March, 2011

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#352 – Dick Bernard: August Wilson: the Triumph of an Ordinary Man….

Thursday, March 31st, 2011

On check-in at my hotel in downtown Pittsburgh, I asked if the August Wilson Center (AWC) was somewhere in the neighborhood.

That was an easy question: it was three short blocks away. I walked there, and found the back side of it was visible from my 15th floor room (the orange traffic signs are alongside AWC in the photo – click to enlarge).

August Wilson Center from Omni William Penn, Pittsburgh PA, March 25, 2011

August Wilson?

If you don’t know who he is, note the Center website link above. There is plenty of information. He is one of America’s most noted playwrights, one of the very few winners of two Pulitzer Prizes for his plays; the only African-American playwright ever to have two of his plays performed simultaneously on Broadway.

I met him when he was, literally, a “nobody”, like me….

Portrait of August Wilson at August Wilson Center, Pittsburgh.

Best as I can figure, it was sometime in 1979-82 time period when I met him, briefly, when he was a part-time cook at Little Brothers in Minneapolis MN. I was a sometime volunteer there, and August was the cook. Laura, my friend who introduced me to Little Brothers and got to know August better than I, says he was an outstanding cook, and I’ll take her word for that. My specialty is eating! She spent more time than I at Little Brothers; I was more part of the Catholic Charities circle in those years.

But I did meet August.

Later, I saw eight of the ten plays in his Pittsburgh Cycle – the plays that led to his fame. All of these were produced locally at St. Paul’s Penumbra Theatre. Gradually, I came to know that the playwright August Wilson was the same August Wilson who I’d met as a cook at Little Brothers some years earlier.

In April, 1998, my daughter and I visited Pittsburgh and were privileged to be given a tour of Augusts Hill District by his older sister, Freda, including going into the tiny home in which they grew up. (In the photo it is the last building on the right, and it is now a historic site in Pittsburgh at 1727 Bedford Ave. Its backyard was the setting, August said, for his play “Seven Guitars”. Note the skyline of downtown Pittsburgh in the background. Indeed, the Hill District is on a hill overlooking downtown.

August Wilson Boyhood home, 1727 Bedford, Pittsburgh PA, April, 1998

Freda remembers her younger brother as always being serious. It was not an easy road for he, his siblings or any persons of color in his growing up years. He wrote a paper in school, and it was so good he was accused of plagiarizing it, and dropped out. No one seemed much interested in his re-enrolling. Ultimately, he received an honorary high school diploma from one of Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Libraries, which is where he delved deeply into history, particularly African-American. He wrote, and wrote, and wrote.

My friend, Laura, remembers August as very modest and humble. When he won his first Pulitzer (1987), Laura recalls him as being excited to be able to take pictures of the famous people he would see there, not much aware of his own fame…that, in fact, he was now famous, too.

At the conference I attended in Pittsburgh, I invited August’s sister to speak to the 200 retired National Education Association educators in attendance, and publicize the new Guidebook (it is excellent) which has been published about August Wilson’s Pittsburgh. Here is the flier she distributed: August Wilson book flier. Her picture is below:

Freda Ellis, Pittsburgh, March 27, 2011

As for me, I’m working to learn more about how Little Brothers in Minneapolis assisted in August Wilson’s career development, and to help get Little Brothers recognized as well. As best I know, he completed at least one of his plays while there, and refined one or more of his “Pittsburgh Cycle” in his two or three years there. Yet Little Brothers merits hardly a sentence in any descriptor of August Wilson. Minneapolis’ Little Brothers is a very important part of his ‘roots’.

We all have our heroes and sheroes: August Wilson, and Freda, too, are among mine. I’m so happy we crossed paths….

#351 – Dick Bernard. A Cup of Coffee at Wally’s in Westchester

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

A brief trip to Chicago in early March was to attend the burial of my Uncle Art.

As it happened, my hotel was in the “village” of Westchester (pop. app 17,000), a middle class suburb where my Uncle and family had lived for over 20 years till his first wife died and he remarried and moved about 1980. I had visited Westchester with some frequency back then, so I knew the town pretty well, and it was an opportunity to re-see it.

For many years I have made a practice of seeking out the local “flavor” when I travel. So, on Saturday, March 5, the hotel offered breakfast with the room charge, but I got in the car and wandered back into Art’s old neighborhood to find something in the neighborhood, and finally noticed a promising sign:

Wally’s was in one of those ubiquitous small shopping strips that dot American communities. It was your standard “coffee and donut” place. I was the only customer at the time I entered.

Westchester is a middle class professional community, and Wally’s was not fancy as I would have expected, actually quite spare in its decor.

Something immediately caught my eye. Posted very visibly, twice, was an article from the April 9, 2010, Chicago Tribune. I read the article. The proprietor Walid Elkhatib, had been a franchise holder for one of those immense donut and coffee chains, and in 2010 had lost his franchise after a long legal battle over his refusal to market a certain kind of sandwich which went against his Muslim beliefs. The article was fascinating, and I wanted to talk to “Wally” but he wasn’t there at the time.

