Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Band of Typists

"To most people, a veteran was a veteran - all were the same, whether one man had survived the deadliest combat or another had pounded a typewriter while in uniform." - Eugene Sledge, World War II hero featured in The Pacific.


Memo to Tom Hanks and Stephen Spielberg.

SUBJ: Treatment for proposed new HBO series.

Kudos on the success of Band of Brothers and The Pacific, two HBO miniseries that tell the stories of our soldiers during the Second World War. Each episode in these 10-part presentations has been compelling, educational and deeply moving. I particularly appreciated Part III of The Pacific, portraying the erotic Bacchanalia the GI's enjoyed on leave in Melbourne. My father must have been too busy during his own leave time in Melbourne in 1943 to put all that stuff in his diary.

No doubt you and HBO are considering future series on Americans at war, and God knows there's a lot of history to be told: Korea, Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Panama, Desert Storm, Iraq, Afghanistan and all the other missions accomplished. I'll stay peeled to my flat screen.
But just in case you're thinking hot wars evoke higher ratings than long twilight struggles, let me suggest that you may be overlooking a great topic: the Cold War.

No, seriously. You guys are old enough to remember starry winter nights between 1949 and 1989 when we'd sit tensely in open cars at drive-in theaters, our hands wandering over Mary Jane's sweater, our eyes straying warily to check-out streaks of light in the sky that might be ICBMs from the USSR. Or when JFK announced the Cuban Missile Crisis and we went sleepless for 14 days, convinced we'd awaken in the ashes of nuclear conflagration. Or when we heard Ronald Reagan test his mike with the words, "We start bombing Russia in 5 minutes" and didn't hear him say he was just kidding because we had to run upstairs to change our underwear.

If the Cold War wasn't bad enough on the home front, it was even more inconvenient for the women and men in uniform.

In the three years I was stationed in the 81st Combat Support Group, an Air Force unit in the United Kingdom, I was on duty 150 Sundays in a row (in part because I was a chaplain's assistant), pulled KP 36 times, walked the frigid flightline on augmentee guard duty for eight-hour stretches on 190 days and nights, and on six separate occasions struggled to stay awake all night on Charge-of-Quarters duty (CQ) answering the barracks telephone. By the time I was reassigned to McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas, I was a buck sergeant in charge of a bunch of airmen assigned to keeping the latrines spotless - an assignment for which there are no commendations or awards, except the personal satisfaction of knowing that my men regarded me as the "queen of latrine queens" in 1968.

Forty years later, the odor of toilet disinfectant summons my Cold War memories with Proustian vividness.

McConnell was not a bad place, although I always thought it unfriendly that a base in tornado alley would have missile silos but no cyclone cellars. Even so, I think RAF Bentwaters and Woodbridge, the twin bases where I served for three years, would be a better background for a ten-part series on the Cold War. They were neither the best of bases nor the worst of bases. There were far worst places for Cold Warriors to end up, including Thule, Greenland and Minot, N. Dak. And there were far better places, like Korat Royal Thai Air Base, Thailand, where no libido ever got flabby, or Homestead Air Force Base, Fla., where duty stations were air conditioned and shaded by palms.

Bentwaters and Woodridge were nestled in the heart of East Anglia, where sturdy thatched-roof bungalows dominated the green countryside, and Tudor villages with cobblestone streets were surrounded by thick hedgerows and heaths of purple heather. The bases themselves were designed with bland practicality, and drafty Quonset huts, many of them rusting since VE-Day, lined the runway.

But, Tom and Steve, I digress. Here are some ideas for Band of Typists, a ten-part series on the Cold War.

