“Only the dead have seen the end of war.” Plato, “Life of Aristotle”
Gene Piatak returns; crowd cheers at Rochester airport
At Rochester Airport dozens of people in yellow t-shirts with Honor Flight written on the front and Ground Crew on the back were awaiting the arrival of a plane carrying 80 old soldiers and their companions who had visited the Tomb of the Unknown [World War I] Soldier at Arlington Cemetery and the World War II, Korean, and Vietnam war memorials in Washington, D.C. Most had fought in Korea, but some were WW II vets in their nineties. Thousands of well-wishers were gathering outside for a welcome home ceremony, and while at my gate I suddenly heard applause. The TSA must have allowed family members to pass through security. My plane was delayed due to a tardy flight crew, so I hurried down to witness the honorees deplane. Many rose from wheelchairs to walk past us, some saluting or giving the thumbs up, others looking stoically straight ahead. A guy in a Ground Crew shirt – probably a Vietnam Vet – addressed each by name (they wore I.D. tags) and said “Welcome Home.” It was an incredibly moving climax to a memorable weekend for me and, I’m certain, for them.
Invited to a fiftieth wedding anniversary surprise party for Dick and Donna Jeary, I encountered a horrendous traffic jam Thursday morning on the way to the airport coach terminal in Highland, twice exiting 80/94 to avert stalled traffic. I arrived a minute before the bus was to leave, only it was 30 minutes late, too. Since I always allow myself extra time, the rest of the trip went smoothly, and it was just a ten-minute drive from the Rochester airport Avis site (I rented a Hyundai Sonata) to Comfort Inn. After unpacking I walked four blocks to historic Monroe House, location of next day’s surprise party and once the site of a tavern dating to 1722. I ended at The Brick, a pizza place that had Stella on draft.
Having brought along the John Grisham’s “Bleachers” that I got from Cindy Szmanski’s IUN’s Free Little Library on the corner of Thirty-Fifth and Washington, I came across a character named Paul Curry, same as a friend who died in Vietnam. I came within two spaces of solving the USA Today crossword puzzle, failing to figure out the clue “get a load of” (answer: saw). An editorial advised readers to vote for anybody but Donald Trump, first time ever that USA Today, launched in 1982, took a position in a Presidential election, calling Trump a serial liar who traffics in prejudice, is reckless and erratic, and ill-equipped to be commander-in-chief. Ray Smock called the editorial “chicken shit” for not endorsing Hillary, given Trump’s unacceptably.
Bucknell roommate Rich Baker drove three hours to see me, and at lunch we caught up on current doings and rehashed freshman dorm memories and characters. I told him I was flattered when he decided to room with me sophomore year; he knew he’d flunk out if he moved into the Psi Phi house. My fraternity, Sig Ep, had burned down during a pledge raid because someone threw a cherry bomb into the living room that rolled under a couch. Our three-hour visit flew by, then Rich drove 12 miles to see fraternity brother Ron Baroody, who (small world) lived next door to one of Dick Jeary’s close friends.
Michael Jeary (left) at skin cancer foundation dinner
Upon entering Monroe Restaurant I ran into Dick’s sister Judy and a Bucknell fraternity brother Bob Fischer. About 75 friends and relatives attended, including cousin Michael Jeary, President of Laughlin Constable advertising agency. Handsome and affable, he reminded me of a cross between Dick and Star Plaza CEO Charlie Blum. Dick’s youngest sister, a teenager in 1966, was, I recalled, a huge Beatles fan. At my table were realtors who worked with Donna. When Vietnam came up, I referred to myself as a “Fortunate Son.” CCR, the guy said, recognizing the reference to Credence Clearwater Revival.
my table at party; below, Dick and Donna with kids and grandson
I had decided against delivering my prepared remarks, given the room configuration until son Brian Jeary talked me into it and said he had a microphone. Dick and Donna’s grandson Shane Niesen, a freshman at Brown majoring in History, is taking courses on Revolution in the Americas and the Byzantine Empire. He was familiar with “The Alexiad” and the recent trend of studying American history from an Atlantic perspective. I sensed that most guests were Republicans, but a middle school principal, noting that Shane’s liberal bent, told him not to change. My advice would have been to think for himself. Dick and Donna seemed genuinely surprised and delighted to see me. They insisted we spend all day Saturday together. That’s what I’d hoped.
