An Open Letter to NRA-owned Politicians

jesusweepsAR15Seventeen children and adults killed with a semi-automatic rifle in Florida by a 19-year-old with impulse control issues.

The eighteenth time guns were discharged in a school so far in 2018.

God damn it.

Senators and representatives owned by the NRA, let’s be frank. The time for debate is over.

For those of you who proclaim yourselves Christian, be warned. Your souls may be in jeopardy.

Where in hell did you get the idea that Jesus who commanded us to love our neighbor and turn the other cheek would bless the massive proliferation of guns in our country?

And how can you, as Christians, suggest that the solution to the carnage is to arm teachers and parishioners in schools and churches to shoot suspicious looking interlopers? Are you crazy? Even cops have made tragically fatal mistakes trying to guess whether a person is carrying a gun or a cellphone. Are you trying to exponentially increase the slaughter?

You are probably good persons regardless of your unholy marriage to the NRA. With love, may I offer some suggestions as a fellow Christian, former NRA member, veteran, and erstwhile expert marksman.

First, my Christian sisters and brothers, enact legislation to get rid of guns.

This requires awareness that the 2nd Amendment is not the 67th book of the Bible. It was born out of 18th century white men’s fear that they might need to defend themselves against slave rebellions. It endures with the support of judges who don’t know history and who nurse the mad theory that citizens might need to form a militia to defend the country against foreign invaders. A nation that spends 16 percent of its national budget on defense doesn’t need help from armed farmers and merchants. It’s time to repeal the 2nd amendment.

Second, some guns should be banned, beginning with the AR15s and other automatic or semi-automatic weapons that have no purpose other than killing people. This should be easy enough since the vast majority of your fellow citizens want these weapons taken out of circulation. It will be up to you to decide if the lives of victims are more important than your NRA support. Take courage. Make it a felony to own automatic weapons.

Third, require detailed federal background checks of any person attempting to purchase a gun of any kind.

Fourth, sponsor legislation to limit the number of guns an individual should own. I have yet to hear a convincing argument that any one person should own more than three sporting guns, including a deer rifle, shotgun, and handgun. If people want more guns than that, make them fill out long forms to explain why and leave it up to a judge to decide whether their application has merit.

Fifth, sponsor legislation to require the National Rifle Association to contribute to a fund to buy back guns from individuals who exceed the limit, and to provide medical support and counseling for the victims of gun violence and their families.

Sixth, require the licensing of all guns and charge a reasonable fee for the license, which should be renewed annually.

Seventh, maintain a federal registry of these gun licenses so law-enforcement can quickly determine if individuals named in orders of protection or domestic abuse charges, or who display signs of mental illness, own guns.

Granted, none of this will be easy. But it will be up to you, my fellow Christians, to resist the insane notion of the NRA and obsessive gun nuts that people should be able to purchase an unlimited number of guns of any kind without anyone knowing about it. Look at the headlines to see where that has led.

Look also to the fact that because the United States does not control the flow of guns it has a staggeringly higher record of gun deaths than any other civilized country in the world.

If it helps clear your minds, think of Australia where 35 people were killed by a gunman in 1996. According to the BBC:

Less than two weeks after the Port Arthur massacre, all six Australian states agreed to enact the same sweeping gun laws banning semi-automatic rifles and shotguns – weapons that can kill many people quickly.

They also put more hurdles between prospective gun owners and their weapons.

Australia has 28-day waiting periods, thorough background checks, and a requirement to present a “justifiable reason” to own a gun.

Unlike in the U.S., self-protection is not accepted as a justifiable reason to own a gun.

In the 21 years since the laws were passed, about one million semi-automatic weapons – roughly one third of the country’s firearms – were sold back to the government and destroyed, nearly halving the number of gun-owning households in Australia.

There have been no mass shootings in Australia since then, and rates of homicide and suicide have also gone down since 1996.

Granted, we are not Australia. But we could move toward this standard of civilized behavior. Ask yourself, my fellow Christians, if this is not a reasonable approach for the United States before more children are killed in more schools, theaters, or churches.

Finally, think of Jesus who you claim to know and love. Can you imagine this Jesus with a Glock strapped to his thigh? Can you imagine Jesus blessing your efforts to keep guns of all kind freely flowing in our cities, neighborhoods, villages, and farms? And can you believe this Jesus blesses your inaction whenever more children are killed?

If that is the Jesus you know, than all I can say is this. I will remember you sadly in my thoughts and prayers. But you will never get my vote.

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Cadet Bone Spurs and His Parade of Power

iloveaparadeWho Loves a Parade?

Certainly not the GI’s forced to march in one.

The current commander-in-chief – Cadet Bone Spurs as he has been aptly dubbed by Senator Tammy Duckworth, a bona fide war hero – has no way of knowing this because he has never served in the armed forces. Marching in military formation is never a GI’s idea of a fun way to spend a Saturday afternoon.