A little later he came in, a very engaging sort of guy. Customers came and went. Wally had a particular affinity for youngsters, and had a bowl of donut holes he called “munchkins” for the young children.

I lingered a bit longer and had an opportunity to talk briefly with him. He’d been in business since 1977, he said. With full knowledge of the franchise company, he didn’t market the sandwich because of his beliefs, and there were no questions.

But ultimately after September 11, 2001, the corporation turned up the heat, and the end result was his losing his franchise – huge loss. All that remained was his storefront, on which he held the lease, and a local trade which he had known for many years.

When I walked in the place, I had no idea of the earlier corporate link. After I knew, it all fit together (his apple fritters are delicious, just like in the old corporate stores you’ll find in every state.)

He and I had never met before, and didn’t have much of an opportunity to chat, but there was lots of content in those few minutes we visited.

It is clear to me, particularly from an earlier Chicago Tribune article, that the sandwich really wasn’t the issue; it was Wally’s religion and the post-9-11 hysteria that led to his downfall.

The community? It is predominantly white, Christian, middle class, professional.

He said that the local community gave and gives him very strong support. The legal issue was between the Corporation and himself. He lost.

He’d planned to retire, but the legal case did lots of damage to his savings, and he needs to keep the business.

I hope to be able to stay in touch with him.

I wish I had a photo of Wally behind the counter, but I didn’t have the presence of mind to take a photo at the time. I came back later, and he’d left for a couple of hours, and I couldn’t return….

(I couldn’t come up with an internet copy of the Chicago Tribune article posted in his shop, or the specific court case. I will keep looking.)

NOTE: This history of this post goes back to a simple act of kindness shown by a Muslim family in western North Dakota in 1953-54, as described in my September 5, 2010, blog entry.

#350 – Dick Bernard: Part 18. The Scourge of Half-thought, and the danger….

Sunday, March 20th, 2011

Today I was at the local copy place, making a photo copy of my mother’s first contract as a teacher. Busch Esther 1929 contra001.

At the next copier, a young woman was making large numbers of copies on colored paper. A somewhat older woman, though much younger than I, was with her.

We struck up a brief conversation. It turned out that the younger woman was a 4th grade teacher in a neighboring public school district. I gave her a copy of Mom’s 1929 contract. The other woman was the teacher’s mother. “Teaching is a really hard job“, the Mom said, referring to her daughter. Shortly into my Mom’s contract the great economic crash of 1929 occurred. I wonder….

Earlier I had sent around a commentary recently written by a veteran of many years in the trenches of public education, particularly teacher union work. I’d like the young woman to have this commentary as well, but likely will not ever hear from her or meet her again. But for the readers of this blog, here is Bob Barkley’s commentary. (Disclaimer: Bob Barkley is a good friend whose professional career mirrored mine, though at the national level and in another state.)

Later in the afternoon my wife and I watched 60 Minutes and saw a segment on the revision and treatment of a certain word – the “N” word – in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. The segment featured teachers and students at our local high school, one mile from our home. It was a surprise to say the least. And excellent. It was refreshing to see an example of real discussion and debate within the public school setting involving teachers and students.

Economically, most all of us live in almost heavenly economic conditions compared to Mom and those farmers she worked for in 1929-30.

But public policy, especially public education, is, and has for years become, a major ideologic battleground in the United States. It is a hard, uncertain, place to be.

At the moment, at least, the juggernaut that is the “Power” establishment seems to have the upper hand in setting in place regressive public policies under the many guises presented: “reform”, diminishing or destroying the impact of unions, controlling curriculum, bringing that young woman’s salary and benefits to heel, et al. The young lady has more to worry about than those colored sheets of paper she was working with.

I have come to observe an alarming degree of what seems to be half-thought by most everyone in society, most especially Power People – the ones who can do the most damage. (By “half thought” I mean an utter lack of thinking through anything beyond the short term “win” or “loss”.) There are endless examples. People see an issue only through their own lens, and at the moment. The long term is what happens now, this year, on our own terms. In fact, “half-thought” might be giving far more credit than deserved. We want exactly what we want, now. Too often, we want what we want required of others, too.

The young teacher I saw this afternoon is likely too tired and overwhelmed with doing what she is supposed to do in the classroom to pay much mind to things like attempts to destroy her rights to collective representation or due process for dismissal or anything like that. She’s too young to remember the struggle to get what she has. There are legions like her, too busy to think of anything beyond doing what they’re directed to do.

In the 60 Minutes segment, the issue being “debated”, between two obviously highly professional colleagues, could be decided, case closed, by implementation of state or federal Laws limiting or eliminating their options – closing off their debate. You win or you lose. Period.

There are winners and losers in the half-thought society I mention above. The winners prevail in getting the RIGHTS to decide. The losers are given the RESPONSIBILITY to do what is imposed on them. It is not healthy for winners or losers or our society.

I still quite often see a TV commercial for a particular alcoholic beverage which seems to touch this issue. It is apparently a play on a more famous quotation, “With great privilege comes great responsibility“. The commercials says: ‘With [enjoyment of this] great [alcoholic beverage] comes great responsibility.” In other words, get drunk with our product, but don’t blame us afterwards….

