Friday, January 9, 2009

"Nightmares from my father and reading history wrong" - an essay by my brother

It's publishing time in the Acts of Hope family this week.

On New Year's Eve, my father wrote us (his children and grandchildren and some cousins) a moving letter about his dreams of World War II and, more succinctly, his hope and wish --his daytime dream-- for peace.

Father of Acts of Hope is a World War II veteran, a Purple Heart with a ten percent disability who saw what is euphemistically called "action" in the Pacific Theater, in the Marshall Islands. He is now 90 years old, a gentle man --as he was when he signed up for the Marines in late 1942-- who loves and advocates for peace, and like most veterans, he still has nightmares. Not all the time, but they have never left him. He says you never forget the smell of death.

I wished at the time that I could share his letter with readers here, but since it was a family letter I didn't even want to ask. (Also, truth be told, my parents think I spend too much time blogging.)

Meanwhile, Brother of Acts of Hope, who was equally impressed and moved by the letter, was working on one of his columns for the Turkish Daily News (which has just merged with another Turkish paper) and he asked our Dad for permission to reprint his letter in the column.

So here, published two days ago in Istanbul for English-language readership, is our beloved and respected father's letter, embedded in a short essay by Brother of Acts of Hope.

It is called "Nightmares of my father and reading history wrong." (by Dennis Redmont)

There is no live link yet because the newspaper's website is partly in revamp mode, so the archive is still catching up. But I'm reprinting the entire piece here.

We enter 2009 already as the Year We Want to Forget.

Yet it is only a few days old!

We try to examine history for answers — or ask the Young Generation “Y” for future clues.

But when we do read history, the conclusions are often wrong or incomplete. Or we don’t learn our lesson.

Let's take the meltdown of the Financial World in 2008: Exactly 20 years ago, Michael Lewis wrote his classic "Liar's Poker," warning readers that Wall Street didn't know what it was doing. “It’s laissez faire until you get into deep sh..,’’ one high flyer tells Lewis. When things go wrong at Wall Street investment banks, the risks become the problem of the U.S. government.

Instead of a wakeup call two decades ago, the book turned into a business school best seller and thousands of young people deluged Lewis with letters asking his advice on how to make money fast — not how to get out of the roulette-rolling of the stock market. Read the magazine Portfolio’s “End of the Wall Street Boom” by Lewis this month for lessons not learned.

Now, let's take the Great Depression: It has been revisited this year in a bestseller by Amity Shlaes called "The Forgotten Man.” It punctures the ideas we had about the great reforms of the Roosevelt era and the masterful way the United States navigated out of the Depression. Actually two successive Depressions. That's maybe because history books are written by professors rather than entrepreneurs.

Closer to the truth might have been that economic ignorance among policy makers was much worse than we realized, and that government intervention helped make the Depression Great. And that Hoover and Roosevelt misstepped in a number of ways, Shlaes explains.

"Hoover ordered wages up when they wanted to go down... Roosevelt’s errors were equally devastating... he created regulatory aid and relief agencies, based on the premise that recovery could only be achieved through a large military style effort," Shlaes writes. Again a misreading — or better, a need to constantly reread and revisit history...

Finally a third example, from the Greatest Generation, the generation of Americans who grew up during the deprivation of theGreat Depression, and then went on to fight World War II. Those who survived went on to build and rebuild U.S. industries, and created the Baby Boomers, that is us, whose social values did not quite match that generation’s social values.

What were the lessons learned on a real, down-to-earth human scale?

As it turns out, the results were unexpected... or were they?

Seeking some acquired wisdom, I listened to some nightmares from my journalist father, Bernard Redmont, who reached the venerable age of 90 in 2008, after a life of reporting around the world for CBS and many other media titles...

Again, it seems we didn't quite read or reread history correctly nor learn our lessons.

Listen to him in his "DREAMS FROM YOUR FATHER:”

"I have a dream. It recurs. Sometimes in the guise of a nightmare. Dreams of my encounters with wars. And hopes, or reveries, of peace.

On the eve of the new year 2009, I dreamed again of Roi and Namur, the coral islands where I was almost killed.

War veterans often make pilgrimages to the scenes of their battles with life and death, like those you've seen on TV, on the beaches of Normandy in World War II. My own visions become a "virtual" pilgrimage, in memories and dreams, because I can't actually go to Roi and Namur, in Kwajalein Atoll, the Marshall Islands, in the south central Pacific, 2,100 miles southwest of Hawaii.

I told most of the story of Operation Flintlock in my book, "Risks Worth Taking." That was where, from Jan. 31 to Feb. 12, 1944, as a "gung ho" marine, I earned my Purple Heart and many weeks of restful recuperation in hospitals.

But what of now? In my dreams, and on the Internet, I, and you, can go on a "virtual battlefield tour" of the two northern islets of the world's largest coral atoll.

We thought we were liberating that first of the Japanese-held territories in the war, looking forward to peace and no more wars.

Today, Roi and Namur stand nominally as part of the Republic of the Marshall Islands.

They are, nevertheless, the multi-billion dollar lethal scene of the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site, run by the Pentagon.

Here, where 3,500 bunkered and entrenched Japanese soldiers fought us, and barely 51 of them survived, and where thousands of American Marines became casualties too, it is not quite peaceful.

You can take a "virtual battlefield tour" on the Internet, but you won't see the missile sites or naval port, or hear the deafening blasts, or the constant drone of American military planes arriving and departing from the once Japanese, now Dyess US airfield which we captured.

