Category Archives: Memorial

Memorial Day 2015

Someone named David M. left a moving comment on Scott Greenfield’s Memorial Day post:

My grandfather was drafted out of the Hitler Youth into the Luftwaffe in ’43, when he was 16. In early ’45, he was assigned to man an AA gun, shooting at American planes. When the Americans crossed the Rhine in March and it was clear that the war was lost, he deserted along with a few of his high school classmates. They scrounged up a few supplies and split up, each man trying to reach his family. For my grandpa, that meant sneaking through the Ruhr pocket.

About a week later, he was caught by a lone GI. It was dusk, and my grandpa, who’d been sheltering in a ditch, was getting ready to move on under cover of night when the GI stepped out from behind a tree. Grandpa was armed, though he’d shed the uniform, and the soldier held him at gunpoint.

On his knees in a muddy ditch, an armed enemy combatant caught sneaking through occupied territory, he did the only thing he could think of. He said “please.” One word. In German. And after a long pause, the GI put up his gun, said “get up, boy,” and helped my grandpa out of what should have been his grave.

So thank you. From three generations now to another, far greater than any of ours. Not only did they risk their lives, give their lives, to put an end to the awful evil of Nazi Germany, but they showed us mercy, even when none needed to be shown.

To which Scott responds:

That was my father who let him go. Metaphorically.

On the other hand, metaphorically, my father shot him dead.

My dad had started fighting the war in Italy and later ended up in the forces following the D-Day invasion into France. My father was with some unit that was chasing the German occupiers out of some small town in France, and as they were moving down the street, he saw a bunch of people run out of a building up ahead.

One of the runners was wearing a German uniform, and as he had been doing for the past couple of years whenever he saw an enemy soldier, my father shot at him. The German went down. Dead.

Although my father had seen combat several times throughout the war, that was the only time, before or since, that he knew for sure he had killed someone.

Sixty years later, my dad told me that he still sometimes thinks about the man he killed, and he wonders if he could have done something different.

Going To The Movies Won’t Be The Same

Dammit, Roger Ebert died.

Over at the Chicago Sun-Times, Neil Steinberg has an obituary/eulogy for him. As with other great eulogies I’ve read, I finish it feeling like I’ve missed out on something good by never getting to know the subject personally.

Yet, in a way I can’t help feeling like I did know Roger Ebert personally. He’s been part of my life since I was a child, when I first started watching him and Gene Siskel on Sneak Previews on WTTW, our local PBS station, and I’ve been using his reviews to decide what movies to see ever since. My wife and I saw a lot of movies when we were dating and during our first decade of marriage — probably about 100 a year — and “What does Ebert say?” was almost always an important question.

Not that I agreed with him all that often. He would love movies I hated and hate movies I thought were lots of fun. The thing I noticed, however, was that regardless of how he felt about a movie, after reading his review I could usually make a pretty good guess about whether or not I would like it.

I think this is because Ebert was always honest in his reviews. His wasn’t afraid to show his biases, which meant that we could easily learn what they were and compensate for them. He was fascinated by realistic movies about addiction, for example, so I always knew to discount his reviews a bit when deciding whether to go see a movie that had addiction as a theme. And when he said the plot was confusing, that usually meant I would find it intriguing. By being himself in his writing, and being consistent about it, he conveyed a lot more information than if he had tried for some kind of journalistic neutrality.

(This is an attitude I have taken to heart. It’s something I try to do when I blog, and it’s one of the reasons I admire blogging as a journalistic form. The author’s biases are an important part of any written work, and the better we understand them, the better we understand the subject of the work.)

One of the things I found endearing about Ebert’s reviews is that he so clearly loved the movies. He always seemed genuinely happy for the filmmakers when he thought they did a great job. And even when he gave a movie a low rating, he would still spend some of his review discussing the parts of the movie that worked well. You could tell that he wanted movies to be better. Even in his infamous review of North, (“I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it.”) I got the feeling that he was not feeling snarky reviewer triumph, but rather that he was angry at having witnessed a filmmaking tragedy.

