Thomas Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty

This is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.

John F. Kennedy, during a 1962 Nobel Prize dinner

The title above is a biography by John B. Boles that I just finished. Normally I’d do a book review, but the subject himself is so fascinating I’d rather just riff on Jefferson than critique the book. Buckle your seat belts.

Suffice to say, Boles’s book is a good one-volume treatment of Jefferson.  It’s easy to read and well-sourced.  Fairly comprehensive. Maybe a bit too adulatory, but at least honest.

Before discussing Jefferson, I have to say I was somewhat surprised by what I learned about several other “Founders,” or sub-Founders.  Although popular today because of that Broadway play, I had no idea that Federalist and Jefferson nemesis Alexander Hamilton was such an outright bastard.  His poisonous lies and relentless invective make Trump look like a Cub Scout.  (Okay, maybe not.)

I also had no idea that the man who killed Hamilton in a duel, Aaron Burr (Jefferson’s first-term vice-president), was such a self-centered, scheming treasonist.

And I especially didn’t know that Jefferson hated fellow Virginian Patrick Henry.  Although a great orator (“Give me Liberty or give me Death!”), Henry evidently didn’t read books and wasn’t very smart.  He actually proposed imposing a dictatorship when the American Revolution began going badly.  For years, Jefferson ridiculed him mercilessly at the dinner table.

Aaron Burr (left) and Alexander Hamilton (right)

But back to the dinner topic at hand…there are some things most of us know, or should know, about Thomas Jefferson.  He was the third American president and a Founding Father chosen to author the United States Declaration of Independence, the iconic written diatribe against King George III detailing why American colonists chose to break from England to form their own country, and which was signed by 55 other congressional delegates from the 13 colonies.

More than any other Founder, Jefferson exalted the ideas of democracy and individual conscience. Along with fellow Democrat-Republican and protégé James Madison, he conceived the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and which separates religion from all levels of government. (Government-imposed religion was an absolute given in the Old Country.) He modeled it after the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which he’d also authored three years earlier as Governor of that colony.

As for his own religion, although considering himself a Christian, Jefferson was a deist who felt the Christian faith had become corrupted by disciples after Jesus’s death. Jefferson was a leading light of the Age of Enlightenment, an admirer of philosophers John Locke and Thomas Paine (Common Sense, The Age of Reason).  Throughout his life he was fascinated by science and adhered to reason and rationality over superstition.  He considered Jesus the most moral philosopher the world has known, but did not believe in his divinity.  He created his own Jefferson Bible by excising everything supernatural from the New Testament.  (Printings of his bible are available at a bookstore near you.)

Jefferson lived at a plantation he called Monticello, which he carved out of a mountain outside Charlottesville, Virginia using slave labor. He developed it over a period of 40 years.  (Monticello is pictured on the U.S. nickel, the flip side of Jefferson’s profile.)  Here, he established a 1,000-foot-long terraced vegetable garden that grew 330 varieties of vegetables and 170 varieties of fruits.  As a politician he championed the small farmer, was a pioneer of sustainable agriculture, and was one of the country’s great epicures.

As president, Jefferson doubled the size of America by overseeing the purchase of the western Louisiana territory from Napoleon Bonaparte of France.  It cost the U.S. all of four cents an acre.  He then organized a successful exploration of the unknown lands by his secretary, Meriwether Lewis, exponentially increasing America’s knowledge of Western geography, archaeology, flora, fauna, and Indian tribes.

Meriwether Lewis

After the Library of Congress was burnt by invading British during the War of 1812, Jefferson sold his personal collection of 6,487 volumes to restart the library.  They replaced the collection that Jefferson had earlier recommended the library acquire.

Just before his death in 1826, Jefferson conceived, founded, was principal architect for, and chose the curriculum and faculty for one of America’s most respected public universities, the University of Virginia.  He was “convinced that the people (white males) are the sole depositories of their own liberty, & that they are not safe unless enlightened to a certain degree.” (I tried to gain entrance to UVA in 1977 but was rejected.  In 2005 I visited Monticello, and revisited the campus while our daughter was touring colleges.  Everyone at both places politely referred to him as “Mister Jefferson,” as if he was still alive.)

Along with designing the university, Jefferson also oversaw the layout for the nation’s new capitol grounds at Washington D.C., and his neoclassical architectural designs set the precedent for future U.S. federal structures.

Jefferson was probably the most intelligent and worldly of all the Founding Fathers. (Benjamin Franklin is up there, too.)  Although ambitious, his patience, even-temperedness, humility, and knowledge were renowned amongst his political peers, including George Washington, who made him Secretary of State and often consulted him.  Like so many in the 18th and 19th centuries, he experienced profound death and tragedy, losing his wife Martha at a young age, along with children and grandchildren.

Jefferson lived 83 years, dying the same day as his onetime rival but beloved friend, second President John Adams. It was 50 years to the day after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. He wrote his own epitaph.  It was simple and reflected his humble public persona, stipulating what he was most proud of: Author of the Declaration of Independence (and) of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom & Father of the University of Virginia.  Of his being president for two terms and his presidential accomplishments…nothing.

Monticello

As exceptional a human being as Jefferson was, his enlightenment was tempered by his place and time.  Even during his lifetime rumors swirled of a slave concubine (in today’s parlance, “sex toy”) known as “Black Sal” or “Dusky Sally.”

For 200 years historians have grappled with whether slaveholder Jefferson fathered children with a quadroon “servant” named Sally Hemings.  A DNA study in 1998 concluded there was a high probability he was the father of at least one of Hemings’s six children.  However, that study also said Jefferson “can neither be definitely excluded nor solely implicated…”

Presently, most Jefferson scholars and historians, including the Thomas Jefferson Foundation—through combining the DNA findings with written evidence—conclude he did father children by her (not surprisingly, Hemings descendants do as well). Biographer Boles goes further to suggest their “relationship” was “founded on shared tenderness and love” and that “the sexual attraction between Jefferson and Hemings was likely mutual…” 

I find Boles’s suggestion of romantic love between master and slave plausible, but unnerving, and it’s one of the few criticisms I have of his book [in addition to some qualified language such as “Jefferson rarely (sold slaves),” “he made an effort (not to separate mothers from their children),” he “(only sold his slaves) out of economic necessity,” and “Jefferson’s theoretical opposition to (whipping)”].