It would be good for the movers and shakers – those out to “win” at any cost – to pay very serious attention to the “responsibility” piece, the long and global view.

As for the rest, the victims of this Power-grab, I hope they get themselves organized and that they hang in there.

They, not the rich and powerful, are the salvation of this country of ours.

There’s will be a really, really difficult job. But if they lose, we will all lose.

#349 – Dick Bernard: The Third War in 20 Years? Is it time for the Anti-War Movement to Change Tactics and Strategies?

Saturday, March 19th, 2011

As I write, in the background is Wolf Blitzer and Company at CNN already endlessly analyzing the actions in Libya today. A retired General is talking. Of course, everyone is a war expert. War is always interesting, and a launching platform for all points of view.

Peace is boring, or so it seems. How do you report on cooperation when conflict is more exciting? This is how our society seems to assess one versus the other.

Or is Peace really boring to the vast majority of us? Is it, rather, that War is interesting to the visible minority who control the air waves? Hmmmm.

The first time I ever heard Wolf Blitzer was during Desert Storm which began in late January, 1991 with the invasion of Iraq.

I remember vividly where I was when I heard that the U.S. had invaded Iraq – I was driving on Co Rd 42 in Burnsville MN.

Back home that evening, I heard Wolf Blitzer, announcing on CNN from perhaps Saudi Arabia. While he was already a veteran reporter, this was perhaps his first highly visible assignment, talking under Palm trees in his Middle East location. Desert Storm made Wolf Blitzer and CNN into household names. They made a lot of money covering War.

But I was not opposed to the first Gulf War – it seemed necessary at the time – and indeed I got into non-ideological correspondence as pen pal with a young GI in Saudi Arabia. Not long ago I reconnected with the man, and sent him a half dozen letters he had written to me from the front. I thought we’d get together, but haven’t done so as yet.

Envelope for GI letter from Iraq mid-March, 1991

The 1991 War was rapidly over, at least the newsworthy part. The anti-war movement had scarcely time to get organized.

March 19, 2003, 8 years ago today, the bombs began to drop again on Iraq.

This time I wasn’t on the sidelines. The bombing of Afghanistan in October, 2001, had got me into the fray and I participated in lots of demonstrations over the years. I could see no good coming of what I felt was simply U.S. actions to avenge 9-11 by demolishing a poor country. I wrote a newspaper column, published April, 2002, which didn’t even mention the word “Iraq”: 2002001.

Of course, all that ended up mattering to the then-administration was Iraq. We essentially destroyed Iraq, based on a false argument; and we’re still in Afghanistan.

But the action which began today in Libya finds me somewhat conflicted. At the outset, I’m feeling a bit like I did back in 1991. There are major distinctions between the others and this, at least so I feel.

Perhaps I should have joined the annual march remembering the anniversary of the bombing of Iraq today, but I didn’t (I actually drove by the site where the march was to begin but decided to come home rather than park and join the small gathering). My heart wasn’t sufficiently in it. I suppose this makes me a sellout. Really, all it means is that I have an opinion.

I just turned off Blitzer and went back to college basketball, and I will despise every retired General who is hired to analyze the tactics and strategy in Libya in the coming days.

I am every bit as opposed to war as ever, but I think the time is long past for alternative actions: to be for things rather than against.

People I know will disagree vigorously with this. To not be against war is considered to be for war.

So be it.

Three websites dedicated to Peace:
The U.S. Peace Memorial Foundation. I am active in this initiative and a Founding Member. I encourage your support in this long term venture.
A Million Copies. This is a personal website specifically dedicated to two elders who have long years dedicated to world peace and understanding, Lynn Elling and Dr. Joseph Schwartzberg. At this site are links to several other initiatives towards a peaceful world.
World Citizen. This organization, of which I’m vice-president, works to bring peace education into classrooms and is beginning an on-line presence. It is also co-sponsor of the annual Nobel Peace Prize Festival at Augsburg College in Minneapolis (link to Festival information is at this site).

At least take a look.

#348 – Dick Bernard: Part 17. Garrison Keillor “…and all the children are above average”

Thursday, March 17th, 2011

Today’s newspaper brought news that Garrison Keillor might, just might, retire in 2013, leaving Prairie Home Companion (PHC) in the hands of someone else.

Precisely when Garrison will no longer be part of the picture is an unknown, probably including to himself. But as someone a couple of years senior to Keillor in age, I can attest that he is not getting any younger; he’s no longer a kid.

I was one of the lucky ones who first saw him in the olden days of PHC (which began in 1974). The first time was in the fall of 1977, probably at Macalester College in St. Paul, where you could walk in off the street to buy a ticket, and find a good seat as well.

I was never a regular at Prairie Home Companion, but I showed up a great plenty, and during my time as Director of the Anoka-Hennepin Education Association we once hired the show band, “The Powdermilk Biscuit” bunch, to do a dance gig for our teacher’s association in Keillor’s home town of Anoka MN. Those were the days….

Once, I saw him crossing the street at the Swayed Pines Festival at St. John’s University in Collegeville MN. It was in late April, 1979. Here’s the snapshot, for the first time in public! (Click on the photo to enlarge.) St. John’s is where Keillor first went on air late in the 1960s, and it is in the heart of his mythical Lake Wobegon.

