Finding Freedom in Postwar Europe

Less then a month before my father, Les Green, died in August 2000, he started talking about his childhood. It seems that his grandmother had a boarding house. He advised that there was a father and child there and that they only ate if they had something to put in the pot. He advised that he always had food and never went hungry. He said that when he was in Belgium, serving post-World War II, he was at a woman’s home who reminded him of the days with his grandmother and always ate well there.

After he died, of course we went through his materials. One of the things he held onto was an article from a September 16, 1946 issue of Newsweek, Racial: Maedchen and Negro, about black soldiers in post-WW II Germany. The Newsweek piece was initiated by a much longer piece in the October 1946 Ebony.

The thrust, particularly of the Ebony piece, was that the black soldier felt freer in Berlin, capital of the formerly Nazi nation, than he did in Birmingham or on Broadway.

A July 2009 article in Stars & Stripes confirms this: “In the words of retired Gen. Colin Powell, postwar Germany was ‘a breath of freedom’ for black soldiers, especially those out of the South: ‘[They could] go where they wanted, eat where they wanted, and date, whom they wanted, just like other people.'”

There is a great website, the Civil Rights Struggle, African-American GIs and Germany, which contains some original research on this topic. The NAACP presented its Julius E. Williams Distinguished Community Service Award for 2009 to Maria Höhn (Vassar College) and Martin Klimke (German Historical Institute, Washington, DC / Heidelberg Center for American Studies, University of Heidelberg) for the project.

But, of course, this doesn’t address why my father held onto that article for 54 years. Was he merely interested in the topic? Did he know someone who was pictured? Was HE one of the people in the pictures? There is a guy who remind my sisters and me of my dad. While my father said he was in Belgium, his records show that he was in the European theater from February to November 1946, so perhaps he was in Germany as well. Ms. Höhn, who I have e-mailed, confirms that there were black soldiers in both countries.

I may never know why Leslie H. “Bing” Green held onto that article for so many years.


Fallen soldiers, fallen leaves

I associate the raking of falling leaves with Veterans Day. Some of this is at the mundane level. One November 10, I raked the leaves so well, and then the next day, more dropped so that it appeared that I had made no effort at all. It seems that the leaves all fall almost at once. I can tell it was last Thursday in the front of my house, with leaves covering up half of the windshield of the car.

The linkage, however, is also more subtle. One rakes the leaves early on, and one feels a sense of accomplishment. In that second and third pass over the same terrain, though, the law of diminishing returns kicks in. Is it REALLY worth the effort to go over that ground again?

War must feel like that. In the beginning, everyone, at least everyone who’s in charge of executing the war, must have a sense of the rightness of their duty. As the war drags on, though, do doubts settle in?

I always wondered about extremely long wars. In year 37 of the 100 Years’ War, do the leaders remember what the point was. By year 73, all the leaders are most certainly dead, and all there is to hold onto is an abstraction. “For England!” or whatnot.

I came across this video about World War I, the end of which we are celebrating its 90th anniversary today. It’s not all gunfire, as the first minute or two might suggest, but has music of the period.

As you may know, WWI was so awful that it was thought that it must certainly be the “war to end all wars.” The League of Nations was formed and the world lived peacefully ever after, or so the script read. Here’s a list of wars most of them since 1918, with casualties when available.

I guess we’ll keep on trying for peace, regardless of our inability to achieve it.

An autumnal meme

Happy Columbus Day! Happy Thanksgiving, Canadian colleagues!

Via Mr. Frog:

Have you ever been apple picking?
Why yes, though not recently.

Is there a dish you make/eat only during this time of the year?
Pumpkin pie. It’s not nearly my favorite pie, but if tradition demands, tradition demands.

Will you attend a tail gate party this season?
Have I EVER gone to a tailgate party? Maybe inadvertently – someone was tailgating and invited me to join, but I’d say no.

When do you turn on the heat?
The heat comes on automatically when my fingers turn blue while I’m inside the house. Actually, the heat turns on automatically when the house temp goes below some threshold; it’s been on at least one night already.

How many sweaters do you own?
Probably four, but I’m never sure. My wife put them away last spring and I have no idea where they are.

Are you fond of Nouveau Beaujolais wine?
Je ne comprends pas.

Do you get excited about Halloween?
I did even into my twenties, then not so much. I do now because my daughter is trick-or-treating, and since she’s allergic to peanuts, my wife and I can swipe her Sanheim swag.

How about Thanksgiving?
I feel real ambivalence about Thanksgiving. On the one hand I am thankful for what I have. On the other hand, it often feels like a real hassle, either going to the in-laws or, on a couple occasions, hosting my in-laws. No offense to my in-laws, many of whom live less than an hour and a quarter away, but it’s one of those times when my tiny birth family’s distance really bugs me. Also, I’ve had some really crummy Thanksgivings in the past, probably none worse than being invited to someone’s house, then having the invitation withdrawn – for reasons that were unclear – the day before; I sulked on takeout Chinese that year.

Is there an activity you do only in the autumn?
Well, rake leaves, which I add to the compost pile. I usually wait until Veterans Day.

Have you ever burned leaves?
Years ago.

Do you own any ‘scarecrow’ decorations?
I don’t believe so.

Do you plant bulbs?
A few years ago, we planted tulips on an extremely mild December 1. I think Carol still does, but I’ve lost my gardening mojo.

Your fondest autumn memory?
It was a party in 1987…well, that’s all you get.

When does fall begin for you?
When I need a warmer jacket. Sometimes it’s September 15, other years it’s more like November. It’s definitely fall now; I need gloves to ride my bike.

What is your favorite aspect of fall?
I love playoff baseball, football starting around Thanksgiving.