It was in Paris between 1787 and 1789 while Jefferson was American minister to France that their (probable) intimacies probably began.  Hemings was a teenager who was acting as companion to Jefferson’s younger daughter, Maria.  By several contemporary accounts, Hemings was extremely beautiful, with “very light skin; long, straight black hair.”

Slavery had been illegal in France since Louis X in 1315. Was Hemings technically free while on French soil despite being owned by an American? If so, did Jefferson think this mitigated a middle-aged widower like himself having sex with a young, uneducated, recent ex-slave? Did love blossom either before or after she agreed to return to the states with him? Can love even exist between a master and servant/slave, or is it always rape?

Soap opera aside, bottom line is Jefferson owned people. Any additional moral crimes stem from that original sin.

Sally Hemings was born in 1773. Her white father, John Wayles, was Thomas Jefferson’s father-in-law. She died in 1835 and there are no photos or drawings of her. This is a detail from a Monticello “Farm Book,” displaying her four children: Harriet, Madison, Eston, and Beverley. Notably, all were named after friends or relatives of Jefferson (Madison after James Madison).

In his meager defense, Jefferson successfully banned American importation of Africans. And despite unenlightened views on racial equality/inequality, he opposed slavery throughout his life and, at least at the start of his political career, tried to abolish it through state and federal legislation.  Of course, his efforts were fruitless, primarily due to violently intransigent southern politicians who, two generations later, would finally have their apocalypse. Of the roughly 200 slaves owned by Jefferson during his life, he freed only two.  He freed five more in his will.  Three more left Monticello with Jefferson’s consent.  All except two were domestic help and part of the Hemings family.

As I expected, while Boles justifiably devotes extensive print to slavery and Jefferson’s immersion in it, his coverage of Jefferson’s American Indian policies and affairs, including their removal, is woefully inadequate. So I’ll offer a few paragraphs on that subject.

Jefferson the amateur anthropologist admired Indians and believed they were superior to blacks physically, intellectually, and culturally, and also that they might eventually become ingratiated into white agrarian society as equals.  But even here there was a great hypocrisy.  He stipulated to Meriwether Lewis that the Corps of Discovery restrain from any acts of hostility toward Indians they might encounter…but he also hungered for the land they inhabited. 

In an 1803 letter to William Henry Harrison, who was then the territorial governor of Indiana, President Jefferson outlined a devious policy of using government trading posts to drive Indians into debt so they would more easily “lop (the debts) off by a cession of lands.”

And when a patronizing Jefferson addressed a delegation of Shawnee and other Indian tribes in 1809, hoping to win them over from the British, he threatened that “the tribe which shall begin an unprovoked war against us, we will extirpate (exterminate) from the earth or drive to such a distance as they shall never again be able to strike us.”

Then, as now, enlightenment only goes so far.

Indian Head nickel and Jefferson nickel: opposing views of Liberty

Originally, I ended my post with the pithy statement above. Then I thought, who am I? Thomas Jefferson deserves better. After rereading the Introduction in Boles’s book, I landed on this excellent paragraph, which perfectly summarizes how I feel. Anyway…thanks for taking time to read all of this. Peace.

We should not expect (Jefferson) to have embraced the values of a cosmopolitan, progressive person of the twenty-first century. How could he have possibly done so? Instead, we should try to understand the constraints—legal, financial, personal, intellectual—under which he lived. To understand certainly does not mean to approve or even forgive; rather, it means to comprehend why Jefferson made the kinds of decisions he made and saw the world as he did. He was a gentle, well-educated, idealistic man who sought—by his lights—to do right. Yet at times he acted in ways we now find abhorrent. Appreciating how this can be so is the task of the Jefferson scholar, the student of history, and perhaps every American citizen.

Critiquing the Critics

The Wall Street Journal not only honored Jack Kerouac’s 100th birthday (see my last post), but the same issue had an article entitled “Why Millennials Want Their Parents’ Vinyl Records.” The sub-title was “Sales of LPs soared during the pandemic as younger listeners discovered their nostalgic and sensory appeal.”

For years I’ve tried to get my millennial son to understand this. Maybe it’s finally kicking in.

On that note, when I was even younger than Nick is now, I made the discovery of music appreciation books, guides, and encyclopedias. They assisted me when, as a teenager, I began compiling my (now massive) record collection that I hope to one day bestow on Nick.  They helped me peel back layers to reveal all sorts of juicy musical fruit under the outer skin.

Paul Gambaccini

Just recently I revisited an old book that I’d once pored over while wasting time in Walden Books at the local mall.  It’s called Rock Critics’ Choice: The Top 200 Albums. It was compiled way back in 1978 during the Pleistocene Age, when the publication of rock music books began catching up with magazines like New Musical Express, Melody Maker, Crawdaddy, Rolling Stone, and Creem. The compiler was a venerable BBC presenter named Paul Gambaccini (an interesting man, in more ways than one).

Rock critics you say?  Someone once called them frustrated rock musicians.  Musician Lou Reed was more succinct.  He called them “scum.”

I wouldn’t go that far, but as with everything, there are good ones and bad ones.  In their defense, rock critics provide potential purchasers with insights into music that circumvent “record company advertising (and) the squeals of the loudest fans.”  It’s nice to have a temperate and unbiased guide before one contributes one’s hard-earned cash to Artie Fufkin of Polymer Records. 

Most rock fans, especially in the U.S., get their music from the radio or television.  But deejays and “veejays” have always been at the mercy of their employer, or corporate wankers like Fufkin.

