Category Archives: Fire This Time

Trump & the Troops: Is the Party Over?

Here’s a speculation: For three years, Trump has been singling out American military commanders and lower-ranking troops and treating them like dirt. He’s also elevated some dirt bags, like the Navy Seal prisoner-killer he pardoned, who was hated by his own team members.

He’s toyed with whole units, sending them on phony-baloney, embarrassing “missions” to the Mexico border, to repel what all of them knew were imaginary, nonexistent immigrant “invaders.”

Further, he forced them to hold a Soviet-style parade (making them mimic the old enemy?) It was a completely superfluous ordeal for the troops required to be there in heavy uniforms and zipped lips. And he made them do it on a day when the Washington Post said “extreme heat and humidity will power through . . . the day and into the evening . . . . Overall, it’s going to be ridiculously hot and sticky on July 4, in Washington, D.C.” Temperatures were in the 90s, then it rained buckets.

The response of the generals was dumped in the last paragraph of the New York Times‘s report, but was unmistakable:

Trump: “You’re a bunch of dopes and babies.” (And one person here is a craven draft dodger.)

The president announced months ago his intention to speak on Fourth of July. But it was just in recent weeks that he demanded a robust military presence, including tanks and fighter jet flyovers.

That led to a mad scramble in the Defense Department to gather the military leaders who would attend. The Pentagon was given only a few days’ notice that Trump wanted his defense secretary, all the Joint Chiefs and all the service secretaries by his side during his remarks.

Most of the Joint Chiefs were on leave or on travel and did not attend.

In September, there was another slap: most of the money diverted to Trump’s wall-building came from projects meant to benefit military families and their kids. CNBC put it pithily:

Pentagon pulls funds for military schools, daycare to pay for Trump’s border wall

Look close: can you see the schools and daycare centers for military kids?

The Pentagon said on Wednesday it would pull funding from 127 Defense Department projects, including schools and daycare centers for military families, as it diverts $3.6 billion to fund President Donald Trump’s wall along the U.S. border with Mexico.

Schools for the children of U.S. military members from Kentucky to Germany to Japan will be affected. A daycare center at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland – the home of Air Force One – will also have its funds diverted, the Pentagon said.

A month later, Trump abruptly abandoned Kurdish troops who had fought & bled against ISIS for years on the U. S. side. Trump trashed their loyalty and left them to be slaughtered by the Syrian army without a backward glance.

I was raised in a military family; but that was long ago, and I haven’t been in the military myself; so I’m no expert. Even so, observing this long roster of chickensh*t antics, I felt it must be having some impact on opinion among U. S. troops. A great many of them still take what are called military values & honor with some or high seriousness.

Officially, they’re supposed to keep out of public politicking. But many of these troops vote. And there are large numbers of them in  North Carolina, Kentucky, Florida, and other states with pivotal races.

What this procession of follies adds up to is that Trump has repeatedly shown no more respect for the troops than for anyone else. These repeated shocks should have been pounding this ugly message home to many of those in uniform.

Nor is this merely an ego/image matter: these are the Americans who go into harm’s way, and stupid, reckless leadership ultimately produces needless casualties, in and out of uniform. Surely, I’ve been thinking, some of the troops must be getting fed up with this.

Could a shift in GI opinion make a 2020 electoral difference? Rhetorical question: in a tight race, for sure — say, the one facing Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, home of Fort Campbell, one of the largest army bases. Or Thom Tillis in N. Carolina, where more than 100,000 troops are assigned to Ft. Bragg and Marine base Camp Lejeune. Add family members and the numbers nearly double. Almost any move could tip the balance.

Sure, many servicepeople are strong Trump supporters. But the feeling is both not unanimous, and appears to be measurably slipping. The Military Times papers do such polls, and their most recent one was in mid-December. The summary of that tally was stark:
Military Times:

Military Times Poll photo.

“Trump’s 42 percent approval in the latest poll, conducted from Oct. 23 to Dec. 2, sets his lowest mark in the survey since being elected president. Some 50 percent of troops said they had an unfavorable view of him. By comparison, just a few weeks after his electoral victory in November 2016, 46 percent of troops surveyed had a positive view of the businessman-turned-politician, and 37 percent had a negative opinion.

The poll surveyed 1,630 active-duty Military Times subscribers in partnership with the Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF) at Syracuse University. The numbers likely reflect a more career-minded subset of the military than the force as a whole . . . .

“These are people for whom the morals and standards of the military mean a lot,” [military analyst Peter Feaver] said. “The president has criticized those same career workers in the State Department and other agencies. So, it’s possible they are more likely to be offended by the president than other parts of the military.”

More Military Times Poll data.

Still, Feaver said, the drop in Trump’s popularity in the poll (conducted with the same parameters over the past four years) indicates growing dissatisfaction with Trump and his handling of several military issues.

When asked specifically about Trump’s handling of military issues, nearly 48 percent of the troops surveyed said they had an unfavorable view of that part of his job, compared to 44 percent who believe he has handled that task well. That marks a significant drop from the 2018 Military Times poll, when 59 percent said they were happy with his handling of military issues, against 20 percent who had an unfavorable view.