What do you like to drink in the fall?
Hot chocolate.

What is fall weather like where you live?
It seems so variable. It usually gets gradually, or occasionally suddenly cooler. Often, there is a temperature recovery for a few days, before it gets colder and windy I associate November with a dance of the dead leaves.

What color is fall?

Do you have a favorite fall chore?
I believe “favorite” and “chore” don’t belong in the same sentence.

What is your least favorite thing about fall?
That impending feeling of death. One fall about four years ago, a friend of mine, the husband of another friend of mine, and the mother of still another friend of mine all died, and I ended up at all of those funerals. And there were others for which I did not attend the service because of distance.

What is your favorite fall holiday?
It used to be Columbus Day because Lydia’s day care was open, Carol and I had it off from work, and we could go on a date (lunch and/or movie), but her day care’s closed this year. So, I pick Veterans Day: the notion of a war to end all wars is so appealing, if ultimately unreachable.

What’s your favorite kind of pie?
Almost any fruit pie: strawberry-rhubarb, apple, blueberry, cherry.

Do you have a favorite fall book?
No. Winter, yes, spring, yes.
What I’m recording tonight:
Koppel: The Last Lynching
TV-14 (LV)
Ted Koppel speaks with three Democratic delegates whose journeys to nominate Barack Obama took them through thornier moments in American racial history.
Discovery Channel, 10 pm, EDT (also early tomorrow morning at 2 am EDT).


War to End All Wars

Since I understood its meaning, I always liked Veterans Day. When I was a child, I loved the parades.

Now, I appreciate the perhaps the foolhardy optimism of a war to end all wars, which is what they called The Great War; it ended on November 11, 1918, which became Armistice Day. Of course, the Great War became World War I when we fought World War II. Armistice Day became Veterans Day, and we’ve had a couple wars since then.

Even as we honor those who fight the wars the politicians send them to, the foolhardy dream remains:
I ain’t gonna study war no more,
I ain’t gonna study war no more,

Ain’t Gonna Study War No More.
United Methodist bishops call for US withdrawal from Iraq.


The writing process

I went to see the author Joseph E. Persico last Saturday afternoon at the Albany Public Library. It seems reasonable that I would have mentioned the event on this blog BEFOREHAND, given the fact that the Friends of the Albany Public Library was co-sponsoring the event, and that I’m on the Friends BOARD. My only excuse is that I was out of town for several days and lost track until the night before the event.

In any case, Persico has been writing for over a quarter century. His current book is Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour: Armistice Day, 1918, World War I and Its Violent Climax. He stated that more people died on that last half day of the Great War, for no particular strategic purpose, than died on D-Day (June 6, 1944) in World War II.

Persico talked about the process of researching and writing his books, which I found instructive in writing this blog.

While working on My Enemy, My Brother: Men and Days of Gettysburg (1996), he sought to pin down who fired the first shot in this pivotal Civil War battle. He believed he’d finally found the answer. He brought this to a gentleman at the Gettysburg Memorial who had provided invaluable assistance. The gentleman replied, “That’s one version.”
I’m going to try to get it right, but some of it is all but irretrievable, even my own history, where memory blurs and fails. I’ll try to do my best to get it right, especially re: JEOPARDY! and FantaCo, but I cannot swear it’ll be definitive.

Persico interviewed Charles Collingsworth, one of “Murrow’s Boys” for Edward R. Murrow: An American Original (1988). At one point Collingsworth asked him to shut off the tape recorder, which Persico did. Collingsworth then told of Murrow’s affair with Winston Churchill’s daughter-in-law, Pamela Churchill (later Pamela Harriman), which almost wrecked Murrow’s marriage. Persico decided that Collingsworth wanted him to have the story, but didn’t want people to know that the information came from the now late newsman. Persico used the information in the book.
I want to put in as much as comfortably possible. Some might be embarrassing, (even to me.)

As a speechwriter for the former New York State Governor and US Vice-President, Persico had unusual access to Nelson Rockefeller. The author was waiting for Rocky to finish a lengthy meeting with black housing leaders. Finally, the exhausted official collapsed into a chair, looking haggard, and exclaimed, “Amos ‘n’ Andy got it right.” (For those of you too young to understand the reference, Amos ‘n’ Andy was a controversial radio and television program in the 1940s and 1950s.) Persico wrote this comment down at the time. He put it in the first draft of his book The Imperial Rockefeller: A Biography of Nelson A. Rockefeller, then took it out, then put it back in, ultimately leaving it out. He decided that the then-governor lashed out in frustration that was out of character, and would provide a distorted view of the man.
Re: the blog, I may decide not to tell (for now) some stories.

In that same book he had to deal with how Rocky died. He was with a 22-year old assistant that Persico knew. Not to mention it would have made it “look like the book was authorized by the Rockefeller Foundation.” He told the tale succinctly, never mentioning the woman’s name (nor did he mention Megan Marshack by name in his talk.)
One can get to the truth sometimes without being TOO explicit.

Persico co-authored Colin Powell’s autobiography, My American Journey. He believes his most important jobs were to keep in what was interesting to a broad audience, and to delete what was not. In Powell’s case, the general wanted to put in a couple sentences about his two tours of Vietnam. Persico found this not practical, given its import in American life. Conversely, Powell was a policy wonk, very proud of a report he had made. Persico argued that the audience would not be as interested in this story as he was, and the story was excised.
I’ll try not to use too much insider language.

Anyways, I enjoyed the talk, though I was troubled briefly that he thought I was there ONLY because I was on the Friends board. I do wish that more folks were present. It WAS a lovely Saturday afternoon outside, though, and that is tough competition in a spring that has been unseasonably cool and wet.

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