Rock critics cut through the hype (sometimes) and were helpful when I became a serious listener in the 1970s. Rock Critics’ Choice in particular introduced me to artists I might otherwise never have heard.  The other book so beneficial to me over the years has been The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, compiled by Nick Logan and Bob Woffinden of New Musical Express.

(Last month, during one of my late-night vinyl appreciation sessions, I joyously re-listened to Edgar Broughton Band’s album Oora, which Illustrated Encyclopedia had led me to.  Talk about a great unknown record.)

Anyway, back to Rock Critics’ Choice…compiler Gambaccini queried about 50 of his print and radio colleagues, asking them to list what they consider the ten greatest rock albums, in order of greatness.  He defined “greatness” as whatever criteria the particular critic wanted to use.  He permitted “Best Of” and “Greatest Hits” collections. (Not sure I’d allow that.)  For fair and diverse representation, he consulted critics who were male, female, young, old, white, black, American, British, Canadian, French, Jamaican, and Eskimo.

He then tallied the results and assigned points to each album.  (I assume an album in the first position got 10 points, and tenth position got one point.)

Unlike those ubiquitous Rolling Stone lists, quoted everywhere and which are heavy on mainstream rock and dripping with set-in-stone conceit, Gambaccini’s book is looser and more democratic. It permits diversity (both critic and music) and honors both rock establishment (i.e. classic rock) as well as cult artists.

I found his ultimate Top 200 list predictable in some ways, but surprising in others.

Predictably, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones dominated the top positions.  Also predictably, older critics leaned toward early rock ‘n’ roll (Elvis, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and the like).  There were a lot of soul records, ala Otis Redding, the Miracles, Stevie Wonder, etc.  Some choices teetered over the boundaries of rock (Huey “Piano” Smith, B.B. King, Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew).

The book also had some truly oddball choices.  For example, a minor South African actress named Genevieve Waїte (note deliberate umlaut over the “i”) made one and only one album in 1975 called Romance Is On The Rise.  It made two critics’ lists, clocking in overall at number 98.  It’s actually more of a John Phillips (Mamas and Papas) album with his then-wife doing the singing.  She sounds like a disco version of Cyndi Lauper trying to imitate Billie Holiday.  I concluded Genevieve must have been a flavor of the moment.

Michael Nesmith, who got off to a dubious musical start with the Monkees, actually had talent. One critic, however—as his number one greatest album of all time—selected Nesmith’s solo country-rock effort And The Hits Just Keep On Comin‘.  Though I’ve yet to hear it, this offbeat choice also raised my incredulous eyebrow.

Another critic chose as his list topper a collection by the R&B group The “5” Royales (note deliberate quotation marks around the numeral). I appreciate certain fifties music from a historical perspective, but this elicited more head scratching. My guess is that the Royales’ song “Dedicated to the One I Love” might have been playing in this particular critic’s Buick Roadmaster the first time he got laid.

One cheeky rebel without a cause listed a bootleg album, by Bob Dylan and the Band.

The book’s lone Canadian critic, for both his number one and number three picks, listed Supertramp albums.  Yes, you heard right. Respectfully, sir, I have to take issue with your thinking.

Another critic, the late Robert Shelton, had no less than three Bob Dylan albums in his top ten.  But considering Shelton virtually launched Dylan’s career in 1961 with his New York Times review of a performance at Gerdes Folk City—and considering it’s Bob Dylan, not Supertramp—I can forgive Shelton’s zeal.

Rock Critics’ Choice is an enjoyable little book—great bathroom reading—and like I said, when it came out in 1978 it prodded me to explore music I wouldn’t otherwise have explored.  The book’s only negative is its vintage.  Although punk bands like the Clash and Ramones are represented, it was published before new wave, alternative, indie, thrash, grunge, rap, hip-hop, and other assorted popular flavors of rock.

But if you’re a baby boomer like me whose era was the late fifties through the mid-seventies, this book provides pleasurable non-think entertainment, and spurs one to make one’s own list.  My own top 10 “greatest” list had five albums that made the top 20 of Rock Critics’ Choice: Highway 61 Revisited by Bob Dylan (ranked number 3 in RCC), Rubber Soul by The Beatles (number 5), Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys (number 12), The Velvet Underground And Nico by the Velvet Underground (number 14), and Forever Changes by Love (number 16).

My champion pick, The Velvet Underground And Nico, was listed by many of Gambaccini’s cohorts and made number 14, but only one picked it to top her list: New York critic Lisa Robinson.  Lou Reed and I like her.

Of course, the term “greatest” is entirely subjective (excepting Muhammad Ali, who truly was The Greatest). But if you have a pre-1979 rock album or albums you consider deserving of this descriptor, and wish to share them here, leave a comment and I’ll see where they rank in Rock Critics’ Choice.

(And the vinyl just keeps on spinnin’…)

Yes, Jack Kerouac Still Matters

Babysitting my granddaughters the other day, my eye caught a headline in my son-in-law’s The Wall Street Journal, which lay on the marble kitchen countertop of their suburban home. It concerned long-deceased writer Jack Kerouac. His 100th birthday was March 12.

I thought it ironic that this birthday was recognized by a publication like The Wall Street Journal.  Kerouac’s lifestyle and philosophies seemed a conscious rejection of everything which that newspaper represents.

I also thought it ironic that he was born only a few months before my dad. The two of them couldn’t have been more unlike (and I’m forever thankful of that).

No American writer has experienced such a mixture of worship, mockery, and vilification than Kerouac. My belief is that most who hate him have read little if any of his novels or poetry. Some undoubtedly bring their political or cultural prejudices to the table.  His early critics were literary and social conventionalists. After the 1960s, his critics, most of them older than 30, saw him as dated and trite.