Since these mid-December numbers came out, Trump ordered a drone strike that killed a top Iranian general and brought the U. S. and Iran to the brink of war.  We have also seen publication of a book, A Very Stable Genius, by a pair of Washington Post Pulitzer Prize winners, that revealed a scene of Trump railing at top generals as “a bunch of dopes & babies”.

This week has been marked (so far) by the bum’s rush of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and his uninvolved brother, Col. Yevgeny Vindman out of the White [supremacy] House like criminals, Alexander for the “offense” of doing his duty & complying with a legal subpoena, and his uninvolved brother for being — related.   These petty acts also made public fools of DOD higher-ups, who had vowed to prevent any retaliation.

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman.

What will come next? There are many other currents swirling in the maelstrom of the 2020 election. But military servicemembers are citizens who whose votes will also count, and both their experience with Trump,  and their reaction to it will make their mark before it is done.

David vs. Goliath, The “Friendly” Version: Orange County Quakers Face Off in Court

A bulletin from southern California: The biggest Quaker church in the world wants to shut down one of the smallest. The small church sued in late 2018 to stop the shutdown.

But a hearing in Orange County Superior Court on January 31 could lock their doors & make the small church members and its pastors homeless.

The issue: the small church was helping homeless people.

Yorba Linda Friends Church. Its 18-acre main campus is best seen from the air.

The Goliath here is Yorba Linda Friends Church, which claims 4800 attenders weekly at its five campuses. Its home is an 18-acre complex, now being expanded again, perhaps best glimpsed from the air. Its website lists 84 paid staff. Its top pastors and prominent members also hold the key posts in the Evangelical Friends Church Southwest (or EFCSW) as a de facto subsidiary.

Founded as California Yearly Meeting, the group has shed the “Yearly Meeting” label along with most other Quaker features, both corporately and operationally. The group’s main session, now called the Annual Conference, is set for this weekend. If the judge rules for them Friday, the gathering will likely see some celebrations, privately if not in the open.

Worship at Midway City Friends Church; plenty of room. However, the group’s membership has doubled from 10 to 20 during the Pfeiffers’ tenure.

The “David” figure in this drama is the Friends Community Church of Midway City, about a 20-minute (and two or three light-years’) drive from Yorba Linda. Although this group is nearly ninety years old, it is quite small: on a good week, its services draw maybe 30 people. But from all descriptions it is a tightly-knit congregation.

Cara and Joe Pfeiffer.

Midway City’s pastors are a couple, Joe and Cara Pfeiffer, who occupy a parsonage along with four foster children. The church pays them a pittance, and they are, in current parlance, “bivocational,” piecing together a modest subsistence with other work, while also pursuing doctoral studies at nearby Fuller Seminary.

The confrontation here brings into pretty stark view three converging, intractable issues of our American moment: inequality, homelessness, and the increasing fervor with which the affluent are preserving their comforts, among which is not having to see or deal with the other two, except on their own terms.

A bit of background: the Los Angeles region is under siege on more than one front. Most of us know about the fires; which we must leave aside here. Often lost in their smoke, but ever-present, is the steady rise of homelessness. This is, of course, a national phenomenon, but seems particularly acute in southern California.

A small stretch of the three-mile sprawl along the Santa Ana River Bike Trail, 2017. It grew to include around a thousand homeless people.

In Orange County, the count of homeless persons increased from about 4800 in 2017 to over 6800 in late 2019. In 2017 a three-mile stretch of tents and camps grew along the Santa Ana River Bike Trail, which winds through central Orange County in Anaheim. The burgeoning settlement was in sight of the Angels baseball stadium, Disneyland and the Ducks Hockey arena, and it rapidly became the tent-crowded “home” of nearly a thousand homeless. (A video bike tour of the stretch is here.)

The trouble that ultimately embroiled these two Friends churches could be said to have begun in late February 2018, when Orange County authorities swept through this three-mile bike trail stretch. There they rousted almost a thousand homeless campers.

In their wake was a vast swathe of trash and abandoned belongings which took weeks to clean up. At length, that stretch of trail was re-opened, and bicyclists had an unobstructed path again.

But where did the many hundreds of bike trail homeless go? One police official told reporters that the whole process was like stepping on a balloon: it might flatten out where you were standing. But then it swelled out somewhere else.

Midway City Friends Church. Its property is about one acre.

There were already plenty somewhere else. Several months before the river trail sweep, a few of them made their way to Midway City Friends Community Church. Two were a man and wife in a venerable RV. The husband had stage four colon cancer (he has since died). Details are sketchy, but they may well have been among the many who have been bankrupted by medical bills. Pretty soon a couple individuals joined them.

The church had some unused space.

Joe and Cara Pfeiffer were not planning to start a homeless shelter. But they faced what could be called the Matthew 25 Dilemma, drawn from Jesus’ scenario of the last judgment. Let’s review:

The Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25:31 “When the Son of man shall come in his glory. . . 32 And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats. . .

34 Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:35 

A bucket of needles, among the several thousand used syringes collected along the Santa Ana River Bike Trail after the homeless camp was cleared.

For I was hungry, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:36 Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

37 Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when did we see thee hungry, and feed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?38 When did we see thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?39 Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?