I’m extrapolating from my own military experience 50 years ago but I can’t imagine this attitude has changed much. I once heard my father, who served in New Guinea during World War II, express the disgust he felt when he was ordered to join a post-war victory march in his hometown of Oneonta, N.Y. “People want to cheer us and thank us,” a long-forgotten colonel told him. “Then let the civilians march in the street while we stand on the sidewalk drinking beer,” Dad replied.

Of course every member of the armed forces is trained to march, and often it comes in handy. I have vague memories of marching in formation on RAF Station Bentwaters in England in the 1960s during a joint British-U.S. commemoration of something or other, but even the officers demurred. Squadron commander Captain Maddox, an owlish man with a business degree, couldn’t remember the command to dismiss us, so he shouted, “Rout Step until we pass your barracks and then fall out.”

The largest military parade I participated in was at McConnell AFB, Wichita, Kans., in the summer of 1968. President Lyndon B. Johnson had already pulled out of the presidential race but he remained deeply unpopular. He couldn’t step outside the White House without eliciting boos and chants of “Hey, Hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”

As a result, LBJ visited military bases where he could be sure his welcome, if not enthusiastic, would be quiet. When LBJ announced he was coming to McConnell AFB, he made it clear to Base Commander Brigadier General Bob Cardenas that he expected the red-carpet treatment.

Cardenas – who, the last I checked, is still alive at 97 – is also a bona fide war hero. Born in Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico, he moved to San Diego with his family when he was 5 and joined the Army Air Force in 1939. He was a fighter pilot during World War II and is probably best known as a test pilot for the Bell X-1 supersonic aircraft, the same that propelled Chuck Yeager to fame in The Right Stuff.

In addition to his mathematical and aeronautic acumen, Cardenas had another qualification to be a command pilot of the tiny Bell X-1: he is short. That was fine with most of us because heroes do not have to be tall and most of them are not. But his diminutive stature led to some awkward moments during the parade he called to honor President Johnson.

It was raining that day and no one wanted to be out on a parade ground marching 120 paces a minute while the President and General watched. The procedure was to keep our eyes rigidly forward as we marched until we passed the reviewing stand. Then the parade officer would shout, “eyes right!” and we’d snap our gaze in the direction of our leaders.

The first thing we noticed is that LBJ looked pissed, as if he was annoyed General Cardenas had failed to arrange for clear skies. The parade officer snapped a salute at the President who – this being before presidents returned military salutes – deepened his frown. But when General Cardenas snapped a return salute we noticed him for the first time, drenched in his class-A blues and standing about 15 inches shorter than the 6-foot, 3 ½ inch president.

It was an unexpected contrast and a few of marchers lost control and snickered at the Mutt and Jeff figures on the platform. Then somebody laughed out loud. The rest of us struggled to maintain military discipline but some could not suppress involuntary sinus snorts. There were tears in my eyes when we finally passed by, and not the kind caused by patriotic pride.

I have no idea what the President and general did the rest of the day. I returned to my barracks, took a hot shower, and put them out of my mind.

Fifty years on, I’m impressed by what General Cardenas did not do. He could have opened one of the missile silos or taxied a few B-52s onto the ground to show off the mighty arsenal at his disposal. Looking back, I suspect there was more lethal hardware on McConnell AFB than in the combined majority of nations around the world.

But nobody talked about that. Not only was it gauche to boast of such things, it was a violation of security. There was a fundamental understanding that it would be unseemly for the strongest nation on earth to swagger.

I hope that attitude has not been entirely suppressed by the current lot in power.

But before Cadet Bone Spurs decides to go ahead with his mighty parade, I hope he will first consult with the non-commissioned officers who will tell him the truth: the rank and file will hate it.

And when the parade officer orders the marchers to snap right and salute the current Commander-in-Chief, they may find it impossible to suppress their laughter.

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Saying Farewell to Sir Winston

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January 24, 2018 – Winston Churchill’s death 53 years ago today marks a week of vivid personal memories.

Sir Winston died as I was preparing to leave home for a three-year Air Force posting at RAF Stations Bentwaters and Woodbridge in England’s bucolic Suffolk. I was already homesick when I climbed aboard a Boeing 707 at New York’s John F. Kennedy airport en route to London’s Heathrow.

My orders called for me to check in at Douglas House, a military hostel in the heart of London, where I would receive instructions for travel to the bases. I climbed into a luxurious London cab and gave the driver the directions recorded on my mimeographed orders.

The driver, wearing a wool cap and a frayed tweed jacket with shirt and tie, said, “Right-O, Mate.” He took me past Buckingham Palace, where the Union Jack was lowered in Churchill’s honor but the royal standard was at full staff. The driver was apologetic. “The Queen ain’t no better than you nor me, but she can’t lower her flag for Winnie, he warnt a peer.” Later I was told the royal standard is only lowered for the death of the sovereign.