Garrison Keillor late April, 1979

I signed my first Anoka-Hennepin teaching contract in the office of the Superintendent July 21, 1965. The office was in the same school Garrison Keillor had attended high school and graduated from a few short years earlier. A few years later I would begin to represent in teacher union work some of the same teachers who had Garrison as a student. Of course, at the time I had no idea there was such a person as Garrison Keillor, nor would I till he began to be noticed ten years or so later.

While Keillor’s Lake Wobegon is a collage of bits and pieces from many places, there has always been a very heavy foundation of Anoka in his sketches of Lake Wobegon. I know this, since I moved to Anoka in 1965, and except for three years absence 1966-68, I either lived or worked in or near the suburban community till the early 1980s. Too many of the characters and geographic images are far too “spitting image” to be successfully denied.

Keillor’s forever and ever signature is his description of the good people of Lake Wobegon, where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.

I have no idea how he came up with this phrase so many years ago, but it is clear to me, living in our contemporary society, he had us “nailed”. We seem, collectively, to think we are all exceptional. Maybe we all have exceptional qualities, but basically we are just people, as Garrison Keillor is.

As is true with most of us, the now-famed Mr. Keillor probably came across as very much an average and ordinary kid in those school years. One or more of them did their part in helping him develop his own latent but immense talents; as they and legions of other teachers in other places and times have helped others develop their own talents. Having taught myself, I know we basically try to do our best with everyone. We don’t always succeed. But often we do, and more often than not we touch someone in some ways we will never realize.

Teachers and indeed all the supporting staff in public schools do an immense service.

Thank school employees.

(As I’ve been writing this I’ve had as background music the work of another commoner who took her talents to the next level. Take a listen.)

#347 – Annelee Woodstrom: A Woman’s Perspective on the Ravages of War and the Elusiveness of Peace.

Tuesday, March 15th, 2011

Note from Dick Bernard: This Essay seems particularly appropriate to present at the anniversary of the bombing of Iraq March 19, 2003, and our seeming continued reverence for War as a solution for human problems.

Our wonderful friend, Annelee Woodstrom, grew up in Nazi Germany. She was 7 when Hitler came to power in 1933, and in 1947, after WWII, she came to the United States to marry the “Gentleman Soldier” from Crookston MN who she had met when the Army liberated her town of Mitterteich, which was and is near the Czech border, and later was just inside what became West Germany after the War. Since her marriage in 1947, she has lived in northwest Minnesota, most of that time in the community of Ada MN. She is a retired teacher.

The following essay is one which she presented recently to a woman’s group in her town. This is designed to go with a power-point presentation which I cannot present here, of course. It is her script for the presentation, thus the capitalized letters for emphasis. This essay is passed along with her permission.

Uncle Pepp was a prominent small businessman in the town – a baker. There were two Jewish families in the town. To my knowledge, both left and both survived the war.

Annelee has written two very well received books: War Child: Growing up in Adolf Hitler’s Germany; and Empty Chairs, about her life in the U.S. Her website is here.

Annelee Woodstrom:

During March 1945 I had been ill. In this excerpt from my book WAR CHILD you will meet my Uncle Pepp. He isn’t easy to forget!!
I knocked softly. Uncle Pepp opened the door and motioned to the big chair. “What can I do for you?”
“Nothing. — I came to say good-bye.”
“So good-bye it is,” Uncle Pepp mumbled. His voice and his demeanor startled me.
“If you are busy, I’ll leave.”
“No, you just sit there, and I’ll tell you when you can leave.”

RESTING HIS CHIN in his hands, he looked at me, pondering. “Everybody comes and tells me, ‘I’m leaving.’ Are you leaving today? You should be home with your mother, but you are out there, getting bombed and shot at just like the men.” His gaze went past me. “The men went and fought, but most of them didn’t come HOME.

The ones who DID are crippled for life in one way or another. Tell me, for what?” He nodded. “Oh, yes, for the THOUSAND Year Reich. What a Reich it is!!! It started with Adolf Hitler and a few crazy men — who hollered and screamed as they led us and lied — until everyone followed blindly into THE abysmal destruction of humanity. Now,— we drown in our own blood. How they have changed us.”
“Uncle . . .”

He didn’t hear me, and I didn’t dare to move as he went on.

“They didn’t change us, we did that ourselves. Now, the whole world will hold us accountable.”

He shook his head. “All my life I tried to do right. Then, in one minute, I ruined it all. Just because Cousin Karl joined the Nazi party and didn’t tell me, I pushed him into this damn war. Now he is in France, doing God knows what? Killing, fighting, or RUNNING to save himself. He shouldn’t have joined the Nazi party without telling me . . . SO I REFUSED TO sign that I needed him in the bakery TO SECURE FOOD FOR THE TOWN. Now, nothing is the SAME . — He and I have changed.”

I had never seen Uncle Pepp like this. I got up and GINGERLY
put my hand on his shoulder AND TRIED TO CONSOLE HIM. “It wasn’t your fault! It’s the war! The Government would have taken Karl anyway. Everybody has to go to war. AFTERnTHIS WAR ENDS, there won’t be any more wars, because there isn’t anyone left to fight.”