40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”

The Pfeiffers were well aware of how controversial these guests could be. But they are also serious Christians. In their theology, Jesus in Matthew was not laying out a program, like a presidential candidate, for curing homelessness; he was giving his disciples a command to “love their neighbor” by acting with sacrificial compassion.

It was chancy (it was for Jesus); but they did it. Quietly, they thought.

But, not quietly enough.

A hostile neighbor soon noticed the telltale signs: bicycle parts; bare mattresses visible through the windows of spare rooms; the itinerant RV lingering in a driveway. The neighbor called the Orange County Code Enforcement Office, which dispatched an inspector to the church. Shortly a “courtesy notice” was sent, stating that some of these items were in violation of county codes. If they weren’t rectified, the church could be issued a formal citation.

The Pfeiffers saw that the jig was up. Reluctantly they told their guests they had to move on, and tidied up the area. The inspector returned, found the church was in compliance, and no citation was issued.

Matthew Cork, head pastor of Yorba Linda Friends Church and Superintendent of the Evangelical Friends Church Southwest. He sits on the Elders Board that voted to fire Joe Pfeiffer and close the Midway City church.

But in the meantime the County had sent a copy of the notice to Evangelical Friends Church Southwest (EFCSW). Authorities there decided the incident was not over. In fact, it called for a decisive, if drastic response. On March 27, 2018, members of EFCSW’s Elder Board met with its top staff, and decided forthwith to

  1. Terminate the Pfeiffers, and instruct them to vacate the parsonage promptly; and
  2. Permanently close down the Midway City church, in April.
Ron Prentice. Before coming to Yorba Linda and EFCSW, he spent more than ten years in fulltime work to stop the legalization of same sex marriage, with Focus on the Family and the California Family Council.

The Pfeiffers were not informed of their firing until May 3, 2018. That news was delivered by Ron Prentice, Chief of Staff for both Yorba Linda and EFCSW. He takes the minutes of the EFCSW Elder Board meetings. But they and the congregation, while small, stoutly resisted and defied these dictates, and the closing/eviction dates were repeatedly delayed.

In August, the Elder Board, which asserts that EFCSW owns all its members’ church property, set what it thought was a firm closure date of August 31. But it was pushed back again, and in October 2018 Midway City filed a lawsuit, which claims EFCSW does not have any real ownership claim on the Midway City church, which was built and maintained from their own meager budgets,  and that EFCSW had violated its own rules and Quaker practices in its dealings with the Pfeiffers and the congregation. The closure/eviction has been on hold since then.

That’s what the judge will decide. And this shift of focus to the seeming arcana of “Quaker process” may make some readers’ eyes glaze over, I ask that they stay with us a bit, because there’s more here than meets the eye.

Because EFCSW’s top staff and much of the currently ruling Elder Board of EFCSW heavily overlap with the leadership of Yorba Linda Friends Church, the contrasts between it and Midway City ought not to be skimmed over. Let’s consider some of these.

First of all, the setting. A sign on the edge of Yorba Linda modestly dubs it “Land of Gracious Living.” And with some reason: as an old jibe puts it, the Quakers came to Yorba Linda to do good, and some (really many) have done very well indeed. They and their neighbors.

More than once recently, Yorba Linda was named the richest city of its size in the U.S.  Median household income ranged between $110-120,000 per year (probably higher now with the soaring stock market); a real estate site pegs the median house value as $850,000. Only 3.1% of residents are under the poverty line.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the city’s Wikipedia entry notes proudly that besides being the richest of its kind, “Yorba Linda is California’s most conservative large community . . . .” Voters there went two to one for Proposition 8, an effort to stop legalization of same sex marriage. (It passed 52-48%, but was later overturned.) In the 2016 presidential election, while deep-blue California gave Donald Trump only 31 percent of its votes, in Yorba Linda, Hillary took a bare 33 percent, to Trump’s 56 percent.

Midway City is not in fact a city, but an unincorporated area in Orange County, with no city council, schools or police of its own. Many residents like that; it keeps their local taxes down. Midway City is home to a large Vietnamese-American population, whose founders were refugees from the lost Vietnam War.

Twenty miles southwest, Midway City (which is not a city at all, but an unincorporated enclave in the larger town of Westminster) sits  several rungs down the economic ladder.

It’s not a slum, but homes are older, with values under $700,000. Median household incomes are around $47,000, and 13% of residents are under the poverty line. It is home to two trailer parks, plus apartment complexes for disabled, low income and homeless veterans. Here Hillary bested Trump: 51 – 43%.

More to our point, in the latest count of homeless, Westminster/Midway City tallied above 180, and its adjoining towns held 2000-plus. A few miles north, another 2000 were counted in a swath of suburbs running west to east across Orange County. Anaheim, even after the clearing of its notorious Santa Ana River Bike Trail, headed that list at over 1200.

And Anaheim’s northern boundary runs for several miles along Yorba Linda’s town line.

Yet once back past in the Land of Gracious Living, we are in a different world: amid their county’s simmering, surrounding, ever-expanding multitude, the 2019 recorded count of homeless in Yorba Linda was: 1.

[Not a typo: One.]

Not that Yorba Linda’s largest church is indifferent to the plight of homeless people. As its Chief of Staff Ron Prentice testified in a deposition, echoing the Matthew 25 quote above, “It’s actually a call of Christians to care for the widows and the orphans specifically from scripture, and oftentimes we would see homeless individuals in that light, and I believe that by providing shelter in — in — without — without risking liability or — or harm to the culture of the neighborhood, that would — that would align with my thinking, absolutely.”