I made my way to RAF Bentwaters on Saturday, the day of Churchill’s funeral. Ray Williams, the NCO in charge of the chapel where I would work, invited me to his family quarters on Woodbridge base, where we watched the funeral procession on a black-and-white telly. We listened respectfully as the BBC broadcast the voice of former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who referred to my “old friend Winston.”

I was 18 and let it all flow over me. As time went on I began to wonder if Ike and Winston were really friends or did they constantly annoy each other by their differing views on the conduct of the war?

But on the day of Churchill’s funeral, my first full day so far away from home, I found comfort in Ike’s homely Kansas resonance.

Fifty-three years ago this week, Harold Wilson’s Labour government gave Sir Winston a funeral worthy of the savior of the nation.

But I wonder if some Brits also looked back upon him with mixed feelings. There is no question Sir Winston’s indomitable courage and soaring eloquence galvanized his people in their finest hour. Still, nothing was said during his funeral about his fierce imperialism and stunningly racist views, or his glorification of violence and war.

Even so, I found it an honor to be present in England as the Commonwealth said farewell to this towering figure Time magazine dubbed the Man of the Half Century.

And today I adapt an old admonition from Britain’s days of war: Keep Calm and marvel that you can remember 53-year-old events as if they are frozen in time.

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The Chaplain’s Assistants Who Won the Cold War

geezersfinal

“To most people, a veteran was a veteran – all were the same, whether one man had survived the deadliest combat or another had pounded a typewriter while in uniform.” – Eugene Sledge, World War II hero featured in the HBO series, The Pacific.

At last word, HBO had no plans to produce a sequel to Band of Brothers and The Pacific.

A proposal for a third series about Air Force typists – the chaplains’ Assistants who played a crucial role in preserving freedom in the 1960s – has been ignored by Tom Hanks.

The five minutes of out-takes from forgotten screen tests are unlikely ever to be seen, but a transcript has been rescued from the cutting room floor.

Scene 1. Close-up of a 70-something, bespectacled, goateed man, his receding gray hair covered by a worn baseball cap. He is looking at an off-screen interviewer, not at the camera. The man is struggling with his emotions.

 “I don’t know if the people back in the States ever realized the sacrifices the men and women in uniform made in the Cold War,” he is saying. “It was worse in the chapel than anywhere.”

 Cut to a plump man with a shaved head and pink face.

 “Chaplains had to have their sermons typed on time or they couldn’t preach on Sundays. And their handwriting was real terrible. One time I typed, ‘Jesus Galls Us’ and the chaplain read it out loud. The commander almost had us taken out and shot.”

 Cut to a third man wearing an obvious toupee. He has tears in his eyes.

 “I had to type the chapel bulletins and take the masters to the base print shop. If the printer was late, there were no bulletins. Without bulletins, the services fell apart. A goddamn mess.”

 The goateed man.

 “One time the bulletins didn’t show up for the Christmas Eve service. The chaplain was calling out Easter hymns. His typist collapsed under the stress – spent three months in the hospital in Lakenheath. Even after he got out, he was never the same.”

 The shaved-headed man.

 “No one thought any less of him, though. We understood. We’d all been there.”

 The toupee-wearing man.

“The chaplain was charged with protecting the mind, body and soul of the whole goddamned aerospace team. You know – the men and women who was protecting the country from the goddamn Red Menace.”

 The goateed man.

“It was our job to keep the chaplain prepared, intellectually and spiritually. The typewriter was our weapon in that war.”

 The shaved-headed man.

 “You quickly learned that the typewriter was your friend. Your only friend, really.”

 The goateed man.

 “After a while you got so you knew every bell and key on your Underwood. You could field strip it, lay all the pieces on your desk, and put it back together inside of 20 minutes.”

 The toupee-wearing man.

 “Some guys took their typewriter to bed with them.” (He stifles a sob and tries to wave the camera away.) “It got so goddamn lonely.”

The goateed man.

 “The typewriter was an essential instrument in the Cold War. We used to sing this song while we marched: ‘This is my weapon (gesturing to a typewriter), this is my gun (nodding self-consciously toward his groin), one is for working, one is for fun.’” (After moments of silence he blinks self-consciously into the camera.)

 The shaved-headed man.

 “I don’t think any of us really knew how to type right – most of us were two-finger hunt-and-peckers.”

 The goateed man.

“We didn’t get all our fingers into play, but we were fast.”

 The toupee-wearing man.

 “We were Goddamn fast.”

 The Goateed man.

 “We knew we had to be fast. If we didn’t have the sermon typed, the chaplain couldn’t preach. If the chaplain couldn’t preach, the morale of the Aerospace Team was in the toilet.”