Uncle Pepp laughed bitterly. “You would think so. We learn a lot in a lifetime, but no one in THIS world learns about keeping peace. Every time there is a war, they say it is for some cause, and then it will bring peace FOR EVER !!! The human race is the dumbest species there is. For thousands of years legions of people have fought and maimed each other for one cause or another. They TOOK LAND FROM THEIR so-called enemy. When you look around, you see that years later they gave it back. Never mind the corpses UNDERNEATH THE LAND the young were told to conquer.”

Uncle Pepp’s eyes bored into mine. “You think this war is the
last war? Anneliese, don’t mind MY LAUGHING. Some day YOU MAY HAVE A SON who will get his draft notice to fight in another WAR . . . AND AGAIN they’ll promise you, ‘THIS IS THE LAST WAR OF ALL WARS.’ On the other side there will be a mother who will have to send her son for the same reason — TO STOP WAR! What we have NOT YET learned is the simple truth: Wars lay the seeds and breed another more horrible war than the ones before.”

Uncle Pepp came close to me. “I always told your papa you should
have been his first born son, but I’m glad you’re not. Maybe you will
make it through this war. You will, if you’re lucky and have a say
about it.” He kissed me on THE CHEEK,— “Now go, and do come back, you hear me!”

IT WAS March 1947 I WAS LEAVING GERMANY TO COME TO AMERICA AND MARRY KENNEY. MY COUSIN Erna boarded the train with me.
The wheels of the train grated over the worn-out tracks and sparks spewed as we reached Nuremberg. The train stopped near MOUNTAINOUS DEBRIS THAT FOUR YEARS AGO had been the railroad station.
Instantly, we were engulfed by moving masses and WE PUSHED AND SHOVED until we found an empty platform space. Dreading the layover, we PUT our luggage behind our backs, huddled to keep warm and watched. Children, women and men, stood SPRINT READY as they LOOKED and pointed down the trodden path where an American PATROL CAR turned the corner.

At will, the soldiers flipped cigarettes and cigarette butts IIN THE watchers’ direction. The Americans talked, laughed and shook their heads at the spectacle they had created. The watchers sprinted forward until they spied a cigarette landing near them. Within a flash, they threw themselves on the ground, pushing, and fighting until SOMEONE ROSE, arms raised, jumping joyfully and clutching their treasure while their friends cheered.

Erna and I knew that cigarettes were sometimes better than money. With a good barterer, enough cigarettes could sustain the hungry or sick. We watched silently as men traded seven cigarettes for a pound of flour. Another group traded for water, and while the hunger-driven sat and salivated, their chosen leader mixed the flour with water until he held a lumpy dough. Eager hands pulled the dough into sheets that hardened none too soon for the lucky owners. No one took chances WITH THEFT; they devoured the finished product and the hunger pains were stilled for now.

Near us crude scaffolds covered with scribbled messages and weather-beaten pictures of soldiers, children, and families were the meeting places for refugees and all the other survivors of the war. These messages and pictures were the lost and found network of Germany’s twentieth century’s mayhem and madness.

We were overwhelmed by the constant motion that surrounded us. Dressed in tattered clothes, which were probably all they owned, bedraggled hollow-eyed homeless walked by looking for a space where they could perhaps stay for a few hours, or maybe a night. Others searched for a familiar face, or someone who might know the whereabouts of missing family members, friends, or acquaintances.

Groups of people groped through the rubble for anything that could keep them warm.

The most pitiful sight was the refugees. They had lost their homes which had been built by their ancestors centuries ago. Torn apart for the past four years by the ravages of war, families still huddled on their wagons or on the ground. Their nomadic life had taken its toll, and there was no end to the misery that surrounded us.

Disbelieving, WE STARED at bands of German soldiers who had withstood years of fighting on all fronts and were now clad in ill-
fitting shirts, pants, and jackets. Some had lost their limbs, their
hearing, or their sight. The more fortunate ones still had shoes, others had rags tied around their feet. Most soldiers had discarded their Army uniforms, while others wore them ONLY in the darkness OF NIGHT to keep warm. The daily struggle for survival, the unsuccessful searches for their loved ones, and the constant reminders of a lost war had robbed them of their once proud stance.

Children who had been taken from air-raided cities and relocated in designated safety zones WERE NOW ORPHANS — they survived because they had joined street gangs.

Tired and discouraged, we boarded the Wurzburg-bound train.

We stood by the window and viewed in silence what once had been THE BEAUTIFUL CITY OF NUREMBERG. We had heard that unrelenting bombing raids had obliterated the city, but we had never seen such total chaos before.

For miles, — as far as the eye could see, burned-out shells of homes
stood only because the mountains of rubble did not permit them to fall and come to rest. Uninhabitable buildings stood with gaping holes in their sides exposing denuded rooms, and the JAGGED remnants of walls thrust their ragged edges toward the heavens, lamenting their fate. Streets were now winding footpaths through piles of debris.