And true to its word, Yorba Linda Friends Church, where Prentice wears another hat as, again, Chief of Staff, did mobilize groups to visit with and personally minister to the homeless three times in 2019.

Those homeless were Dalits, who are, as the church website put it, “the lowest of the low” in the caste system of India; 8000 miles away from Orange County. The ministry trips cost participants $3250 each.

Closer to home, the group’s concern to avoid “harming the culture of the neighborhood” was evident. The rulers clearly found the Midway City church, and the Pfeiffers, a liability in this regard. Further, the ruling EFCSW Elder Board asserts that it has full authority to deal with such liabilities. As the EFCSW’s book of Faith & Practice puts it, under the heading of “Final Authority””

“Thus EFCSW holds the spiritual and legal power among its churches to decide all such matters, including, without limitation, all organizational and operational matters. Its decisions are final. It can counsel, admonish, discipline, dismiss, or close its subordinate churches.”

Further, this authority is vested, on 364 days of each year, in its Elder Board, a group of up to nine, that meets secretly. On day 365 (which for 2020 occurs Saturday, February 1), a Representative Body gathers for a single session of usually under three hours, to approve the budget and nominations presented to it by the Elders. Information about these items is typically concise: the entire EFCSW annual budget summary for the 39-church group usually takes up less than a single page. [If that thumping sound you hear sounds like a rubber stamp, you could be right.]

It was not always done this way. The Midway City lawsuit argues that the Faith and Practice has been hijacked by a small group, mainly associated with Yorba Linda. The present “Final Authority” text was only inserted in 2011, and all real power has since been concentrated in the Elder Board’s hands, exercised in closed meetings, brooking no challenge, with no regard for the rest of the body, or previous Quaker traditions of broad consultation, open discussion, and sometimes extended seeking of consensus.

A prime instance was the Elders’ decision to terminate the Pfeiffers and close Midway City, neither of which were presented by the Elders to a Representative Body session.

BTW — taking possession of the Midway City church and its acre of land could provide EFCSW a considerable windfall. After all, as the beleaguered church keeps pointing out, EFCSW spent none of its funds to acquire the land, build or maintain the church and its other buildings. With land prices in southern California what they are, just selling the property could likely bring in millions

Has this occurred to anyone in EFCSW? A review of 2018 and 2019 Elder Board minutes turned up frequent discussions of and laments about the lack of funds to pursue their plans, and the need to find more funding sources. Further, in deposition testimony, EFCSW/Yorba Linda Chief of Staff Prentice acknowledged, “I did not deny that the future of the church is being discussed and the option of selling the property is on the table, [but] it was made clear to [Midway Friends] that the reasons for Joe’s dismissal from the position of pastor are based on our questions of discernment . . . .”  “poor discernment”

The charges of “poor discernment” and unacceptable behavior were indeed frequently repeated in Prentice’s deposition, and referred to in Elder Board minutes deposition. Asked if the reputed  behavior included moral, financial, or other such professional lapses, Prentice said no.

What then, specifically? Prentice responded,

“I’m aware of Mr. Pfeiffer’s comments through others during the process of the nomination of Matthew Cork to be considered as the superintendent in replacement of Stan Leach. I was not present at one meeting where Mr. Pfeiffer was vocal regarding the process of selection, and I was present at another follow-up meeting — the final meeting prior to Mr. Cork’s selection as superintendent where  Mr. Pfeiffer was again vocal and dissatisfied with the process of the selection of the superintendent, yes.”

Being vocal and dissatisfied with an opaque hiring process? Showing the temerity to question an Elders’ decision; in EFCSW,  these were grounds for termination & closure, with no appeal.

It’s also a clear enough signal, indeed a warning, to other pastors in EFCSW churches, where there are reports of murmuring and unease with the trajectory of Yorba Linda/EFCSW: speak at your own peril.

EFCSW’s response to Midway City’s suit comes down to repeating the passage on “Final Authority,” insisting that this power is vested in the Elders Board, acting on its own, and that under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment’s freedom of religion clause, secular courts have no business interfering with such matters.

That’s why they will be seeking, in the court hearing on January 31, a summary judgement, to toss out Midway City’s  lawsuit on the basis that there’s “no there there,” nothing in it that the court could rightly adjudicate. They may be able to win the judge to this view.

That’s Goliath Quakerism.

Meanwhile, the homeless of Orange County huddle while their numbers grow; The Pfeiffers and their congregation wait to see if they will be joining them; the grand life in nearby privileged enclaves continues; and the credibility of much of American Christianity continues to diminish.

Nuggets from a Mystery Reading Binge

Here are three  great snippets from Rain Dogs,the latest mystery by Adrian McKinty I just read, a terrific tale set in Northern Ireland during “The Troubles.” It’s Book #5 in a series I started just a week ago, and have binge read in seven days. Like I said in a blurb: Catholic & Protestant, war & peace: their yesterday (and our tomorrow?) —a fine writer spins compelling crime fiction from Northern Ireland’s time of “The Troubles.”

