much time it stayed in England, or how long it took to sail back to Providence. The process probably took more than a year.

No one knows if Governor Jenks was a patient man, but he must have been delighted when a package finally arrived from the mother country. But – as nearly every Jenks knows – when he opened the package, it contained not a cloak, but a six-foot, seven-inch clock.

No one knows if Governor Jenks laughed, cried, or raged when he realized he should have written the order in easier-to-read block letters. But a Baptist friend who served in the Rhode Island legislature once assured me that a six-foot, seven-inch clock still stands in the capitol.

I must admit, I have always suspected that this droll story is apocryphal and told exclusively among Jenkses, the only people likely to find it interesting.

So I was amazed the other day when I was surfing the Internet and discovered an old newspaper clipping of a spirited piece of doggerel that told the same story in imaginative detail. I was unable to discover how old the clipping is, or who wrote it. But I’m delighted to have this little item which appears to document an old family legend

If nothing else, it is passable evidence that my ancestry might just as interesting as yours.

And I know Addison, who always wanted people to know how interesting we secretly were, would have been pleased to add it to his voluminous research.

I wish he had lived to see it.

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* The Divine M, of course, is my spouse, the Rev. Martha M. Cruz.

** Throughout history, Jenks has been spelled different ways. Grandpa Addison’s theory was that Jenks was adopted by patriotic supporters of the American Revolution, leaving the redundant letters to the loyalist Jenckes branch.

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Bobby Lee and the Great Statuary Purge

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NOTE: This essay was written June 14, two months before President Trump’s vainglorious efforts to justify Neo-Nazi and white supremacist violence in Charlottesville on efforts to protect a statue of Robert E. Lee.

Statues of Civil War generals and politicians are being removed throughout the U.S., often with as little ceremony as the demolition of Saddam Hussein’s effigy in Bagdad.

Saddam should have listened to Harry Truman before he ordered statues of himself. When Israel moved to erect a statue of Truman, the president vetoed the idea. “Never raise a statue to a living person,” he said. “You never know when you might have to take it down.”

Truman understood that one’s reputation ebbed and flowed with the capricious winds of history. This is particularly true of Confederate idols whose prominence in the Civil War has given way to the reality that they were brutal racists and slave owners. The statuary that was raised to them, in the South and elsewhere, commemorates their inhuman cruelty. Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans, in one of the best political speeches in recent memory, said this:

It is self-evident that these men did not fight for the United States of America, They fought against it. They may have been warriors, but in this cause they were not patriots. These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.

As statues of the terrorists are dragged away, some would make an exception for Robert E. Lee, the general whose surrender at Appomattox brought a merciful end to the carnage and who is popularly remembered as a decent human being.

But some historians argue that Lee was not a nice man and he deserves to be remembered for his shortsighted malice. Adam Serwer, writing in the current issue of Atlantic, wrote:

Lee’s cruelty as a slave master was not confined to physical punishment. In Reading the Man, the historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s portrait of Lee through his writings, Pryor writes that “Lee ruptured the Washington and Custis tradition of respecting slave families,” by hiring them off to other plantations, and that “by 1860 he had broken up every family but one on the estate, some of whom had been together since Mount Vernon days.” The separation of slave families was one of the most unfathomably devastating aspects of slavery, and Pryor wrote that Lee’s slaves regarded him as “the worst man I ever see.”

Dan McGlaughlin of National Review acknowledged Lee’s imperfections, but insisted a blanked condemnation of the man was “myopic.”

Lee was no hero; he fought for an unjust cause, and he lost. Unlike the Founding Fathers (even the slaveholders among them), he failed the basic test of history: leaving the world better and freer than he found it. And while he was not responsible for the South’s strategic failures, his lack of strategic vision places him below Grant, Sherman and Winfield Scott in any assessment of the war’s greatest generals. We should not be building new monuments to him, but if we fail to understand why the men of his day revered him, we are likelier to fail to understand who people revere today, and why. And tearing down statues of Lee today is less about understanding the past than it is a contest to divide the people of today’s America, and see who holds more power. That’s no better an attitude today than it was in Lee’s day.