Ebert was an incredibly busy guy. In addition to writing reviews for the newspaper and talking about movies on his various television shows, he also wrote books about the movies and lectured about at the University of Chicago and hosted the Ebertfest film festival.  He was also online going way, way back. Before the internet, he was on AOL, and before that, he was on Prodigy and Compuserve. He also made his reviews available on the Cinemania movie encyclopedia software for PCs and Macs.

And like every other cutting-edge media figure, Roger Ebert had a blog. I’ll close with the first and last paragraphs of his last post, put up just before he went into the hospital for the last time. They serve as his  goodbye (although if you read the whole piece, you’ll see he had every intention of sticking around):

Thank you. Forty-six years ago on April 3, 1967, I became the film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. Some of you have read my reviews and columns and even written to me since that time. Others were introduced to my film criticism through the television show, my books, the website, the film festival, or the Ebert Club and newsletter. However you came to know me, I’m glad you did and thank you for being the best readers any film critic could ask for.

So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I’ll see you at the movies.

Thank you, Roger, for forty-six years of terrific writing and wonderful movie reviews.

Decoration Day

Memorial Day always makes me think of my father. He was a veteran of World War II and he was born on May 30, the traditional date for Memorial Day, although my dad always called it by its original name, Decoration Day. It was, in origin, a day for decorating the graves of soldiers.

Fortunately, the day doesn’t have a lot of personal significance for me. Other than veterans like my father who died of natural causes, all the soldiers I know are still alive and well. I don’t have any graves to decorate.

I’d very much like to keep it that way.


I spend a day away from the internet and come back to find out that Vaclav Havel died.

Update: Oh, but there’s good news too. Kim Jong Il is also dead.

Joel Rosenberg R.I.P.

Joel RosenbergAh, dammit:

Joel Rosenberg – husband, father, mensch

On Wednesday afternoon, June 1, 2011, Joel had a respiratory depression that caused a heart attack, anoxic brain damage and major organ failure. Despite the very best efforts of the paramedics and the team at Hennepin County Medical Center, Joel was pronounced brain dead at around 5:37pm Thursday June 2nd, In accordance with his wishes, he shared the gift of life through organ and tissue donation.

He is survived by his daughters, Judith Eleanor and Rachel Hannah, and his wife, Felicia Herman. Today, June 3rd would have been his 32nd wedding anniversary.


Dammit. The internet just got a little less interesting.

Update: Got a little more time now…

I first ran into Joel in the comments at Scott Greenfield’s blog, where I was struck by the fact that even though he clearly had an emotional investment in the issues, he was willing to accept the possibility that he could be wrong, he was willing to consider alternative explanations, and he seemed to believe that, despite their errors, most of his opponents were acting with good intentions.

Another time, in his typically disarming style, Joel found a common link between gun owners and gay couples:

[Joel] suggests that after five years, mild-mannered Minnesotans have finally learned that a gun tucked into a waistband isn’t the sign of a blood-hungry nutcase.

“It’s like the gay couple that moves in down the block,” he says. “At first some people get upset, but after a while it’s just like, ‘Yeah, that’s just Joe and Todd.'”

Soon, he made an impression on me in another way when he cost me $99. Actually, if you read that post, Joel didn’t really cause the problem — MovableType just flaked on his avatar photo (above) for some reason — but he nevertheless apologized in the comments. That fits my impression of Joel: I’m pretty sure he knew I was kidding around, but he nevertheless responded by being courteous. Joel is quite capable of being a pain in the ass to people who’ve got it coming, but he’d hate to be a pain in the ass unintentionally.

A couple of months later, I invited Joel to be a co-blogger here. I did that based on the strength of his comments at other blogs. What I didn’t realize at the time is that Joel was an actual science fiction author. That’s right. I had asked a published author to come write for me for free. Joel, however, graciously accepted and went on to write 39 posts for me before moving on.