Yeah, they’re that good.

#1- Theology, in a Hibernian Nutshell Two northern Irish cops, Sean & McCrabbin, aka “Crabbie,” are on the way back to the station:

Heavy rain. Floods on the top road. Slow movement from the Seventh on the radio. 

“What’s it all about, Crabbie?” 

He stared at me with alarm. “What? Life, you mean?” 

“Aye.” 

“Endeavour to discover the will of God,” he said firmly. 

“And if there is no God?” 

“If there is no God, well, I don’t know, Sean. I just don’t know.” 

I looked at him. As stolid a Ballymena Presbyterian as you could ask for. He’d do the right thing even if you could prove to him that there was no yGod. While the rest of us gave in to the inevitable, he’d be the last good peeler attempting to impose a little bit of local order in a universe of chaos. 

Rain. Wind. The afternoon withering like a piece of fruit in an Ulster pantry. . . .”

 – – – – 

#2- Tickling the Ivories

Sean the cop visits his friend Patrick’s piano store, where he frequently browses, but never buys. This time he asks to see a smoke-damaged privately-discounted model:

Patrick eyed me suspiciously. “Are you sure this isn’t some sort of police investigation?” 

“I’m hurt, Patrick. Seriously. I thought we were friends.” 

“I’m sorry, Sean . . . of course you wouldn’t . . . look, come over here, out the back.” He took me to a storage room out the back and set me down in front of a gorgeous pre-war Bechstein. 

“Go on, then,” Patrick said. 

I played Liszt’s “La Campanella” and, just to annoy myself, Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in G Minor.” 

The piano had a beautiful tone and wasn’t damaged in the least. When I played the last bar of the “Prelude,” Patrick thought I was money in the bank. 

“You play very well, you know,” he said. 

“I’m rusty.” 

“No, Sean, you’re really good.” . . .

I looked at my watch. It was 11:45. 

“Well? Will I put it aside for you?” Pat asked. 

“Nah, I’ll have to think about it, mate,” I said. 

“I knew it!” Patrick groaned again. “I fall for it every bloody time.” 

I walked to the door. “Hey, Pat, why could Beethoven never find his music teacher?” 

“Why?” 

“Because he was Haydn.” 

“Get out of my shop!”

– – – – – 

#3- The Big Belly Laugh:

Beth, Sean’s ex-girlfriend comes back. She’s pregnant; his. She wants him to take her to an abortion clinic in Liverpool. Sean’s a (bad) Catholic who hates the idea, but he takes her anyway.  When she gets in his car:

She lit a cigarette. Camel. Unfiltered. Should you be smoking that? You know, what with you up the spout and everything, — that is a line I don’t use. This time tomorrow, it won’t make any difference. 

“Got one for you, Duffy,” she says.

“OK.” 

“Why do anarchists only drink herbal tea?” 

“I don’t know.” 

“Because all proper tea is theft.” 

“You should put your seat belt on.”

[TEASER: Does she go through with it? Do they have a future? Read the series.]


McKinty labored in productive but penurious obscurity for years, turning out novels that won numerous awards, while he scuffled at everything from Uber driving to teaching and went broke. Just this year he was “discovered” and hit the big-time. I hope he makes a bundle and keeps on turning out more new un-put-downable books.
And I also like his attitude, summed up here, From “”Why I Write,”  a post in his blog:

” .  . . Writers write. Writers sit down at the typewriter, legal pad or computer and they write. All the writers who are popular and successful see writing as a no nonsense job and they just bloody get on with it. I like these people and I like this school of thought. I’ve met a lot of these writers and they are cool.

But this is not my way.


I see things differently.


For me writing is nothing to do with deadlines and word counts and getting the job done. For me a writer is a shaman. A holy man. A holy woman. A witch. A writer has been given a staff made from meteor iron and with that stick she scratches a message into clay tablets and the tablets are baked and they are put in a library and the river moves and the city fails and the library’s pillars fall and the clay tablets lie buried in the sand for four thousand years until someone finds them and reads them and understands. You are telling them a story about life and death and the meaning of life. You are talking to them across the centuries.

. . . Look, look at this! The writer says. I am gone. We are gone. But we were here and we saw and we loved and laughed and we dreamed. We saw beauty and we experienced pain. And we were given a task by the ones who died next to us in the lifeboat: tell them about us.  

Yeah, I know, I just write hack crime novels who am I to talk? But that’s the whole point isn’t it? It doesn’t matter what you write about, it’s your attitude. Your words could be smuggled on toilet paper out of prison to one old friend or they could be texted to a million followers as you ride the subway car. It’s what you think about the words that counts. An audience of one is still an audience.


So I don’t see writing as just another job. I don’t write to fill my word count. I am on a sacred fucking mission. I’m waiting for the goddess. Because I believe in the goddess. I believe in ghosts. The ghosts of the ones who went before and the ones who have not yet come. And I will witness against the beast. And I will defy the darkness and I will tell our story.“

 

 

 

 

Wanna Call John Dingell? Don’t Ring Through Hell

One day in 1980, I was at my desk on an upper floor of a  way-past-its-prime hotel that had become a staff office annex for the U. S. House of Representatives.

The onetime hotel that had been turned into the House Annex where I worked in 1980.