 The shaved-headed man.

 “You know what that means.”

 The toupee-wearing man.

 “Might as well goddamn surrender.”

 The goateed man.

 “But we were very seldom late with those sermons. We didn’t think much about it then, but our typewriters and us were a helluva team.”

 The shaved-headed man.

 “I like to think of what one of my buddies said to his grandson when he asked, ‘Grandpa, were you a hero in the Cold War?’ And he replied, ‘No, I wasn’t a hero, son. But I served with typists.’”

 The goateed man.

(Holding up his two index fingers.) “Look at the callouses. These two fingers did a helluva lot of pecking for my country.”

 The Shaved-headed man.

 “Was it worth it? Hell, yeah, it was worth it. Next time you’re at a Memorial Day or Veteran’s Day parade and you see a clerk-typist in uniform, buy him a beer.”

 The toupee-wearing man.

 “Say, hail, typing guy. Your carriage return bell was the goddamn ding of freedom.”

 End of scene 1.

Addendum. True story: My 11-year-old grandson asked his father what I had done in the Air Force. My son-in-law replied, “I think Grandpa sat at a desk using a typewriter.

My grandson blinked in puzzlement.

“What,” he asked, “is a typewriter?”

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Guns and the Yahootude

By Philip E. Jenks

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January 7, 2018 – Less than a week into his term as Westchester, N.Y., County Executive, George Latimer issued an executive order banning gun shows in government buildings in the county.

Almost immediately one of Latimer’s Facebook trolls called him a hypocrite for claiming to support the Second Amendment while opposing the public display and sale of guns. Unperturbed, Latimer replied, “The right to own a gun is protected. The right to have a gun show in a public building is not.”

Probably Latimer’s decision is supported by the majority of his constituents, many of whom are appalled by the extremes the gun lobby will go to make automatic rifles and concealed weapons available to all.

Most Americans believe stricter controls should be placed on guns and gun ownership but these proposals have been consistently blocked by Republicans in Congress. Recent gun-related tragedies have been ignored by politicians except to express prayers and sympathy for the victims. it is a wonderment that Senate Republicans feel entitled to defy the wishes of the people they are supposed to represent. In my opinion, they are underestimating their presumed base, the Yahootude, into which I was born seven decades ago.

And I have no doubt that my fellow Yahootudians think allowing terrorists, the mentally ill, and domestic abusers to buy guns is a dumb ass idea. And so is the idea of selling guns to anyone who wanders into a gun show.

The Yahootude is a distinct sociological group identified by Garrison Keillor, and I’d like to think most Americans – in red states and blue states – are as proud of their Yahootudinal roots as I am.

I’d like to offer a friendly word of advice to Republicans who think they can take us for granted. Despite what you think, we can tell the difference between responsible gun use and dumb ass ideas, and someday we are going to clarify the differences at the polls.

My family has been prominent in the Yahootude since Colonial days in the U.S., and my ancestors have included politicians, soldiers, sailors, farmers, merchants, and teachers. My antecedents – women and men – could quickly prime, load, and discharge a musket when a turkey dinner winged overhead or a fox approached the henhouse.

But despite the family familiarity with firearms, I should disclose that my Dad – a WWII infantry lieutenant with an Army marksman’s badge – was ambivalent about guns.

A veteran of the bloody Buna campaign in Papua New Guinea, Dad had little patience with gunplay, imaginary or real. One Christmas when my brother Larry and I were very young, he bought us cowboy hats and Roy Rogers cap pistols, but he insisted that we not point them at each other. Larry and I exchanged conspiratorial glances and shoved the muzzles into each other’s noses.

As I grew into early teenage, Dad and I had our share of Oedipal disagreements, but the only thing he absolutely forbade was my participation in an organized war game in the woods between Cedar and North streets. (There were a lot of trees and few streets in Morrisville, N.Y.)

The game was harmless enough, actually a 1950s precursor to paintball without the paintballs. About 20 of us would divide into two warring teams. You knew you were dead when a soldier on the opposing team saw you hiding in the trees and shouted,“Pow! Phil!” and the rules required that you lay in the pine needles until the war was over. For some reason that eludes me now, I thought it was a lot of fun. But the very idea of a war game gave Dad a chill, and in unequivocal terms he declared me a conscientious objector.

Later, when I learned some of the details of his combat experience in the New Guinea jungle, I understood, but at the time I thought he was being arbitrary and reactionary.

Even so, guns were not a problem per se to Dad’s way of thinking – only the frivolous and stupid use of them.