It’s going to be kind of quiet around here without him.

Memorializing 9/11

I don’t understand memorials and monuments. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say I don’t understand how other people think about memorials and monuments. It just doesn’t make much sense to me.

I have the good fortune of having lead a peaceful life. Other than my parents, no one really close to me has died. Perhaps if I’d experienced more tragedy, I’d understand people’s reactions better. What I’m saying is that I’m perfectly willing to admit that I just don’t get it. Still, there are things that just seem wrong.

I remember hearing many years ago that someone was proposing a memorial for the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, which is where he was assassinated by James Earl Ray in 1968. Part of the planned memorial was a laser beam, projected across the hotel grounds, that followed the path of the bullet that killed King.

To my way of thinking, this was completely the wrong way to honor Dr. King. The shooting at the Lorraine hotel had nothing to do with who King was and what he stood for. King did his great work in countless churches and gatherings, in marches and speeches and discussions with leaders all over the country. That’s what was important to Martin Luther King, and that’s what we should remember about him. That’s the part of his life we should honor.

It’s not that King’s assassination is unimportant. It says a lot about America that we had a guy like Dr. King in this country, and that he was murdered. But his murder wasn’t about him, it was about our relationship to him. It was about what other people did to him. Specifically, it was about what one man with a gun did to him. These people wanted to build a memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King, but it seemed to me they were building a monument to to the accomplishments of James Earl Ray.

(The Lorraine Hotel is now the National Civil Rights Museum, which seems like a much better much better way to honor Dr. King and his work.)

I got to thinking about all this after reading Scott Greenfield’s brilliant post about the controversy over building a Mosque near Ground Zero. Scott argues that Ground Zero and the location of the Mosque are worlds apart by Manhattan standards, and that people who don’t actually know the area from personal experience shouldn’t be telling folks in Manhattan what to do. In particular, he’s not impressed by the 9/11 families’ claims that the former site of the twin towers is “hallowed ground.”

(Scott also doesn’t like the phrase “Ground Zero,” and frankly neither do I. Ground zero is technical slang for the location on the Earth’s surface directly below an aerial explosion such as nuclear bomb. Its use for the site of the World Trade Center towers has always struck me as incorrect.)

I felt bad for people who lost loved ones in the terrors of 9/11, but I’ve found the whole “9/11 families” phenomenon a little disturbing. Again, as with the proposed memorial for Martin Luther King, it’s because the 9/11 families were brought together and united as a group by something that had nothing to do with them or the people they lost.

(Many of them would have known groups of the other families before 9/11 because their loved ones worked together. That does have to do with who they are and what they were about, so it’s not what I’m talking about here.)

After 9/11, I’m sure the families of the victims naturally came together in sharing their grief. But somewhere along the way, I think that unity got turned toward ends that were somewhat political. I don’t know where it started. Maybe reporters asked the family members for their opinions so many times that they selected people to speak for them, and those people became leaders. For some of them, it became a purpose in life, a reason to go on. But I’m sure other people saw that any claim of a connection to 9/11 was a way to draw attention and political power to themselves.

Then there was all the money. The September 11th Fund collected donations and eventually provided $500 million to the families, but that’s small change compared to the $7 billion they got from the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. The latter was a government program, and it was far from a simple act of charity. Among other things, it was a bailout of sorts for the airlines whose planes were hijacked: In accepting money from the fund, families agreed not to sue the airlines. Naturally, the airlines wanted this fund to be as large as possible to discourage lawsuits. You can bet they lobbied Congress hard for this.

Lawyers scrambled to represent the families. Politicians learned that they could get publicity by calling for more compensation for the families. Pundits attracted attention to themselves by commenting on how terrible it all was.