My boss — Congressman Pete McCloskey of California, wanted some information about an obscure part of a not-so-well-known energy bill: say, Section 227D of the 1979 Energy Act Amendments, something like that, and the request had been bounced down the office status ladder to me.

I knew nothing about the Energy Act or the amendments, and Google hadn’t been invented yet.

But I knew who did know: Rep. John Dingell, of Michigan; or someone in his office. I think maybe Dingell even wrote the amendments. So I picked up the phone and dialed his office number.

By 1980, Dingell had been in Congress for 25 years; he would stay in Congress for almost 35 more.

John Dingell is sworn in as a Congressman by the legendary House Speaker Sam Rayburn, in 1955. (But Rayburn served a mere 48 years.)

Dingell was a tough, tenacious Democrat, who was already high up in the House hierarchy. That meant he had lots of staff assistants like me, only likely better-informed, with more political hustle, who could set me straight, if they bothered to take the call from a Republican nobody. (My boss, McCloskey was a Republican, and this was the time when Ronald Reagan was eating Jimmy Carter’s lunch.)

The phone rang once, maybe twice, then was scooped up with a pre-cellphone rattle that meant the receiver was grabbed with alacrity, not reluctance.

“John Dingell.” said a voice.

What?? Err, uh, I, uh–”

If I was a coffee drinker, this was a java-spewing-from-my-nostrils moment. It wasn’t a receptionist. Nor an intern. Not even the assistant chief of staff.

The Boss. Himself.

When I recovered, I identified myself and my office and stumbled through my query.

“Sure,” Dingell said, and then reeled off the answer, clearly and concisely, as if I was calling from the White House, or maybe the New York Times (or the Detroit Free Press?)

I scribbled a couple of notes, and asked for clarification of one point, which he patiently offered. I thanked him, he said I was welcome and then it was done.

The call only lasted about three minutes. It took me awhile longer to recover my balance. Thirty-nine years later, I still have questions.

Why was Dingell picking up cold calls to his office phone? And why was he taking time to answer a rookie question from a minor league staffer from across the aisle?

And how, with hundreds of bills and laws and amendments streaming across his desk, day after day, week after week, was he up to the minute even on Section 227D?

(Would he have known Section 227C as well?? Probably.)

After much pondering, I’ve come to a simple answer: Dingell was a mensch, and a natural. He also didn’t have an inflated view of himself; he could, and did, speak to me as one colleague to another, from out of the blue.

It’s no wonder he was re-elected to Congress more times than anyone else in that body’s history.

Rep. Paul “Pete ” McCloskey. A war hero, but an anti-Vietnam war campaigner, and a fine public servant. But his is another story.

Now my boss, McCloskey was a fine guy. But if there’s a special gallery in heaven reserved for the best of Congress, I bet John Dingell has a seat in it.

I know that’s an iffy notion; Mark Twain concluded long ago that “There is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress,” and we have recently heard much corroboration for that view, especially from one side of the aisle.

For that matter, my boss McCloskey argued, even before he left Washington three years later, that “Congressmen are like diapers. You need to change them often, and for the same reason.”

Your humble blogger, in a sketch from around this time, with daughters Molly (left) and Annika (right)

But still; I say IF.

I gather that some fatuous pretender recently spoke of John Dingell as being in hell.

It only took me about two minutes to learn, but I’m pretty sure I know otherwise.

More like vice versa.

Quaker House: Domestic Military Murders and the War at Home

When I arrived at Quaker House at the beginning of 2002, work on domestic violence was not in my job description. There was already plenty else to keep a one-person staff busy: troops from Fort Bragg were already fighting in Afghanistan, and plans for invading Iraq were clearly taking shape. Besides, I had no experience in that area.

But events didn’t care about that. Two weeks after moving in, I opened the Fayetteville Observer on the morning of Monday, January 14, 2002, to this headline:

   Victim Stabbed Outside Eatery

   A Fayetteville woman died Sunday afternoon after being stabbed by her estranged husband in front of the Mi Casita restaurant on Raeford Road, police said.

Shalamar Franceschi died at the scene, Fayetteville police said. She was 24.

Officials said her throat was cut and she was stabbed multiple times.

   A warrant has been issued charging her estranged husband, Damian Colon Franceschi, 26, with first-degree murder. Authorities were looking for Damian Franceschi on Sunday night. He is considered armed and dangerous . . . .

Continue reading Quaker House: Domestic Military Murders and the War at Home

Hiroshima, El Paso, Dayton & Us

Ross Douthat, a very conservative Catholic, is persistently the most interesting of The NY Times’s stable of right wing columnists.
For me that’s because he frequently articulates perspectives that resonate to my experience, even if most of his desired remedies sound predictably retrograde.

Ross Douthat

Take, for instance, this reflection from August 6, 2019 on the recent carnage in El Paso & Dayton:

“I think Trump is deeply connected to what happened last weekend, deeply connected to both massacres. Not because his immigration rhetoric drove the El Paso shooter to mass murder in some direct and simple way; life and radicalism and violence are all more complicated than that.