Throughout the remainder of our trip, through Wurzburg and onto our final destination, Frankfurt/Main, ERNA AND I realized that our Fuehrer had gotten his wish. In 1944, as the Allies encircled the
borders of Germany, shortly before his self-inflicted death Adolf
Hitler had shifted responsibility and blame for Germany’s military collapse onto his people. At meetings, he raved at his district leaders and generals that his people had betrayed him. They were cowards, and they deserved DEFEAT, HUMILIATION and even DEATH at the hands of GERMANY’S enemies. Now, his wish was reality. Germany lay in ruins, its people were destitute, and the once-feared Army had been annihilated. Germany’s regions were divided, and its borders were guarded by four allied nations.

Frankfurt, in twilight, was an image of grotesqueness and it embodied the savagery of war. The stately, CENTURIES OLD stone and brick houses lay reduced to rubble that flowed like lava out into the streets. Weather-beaten cardboard signs with crude, black letters pointed the way to avenues and streets. As the train stopped, we noted that the customary friendliness toward strangers we had taken for granted before the war, was no longer with us.

After my heart-breaking good-by with Erna, I landed in New York , met Kenny , and we took the train to Washington DC
TO MEET WITH [then-Minnesota] Congressman Hagen.

As we left the UNION STATION, Kenny hailed a taxi. The driver joined the evening traffic. The darkness of the night did not penetrate the streets of Washington, D.C. Lights glared everywhere, YET, the traffic flowed smoothly and steadily. I found no chaos here, nor morbid darkness. Everything was so unlike the Germany I had known these past eight years.
I continued deep in thought while Kenny and the driver talked. Suddenly, Kenny put his hands over my eyes and made sure
I could not peek out.

The taxi stopped. KENNY REMOVED HIS HANDS, — Lights engulfed everything around us, and the brightness made me blink rapidly.

Abruptly, I sucked in my breath and shivered as goose bumps crawled through my skin. Wonderstruck, I sat SILENTLY. The beauty and the massiveness of the [U.S.] Capitol Building was beyond anything I could have imagined.

It seemed the past and the future HAD merged RIGHT HERE, and penetrated into the very interior of our car. Thoughts and feelings bombarded and captivated my whole being. I felt so SMALL and insignificant, YET so special at the same time. I hugged my own body and sat still until Kenny spoke to the driver. He started the car and we were silent while he drove past the White House, the house where President Harry Truman lived.

Slowly, I understood I WAS TRULY in another world. How beautiful it was! How stately! How serene!

Realization crept into my mind and took hold. “So that is the way PEOPLE LIVE — where there is peace!” I said softly. TEARS welled up IN MY EYES until the lights were a blur. I THOUGHT OF MY LOVED ONES IN GERMANY AND WISHED, “If only Mama and everyone, everyone in the world could live where there is peace!”

I suddenly felt drained and sad. I had not known peace and serenity since I was in SEVENTH GRADE waiting to celebrate my thirteenth birthday.

#346 – Dick Bernard: Part 16. “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Monday, March 14th, 2011

Sunday afternoon, enroute to other things, I found a cartoon I had saved for some reason back in March of 2002. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

About the same time I found the cartoon, came a CBS “60 Minutes” segment on a New York City experimental school that pays $125,000 a year. You can see the segment here.

A few hours earlier, a couple of folks had forwarded on a Nicholas Kristof post on the same general topic. One suspects that he had access to the same general source as did 60 Minutes.

The previous day my local legislator and some in her audience were lamenting being unable to get rid of “bad” teachers….

The song goes on and on and on and on: get rid of unions, and so-called “tenure” laws which give “bad” teachers life-time no-cut contracts and all will be well.

Having been in the trenches for many years, including growing up in a family whose Mom and Dad were public school teachers (and excellent ones, including their public citizenship), I know that the cartoon catches the reality far better than the high-falootin’ philosophizin’. For assorted reasons, the Power that runs things cannot abide its Public Workers having any status even roughly equivalent to it. It, including that angry Dad in the cartoon above, demands a subordinate class.

It would be truly nice to have a substantive conversation about ideas such as the $125,000 teacher in every classroom. The way things are going, when that $125,000 goal is reached; poverty level will be, perhaps, $130,000.

I have all of my Mom and Dad’s old teaching contracts – there are 71 of them in all. I pulled them out for the year I graduated from high school – 1957-1958.

1957-58 was Dad’s 28th year of teaching. He had been serving as “Superintendent” of many tiny schools since 1940-41.

We had lived in this town before, from 1945-51; in the interim, there were three other places, till Dad and Mom got another contract here. In addition to doing the assorted kinds of administrative things that go along with administrating even a tiny school, Dad had to teach two classes, as well as Drivers Ed, and he had to Coach sports. The latter was something he wasn’t interested in and was not good at, but there would have been no Basketball or Football had he not taken it on.

There were about 45 students and two other teachers in his tiny high school; my Mother taught the elementary (most elementary kids, including three of her five children, were in the Catholic elementary school down the street.)

That year Dad was paid $4800 with no fringe benefits and, excepting a one year contract, no legal protections whatever. At the end of the year his reemployment was completely at the whim of the local school board.