When people started talking about a memorial at the site of the towers, I began to get the same feeling I had from the proposed Martin Luther King memorial. The people in the towers on 9/11 were insurance brokers and underwriters, bankers, tourists, car rental agents, lawyers, accountants, computer technicians, doctors, travel agents, and restaurateurs. They were husbands, wives, parents, siblings, and children. They had no idea 9/11 was coming, they had no plans to make a sacrifice or take a risk that day. So why honor them as if they did? Why unite them as if they had a common cause?

(This doesn’t apply to the first responders — police officers, firefighters, and EMTs — who showed up to help. They risked their lives to help others. This was a cause they all shared.)

If we’re going to honor the victims of 9/11, we should honor them for who they chose to be, not for what Al Qaeda made them. We shouldn’t turn the site of the World Trade Center into a monument to the vision of Osama bin Laden.

I’m probably projecting my own values into the situation too much, but I can’t help feeling that the 9/11 families have had their grieving process hijacked by the media, the politicians, and to some extent the American people. I’m not saying that their grief is unnatural or fake, but part of the grieving process is socially constructed. We do some things because people expect it of us, and when 300 million people are aware of your loss, you’ve got to feel some pressure.

The reverence people have for the site of the twin towers really surprises me. I don’t really get it. People talk about preserving the footprint of the towers, and not building anything there. It all just seems so technical and dry. I don’t understand the attachment to the location. I can understand why the location is painful and emotional and maybe cathartic to visit for people who lost a loved one, but I can’t understand the reverence.

I’ve tried to imagine how I’d feel if, say, my wife was killed in a car accident. How would I react to the location of the accident? I think I’d hate driving past the site, and would probably avoid it for a few years. But I wouldn’t revere it. It wouldn’t be hollowed ground for me.

And yet… When my father died, my wife and I took his ashes back to Kentucky where he was born. The last few hours of driving were off the interstate, on state roads winding through the hills and farms of eastern Kentucky, and I became accutely aware of passing small crosses that had been placed on the side of the road. I assume these were markers of locations where someone had been killed in a car accident.

I can kind of understand that. If someone I loved had died in one of those accidents, it would seem strange that the road appeared so normal. Here this important and terrible thing happened, and everything about the place is completely ordinary. It wouldn’t seem right.

On the other hand, I still don’t think I’d put up a marker. The location was the result of random chance, and it had nothing to do with the person who died.

All of this is not to say that there shouldn’t be a monument to the people murdered at the World Trade Center on 9/11. I’m just not sure that this should be it. I haven’t been following the planning of the 9/11 memorial, so I don’t know much about this, but it looks like they’re setting aside eight acres of Manhattan for the memorial, and they won’t be rebuilding any commercial buildings where the towers stood.

Somehow, it all seems like too much. By comparison, when the Eastland rolled over in the Chicago River in 1915, over 800 people died. The only memorial is this plaque (although there are plans for a slightly larger exhibit). Of course, almost four times as many people died on 9/11, and they died not in an accident but in an act of war, which does make a difference. Still, the 9/11 monument is half an acre larger than the National World War II Memorial.

I can’t escape the feeling that some people see memorializing 9/11 as a business and political opportunity, that some people who claim to represent the 9/11 families are really representatives only of their own self-interest, and that some people who claim to be honoring the dead are really trying to attract attention to themselves.

Or maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about. Like I said, I really don’t understand how other people think about memorials and monuments. It only makes sense, therefore, that the things other people plan won’t have much appeal to me, nor should they. When it comes to building the 9/11 memorial, no one should give much thought to pleasing someone who feels as I do. Nothing they do there is going to upset me much.

Still, I wish they’d do something. It’s been almost nine years since the towers fell. That’s four years longer than it took to build the towers or almost a third of the time they were standing. Looking at the construction site webcam as I write this, night has fallen, and imprints of the towers are just two dark holes in the ground. It sure looks like what Osama bin Laden wanted.

Music For My Dad

It was a year ago today that my father passed away. During the last few months, he spent a lot of time listening to his music CDs, and I figured it would be a nice idea to post some of the songs he liked. I hope you hear something you enjoy.