When I turned 14 and expressed an interest in hunting, he didn’t flinch. He pulled out the .22 rifle his father had given him and said it would be perfect for target practice and small game. Then he went to the local chapter of the National Rifle Association and got himself credentialed as a gun safety instructor. He took me up to the woods and set up paper targets, all of them mounted on trees so thick the rounds could not penetrate them. Then, before he gave me the rifle, he presented me with my first NRA card and told me to read the gun safety instructions on the back. The rules included logical precautions like keeping the gun unloaded when it wasn’t in use, and – loaded or unloaded – never pointing it at anything you did not intend to shoot. The NRA also insisted that you keep your finger off the trigger when you weren’t about to shoot, to know your target and what was beyond it, and – important in our neck of the woods –never climb a fence with the gun in your arms. Modern updates to the rules include wearing goggles and ear protection when you fire a gun, but that never occurred to us in 1960.

As time went on, Dad offered the same training to all my brothers and to my sister. I took the .22, and later a 20-gauge shotgun, into the woods a few times before my interests turned to more effete pursuits. I rarely shot an animal, not because I didn’t shoot at them but because rabbits and pheasants (and rats at the dump) are artful dodgers. On the rare occasion that I shot something, even a rat, I found it a nauseating experience and I quickly lost interest in the whole gun thing.

Looking back, I’m struck by Dad’s haunted expression in a photo that was taken when he bagged a deer during a hunt with his principal and fellow teachers. Dad had just mustered out of the army and was readjusting to civilian life. He had no interest in shooting a living creature, but his instincts as a sharp shooter must have taken over. God knows what terrible memories it brought back.

Dad’s training did serve me well when I joined the Air Force. I was comfortable around the M-1 carbine and could shoot it accurately enough to earn the Air Force expert marksmen’s ribbon – the only decoration I earned for doing something other than showing up. But by the time I had spent hundreds of cold hours on guard duty on a USAFE base in England, my interest in firearms began to ebb.

Finally, one incident turned me into an anti-gun person.

When I was 19 I used to sit next to a major’s wife on bus trips to London. At the time I regarded officers’ wives as an untouchable and certainly unattainable species, but she was young, beautiful, and spoke softly with a seductive Alabama accent. She may have sensed the crush I had on her because she talked constantly about her husband, an F4C fighter pilot. “He’s just mah AH-ll,” she’d say, batting her eyelashes, and I’d try not to look jealous. She was openly flirtatious with other airman, too, and it crossed my mind to wonder what her husband thought about that. A few weeks later, the major reported he accidentally shot and killed her while cleaning his pistol. I don’t know how you could accidentally discharge a revolver if the cylinder is open for cleaning, but the brass dismissed the event  as a tragic mishap. Even then, I didn’t blame the gun. I blamed the damn fool who didn’t follow simple NRA guidelines.

Growing up in Madison County, N.Y., was certainly a gun-intensive experience. In the 18 years I spent there, I learned that guns were fun when used right, and bad when used stupidly. And they were used stupidly at times. During hunting season, we’d hear stories of errant rounds whizzing past people’s heads or into their laundry because distant hunters weren’t following NRA rules. And Uncle Bob (the deer hunter in my family) would warn us with widening eyes not to shoot a gun straight into the air no matter what we were celebrating, because the damn bullets would come right back at you with the same velocity. He never told us how he knew that.

As a senior member of the Yahootude, I’d like to lay out some views I think all Yahootudians have in common. We don’t think everyone should be allowed to have a gun. We think persons who buy guns should be able to prove their mental stability, no matter how long a background check may take. We don’t think anyone should own an assault weapon so powerful that, even if it were used to defend a home, the bullet could pass through the home invader, the living room wall, the house next door, and kill any living creature in its path. And we don’t think any one person should accumulate enough guns to attack a small army, because that’s what they may end up doing.

We hold these views as self-evident because, unlike the NRA-owned members of the Senate, we have been keeping an eye on the toll guns have taken  in our country.

And we’re not the only ones. Even before recent gun rampages, millions of non-Yahoo Americans favored more effective control of guns.

According to the Pew Research Center, 79 percent of Republicans and 88 percent of Democrats favor background checks for gun shows and private gun sales.

Seventy percent want a federal database to track gun sales, and 57 percent want a ban on assault style weapons.

Almost no one thinks it’s a good idea to allow terror suspects to buy guns.

There are reasons to be angry at Republicans who think they can defy public opinion with impunity and among the most important are the 58 persons killed and 546 injured last October when a gunman opened fire on a music festival in Las Vegas. Also the 49 LGBT people who were shot dead in Orlando by a deranged man who had no difficulty purchasing a Sig Sauer MCX assault rifle.

The Las Vegas and Orlando massacres, which took place months after 9 members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church were shot in Charleston, S.C., are not isolated events. According to a count by the Washington Post, 869 people have been killed in 126 mass shootings since Aug. 1, 1966, when ex-Marine sniper Charles Whitman killed his wife and mother, then climbed a 27-story tower at the University of Texas and killed 14 more people before police shot him to death.

But even these events pale in comparison to how guns are used every day in America.