Part One. Close-up on a gentleman of a certain age, bespectacled, goateed, his receding hair combed straight back. He is looking at an invisible interviewer, not the camera. The man is struggling to control the emotion in his voice.
"I don't know if the people back in the States ever realized the sacrifices the men and women in uniform made in the Cold War," he is saying. "It was worse in the chapel than anywhere."
A plump man with a shaved head and pink face continues.
"Chaplains had to have their sermons typed on time or they couldn't preach on Sundays. And their handwriting was real terrible. One time I typed, 'Jesus Galls Us' and the chaplain read it out. The commander almost had us taken out and shot."
A third man wearing an obvious toupee has tears in his eyes.
"I had to type the chapel bulletins and take the masters to the base print shop. If the printer was late, there were no bulletins. Without bulletins, the services fell apart. A goddamn mess."
       The goateed man.
"One time the bulletins didn't show up for the Christmas Eve service. The chaplain was calling out Easter hymns. His typist caved under the stress - spent three months in the hospital in Lakenheath. Even after he got out, he wasn't the same."
The shaved-headed man.

"No one thought less of him, though. We'd all been there."
        The toupee-wearing man.

"The chaplain was charged to protect the mind, body and soul of the whole goddamned aerospace team. You know - the men and women who was protecting the country from the goddamn Red Menace."
        The goateed man.
"It was our job to keep the chaplain armed, intellectually and spiritually. The typewriter was our weapon in that war."
        The shaved-headed man.
"You quickly learned that the typewriter was your only friend, really."
        The goateed man.
"After a while you got so you knew every bell and key on your Underwood. You could field strip it, lay all the pieces on your desk, and put it back together inside of 20 minutes."
        The toupee-wearing man.
"Some guys took their typewriter to bed with them." (Shaking his head, he pauses to control his emotions.) "It got so goddamn lonely."
        The goateed man.
"The typewriter was an essential instrument in the Cold War. We used to sing this song while we marched: 'This is my weapon (gesturing to a typewriter), this is my gun (nodding self-consciously toward his groin), one is for working, one is for fun.'" (After moments of silence he smirks into the camera.)
        The shaved-headed man.
"I don't think any of us really knew how to type right - most of us were two-finger hunt-and-peckers."
        The goateed man.
"We didn't get all our fingers into play, but we were fast."
        The toupee-wearing man.
"We were Goddamn fast."
        The goateed man.
"We knew we had to be fast. If we didn't have the sermon typed, the chaplain couldn't preach. If the chaplain couldn't preach, the morale of the Aerospace Team would plummet."
        The shaved-headed man.
"You know what that means."
        The toupee-wearing man.
"Might as well goddamn surrender."
        The goateed man.
"But we were very seldom late with those sermons. We didn't think much about it then, but our typewriters and us were a helluva team."
        The shaved-headed man.
"I like to think of what one of my buddies said to his grandson. 'Grandpa, were you a hero in the Cold War?' And he replied, 'No, I wasn't a hero, son. But I served with typists.'"
        The goateed man.
(Holding up his index fingers.) "Look at the callouses. These two fingers did a lot of pecking for my country.
It was worth it, though. Next time you're at a Memorial Day or Veteran's Day parade and you see a clerk-typist in uniform, give 'im a salute."
        The toupee-wearing man.
"Say, hail to thee, typing guy. You're a goddamn hero."

That should get the ball rolling, Tom and Steve. There must be thousands of hour of interviews just like these. The scripts should write themselves.
Call me if you need more ideas.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Al Pirnie, won't you please come home?

I remember when the Republicans were the good guys.

Actually, most everyone I knew in Central New York State in the 1950s was a good Republican. My father wore a red plastic elephant on his lapel that said "Ike" or something on it, but I coveted the pin for its cartoon-like charm alone.

My grandparents on both sides were solid Republicans. Grandpa Emerson talked of having lunch with Theodore Roosevelt, although I never knew if it was just Grandpa and Teddy or if a thousand other Republicans were there, too. Grandpa Jenks was the Republican who ran the armory in Oneonta, and when he wanted to cuss really bad, he said, "Eleanor."