I’ll begin with his all-time favorite singer, Mahalia Jackson, singing “When the Saints Go Marching In”:

Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass perform “A Walk In The Black Forest”:

Tom Jones sings “Green Green Grass of Home”:

Jim Neighbors sings “Dream the Impossible Dream”:

Marty Robbins sings “Red River Valley”

Roy Orbison sings “Blue Bayou”:

Mahalia Jackson sings “How Great Thou Art”:

Jim Neighbors sings “Go Tell It On The Mountain”:

Roy Orbison sings “Pretty Woman”:

Marty Robbins sings “I Walk Alone”:

Since this is a bit of a memorial for my father, I reckon someone’s got to sing “Amazing Grace.” Again, here’s Mahalia Jackson:

Peter McWilliams, Ten Years Gone

Nick Gillespie notes that Peter McWilliams died ten years ago today. McWilliams was a resister of the War On Drugs. He was also one of its casualties.


McWilliams was very sick with AIDS and cancer, and the medicines he used made him nauseated, which he was able to ameliorate by smoking marijuana. The DEA charged McWilliams with various crimes in connection with a medical marijuana operation. Forbidden by the judge from mentioning his medical condition in court, he was forced to plead guilty and hope for leniency. While out on $250,000 bond for sentencing, and refraining from using marijuana as a condition of the bond secured by his mother’s house, he apparently vomited and choked to death.

I only know of McWilliams through his amazing book, Ain’t Nobody’s Business If You Do: The Absurdity of Consensual Crimes in a Free Country. It’s a passionate cry for freedom, the simple human freedom to do what we want as long as no one else gets hurt. Go ahead and click the link. That’s not an Amazon page, that’s the entire book, posted online for free the way McWilliams wanted it.

This book has been a huge influence on my personal moral philosophy. I had already come to an intellectual conclusion that things like the War on Drugs were wrong, but I hadn’t really internalized the idea. Then I read a section in Ain’t Nobody’s Business If You Do where McWilliams describes getting a ticket for a traffic violation and later getting busted for smoking marijuana. He points out that the traffic violation presented a genuine danger to his fellow human beings, but using drugs harmed no one other than perhaps the user, so despite what the cops and the legislature and almost everyone thought, the traffic violation was the greater crime. In fact, using drugs was no crime at all. I realized that this crazy idea was something I could believe. And it changed everything.

The other thing I remember about McWillaims is his astonishment at the types of people who fought on the dark side:

I write these things and feel myself in mortal combat with a gnarly monster; then I remember the human faces of the kind people who tried to make me comfortable with small talk as they went through my belongings as neatly as they could. Then I remember, painfully, that the War on Drugs is a war fought by decent Americans against other decent Americans, and these people rifling through my belongings really were America’s best — bright young people willing to die for their country in covert action. It takes a special kind of person for that, and every Republic must have a generous number of them in order to survive.

But instead of our best and our brightest being trained to hunt down terrorist bombs or child abductors — to mention but two useful examples — our misguided government is using all that talent to harass and arrest Blacks, Hispanics, the poor, and the sick — the casualties in the War on Drugs, the ones that, to quote Leonard Cohen again, “sank beneath your wisdom like a stone.” It is the heart of the evil of a prohibition law in a free country. After all, picking on someone with AIDS and cancer is a little redundant, don’t you think?

On the way out, one of the DEA agents said, “Have a nice day.”

I believe the comment was sincere.

I never know what to make of that. Oh, I understand what McWilliams was saying, and I think it’s probably true. It’s a mistake to think these people are stupid, and it’s probably unhelpful to think of them as evil. But sometimes that just makes it all the more hopeless: How can these “decent Americans” not understand that they are hurting people for no reason?

Peter’s gone now, but in his short time on earth he influenced a lot of people, and his ideals live on in so many of us. I wish he was still here to see some of it.