A few surprising facts to shake up the myths: Kerouac was plagued his entire life by guilt inflicted by the Catholic Church, as well as the early death of his older brother, Gerard, whom he worshipped; he had a deep understanding of classic world literature; he pioneered “spontaneous prose” but continually reworked what he spontaneously wrote; he hated being labeled the “King of the Beat Generation” and almost sued the producers of the exploitative TV show Route 66; unlike friend and fellow beat Allen Ginsberg, he was baffled by the hippie counterculture that both writers had inadvertently spawned; he (reputedly) watched TV airings of HUAC hearings while simultaneously smoking marijuana and cheering for Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

A less surprising fact: he wrote the Great American Novel. Maybe the most American.

Like many, I read On the Road while in college.  (I discovered it on my own; no university English professor would dare assign that book.)  And like all who read it, it kindled a brush fire under my ass, flinging me behind the wheel of my car to travel across America…twice…loving everything and everybody along the way.

On the Road got under my skin like no other book ever has.

Flash forward forty years, and I’m astonished at how and why I fell under Kerouac’s spell.  In 1979, when I first tentatively read Road (I’ve read it five times total, and several other Kerouac books), the author had been dead ten years.  Road had been in print for 22 years.  Kerouac’s (Sal Paradise’s) first car trip with Neal Cassady (Dean Moriarty) was ten years before that.   

How could someone’s experiences from just two years after the end of World War II have such a visceral effect on a starry-eyed kid who, in two years, would be scratching his head over the popularity of a corporate phenomenon called MTV?  From Charlie Parker to Haircut 100? Are you fucking serious? The times, indeed, had a-changed.

Today, wrapped in the “forlorn rags of growing old,” I cringe when recalling some of the dangerous behaviors on my own road trip, in direct emulation of my hero.  (“Did I really do that?”)  But I was young, and young people play-act and do dumb things.  Thankfully, I didn’t get shot, or catch hepatitis or HIV…or end up a morose alcoholic, living with his mother, dead in central Florida at age 47.  Significantly, neither am I the poet Kerouac was.

I probably took the emulation bit somewhat farther than most—I kept my paperback copy of Road in the glovebox of my ’79 Chevy Impala as motel rooms store copies of the Holy Bible—but that doesn’t negate the fact that I had a fantastic time trying to emulate him, and would never trade in that naivety. 

I have flashes of that old sensation: anticipating leaving home to plunge into the red-orange glow of the West when I was 23.  It was the openness of possibility and discovery, of being young and unencumbered, of experiencing freedom in America for the first time.

I haven’t done research, but I wonder how many college kids or grown-up kids today read On the Road.  I’m afraid to find out. I don’t think it matters. That book has made a permanent imprint.

They look and talk differently today, but young people still have Kerouac in their veins, cell technology notwithstanding, and even if they don’t know it and can’t verbalize their motivations. I met them last year while thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. They’re willing to, at least for a while, reject Dow Jones & Company, Inc.  They’re old enough yet bold enough to chance a great adventure and love everybody and everything along the way.  Crazy enough to dirt-bag one of America’s trails, or start a rock band, or follow a band around the country, or suspend time while suspending themselves by rope against a rock face.

In six weeks, at the A.T. trailhead at Wind Gap, Pennsylvania, I’ll join them again.  (I defy the golf course and fishing rod.)  It won’t be the same as when I was 23, but I can still capture shards of that fading feeling. I’ve got God on my side, and “don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear?”

Those of us in the know are still with you, Jack.  Belated Happy 23rd Birthday.

Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac (photo by Carolyn Cassady)

“A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam”—Book Review

Fifty years ago this June 9, John Vann died when the helicopter he was riding in crashed in central Vietnam.

The anniversary coincides with my reading Neil Sheehan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book (published 1988) about Vann and the Vietnam War.  This monumental work is 800 pages-worth of small print.  As with after my reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (click here), I figure all that labor deserves to bear some fruit, even if only a few dried raisins on WordPress.  Thus, my review.

Who was John Paul Vann?  He was a U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who arrived in Vietnam in 1962 soon after the Kennedy administration began sending military “advisors” there.  Vann was one of a handful who early on criticized U.S. strategy.  He left the army in cloudy circumstances but returned to ‘Nam in 1965 as a civilian U.S. Operations Mission (USOM) director right when Gen. William Westmoreland and the Johnson administration began ramping up America’s failed war with the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army (NVA).

John Vann

Vann tried to convince Washington that the U.S.-built Diem regime in South Vietnam was corrupt; that Diem’s army (the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, or ARVN) was afraid of confrontation; that the American-backed Strategic Hamlet Program (isolating Vietnamese hamlets with barbed wire to repel the Viet Cong) was counterintuitive; that U.S. commanders were fudging the numbers; and that America’s war-of-attrition strategy would ultimately fail.

Neil Sheehan was one of the first American reporters in Vietnam.  He covered the war for its duration, first as a UPI correspondent, then as a reporter for The New York Times.  Sheehan and other Vietnam journalists, like David Halberstam and Peter Arnett, admired Vann.  Vann didn’t bullshit the reporters.  He told it like he saw it, warts and all, despite the career risk.  He exhibited a professional courage unusual for most Vietnam-era military and civilian protagonists.

Before writing this book, Sheehan was most known for obtaining the Pentagon Papers from RAND Corporation “whiz-kid” and a former protégé of Vann’s, Daniel Ellsberg.  Publication of a portion of the Papers in the Times revealed among other things that four presidential administrations, primarily Johnson’s, had systematically lied to and misled the American public about their intentions in Vietnam.  The Pentagon Papers became a First Amendment cause célèbre.  Sheehan died January 7, 2021.

____________________

Sheehan writes in a direct, declarative style undoubtedly honed by his years as a wire reporter and war correspondent.  He doesn’t succumb to the temptation of hyperbole.  There are no exclamation points or sarcasms, despite the black-comic nature of what he observed in Vietnam.  Because he was there, he occasionally uses first-person narration.

Neil Sheehan (photo Frédérick Reglain/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Once—in an exchange so staggering it beggars belief— Sheehan managed to discuss the war with Westmoreland, the second of three commanding generals. He politely asked the general about the extraordinary number of civilian casualties.  The civilians—South Vietnamese peasants, including women and children—were ostensibly those whom the U.S. was trying to save from Communism.  They were being killed, maimed, and made homeless by U.S. bombs and artillery shelling.