The biggest family party of the year was when Grandma and Grandma Jenks drove to Morrisville from Oneonta to watch the 1952 election returns on our 12-inch Admiral television, and we cheered when Eisenhower was swept into office after 20 years of Democrat misrule. I still get giddy when I think about it.

I did know at least one other Democrat, LaVerne Darrow, the village barber. LaVerne was a genial chap with a white smock like his Mayberry counterpart, Floyd, who emanated sweet cologne and whose own hair was immaculately parted in the middle. LaVerne never talked politics with his customers, which would have been bad business, but it was generally whispered about that he was not like the rest of us.

My mother, too, it turned out, was a closet Democrat.

Much to Grandpa Emerson's consternation, she voted for FDR in 1944 and JFK in 1960. I think she voted with the Democrats fairly consistently until 1980, when she switched to Ronald Reagan, co-star of her favorite film, King's Row.
Looking back, I can easily imagine myself registering Republican, if only to get one of those cool plastic elephants for my lapel, but John F. Kennedy changed that forever. JFK captured a generation of young idealists, made us think politics was honorable and good, and challenged us to ask not what our country could do for us but what we could do for our country. But even then I thought some of my best friends were Republicans. Had to be. So far as I knew, my barber and I were the only Democrats in Morrisville. And in the early 60s, if I had any chance of following my political interests in Madison County, N.Y., it had to involve Republicans.

Happily, there were some great Republicans around. Governor Nelson Rockefeller came to Colgate University, eight miles from Morrisville, to address the annual Boy's State gathering and my father, a Boy's State counselor, arranged for me to be in the balcony for the Governor's speech. Rocky was extroverted, charming and charismatic, and I thought then that when JFK retired from politics I could be a Rockefeller Republican. (Attica and the Rockefeller Drug Laws were still in the future.) Too, the U.S. Senators from New York State, were Jacob Javits, a liberal Civil Rights advocate, and Kenneth Keating, a smiling moderate who also parted his white hair like Floyd the barber. Despite my partisan enthusiasm for the New Frontier, all the Republicans I knew were decent, hardworking and open-minded public servants.

Alexander Pirnie was my favorite. Pirnie, a lawyer and businessman from Utica, was a World War II hero with a Bronze Star and Legion of Merit who represented us in Congress from 1959 to 1972.

I don't remember what Pirnie's politics were exactly, but he couldn't have been elected in Central New York without being a conservative. I do know he was extremely responsive to his constituents, including a 16-year-old kid who couldn't vote. I made sure I attended as many of Pirnie's visits to Morrisville as I could. He came to the dedication of the new post office in 1961 and presented the post mistress (Hannah Curtis, a Democrat appointed to the job during the Truman Administration) with a flag that had flown over the capitol. Pirnie was not dismayed by the huge portrait of JFK that hung in the post office lobby, and his greeting to the crowd was one of my first encounters with political palaver.

"I'm usually introduced by someone who says, 'Well, here's the latest dope from Washington,'" he began, followed by a brief recap of legislation facing the House. He was great.
Afterwards, I wanted to ask him how many flags flew over the Capitol before they were presented to post offices in Congressional Districts. He leaned his head toward me attentively and his mouth dropped open a little when I asked, "Is there some guy there who raises and lowers flags all day?"

He stood up and smiled. "Well, not all day, I don't think."

"Are you going to vote for Sam Rayburn for Speaker?" I asked in a change of subject that startled me as much as him.

"Well, we Republicans are going to vote for Mr. Halleck (Charles A. Halleck of Indiana, House Minority Leader), Pirnie replied. "But if he doesn't win --" he smiled broadly and winked -- "I'll be happy to work with Mr. Rayburn."

Over the next couple of years, while I was still in high school, I wrote to a wide variety of politicians in Washington, primarily to see if they would write back, or to collect autographs from the President, Vice President and other notables. Pirnie was one of the politicians I wrote nearly every week -- so often that my name must have been too familiar to a harried typist who once mistyped the Congressman's signature block, "Alexander Jenks."