But because Trump participates in the general cultural miasma that generates mass shooters, and having a participant as president makes the problem worse.
The president’s bigoted rhetoric is obviously part of this. Marianne Williamson put it best, in the last Democratic debate: There really is a dark psychic force generated by Trump’s political approach, which from its birther beginnings has consistently encouraged and fed on a fevered and paranoid form of right-wing politics, and dissolved quarantines around toxic and dehumanizing ideas. And the possibility that Trump’s zest for demonization can feed a demonic element in the wider culture is something the many religious people who voted for the president should be especially willing to consider.”

Thus far, I’m with him (& by extension, New Ager Williamson):
Continue reading Hiroshima, El Paso, Dayton & Us

“White Lies,” Selma, Two Murders, & A Cameo

One sunny day in April last year, I woke up in Selma Alabama, prepared to go to jail.

It was just for a friendly visit, though, with two new acquaintances: Andy Grace and Chip Brantley. I met up with them first, for a generous southern breakfast at Mr. Waffle, on Highland Avenue, with my pants cinched up tight: It’s The Law.

Mr Waffle, keeping up standards.

Andy and Chip teach journalism at the University of Alabama. They were working on a big podcast project about Selma intended for NPR. It’s about two civil rights murders there, and is now online, at their website, as “White Lies.”

In their research they found my books on Selma, and tracked me down, about an interview. Turns out, I was planning to visit Alabama before long, to be on a panel in Montgomery marking the 50th anniversary of Dr, King’s murder.

As a certified living fossil on the shelf of artifacts from a genuine piece of “history,”  I’ve done a few such events. So I offered to make a side trip to Selma, and give them my personal guided tour with the interview.

The Reeb Memorial, on the corner where the Silver Moon Cafe stood, outside which he and two other ministers were attacked. The others survived.

That starts with the Selma jail. On the way we passed the compact corner memorial to James Reeb, a Boston Unitarian minister, who was attacked with two others in the heat of the movement, and died of a fractured skull the next day. Three men were tried for his murder, acquitted by an all-white jury; all are now dead.

But there was talk of a fourth man there, who evaded prosecution, and could be still alive. Chip and Andy were still in search of him.

Wilson Baker.

I had no leads about that, so we moved on to the jail. It’s still where it was, though in 1965 it was part of City Hall. That’s moved, and the Police now have the whole building. High on the wall of the downstairs hallway is a photo of Wilson Baker, who arrested me. Later he became Sheriff, and word is he was a good one. Up on the second floor, the small cellblock remains.

Those yellow bars even now look solid enough to withstand the collapse of the whole block. Which may not be far off, the collapse that is; most of the buildings close by look empty, boarded up or just abandoned.

As a landmark of black liberation, I told Andy and Chip, Selma fifty-plus years later is a hot mess. The poverty rate is as high as it was then. More than a dozen payday loan shops, their vampiric essence camouflaged by bright colors, crouched along Broad and Highland, the two main business streets. The house where I rented a room in ‘65, a solid Black middle class dwelling then, stands empty, literally falling down, like so many others on that, the “historic” side of town. If there’s any money in that history, it looks like payday usury vacuumed it all up.

The Boynton House, where I lived in 1965, empty in 2015. The museum project fizzled, and by 2018 the house was in even more dilapidated condition.

History is still plentiful in Selma, if ramshackle, but there’s only one spot of beauty I remember, and I discovered that late: less than a mile west of the Pettus Bridge stands the Live Oak Cemetery, often called the New Live Oak, though it goes back to the 1820s.

Old live oaks, in New Live Oak.

The big moss-draped trees, the greyed, crumbling, mostly Confederate headstones and slabs, the multi-colored lichen splotches on almost everything, all are classic, archetypal, undead Old South: Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte, only in color.

The grave of General Edmund Pettus. After the Civil War, he was later elected a U.S, Senator, and reputedly once was head of the Alabama KKK.

New Live Oak has recently been made newer by construction of an elaborate memorial in honor of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest.

This is the work of a local Neo-confederate group, which won a long, acrimonious court fight with the Black-controlled city administration for control of an acre of land there.

Neo-Confederate activists Todd Kiscaden, left and Pat Godwin, being interviewed, March 2015. Godwin was the spearhead of the Nathan Bedford Forest memorial in the New Live Oak Cemetery.

Forrest had only a brief connection to Selma: he attempted to defend the city from surging Union forces shortly before Lee’s surrender in April 1865.

Even so, for true Neo-Confederates, Forrest is an immortal, an icon: a brilliant tactician, a relentless, fearsome  fighter (biographers say he personally killed thirty Union soldiers in hand to hand combat) and a founder (and first Grand Wizard) of the original Ku Klux Klan.

The new Forrest monument, looking toward the Pettus bridge.

There could hardly be a visage more discordant – or revealing — than that of Forrest, glowering east over General Pettus’s grave and toward the eponymous bridge which the courage of local blacks, and tagalongs like me, turned into a civil rights landmark. The local devotees of Forrest’s flock have struck back with billboards, and more solidly, with this shrine.

Radio guys Andy Grace (left, with hair) and Chip Brantley (right, with headphones), getting familiar with the Forrest monument at New Live Oak.

But I can turn my back on Forrest; then it’s no wonder I linger there. Andy and Chip did too; pictures of them at New Live Oak are on NPR’s publicity webpage for “White Lies.”

From there we headed for another burial ground, about 25 miles northwest near Marion.