McGlaughlin’s observation also requires an examination of many American heroes whose statuary populates tens of thousands of city parks and village greens. Many of them were slave-owning racists with a record of cruelty that challenges Lee’s.

George Washington was one of them.

In his Pulitzer Prize winning biography, Washington: A Life, Gene Chernow reminds us of some disturbing facts about the Father of Our Country that were never highlighted in high school texts. As a general and later as president, a large retinue of slaves dressed in uniforms bearing his family crest attended Washington. When the U.S. capital was temporarily lodged in Philadelphia, President Washington brought a large number of his slaves along to run his household. He circumvented a Pennsylvania law that automatically freed slaves who resided in the commonwealth for more than six months by returning them temporarily to Mount Vernon every five months.

Washington freed all his slaves in his will (effective upon the death of his wife Martha, which surrounded her with people who eagerly anticipated her passing). And few historians believe Washington’s enormous contributions to U.S. history should be lost in the reality that he was a slave-owning Southern aristocrat who acted like one.

There are other great figures of U.S. history who don’t deserve all the nice things high school texts say about them. President Jefferson had a slave mistress who carried several of his children. President Jackson’s relocation of Native American communities was genocidal and brutal. Even the Great Emancipator, President Lincoln, did not believe African Americans were his biological or intellectual equals.

In a seamier side of history, which may or may not call into question their political performance, Presidents Cleveland, Harding, Franklin Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson were all purported to have extra marital affairs.

But given that much we think we know about American History is not true, including the assumed purity of the greats, the question remains what we should do about it.

Should we tear down their statues and nameplates?

Certainly the first to go should be those statues of Confederate functionaries in public squares that proclaim racism as vividly as if they were cross burning hooded Klansmen waving the Confederate battle flag.

As for statues of heroes like Washington and Jackson, they will remain. Even if all their edifices were removed, their absence would not cleanse our memories of their sordid slave-owning history.

But it is important to remember that side of our history if we are ever going to realize our democratic ideals. In truth, we were never a nation that favored life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all.

Reaching that conclusion will require some personal discipline as we gaze in awe at slave-raping Jefferson in his monument and try to remember the good along with the bad.

But we must remember because it is the only way we can finally move toward the American ideal of freedom, justice, and equality. We must never forget the dark side of who we really were – and are. In the final analysis, perhaps the green corrosion and pigeon stains on the statues of our well-meaning but racist progenitors will keep those unpleasant truths before us,

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Subway Heroism

subwayMishaps on the New York subway are relatively rare, but when they happen they tend to shed light on the true nature of New Yorkers.

This month a middle-aged man fell onto the subway tracks in Manhattan and a ballet dancer leapt to his rescue.

This isolated act of heroism was sufficiently newsworthy that the New York Times assigned two reporters to cover it.

According to a story by Michael Cooper and Ashley Southhall, the dancer rescued the man “with a lift they do not teach in dance school.”

“At first I waited for somebody else to jump down there,” said Gray Davis, 31, a dancer with American Ballet Theater, in a telephone interview on Sunday. “People were screaming to get help. But nobody jumped down. So I jumped down.” Once on the tracks, at the 72nd Street Broadway-Seventh Avenue station, Mr. Davis said, he picked up the man, who was unconscious, and lifted him to the platform, where others pulled him up. Then, hearing a train in the distance and unsure which track it was on, he faced the next problem: getting back up on the platform himself. “I never realized how high it was,” he said. “Luckily, I’m a ballet dancer, so I swung my leg up.”

Despite the safety net provided by your fellow strap hangers, the joy of subway riding is not universal. My spouse, who rode the subterranean rails constantly when she was growing up in Manhattan, now shuns them. When she was a uniformed Catholic school girl commuting between home and St. Michael’s Academy (the number 7 at 90th Street/Elmhurst Avenue to 74th Street to the E train to 34th and 8th), she had her share of unpleasant encounters with unsavory male strangers.