Westmoreland responded: “Yes, Neil, it is a problem…but it does deprive the enemy of the population, doesn’t it?”

Vann’s story parallels the war’s history.  He’s the human focal point of the book; however, he’s far from a choirboy.  He was a philanderer who exploited his family-man status to burnish his own résumé.  He manipulated people and lied to them, even young and vulnerable girls, victims of Vann’s pathological sexual hunger.  Vann amply contributed to a familiar by-product of the war: illegitimate pregnancies, abortions, and child abandonment. Sheehan uncovers more than one dark secret about Vann’s past.  The “bright shining lie” of the book title, taken from a direct quote by Vann about the war, has a double meaning.

Sheehan weaves Vann in and out of the larger story of America in Vietnam. He touches on a chilling capture and imprisonment of Vann’s partner Doug Ramsey, buried in the jungle for seven years.  He covers the significant Vietnam War battles: Ap Bac, Ia Drang, Khe Sanh, and the Tet and Easter Offensives. Vann tried to direct the first major confrontation at Ap Bac as an advisor to the incompetent ARVN.  It backfired.

When it became clear that full American intervention was required (total withdrawal was rejected, of course), the military strategy proved stupid and unnecessarily brutal. Westmoreland convinced the Johnson administration that a war of attrition would prevail, rather than Vann’s policy of South Vietnamese pacification (winning rural ”hearts and minds” through security, arms, training, and social reform). It was a “stomp-them-to-death” policy of bludgeoning the enemy with relentless matériel and manpower from the air and in the jungles, and it was a total cul-de-sac. After the war crescendoed with the 1968 Tet Offensive, President Richard M. Nixon continued these bludgeoning tactics by invading Cambodia (secretly in 1969, not-so-secretly in 1970) and with the 1972 “Christmas Bombings.”

Ho Chi Minh, 1946

The U.S. mistakenly tried to transfer WWII tactics to the jungles and rice paddies of Southeast Asia. There was little attempt to understand Vietnam history, culture, or Vietnamese soldiers’ perfection of guerrilla warfare for over 1,000 years. (The French had failed here, too.) Additionally, due to its monomaniacal hatred of Communism, the U.S. could not recognize that Ho Chi Minh and his followers were Nationalists first and Communists only second.

By the second decade after World War II, the dominant characteristics of the senior leadership of the U.S. armed forces had become professional arrogance, lack of imagination, and moral and intellectual insensitivity…American society had become a victim of its own achievement.  The elite of America had become stupefied by too much money, too many material resources, too much power, and too much success.

“A Bright Shining Lie,” page 285

Vann didn’t waver from his position on how the war should be fought.  Like everyone else in those innocent years of the early 1960s, including reporters like Sheehan and Halberstam, he believed that America had a moral obligation to “stem the Red tide” in Southeast Asia.  But while Halberstam, Ellsberg, ex-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and much of the rest of the world eventually recognized the folly of that tragic conflict (McNamara secretly), Vann clung to it like one of his many sex partners, and still believed, at least publicly, that it could be won.

A one-time dirt-poor Southern cracker, in Vietnam Vann transformed himself into ”The Most Interesting Man in the World.” He embraced President Richard M. Nixon’s policy of Vietnamization (gradually transferring combat roles back to South Vietnam), which incorporated Vann’s pacification ideas. Nixon in turn gave him smiles and pats on the back. He both finagled and earned stars to put on his résumé. His fighting instincts and courage were beyond reproach. He found a home in that land of atrocities and waste. Reading this book, one gets the impression he’d have been content if the war continued forever.

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Vann’s June 1972 burial at Arlington National Cemetery was a who’s who of principal players in the conflict, civilian and military.  Sheehan was there.  When he looked around and saw the faces, it struck him how Vann’s scarred life and tragic death were a metaphor for the war itself.  Vann’s funeral, in fact, was the genesis for Sheehan’s book.

William Westmoreland

(Spoiler Alert)…Vann’s discarded family was at the funeral, too.  Afterwards, they met with Nixon in the Oval Office.  Nixon was to award Vann a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom.  Vann’s second of four sons, Jesse, had just been drafted.  Earlier that day he’d torn his draft card in two and placed one half on his father’s casket.  He intended to hand the other half to Nixon.  He was talked out of doing this only at the last second.

The president had been alerted to what Jesse might do.  After Jesse reluctantly shook hands with Nixon, the president offered a muffled “Thanks.”  He’d been saved from embarrassment.

The image of an uncomfortable Nixon greeting a 21-year-old boy whom he’d tried to send to Vietnam—a boy whose father had just been wasted by the war Nixon was prolonging—is hard to stomach.  But it happened.  There’s a photo of the Vann family with Nixon in the Oval Office.

Of the eleven people lined up for that photo, Nixon is the only one smiling.

Appalachian Trail Solo Thru-Hike Odyssey – Chapter 4

Writing from Mountain Home B&B in Front Royal, Virginia. An easygoing, somewhat quaint, vaguely progressive town, ironically where Stonewall Jackson won a significant battle in 1862.

Just exited Shenandoah National Park and only a few days from a new state (West Virginia) and historic town of Harpers Ferry, which is the headquarters of the Appalachian Trail Conference (THE governing body of the trail). I look forward to meeting those responsible for turning me into a Sisyphus and carrying me over a sea of jagged rocks. And look forward to revisiting where John Brown became a martyr, albeit a shortsighted one.

Sunset in Shenandoah

I’m at mile 972 of 2,190 miles…almost at the halfway point and nearly back “home,” in the North, where the Union won a war to end slavery and keep the states glued together. Gettysburg and Antietam are in my sights. I’ve visited these battlefield locations many times, but this time I’m marching by foot. Thank God I don’t have to trudge barefoot or eat maggot-riddled hardtack. How did those soldiers do it?