The Heard Cemetery, near Marion, Alabama. Jimmie Lee Jackson’s marker is next to the red wreath.

This one, the Heard Cemetery, lacked the allure of Live Oak: no venerable trees, only secondary growth; no stone wall, no fence, no sign; it lay exposed, within gunshot range but easy to miss, along Alabama Highway 14. It was much smaller, with only a scattering of markers, and a single sizable headstone.

Jimmie Lee’s headstone. The orange spots and notch at the top are among the bullet damage. There are several more, visible from closer up.

That marker was our goal; and despite lacking the amenities of the genteel Dixie death cult, the Heard graveyard enclosed what Chip and Andy most wanted to visit, the resting place of Jimmie Lee Jackson.

Here I knew a little something. I had been part of the funeral cortege which carried his coffin here from the church in town, behind his family and Dr. King, through the rain.

I knew about how his killer also got away with killing another young black man a year later, then walked free for more than four decades. And how Jackson’s family finally caught a brief glimpse of justice; heard a rumor of it, topped a thin, crumbled slice of it with the curdled margarine of old grief.

Jimmie Lee Jackson, left. His killer, James Fowler, right.

I had also visited the cemetery a year or two earlier, and could point out the dozen or so places where the granite had been nicked and gouged by bullets. It still stands, but within gunshot range is not hyperbole. (An earlier blog post on the shooting of Jackson is here.)

From there we soon wrapped up the interview, and I headed off to Montgomery.

I admit I soon mostly forgot about the project; several such interviews have wound up on disks or as transcripts on some obscure library shelf, waiting to enlighten, or bore, a stray grad student or two. Other such relics have been of use to me, though, and I do not despise them.

But now, more than a year later, the podcast is done and out. And amid all the recorded palaver, I turn up for a cameo in Episode Five, describing — well, that’s enough of a spoiler. They uncovered history I knew nothing about in solving their cold case; let them tell you that part of the story. . . .

An abandoned house, one of many, near the Brown Chapel AME Church, which was the gathering place for the Selma voting rights movement.
A collage of bumperstickers from a van belonging to one of the Neo-Confederate activists.

 

 

An Active Shooter in Friends Meeting. Now what?

If you blog about Quakers long enough, you get asked a lot of questions — including some surprises.

An emergency instruction folder kept in a slot on the back of dorm room doors at a midwestern college, where a Quaker conference gathered a few years ago. The document seemed very out of place in the quiet, bucolic setting of the school. But then, similar Quaker conferences had been held successfully at Virginia Tech, also in a “quiet rural village.” Then in April 2007 a shooter killed 32 Virginia Tech students and staff and wounded 17 more.

Like the one that came in a few days ago, from the Clerk of a meeting located east of the Mississippi. The Clerk wrote that in an after-meeting discussion, a Friend asked what the Meeting would do if an active shooter appeared there. Did I have any ideas?

Ideas? No.

Paranoia? Plenty.

Five days a week, my grandson who lives nearby walks down the street to the school bus. Our town has homicides, too many. But mass shootings? Not in my six-plus years here.

Not yet, deo gratias.

(They could say something like that in Virginia Beach, Virginia, until last week.)

So I’m no expert on this subject, and hope never to become one. But such is the sick society we live in, that any of us could become a personal “expert” in it, or a victim, any day. So after pondering the inquiry, I figured I’d do what I could.

I couldn’t find any information about the artist.

The Clerk did have one idea. He vaguely remembered a painting seen in childhood, of a meetinghouse in the woods, in colonial times, filled with plain dress Quakers, sitting quietly as a group of armed Indians came through the door.

Supposedly there was a story that went with it, that the Indians had meant to slaughter whites, and had done so in other similar places. But the warriors were so moved by their pious placidity, and disarmingly Friendly demeanor, that they dropped their murderous plans and let them be.

Was there anything to that? Could this be an example of Quaker “Active shooter training”? Continue reading An Active Shooter in Friends Meeting. Now what?

Harriet Tubman: Beyond the Underground Railroad

This Memorial Day, I’m setting aside my Quaker pacifism (briefly), to remember one of the most unique and valiant war veterans I know of.

Yeah, I’m talking about U.S. Army veteran Harriet Tubman.

Besides all her amazing exploits in the antebellum Underground Railroad (working very frequently with purportedly nonviolent Quakers), Tubman was no pacifist. And when the war broke out, she was eager to help the Union forces win it. After working with wounded soldiers, she also served as a scout and a spy behind enemy lines.

But she got her big chance after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation at the beginning of 1863.

Continue reading Harriet Tubman: Beyond the Underground Railroad

Religious Liberty? Or Dogmatic Transphobia?

May 24 was (Authentic) Religious Liberty Day (at least it was here), but the Administration has some strange ideas about how to mark it. Like: turn it upside down & inside out.

Roger Severino, director of the Office for Civil Rights, HHS.

That day it released  a proposed federal rule that would deny transgender persons many of the medical benefits and legal protections they gained in the Obama years. The proposal is one more chapter in the continuing drive to roll back just about everything the previous administration achieved or initiated. (Full text of the proposed rule is here. )

As the New York Times put it , the new rule Continue reading Religious Liberty? Or Dogmatic Transphobia?