I can understand her aversion, although I think she underestimates the power of massed Catholic school girls. When a couple dozen of them squeeze through the sliding doors like a pubescent pestilence, shrieking at each other, they can be very scary. I usually get off at the next station.

Many New Yorkers shrug off the griminess of subway riding, and politicians try to model how much fun it can be. Mayor Bill de Blasio, the Times reports, enjoys walking between cars as they hurtle and sway, something a country boy like me would never dare.

When I’m on a subway car, I try to stay in place, preferably sitting but, if forced to stand, grasping the pole with sweaty hands.

Recently I was on the Number 1 train careening toward the Bronx. The train screeched to a halt at a station and several passengers jostled each other to exit.

The last rider to exit was a young woman pushing a wheeled baby carrier. The baby slept soundly as the woman attempted to thrust the carrier out the door, but the plastic wheels got jammed between the car and the platform.

Panicked, she began rocking the carrier back and forth, but the wheels were firmly stuck. The door began to close and the baby opened his eyes.

The woman screamed. An obese woman sitting across the aisle slapped the head of the man dozing beside her. “Help that girl!” she roared. The man hesitated, but the woman pushed him roughly. He stood sleepily and began to make his way to the door. So did several other passengers, including me.

“Get on each side and lift the wheels,” another woman bellowed.

“You’re okay, Sweetie, the train won’t move with the door open,” a third woman yelled.

Four burly men had already pushed ahead of me to surround the woman and her baby. One stretched his foot onto the platform to make sure the door would not close. Two others grabbed the wheels and forcibly lifted them. They gently escorted the young woman out of the car onto the platform.

The passengers erupted in cheers and applause. The young woman turned to her rescuers and smiled through her tears.

“Thank you,” she mouthed. “Thank you so much!”

“God bless you, Sweetie,” the obese woman yelled.

“Take care of that little precious,” another shouted.

Some passengers were still applauding when the door finally slid shut, creating a rare moment of silence.

The obese woman took a breath. “How stupid can you be, taking a baby on the train like that?” she demanded, rhetorically.

“That mom’s too young to know better,” said someone else.

“If that’s how she takes care of a baby, she shouldn’t be a mother.” The train began to accelerate and other rude remarks were drowned out in the metallic roar. By the time the car arrived at the next station, the passengers were isolated strangers again.

Looking back on this little drama – which had a happy ending – it occurs to me that it was one of those New York stories that reveal their true nature.

When Garrison Keillor lived in New York, he said he was constantly defending the city to his fellow Minnesotans. Sure, he said, you could get mugged in New York. But more likely, New Yorkers would pull you aside to whisper some cautionary advice. “Don’t walk around with your wallet so visible in your pocket,” they’d warn him. “Someone could grab it.”

And before you could say thanks, you would hear your protector whispering behind your back: “Stupid idiot. He walks around so everyone can see his wallet.”

Minnesotans are very much like the rural New Yorkers I grew up with in the central part of the state. I know what goes through their heads.

Minnesotans who think you’re stupid would never say it in your hearing.

But they’d think it.

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Walt Herring and Big Truth

bleakmenHis biographers can’t find the actual quote, but theologian Karl Barth is credited with the advice to read the bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Today, he would advise us not to watch CNN unless we had the Olive Tree bible app open on our iPhones.

This two-fisted devotional approach has unusual power now that the President of the United States has condemned the purveyors of “fake news” as “enemies of the people.”

I wish my old editor, Walter L. Herring, was still alive. I wish it for a lot of reasons, but I’d be particularly interested to hear his take on Mr. Trump and Fox News. For Walt, the two greatest sins of journalism were to get facts wrong and to be intimidated by powerful politicians.