You will see the Japanese concrete pillboxes and bunkers, some four feet thick, still standing despite their "pulverization" by cannon and naval gunfire. You can't actually visit all this now, without special military clearance, or see the former Japanese submarine base.

But you can see the torpedo bunker, still standing, where our fellow marines dropped in a satchel charge of demolition explosives, and 20 of them died from the blow back blast.

You can also see an undemolished Japanese five-inch gun on a concrete emplacement, and a plaque commemorating the Japanese dead, some scattered American graves and a brass plate labeling the place a "National Historic Site."

For those cleared to visit, the authorities offer beautiful palm trees, a small golf course, a scuba diving club and trips to wrecks of Japanese warships, planes and even a heavy cruiser.

So ends the spiel of your 'virtual tour guide.'

Alas, wars rage all over our world. Yes, we yearn for peace on earth, good will to all.”

Dennis Redmont, an executive at the Council for the United States and Italy, is an American journalist and consultant who divides his time between Rome and Istanbul.


Ken said...

I would feel privileged to kiss your father's hand. He is an amazing man who has led a remarkable life out of which he actually learned something he has passed on.

Caminante said...

The WWII vets are something, no? (I contemplate my 84 year-old father, an infantryman.)

Where in Vermont?

Thank you for this and blessings to your father.

Jane R said...

Our house was near West Fairlee, but our postal address was Vershire and our town meeting was Strafford. Classic Vermont ;-).

So we were in the Upper Valley. My parents sold the house a decade ago because they couldn't take care of it any more, my brother was living in Europe (still is), I was living in California (and had no money), so it was best to let go, though it was sad since it had been our vacation place (and our only place in the U.S. for years) since 1960. The reason we went up in those parts is that my mother's family had founded a summer camp for children down the road from there (but different mail address, Thetford Center) in 1927, so there we'd actually been going up there forever. We were all campers and counselors there at some point. The camp was in my family (grandparents, then uncles) for 50 years. Then another set of folks took it over very much in the same spirit. A few years ago it changed hands again and I gather it is quite different. A cousin of mine still lives up in the area. We're all quite attached to Vermont.

I also worked in Vermont the summer between my first and second years of divinity school (same summer the Philadelphia Eleven were ordained) - I was a Vacation Church School Worker for the Vermont Conference of the United Church of Christ; they had an ecumenical team of seminarians and divinity students every summer -- perhaps they still do! It was a good program. And you'd get a full year of field education credit for doing it because it was full time all summer, with training and supervision.

Those WWII vets are something.

Magdalene6127 said...

Wow, Jane. Thank you so much for this.

What was it like to grow up in that household? *feeling a tinge of envy*

pj said...

A family of good writers and good people. I feel a tinge of envy too. :)

Jane R said...

I love them.

It's also a lot to live up to.

That said, we're like all families. Everyone has their screwed-up-ness and trials and tribulations. (As in our case, my dad losing his job before I was born because of the McCarthy-era blacklist and having to scrounge to make ends meet and work several jobs at once. So this can create some family anxiety, not to mention financial anxiety. And it's traumatic to be in trouble in your own country when you're a decorated veteran who fought to protect it. I wrote a piece once in which I mentioned have had a very happy childhood with an undercurrent of constant anxiety.)

But we had and continue to have a good time. Helps to be foodies :-).

People used to ask me, when I came back to the US every couple of years and went to summer camp (which we couldn't have afforded, frankly, but we were family so we didn't pay) what it was like to live in Paris, and I never knew what to say because of course I wasn't growing up in Brooklyn or Great Neck or the Bronx so I had no basis of comparison. It was just home. And my family wasn't exotic, it was just my family.

It has kept getting more hybrid in every generation since my nephews (in their 30s now - my bro is a decade older than I) live in Portugal and Italy respectively and are partnered with women from these countries.

Thanks for reading... As Caminante and others among you know, it is poignant to have aging parents who are still alive, and slowing down. Life feels very precious and fragile and one both holds one's breath and tries to be very much in the present.

Okay, back to work. I am in the office working on syllabi for Monday...

Jane R said...

P.S. Magdalene, I realize I didn't really answer your question.

We talked a lot. So it was highly verbal with plenty of dinner table conversation. My brother is ten years older than I so except for the 8 years we overlapped we were both only children for a while. We both learned to relate to adults at a really young age (our parents' friends mostly) and to people from more than one culture. That is a great gift, not growing up monocultural.

Other than that, the usual: eat your vegetables, say please and thank you, take your cod liver oil, do your homework, get to bed on time, don't sass your mama, and make sure daddy gets some quiet time when he gets home from work 'cause he needs it after the day he just had.

Also, we've had family times interrupted by world events a lot. Goes with the journalism territory. Like my dad missed my mother's 50th birthday because the Russian tanks had rolled into Prague and he was at the border trying to get in and report on the whole mess. But he's a romantic and the flowers were on the table for her, delivered from somewhere or other. And after not being able to get into Czechoslovakia and reporting from wherever he was (Austria probably) he flew back and we were all together. In Italy. (The Russians also disrupted our family vacation with their invasion. But of course you don't want to be petty so you just go along and don't complain since after all the Czechs are getting stomped on and next to that, a little family disruption is just what it is.) It was 1968 - a wild year politically.

FranIAm said...

I do not even know where to begin. I have read this several times now.

As others have said- a family of brilliant writers and such compelling words in their spirit.

I am so deeply grateful to know you!