Can you tell I’m excited about these links with U.S. history? These kinds of milestones help keep me going. Later, I plan to revisit Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where the author of “Omoo” later wrote “Moby-Dick.” Also, Williams College, where my great-grandfather graduated Magna Cum Laude, and the small village of Stamford, Vermont, settled by my g-g-g-g-g-grandfather Josiah “Rock” Raymond when he camped against a boulder (damn those rocks) in the mid-18th century.

Copperhead snake. Note his cocked head and blank-looking orange eye. I stepped on his head accidentally while trudging up Apple Orchard Mountain. We were both a bit shaken.

And it will also be interesting to train into Manhattan, subway to the Upper East Side, and walk down Lexington Avenue, full backpack and greasy beard, and ring the buzzer of my uncle’s eighth-floor apartment, where he’s lived since…wait for it…1960.

The word “surreal” is an understatement.

Thanks for traveling with me…

Omoo

The new Omoo at Mountain Home hostel: clean-shaven, locks shorn, smiling with banana split on mind. And possible turntable action. Trail towns are nice.

BLACK JACKKNIFE GETS REVIEWED

I’ve been a little out of touch with my long hike, but I recently discovered that my book BLACK JACKKNIFE: A NICK MONTAIGNE MYSTERY received two glowing reviews, one from Publishers Weekly and the other from Midwest Book Review. “Deftly crafted,” “a truly entertaining and memorable read,” “an author with an impressive flair for humor, originality” are some of the comments. Here’s a link to the PW review:

https://www.publishersweekly.com/978-1-7324789-2-3

And the Midwest Book Review Review (scroll down to “Mystery/Suspense Shelf”):

http://www.midwestbookreview.com/sbw/may_21.htm

It’s always nice to know your work is appreciated by others. If you haven’t read BJ yet, just click the book link to the right, which will take you to Amazon.

And hope you enjoy how my man Montaigne gets the job done!

New Murder Mystery Unveiled!

Any James Bond acolytes out there? Any fans of the movie Deliverance? Ever wonder what it might be like if Bond was dropped into one of those canoes in Deliverance? Maybe sipping shaken martinis between Jon Voight and Ned Beatty?

Hard to envision, I know. But I made an attempt (sort of) in my latest book, called Black Jackknife: A Nick Montaigne Mystery, my first attempt at fiction. I’m not presuming to imply my main character stacks up with an Ian Fleming creation, nor that my Georgia Appalachian Trail murder site can rival the harrowing, claustrophobic Southern woods feel of Deliverance. But I think my book has at least a few good moments.

Intrigued? Cool! I’d love for you to read BJ and let me know your thoughts. Just click the link below or top right for either a paperback or ebook copy. It might make a great Christmas present for someone…including yourself!

And I’ll tell you what: to sweeten the pot, I’ll mail a free updated paperback copy of my hiking memoir Evergreen Dreaming to the first reader who correctly guesses the identity of the killer (or killers) BEFORE chapter 18. No cheating, now!

Lastly, I welcome reviews of BJ on either Amazon or Goodreads, either positive or negative. Even if only a few words. (“Thumbs up,” “Best book I ever read,” “Only book I ever read,” “Beats a sharp stick in the eye”…whatever.)

Hope you enjoy my book. And thanks, fellow Longitudinals!

Here’s the link:

Election 2020?

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is corrupt-govt-1.jpg

First…hello to readers of years past. As y’all know, I took a year off from this blog for a pit stop. But now I have fresh wheels, and—for better or worse—I’m back on track. (And greetings to you new visitors.)

I think my pit stop helped in a few ways. I finished the draft of another book, this one a crime fiction potboiler, and a PK magnum opus with the artistic and commercial promise of an Ed Wood film.

I also created a woodland park in our backyard, resumed guitar playing after a long layoff, and became laid off in June due to quote “lack of work” unquote. But the latter is a good thing. I was beginning to hate the work that was so lacking. And I’m now at a life station where the ridiculousness of things is much clearer, and I can better afford to raise the proverbial middle finger at said ridiculousness. 

Also, my granddaughters are a bigger part of my life after having returned to the U.S. from Scotland. And I’ve been reading a lot.  Books. Most recently I read Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. There’s a reason why everyone reading this blog is familiar with the name Hemingway. His is the way to write. And in the spirit of Hemingway, Longitudes Mark II will have shorter essays. Mark I was becoming bloated. Moving forward I hope to express myself using fewer and clearer words. The key word is hope.

But that does not mean I will be softening my views. Au contraire! Things are as shitty if not shittier than they ever were. And I’ll be here to ascertain the dung heap. Which brings me to today’s topic…America’s favorite horse race…our shitty presidential election.

My wife loves the cliché “If you don’t vote, you have no right to complain.” I disagree. Our Bill of Rights has an amendment that gives me the freedom to complain even if I choose not to vote. (What a wonderful thing.) Now, if I’m too lazy or uninformed to vote, then perhaps absence from the voting booth gives me no ethical right to complain. There are many lazy and uninformed non-voters in America today. And also, many idiotic voters. I haven’t yet figured out which is worse.

But abstention from voting because one dislikes the candidates or is disgusted with the electoral process gives him or her every right to complain. I happen to like one of our two presidential candidates. What sickens me is not the candidates (one of them), it’s the corrupted and rigged election process that makes my vote practically meaningless. The year 2020 is a lot different than 1976, when I first voted.

For me, voting in a U.S. election in 2020 is like screaming “Fire!” when the building is already a smoking ash pile. I voted in every election for years, and even campaigned for a couple candidates. But when a free people in a so-called democracy see flames shooting up, and instead of throwing water choose to fling gasoline, it’s time to move on.

I think. I may actually vote again. I haven’t decided. Even though I’m faced with a foreboding ash pile, at least I can still scream, which is better than nothing. But I’ve reached the end of the page, which is a signal that my essay is filling up with more hot air than a Trump tweet.