Walt was editor of the Pottstown Mercury in the early nineties. My tenure at the Mercury more or less corresponded with Walt’s, although he came to the paper at the height of a distinguished career in journalism and I joined the staff following a 20 year tenure as a Baptist editor that ended with the demise of The American Baptist magazine.

Walt was a 1965 graduate of West Catholic School for Boys in Philadelphia, but I never figured out if he was religious. He did not present himself as a godly man. When he died in October 2006, his obituary acknowledged that working for him could be terrifying. “His volcanic temper was legendary,” wrote Jack Croft, former managing editor of the paper. “He was known to berate reporters and editors in expletive-filled tirades when he felt that his standards weren’t being met or that less than maximum effort was being given.”

I witnessed those tirades often, sometimes several times a week, but I don’t recall being the object of one. The worst thing he ever said to me, and it was in resigned tones, is, “Your lead sucks.”

I was a year older than Walt but he was vastly senior to me in terms of newspaper experience. He knew about my church background, but he never asked about it. It neither impressed him nor did he hold it against me. He didn’t hold my age against me either, but he occasionally took advantage of it. When a fifties-era crooner came to Pottstown to open a department store, Walt assigned the feature to me because he knew I had heard of Julius La Rosa.

I used to describe Walt as one of the purest misanthropes I have ever known, mostly because I met so few people Walt liked. Certainly he would have been appalled by the mendacities of Donald Trump and the late Roger Ailes, who allowed right-wing partisan views to befog the truth on Fox News. Walt thought the truth was the best weapon journalists had.

Many people Walt loathed made the front page of the Mercury: politicians, mobsters and slum lords to name a few, and also people who committed abhorrent crimes: rapists, wife beaters, child molesters, and murderers. Walt hated them all, and not just the bad guys; he also hated the cops who didn’t work hard enough to bring them to justice and the defense attorneys who occasionally got the malefactors off. And God help the reporter who didn’t stay on the story until justice was done.

But I don’t want to leave the impression that I didn’t appreciate Walt, or that I’m offering him as an emblem of the often cynical profession of journalism. I look back on him as one of the best bosses I ever had. You never had to wait for an annual performance review to know how you stood. If Walt liked your story, he said so. If he thought you had mishandled a source, he said so. If your lead sucked, he said that, too.

And while it is true that Walt’s barometer of cynicism was abnormally high, he never gave up on the idea that life could be better for the working class majority who read the Mercury. Jack Croft, in Walt’s obituary, quoted co-workers: “Beneath the ‘tough guy’ front was a compassionate and generous man who mentored young writers and demanded that his newspapers speak for those whose voices were ignored.” Often that meant going after the employers, landlords, and entrepreneurs who made their fortunes at the expense of others, or the politicians who failed to provide promised services for borough residents. Most of those powerful people hated Walt as much as he hated them.

I didn’t always agree with Walt. I was one of the reporters who worked on a story about the dismissal of charges against a teenager accused of vehicular homicide. Three women on a morning walk had been killed when the young man’s car veered off the road. The youthful driver, sober and awake, said he had been distracted by a bee in the car, and the judge declared he was negligent, not a murderer. I agreed with the judge, but I can still see Walt Herring’s mouth gape in amazement. He was thinking about the dead women and their families. His comment, from which I delete two extraneous syllables for family reading, was, “Unbelievable.”

I think Pottstown is a better community because Walt was editor of the Mercury. And I think media moguls like Roger Ailes and Fox owner Rupert Murdoch have made the world a bleaker place.

Ailes is gone and Murdoch’s decision to remove other purveyors of bleakness like Bill O’Reilly may be signs he wants to make the world better. But he still has a kazillion jillion dollars in his bank account. He may begin to see that the world is a bleaker place because he was born, but the sheer volume of his wealth probably blinds him from realities most people have to live with. Just how the elderly Mr. Murdoch will spend the rest of his long life remains to be seen.

Walt, on the other hand, was taken from us far too soon. I do not doubt that in his own irascible, profane and hot-tempered way, he made his corner of the world a better place.

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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.

elmoreandpapuans

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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