Every day, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, 297 people in the U.S. are shot in murders, assaults, suicides, suicide attempts, unintentional shootings, and police intervention. Every day, 89 of those people die from their wounds.

Every year, according to the Brady Campaign, 108,000 people are shot in America in murders, assaults, domestic violence, accidental shooting, and police actions. Some 32,500 die, and 75,960 survive their wounds.

The rate of murder with guns is 25 percent higher in the U.S. than in other developed countries, according to the American Journal of Medicine. An American is ten times more likely to be killed by guns than persons living in other developed countries.

But those of us who grew up in the sticks – in the Yahootude –understand that guns were an essential tool in the building of the nation, and guns continue to be a wholesome and enjoyable instrument for recreational activities like hunting, skeet shooting and target practice.

We may even try to argue the legal nuances of the Second Amendment with each other, although most of us understand that when Mr. Madison wrote it he was thinking about state militias, not hunters.

But don’t be fooled by the way we wear our baseball caps backward or smear oil on our foreheads when we lube our cars. We’re not dumb.

And most Yahootudians I know will tell you to your face: allowing any damn fool who walks into a gun shop  to buy concealed weapons and assault rifles with little or no background is a dumb ass idea.

So stop writing us off. We know dumb ass when we see it. And the time may come when we’ll start expressing our views with our votes.

________

The author is a resident of Port Chester, N.Y.

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Lost in the White House 1996

hillarycrash

January 1, 2018. New Year’s Day is a time of reminiscing and I came across this December 2009 essay in my blogs. It tells the story of a happy experience in the White House in 1996. The Divine M and I met Hillary and Al and Tipper and wandered unsupervised in the historic halls. Back then, the White House was a venue of intellectual stimulation and hope. I only wish I had thought to warn Hillary to be careful with her emails.

When Michaele and Tareq Salahi appeared unexpected (at least by the Secret Service) at President Obama’s first state dinner last week it ignited an international headline frenzy.

The Salahis now say they were invited to the bash, despite White House insistence that they were not on any list of invitees. But admid the confusion, one thing is clear: the couple’s surprise visit to the Obamas remains big news.

For my spouse Martha and me, however, the Salahi’s caper sparked a sense of deja vu. We, too, have wandered unscripted through the ornate corridors of the White House.

What distinguished us from the Salahis is that no one noticed. Sure, our sober business apparel was not as attention-getting as Michaele’s stunning red sari or Tareq’s opulent tux. Photographic evidence provided by the White House suggests we could have been mistaken for Congressional aides or Calvary Baptist Church ushers. Too, it was a different era – first term Clinton Administration – and Plebian populists may have been allowed to wander the White House at all hours. But the Divine M and I contend that we crashed the White House just as brazenly as the Salahis. Even if it didn’t start out that way.

It all began on a chilly, gray day in late winter 1996 — March 4, to be exact. Martha was the official invitee to the White House. As communications director of Church Women United (CWU), she and other ecumenical leaders – including National Council of Churches General Secretary Joan Brown Campbell – were invited to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to accept the First Lady’s thanks for their support of V-Chip technology that controls what children see on television.

I had never heard of V-Chip nor was I invited to be thanked for it. I was, as was often the case in those years, merely tagging along with my spouse on interesting junkets. Even so, when M asked if I would like to tag along to the White House, I weighed the alternative – visiting the mustache wax exhibition at the Smithsonian – and said yes. She called a mysterious contact at the White House to ask if she could bring an escort and I was quickly added to the list.

I can’t remember where our hotel was, but I recall walking most of the way to the White House. I also remember standing next to Joan Brown Campbell at the gate where our IDs were checked. Joan, a friend of ours, was also a front-rank Friend of Bill’s, so she had been to the White House countless times and was probably not as excited about it as I was.

Martha, too, was calm. Her role as director of communication for CWU had placed her in frequent contact with the First Lady’s staff and she had also once stood in the rose garden with Bill and Nelson Mandela. In 1977 I had been among a kajillion religious journalists invited to the Carter White House, but that wasn’t quite enough to qualify as a grizzled old White House hand. The truth is, I was excited.

Thirteen years on, I can’t remember details about the layout of the White House. The invitees were escorted down a historic hallway into what could have been the State Dining Room. First Lady Hillary Clinton, dressed Superwoman-like in a colbalt-blue suit, welcomed the group and introduced Vice President Al Gore and Tipper Gore, both tireless V-Chip advocates. (Bill was not there.)

Hillary thanked everyone for their courageous support for the device that enables parents to prevent children from seeing television violence while I silently fretted about the fate of beloved visions of Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner blood-bouts.

With everyone properly thanked, the First Lady invited us back down the hall (perhaps to the East Room) where a sumptuous coffee break had been laid out before us — long tables laden with silver coffee urns, silver trays filled with scones, cookies, chocolate truffles, cakes, sandwiches and assorted beverages. The spread was so splendid that I wondered if the taxes M and I were filing jointly that year would pay for it.