For Mom, it was her 17th year as a teacher – the off years were to bear and raise we kids. Her salary was $3000.

Likely there were plenty of people in that little town who were envious of this two-income couple.

Bernard family 1958. Mom was then 48 and Dad 50.

They lasted three more years in that place they were content to be, but their contract was non-renewed by the school board for some reason they had no right to know, and off they went again.

Teachers everywhere and in every age can tell similar stories. Even the ones who confide to their friends that they don’t like the Union, are the first ones to call for help in times of trouble.

Trust me. I know.

Something else has become very noticeable today. In the relatively short time I watch TV each day: the ads heavily focus on the “me”. No longer is it adequate to be covered only by a group insurance plan (if you are so fortunate as to be in one). Now the rage is to build a plan to your own specifications. Etc. Of course, with sophistication of data management, such things are possible these days. On the other hand, such schemes are just further evidence of the breakdown of our society into a mass that is the have-nots, versus the truly elite individuals who are the haves, and who believe they have earned and deserved their right to make choices.

This is a time of back-sliding. It is only a matter of time before there will be a reaction, and it won’t be pleasant. Unions didn’t happen because of benevolent and enlightened management. Quite the opposite.

One reaps what one sews.

Teachers, their unions, as well as other employees and their unions as well, may be open to criticism, as any other persons or entities are open to criticism, but we will all rue the day Unions go out of existence or are stripped of their power. Most of us are, after all, subordinates, and Wisdom does not necessarily follow Power.

Minneapolis Star Tribune cartoon September 25, 1995

This series began with Part 1 on February 17. It will likely continue.

#345 – Dick Bernard – Part 15. Thank a public worker. Public workers, thank back….

Sunday, March 13th, 2011

Early last evening we were having a light meal at a nearby hotel before hearing the Minnesota Orchestra in Minneapolis. (Magnificent concert, as always.)

Our server, Mindy E., took my credit card to ring up the bill, and on return asked me “are you a teacher?” She had seen the imprint on the credit card; the teacher’s union for whom I worked for 27 years; and of which I was an active member for quite a number of years before that.

I told Mindy I was retired, had been a teacher years ago and spent much of my career representing public school teachers but no, I was not currently a teacher.

She said “I admire teachers. My brother is a teacher.” I asked where, and she mentioned some small place in Montana I’d never heard of. “We went to Montana State in Bozeman”, I seem to recall her saying.

The conversation was very short – she was busy and we were about to leave – but it is one of those messages that will live on for me.

It was a particularly heart-warming happening because a few hours earlier, in my town, I’d been to a listening session with our newly elected local legislator. There was the usual talk, heavily laced this particular day with how those Wisconsin public employees were bankrupting the State, and how we just had to get rid of those “bad” teachers. One of the 27 in the room was glad to darkly describe one of these – somebody from some long ago memory of one classroom event – interspersed with the usual “good old days” stuff about discipline and the like. She was a good storyteller, I’ll give her that.

It didn’t sound like there were many bad teachers employed in our district, but in some other towns there had to be these blights on the world who should be eliminated by some means or another. This brought up the problem with “teacher tenure”, which I pointed out was a misnomer…but I didn’t pursue since it would just create another unresolvable argument engaged in by people who probably don’t have a clue what the law is or how it works.(Here’s Minnesota’s).. All they know is that they’ve been told it’s bad.

I asked how you define a “bad teacher”, and nobody including the legislator was quite sure how you go about it. Perhaps there should be some kind of assessment of how students progress on test scores during the year, the new legislator offered. The legislator seemed to be working from talking points, and as I asked for some proof, she seemed happy to get rescued from the topic by other issues she was urging the audience to raise – fair enough.

The audience pitched in: issues like cutting health and human services; should the state help fund a new Vikings Stadium (the local NFL team); Racino (the latest version of legalized gambling in lieu of taxation); open bars on Sunday (apparently liquor store owners are against this, for some reason); an initiative to enhance carbon monoxide safety awareness brought by a citizen; how they could buy booze in grocery stores in California, why not here?; the problems and benefits of the Legacy Amendment (a constitutional amendment passed by Minnesota voters which dedicates a small percent to things like the arts, wetlands, etc.).

I was a bit depressed when left the meeting with the legislator, but nonetheless I was glad I’d come.

The restaurant servers comment made my day.

I’ve never been much for “vanity credit cards”, but that little conversation in Minneapolis has caused me to rethink this a bit.

As for getting to know your legislator, do it whether they’re from the friendly or unfriendly side. At the very least, they need your point of view, and speak up. Maybe somebody in the audience will be listening.

And the legislator wants to be reelected next time….

Last night I gave Mindy a good tip. Today I’m going to write her a note, and send it in a real stamped envelope. I know where she works….

POSTNOTE: The previous 14 posts on this topic begin with Part 1 at February 17.

#344 – Dick Bernard: Part 14. We’re witnessing a deadly game in which we’re the ultimate victims.

Wednesday, March 9th, 2011

The bizarre drama that is Wisconsin continues to play itself out.