Anyway…good to be back.

I Would Prefer Not To

Urinals

“Can you stop by?”

This was the Skype message I recently received from my supervisor. Those of us Bartlebys who have worked in an office environment and have been unlucky recipients of such a message from the boss (aka “The Big Cheese”) know that, no matter how cool and self-assured one might be in other situations, there’s always a quickening of the pulse when such a message is received.

It used to be a phone call, or a head appearing in one’s office doorway. Then it was email. Now it’s Skype.

I was half-tempted to type back “I would prefer not to.”  But I sold out and typed “OK.”

As I walked toward his office, I wondered if this would be one of those “Shut the door” type conversations. Sure enough, it was.

“Shut the door,” he said abruptly. “Have a seat.” How polite of him. My heartrate had by now increased dramatically.

“Don’t get excited,” the big cheese assured me, unsuccessfully.

In addition to words and voice tone, body language is also very revealing in these encounters. And at this moment, his body language indicated that, yes, this would be yet another session of existential revelation, explanation, justification, and eventual atonement.

My body language indicated that my heart was now pumping enough blood to cause the front of my shirt to vibrate like the skins on a drumhead at a Hottentot wedding celebration. So it was kind of difficult to instruct my involuntary cardiac muscle not to “get excited.”

He leaned over his desk, folded his arms, and looked at me with solemnity over the top of his wire glasses.

“Just answer me…”

He paused for dramatic effect. I waited with bated breath to see if I would be granted or denied admittance through the Gates of Heaven.

“…did you or did you not forget to flush the urinal yesterday?”

I was busted. Oh, God. I’ve always had a feeling that one day I might slip up.

Indeed, I had made a visit to the bathroom yesterday. And after doing my “business,” I followed the same ritual I always did. I walked to the sink, washed my hands in lukewarm water (for some odd reason, this one bathroom doesn’t provide hot water), dried my hands with a small paper towel…then walked across the tile, grasped the door handle with said paper and opened the door, then flipped the used paper in the nearby waste can.

However…on this one occasion…I forgot to use said paper to push handle on said urinal before exiting said bathroom. And I remembered that an anonymous gentleman was, at that moment, conducting his own business in a parallel urinal. He must have narc’ed (squealed) on me.

(You ladies might be interested to know that men’s public bathrooms are perhaps the most unsociable places on earth. Sinks are acceptable locations for idle conversation, although men being men, conversation is infrequent. Urinals are definitely off-limits. Conversation occasionally occurs, but eye contact is forbidden, unless there’s loud rock ‘n’ roll or football going on, and the men are drunk.)

“Uh…yes,” I stammered. “I mean…I did forget. Is that a big deal?”

The cheesy one sat back in his swivel chair and, with a doleful expression not unlike an elderly basset hound, stared at his hands, now folded in his lap.

“Always…” he began, “always flush the urinal. This incident has reached Rosemary.”

Rosemary is the Human Resources Director. She’s a petite, attractive woman about 30 years old. Half my age. Her nickname is “Rottweiler.” I’m assuming she earned this nickname because, not only does she have a pet Rottweiler (a dog with a reputation for “territorial aggressiveness”), but every time an employee leaves the company, she sends out a company-wide email with the employee’s photo stating “John Doe is no longer employed at (the company). Should he visit our facility, he must be treated as a visitor.” This cold declaration is followed by various security requirements that employees must follow—and John Doe must adhere to—if John Doe visits former facility.

I can understand taking away an employee’s electronic badge before he leaves. But I’ve never understood either the necessity or the effectiveness of these company-wide emails.

Rosemary not only hires people, handles their benefits (paid time off, 401K, health, and life itself), processes their resignations, delivers news of their layoffs and firings, but after employee has vanished, she alerts the workforce that former employee is, essentially, persona non grata. The only analogy to this last action that I can think of is someone who might desecrate a gravesite.

Rosemary may be petite and attractive, but she has more power and influence than the company president. Think a smaller version of Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

But getting back to our little drama…I expressed atonement to Herr Limburger for my thoughtless action the previous day. Then, with trepidation, I asked him if I needed to visit Rosemary.

“No, that won’t be necessary,” he said, just as solemn as when I first sat down. “Just make sure it doesn’t happen again. There will, of course, be mention of this incident in your next performance appraisal. But your employment situation is still secure.”

Whew. I staved off a company-wide email from Rosemary.

Cheesy one apologized for, as he termed it, the “brouhaha.” I told him “That’s okay, I’m sorry if I embarrassed you.”

“Hey, don’t apologize,” he said. “This is my job.” Indeed, it is.

I left his office. I felt a strong urge to visit the scene of the crime and flush all the urinals, as a sort of psychological purging.

I also felt a strong urge to determine who the asshole was who narc’ed on me.  Then decided “screw it…I would prefer not to.”  And, then, a revelatory moment:

I pinpointed the reason for Rosemary’s high-security emails.

 

bartelby

(Bill Bragg, 2012/foliosociety.com)

 

The True Story of How The Lone Ranger Became African American

reeves2

Standing in a co-worker’s office recently, the following conversation took place:

Co-worker: “I’ve noticed that photo of Martin Luther King that you use as your Skype identifier. I’m assuming you admire him?”

Me: “I do.”

Co-worker: “Ever hear of the black lawman Bass Reeves? I read about him in my NRA magazine.”

(I’m not sure how Bass Reeves relates to Martin Luther King, Jr., other than both men were black. I’m also not sure why he specified his NRA magazine, other than he knows I despise that gun organization. But I immediately thought “There’s some psychology going on here.” Regardless…)

Me: “No, never heard of him.”

Co-worker: “He was a former slave who became a lawman in Oklahoma. Arrested his own son. He’s also the inspiration for The Lone Ranger.”

Me: “Really! Well, hi-yo Silver.”

lone ranger

TV version of The Lone Ranger, with masked man, Tonto, and Silver

My co-worker then pulled up a Wikipedia bio of Reeves and read aloud from it. I returned to my cubicle. Work being non-existent, I did my own research on Bass Reeves (1838-1910). It took me all of ten minutes of internet clicking to get the lowdown.