But before I could stuff my pockets with cookies, we were invited to a receiving line to shake hands with persons I assumed to be future presidents of the United States, including Hillary and Al. We exchanged a few words with Al and Tipper, prompting me to reflect briefly on what historians would conclude if they could record all the meaningless banality that is exchanged between political leaders and their constituents. Hillary, who often seems austere and distant on television, seems gracious, warm and even a bit vulnerable when she’s taking your hand. Martha has met Hillary on a number of occasions and I thought Hillary recognized her as they shook hands. Or perhaps the First Lady was simply recognizing a woman with a smile very much like her own.

As soon as we got through the reception line, the crowd of V-Chip radicals dwindled away. Hillary, Al and Tipper disappeared to wherever politicians go when their duty is finished and Martha and I found ourselves alone in a darkened White House hallway.

I wished I had filled my pocket with cookies, but then I had a more pressing thought. “I wonder if they have a bathroom in this place,” I mused. “In the White House?” Martha replied. “What do you think?” I looked around and saw a young White House staffer walking toward us.

“Excuse me,” I said. “Is there a bathroom?”

“Just down the hall,” the young woman said.

“Are we allowed …?”

“Of course.” And she disappeared.

Martha and I exchanged dubious glances and we began inching our way down the empty corridor. We found the bathroom and pushed open the door. It wasn’t the bathroom equipment that was impressive — the commode and sink probably dated back to the Truman renovation of the White House in 1948 — but the wallpaper looked like it would have added dignity to the Lincoln bedroom. “We’ve got to take pictures,” Martha said, pulling a camera from her purse.

We stood brazenly in front of the commode and flashed toothy Rooseveltian grins, photographing each other in historic stances. “Oh, look,” Martha said, pulling a paper towel out of a glistening silver dispenser. The towel was embossed with the presidential seal. We stuffed out pockets with paper towels (one of which is still suitably framed at home). Outside, the long hallway was dark and deserted. “How do we get out of here?” I asked Martha, whose sense of direction is as bad as mine.

We walked slowly so as not to attract the attention of any presidential ghosts in the corridor. Where was the staff? Where were the tourist guides?

We started peeking through open doorways into rooms that were strangely familiar. Portraits of presidents and first ladies hung on walls. A red room. A blue room. Just as I began to think they had locked-up the White House for the night, we wandered into what could have been the White House green room. I’m not sure about the color, but I recall a portrait of Benjamin Franklin hanging over a white fireplace, and a smaller portrait of Dolly Madison on the adjoining wall.

As we were studying the portraits, a bored young man wearing a pressed suit and an earphone appeared at the door. “You’re really not supposed to be in here,” he said.

Busted, I thought. But Martha quickly handed him her camera. “Would you take our picture?” she asked, flashing a Hillary Clinton smile. “Um. Oh, sure,” he said. Martha and I grinned again and were immortalized in film in an empty White House room.

The young man led us to a glimmer of light at the end of the hallway. We walked out the door into the cold, gray air.

They say the ghost of Abraham Lincoln walks the White House hallways. We didn’t see him, but we got to see the same things he sees. The White House, dark and empty, devoid of people.

March 4, 1996. The day the Divine M and I crashed the White House.

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Wenching

wenchingandwranglingThe debauchery arc of the universe is long, and it bends toward boys.

At least in our dreams. Even Jimmy Carter said he lusted in his heart, but the only surprise there is that Fox News never found out with whom.

Wicked temptation is particularly rife in adolescence when hormones blaze like bonfires and fantasies of sex recycle every five minutes like Liberty Insurance commercials. But the embers of lust never dim and most of us boys learn early that it’s important to keep our carnal urges under control. My mother’s social code, imparted early to my three brothers and me, was be nice and keep your hands to yourself. As we grew older and left the confines of the United Church of Morrisville, N.Y., we wrote our own codicils to the code. I like the way New York Times columnist Charles Blow puts it: “Consenting adults should feel free to express their attractions as they please without shame or guilt. Just play safe.”

Blow wrote those words less than a month ago amid a deluge of news stories about men who never learned to keep their hands and penises to themselves. In his November 19 column, “This is a Man Problem,” Blow added his own codicil: “But, there is no ‘sex’ without consent. To believe that is a twisting of terminology . . . Rape is not sex; it’s rape. Unwanted touching is not sexy; it’s assault. Sexual advances in a professional environment, particularly from a position of power, are highly inappropriate and could be illegal.”

For weeks following reports that film mogul Harvey Weinstein is an abuser and rapist, thousands of courageous women have decided they have had enough. Inspired in part by the #MeToo social media movement, women no longer hesitate to confront their abuser(s) for fear of losing their jobs or not being believed.