I joined the Air Force in 1964 and entered a period of my life where it was more important to write to old girl friends than to old congressmen, so I lost touch with Pirnie. It wasn't until December 1, 1969, when I was in my freshman year at Eastern Baptist College, that I saw Pirnie on television, reaching into a large glass jar to draw a date for the Selective Service System draft lottery that would be the birthday of the first young men called to service. The look of concentration on his face was the same look he used to give me when I'd ask him how often they raised and lowered flags over the Capitol.

Years later, in June 1982, I was attending an American Baptist meeting in Green Lake, Wis., when I read in the Milwaukee paper that former Congressman Alexander Pirnie had driven off the road in Canastota, probably after suffering a heart attack, and died.

I put the paper down and remarked, "Hey, Alexander Pirnie died." But the Baptists in the room just stared at me blankly. Pirnie was not an internationally known politician.
He was just a good one.

Al Pirnie was certainly not the last good Republican I knew. There was an era when both Republicans and Democrats seemed less partisan and more willing to keep an open mind when it came to the public interest. John Heinz, the ketchup magnate and Republican Senator from Pennsylvania, who died in a tragic aircraft accident in 1991, was a liberal who once allowed me to engage him in a long conversation on President Carter's proposed treaties to turn the Panama Canal over to Panama. Church groups supported the treaties, but Senator Heinz had not yet announced how he would vote.

"Can you give me any indication which way you'll go?" I asked.

"Not today," he said, flashing a toothy smile. "But I think you'll be pleased with my vote."

The treaties were ratified by one-vote margins in 1978 -- thanks undeniably to Heinz's affirmative vote.

The Panama Canal treaties, unpopular in their time, were the right thing to do. If Republicans were voting in airtight blocks without regard to the merits of legislation, they never would have happened.

Sadly, the spirit of bipartisan open-mindedness and the art of compromise seems to be on hiatus. Throughout the past several months, Republicans resisted the passage of health Care Reform legislation on no other apparent grounds than it would enhance the prestige of President Obama. For millions of Americans, health care reform was a no-brainer: Forty-six million Americans are uninsured. More than 9 million of them are children. More than eight out of 10 are in working families. They are our friends, neighbors and colleagues--forced to gamble every day that they won't get sick or injured. Living without health insurance is a risk no one should have to take.
End of argument.

These were not, however, the issues argued by the Republican block. And when health care was passed this week, the reaction of Republicans and their "Tea Party" supporters was appalling.

Images of "Tea Party" radicals responding to the passage of health care legislation by taunting a supporter suffering with Parkinson's disease, and shouting racial and sexual epithets at Democrats who voted for it - including Civil Rights icon John Lewis - are deeply disturbing. The fact that this boorish behavior followed months of disingenuous claims and outright lies by GOP senators and  representatives about the content of health care legislation leads millions of Americans to to the conclusion Bob Herbert reached this week in the New York Times:
"It is way past time for decent Americans to rise up against this kind of garbage, to fight it aggressively wherever it appears. And it is time for every American of good will to hold the Republican Party accountable for its role in tolerating, shielding and encouraging foul, mean-spirited and bigoted behavior in its ranks and among its strongest supporters."

Obviously, the Republican rhetoric in Congress was not about health care. It was about power. Despite their minority in both houses, their calculation was that by saying "No" to any proposal put forth by a president they have categorized as a liberal socialist, they would add Republican seats in both houses in November.

That remains to be seen.

But I would have greatly preferred a debate on health care based on the facts and based on a common understanding that 46 million Americans needed their government's help.
Any candidate that doesn't see that will never get my vote. And I pray that the spirit of bi-partisan cooperation will someday re-emerge. That will take some moderation on both sides.

Where are the thinking moderate Republicans when we need them?

Al Pirnie, won't you please come home?