In 2006, a professor and historian named Art T. Burton published a biography of Reeves entitled Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves (Race and Ethnicity in the American West) (University of Nebraska Press). In his book, Burton cited a 1997 book by John W. Ravage that asks the question “Could Bass Reeves be the prototype for the Lone Ranger character?” Burton wrote that, although Ravage’s claim cannot be “conclusively” proven, Reeves “is the closest real person to resemble the fictional Lone Ranger on the American western frontier of the nineteenth century.” (Burton, p. 14).

Burton made five “suggestions” in his book’s first chapter to back up his claim that Reeves is “the closest real person”:

  1. The Lone Ranger wore a mask. Burton claims Reeves sometimes used disguise to track fugitives. (No source provided.)
  2. The Lone Ranger had Tonto as his partner. Burton says that when in unknown territory, Reeves often hired an Indian as a guide.
  3. The Lone Ranger always left a silver bullet as a calling card. Burton says that while tracking the Dalton Gang, Reeves paid for a meal, and tracking help, with two silver dollars. (Source: family lore.)
  4. The Lone Ranger rode a white horse (“Silver”). Burton says that Reeves—at one time—rode a grey horse, which “can look anywhere from near black to near white” (Burton, p. 13).
  5. The Lone Ranger story began on Detroit radio in 1933. Burton says that many of the fugitives captured by Reeves were sent to the Detroit House of Corrections.

lone_ranger_blue

Recent film version of The Lone Ranger

Since his book came out, some people have taken Burton to task for questionable research and nuanced writing. The nuance arises from the fact that Burton doesn’t outright say Reeves is the prototype, just that the two strongly resemble each other; but his implication is apparent, especially when taken in conjunction with his use of the Ravage quote. One who delved into this implication is an award-winning radio and television historian named Martin Grams, Jr., who did his own research for a 2018 publication, “Bass Reeves and The Lone Ranger: Debunking the Myth.”

Regarding the first two of Burton’s suggestions—and assuming they’re true—Grams notes that Reeves would not have been unusual among frontier lawmen in concealing his identity while hunting fugitives. Nor was he unusual in employing Indian scouts; both lawmen and the U.S. Army did this. And one doesn’t have to be Judge Judy to see how tenuous Burton’s last three suggestions of resemblance are.

But the most damning argument against Burton’s implication are typewritten letters Grams uncovered from 1932-33 by Kunsky-Trendle Broadcasting Corporation, the company that created The Lone Ranger for radio. These letters specifically mention fictional character Zorro and cowboy movie star Tom Mix as sources for The Lone Ranger.

mix

Early Western actor Tom Mix

There is no mention of Bass Reeves in these letters. Would radio writers and executives have even known about Reeves, considering that in the 1930s most black cowboys and lawmen were barely footnotes?

Here’s the real problem, though: if Burton’s book had sold copies like my blubber book had, his cavalier conjectures would have been lost in the ether. But unlike my book and Ravage’s pre-internet book, Burton’s was read and discussed by a lot of people. Soon, like a prairie brush fire, a myth spread that The Lone Ranger was modeled on an African American, exploding on blogs, consumer book reviews, reference sites like Wikipedia, and magazines…including certain publications by certain lobbyist groups (see above). Burton even managed to sell his implication to the highly regarded Old West magazine True West.

Compounding the problem of an unsubstantiated rumor “going viral,” many readers of Burton’s (carefully chosen and suggestive) words lack the discernment to separate conjecture from fact. Still others, anxious to further a cause, set aside any doubts and enthusiastically embraced a kernal of wild speculation, turning a fiction into their own fact and proceeding to sound the trumpets.dime novel

For many years when I was younger, there was a myth that television character Eddie Haskell (Leave it to Beaver) was played by glam rock star Alice Cooper. That myth was silly, but fun (except perhaps to actor Ken Osmond, who actually played Eddie Haskell). This myth is more sinister, because it pushes American history closer to dime novel territory.

As Grams writes, “Historians are expected to present only the facts to avoid spawning rumors, misconceptions and myths that ultimately take decades to debunk.” Mr. Burton violated his responsibility as a historian by deviating from fact and making a reckless speculation. In many people’s minds, now, The Lone Ranger was modeled on a black man. A probable fiction.

***

This story interests me because it not only deals with U.S. history, but also ties together many disturbing social trends: the prevalence of fake news, political (in)correctness, racial emotionalism, historical revisionism, the power of social media in fueling myth, and an increasing lack of critical analysis by readers, listeners, and viewers. My co-worker seems like a smart guy, despite being an NRA member, so he should have been more careful.dime novel2

Most historians and academics are trained to use reliable and objective sources that can be verified. Their peers expect this and will go to great lengths to verify truth is being disseminated (or as close to truth as is possible). I would have never been able to sell my blubber book to an academic press had I not done the nitty-gritty and been conscientious of reliable bibliography and footnotes. And a good editor would have bled red over any conjectural passages.

It’s an unfortunate fact that American history has been horribly skewed (to put it mildly) against ethnic minorities: blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and—without a doubt—native Americans, who not only had to deal with U.S. government-sponsored ethnic cleansing, but John Wayne movies as well. But if we don’t adhere to truth, we’re a boat without a rudder, careening from one rocky shore to the next.

Bass Reeves is a fascinating historical figure; a black law officer in the American West who defied stereotype, and who deserves to be known by more people. His story is interesting enough without being embellished by a well-meaning but overzealous historian with socio-political concerns.

***

Postscript: later in the day, I presented this information to my co-worker. With a straight face he said “Well, if they based The Lone Ranger on Tom Mix, and since Tom Mix lived out west while Reeves was still alive, Mix may have known Reeves, and he might have told those radio guys about Reeves, who then created The Lone Ranger partly based on Reeves.”

I returned to my cubicle.