To be sure, the movement has led men to examine their own past to count the number of times their rushing hands and roaming fingers crossed consensual lines. In a recent interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, comedian Patton Oswalt spoke for a lot of us guys:

I’ve had to sit down these last few weeks and I’m going through my head – and I hope every other guy is doing this, of not even, like, physical acts — but, “Was there a remark that I made? Was there a way that I put things?” You’re just constantly now thinking of that. I see a lot of people saying, “Oh what, men are now supposed to triple-, quadruple-, quintuple-think everything that they say and do?” And you go, “Well, clearly women have had to double-, triple-, quintuple- think and say everything that they do, and look at all that they can achieve and do with that load on them! Can we maybe take a little bit of the slack? Will that be OK, Mr. Alpha Male?

Brother Patton makes a good point because confession is good for the soul, not because God is unaware of our bad behavior but because it makes ourselves aware of how far we have strayed. The Psalmist explains it this way: (Psalm 119:26-29)

When I told of my ways, you answered me;
teach me your statutes.
Make me understand the way of your precepts,
and I will meditate on your wondrous works.
My soul melts away for sorrow;
strengthen me according to your word.
Put false ways far from me;
and graciously teach me your law.

Indeed many of the men accused of predatory behavior have confessed their sins and apologized to their victims.

But there are notable exceptions. The nation’s most visible predators have flatly denied their behavior, despite the word of numerous very credible accusers. Congressman John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.) resigned without apologizing to a former staff woman after dismissing her claims of abuse as lies.

And the nation’s president continues to dismiss his several accusers as liars. How long he can do this remains to be seen because he may have to face at least one of them, Summer Zervos, in New York State court where he would be deposed under oath.

Yet Mr. Trump blithely denies a long string of abuse accusations by different women and so far the issue of his moral turpitude has not dismayed his small but loyal Republican base. Mr. Trump’s confidence in his dwindling base has led him to support Alabama Judge Roy Moore, an accused serial pedophile, for a U.S. Senate seat. When supporters of Trump and Moore are asked why they continue to support the two accused malefactors, the common reply is, “What about Bill Clinton?” President Clinton, who has confessed and begged forgiveness for his sins, was impeached for lying under oath but not removed from office.

Most logicians will dismiss as nonsense the idea that it’s okay for Trump to be a sexual predator because Clinton was one, too.

But perhaps it’s understandable that Trump supporters in the deploratude think like that because the history of presidential sexual misconduct goes way back.

According to historian James Thomas Flexner, it began with the youthful flings of our first president.

“Although (George Washington) drank and gambled and (we gather) wenched as did his officers, he was known as a stern disciplinarian in military matters,” Flexner wrote in 1965 in the first of his six volume biography.

 

The use of “wenched” as an intransitive verb is an effort to shift the onus from the great wencher to the irrelevant woman with whom he went wenching.

If we accept the second dictionary definition of “wench” as “prostitute,” it’s a case of boys being boys.

If, however, we accept the dictionary’s first definition of “wench” as “servant girl,” to use her as a means of wenching sounds more like boys raping.

No one knows whether young George’s women were willing partners, but it doesn’t really matter. Even as a young officer, he was a white aristocrat who probably considered farm and pub girls as his inferiors. He knew he had power over them whether they liked it or not.

George Washington, as Flexner points out, created many precedents as the nation’s first president. Some of those precedents paved the way for powerful men to seek sex from powerless women anytime they got an itch. Jefferson impregnated at least one of his slave women. Cleveland conceived a child out of wedlock. Harding explored hidden spaces in the White House to have sex with a young woman. FDR and Ike were unfaithful to their wives and LBJ had several mistresses. John Kennedy’s sexual appetite was breathtaking; he once told British Prime Minister Harold McMillan that if he didn’t have a different woman every three days he got terrible head aches.

Because bedrooms of yore were private places, we will never really know how many other presidents took advantage of powerless women. No doubt most of the men who occupied the White House were upright men who were faithful to their wives and treated women with respect. I’m sure that list includes Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.

But the aggressive disrespect Mr. Trump has shown for women is migraine inducing. His current support for an Alabama pedophile makes it obvious that he has no plans to change his attitude toward sex and women. Clearly he is not going to sit down and reassess his life and the harm he has done to his fellow human beings, as Patton Oswalt urges all us guys to do.

That’s too bad. Because as thousands of women are letting it be known that they will no longer tolerate crude and abusive behavior by men, we could use a little male moral leadership to speak on behalf of us guys: sisters, you are right, and we have been deplorable. We vow hereinafter to show you the respect you deserve.

But Mr. Trump will remain  smugly quiet. And to be sure, there is little he can say at this point to erase the words that will be carved in granite on the walls of his presidential library:

“Grab ‘em by the pussy. You can do anything.”

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