It is a very high stakes and scary game, where an ideological fringe has, for the moment, managed to seize control of the government and is asserting its will. In the end the ultimate victims of this power play, the working middle class, will be the ones relied on to drive a stake through their own heart by allowing a highly financed, amoral and truly vicious political machine to demolish workers rights in favor of big business and the very wealthy.

Wisconsin is the test for all the rest of us.

I believe Wisconsin’s – and our – democracy is still strong enough to self-correct over time. But Wisconsin will be a very major test of the foolishness of our tendency as Americans to make our politics simply a spectator sport or, far worse, make politics into something that is beneath us, mostly because we do not wish to become engaged at any level.

Sometimes I wonder if we are our own worst enemies…that we loathe ourselves…that we don’t deserve fair treatment and good wages and working conditions. We seem to be easily taught to be passive.

There are far more than enough members of the working middle class to turn the tables on the big and very selfish Power interests, but will they? That is an open question. (The poor are unlikely to engage for good reason: their struggle is simply to survive. Their ranks are rapidly increasing.)

Today’s Minneapolis Star Tribune carried an excellent Los Angeles Times column which does a good job of defining some of the issues.

Locally, Steve Berg in the on-line newspaper MinnPost had an equally excellent commentary.

But opinions are just opinions, and in the end analysis it has to be the people – every one of us – who will collectively decide whether they deserve better or worse. We can collectively engage, or choose to stay unengaged, saying “it’s their problem”, etc.

I get the notion that our entire society is victimized by its tendency to engage in what I might call “half thinking”; we are a society which has no vision beyond our own vision for our own moment in time. Cartoonists regularly describe us as Ma and Pa in our easy chairs watching TV and spouting off to each other…. The cartoonists have us nailed.

Watch the debate – or more, the lack of debate. Those of us who are doing okay cannot conceive of the possibility that things will not be okay. We think that somebody else’s government benefit, including his or her employment, is wasteful and should be eliminated; while forgetting that someone else thinks the same about our own benefits, regardless of where those benefits originate. We think things half-way through, or less.

I am constantly amazed at the short-sighted big business attitude, basically dictated by Wall Street these days, which focuses on making the quarterly (three months) “numbers”. Corporate leaders should not only know better, but they have huge organizations where there should be “vision” people who can identify long-term consequences of short term profit oriented benefits. Squeezing profits out of working people’s wages and benefits in the short term inevitably cuts into the corporations profits long term, and there are no alternative markets equal to even come close to the old United States consumer spending engine.

At this writing, it appears that the Republican majority in Wisconsin will “succeed” in the short term, but it will be a Pyrrhic victory for them, even if they stave off recall or election challenges. But everyone will suffer. It is risky business to begin a downward spiral, and that is what is now happening.

Caveat emptor. Get off the couch that is your comfort zone and get engaged.

Postnote: A couple of days ago a very level headed person I’m getting to know, an engineer by training, career corporate employee, quite well known and very actively engaged politically, sent me a note, as follows. In this case we were discussing public education, and he was talking about a report that was issued by a reform-minded special interest group 28 years ago. What he says applies to everything in our public sphere today:

As you said, the intentions have been hijacked by groups who have a different agenda. Only a few people recognize the marketing, the propaganda and the massive attack on public awareness is an intentional strategy developed and funded by incredibly well-organized behind-the-scenes groups. Some of these initiative groups have no personal animosity to the people they damage, but they have no respect for humans either. I read an excellent blog post today. It covers Vallay Varro, the new director of MinnCAN, another shadow group. I agree with him, she has been bought.

We have been conditioned when to pay attention, and when to ignore. How else can we justify, based on a lie, invading a country [Iraq] uninvolved in 9/11, bombing their infrastructure back to the ’50’s and killing more than 100,000 of their innocent citizens? Then we go the church!

Most recently I happened onto the BBC documentary “The Century of the Self”.

I am [getting on in years], and this documentary opened my eyes to things that I suspected and feared, but never thought so true. We in America have been so distracted that our society depends on others making the important evaluations and decisions for us. Watch the video as soon as you can, maybe even twice (as I am doing) and extrapolate it to other mass manipulations done to us, known and unknown.”

NOTE: Part 1 of this uninterrupted series began with a post on February 17, 2011. While the issue is extremely important, other topics will become a more regular feature. Future posts on the topic of Wisconsin and public employment specifically will be labeled Part 15, etc.

Uncomfortable Essays

Tuesday, March 8th, 2011

The document which makes up the title of this post is 48 pages and was written by Dick Bernard between September, 2008, and July, 2012. It speaks for itself, including, especially, the word “Uncomfortable”.
Uncomfortable Essays 2008-2012
It consists of 17 Essays on assorted topics which could generically be considered thoughts on more effective organizing for the peace and justice community.

An earlier 4-page document, initially written in the Fall of 2002, generally articulated the same ideas to the same general audience. It can be read here: MAPM organizing Dick B Recs Jan 2003

The organization to which the thoughts are addressed is the Minnesota Alliance of Peacemakers (MAP), founded in September, 1995, and still in existence. You can see more about MAP here.

The author of the Essays has been active in MAP since 2002, and was President of the Alliance for three years 2005 through 2007.