Joining us Saturday at Cheesecake Factory were folks who had come from Florida and Syracuse. Dick told them about my books on Gary. A Syracuse couple recently saw the Jackson brothers (sans Michael, of course) at the New York State Fair; the wife noted that Janet was pregnant at age 50. Brian, a wrestling coach who rehabs houses, recalled his family visiting us some 30 years ago, that he could see Lake Michigan from our house, and that we danced with air guitars to the Ramones. We drove past the Erie Canal, where last winter an ice skater went from Albany to Buffalo. Dick ordered a pizza, and I found Yuegling in the fridge, turning down one of Dick’s famous martinis. When he dropped me off at the Comfort Inn, we embraced and promised to stay in closer touch. My motel TV got Showtime, so I watched an episode of “Masters of Sex” and a bloodless but tense revenge movie called “The Gift” (2015) starring Jason Bateman.
Lake Michigan; photo by Jim Spicer
At the Rochester airport a vending machine had no prices next to the items or buttons to push; instead one inserted a credit card and a computer-generated menu popped up. Back in Chicago the weather was identical to when I left, cold and overcast. I learned Judge James Moody sentenced former Lake Station mayor Keith Soderquist to 42 months and his wife to two years. They stole from the city’s food panty fund to support their gambling addiction. From the bench the magistrate pontificated, “What were you thinking? Are you goofy or what?” Then he demanded that Soderquist answer. He bravely answered, “No.” Moody then exclaimed: “You took full advantage of the poor. Shame on you.” Boo, hiss.
In Steve McShane’s class I discussed the importance to historians of primary sources such as interviews, which students will be conducting with someone who lived in the Region during the 1990s. I read excerpts of Chenoa Williams’ paper on Gary Lew Wallace grad Cherese Fields from my Nineties Steel Shavings, copies of which I gave to all 30 students. Fields recalled: “People wore leather medallions with the green, yellow, and red continent of Africa or a clock around their neck like Flavor Flav.” She described her initiation into Y-Teens: an older girl rubbed a raw egg in her face and stuck a tea bag in her mouth filled with an onion and dipped in vinegar. She summed up tenth grade as “same old, same old.” In English class Cherese watched the O.J. Simpson verdict on a small TV; most students cheered the verdict. Science teacher Mr. Alexander drove a motorcycle and dressed like a biker. Speech teacher Ms. Lark got popped with rubber bands when at the chalkboard and didn’t finish the year due to a nervous breakdown. Cherese described a controversial auditorium program:
Guest speakers from a funeral home were talking about how kids needed to straighten up or they’d end up dead. They had a casket on stage. No matter high up you sat in the bleachers, you could not see inside it. When they allowed us to look in, we saw a mirror inside. I did not look close enough to see my reflection, but a lot of people were angered. Some stormed out of the gym. It was crazy.
Steve’s class was studying pioneer Gary, so I read excerpts from Margaret Cook Seeley’s “My Life in Gary, 1911-1956. Margaret wrote:
Most millworkers carried a large aluminum lunch pail to work. There was an upper tray for coffee and a lower part for lunch. When dad came home from work, we kids would run to see what surprise he had in his lunch pail for us. Sometimes it would be huckleberries he had picked along the slip that was the inlet to the mill from the lake. Sometimes it was sassafras bark he had dug along the E.J. and E. tracks. We loved sassafras tea; Mother called it pink tea. Sometimes it was just leftover food, which we ate. Once it was a little gopher he had caught. He got a kick out of surprising us.
I paused and said with emotion, “Isn’t that great stuff?” What a precious resource for social historians. The following paragraph read:
Dad smoked one cigarette a day, and that was in bed. Just as I passed their bedroom one night, I noticed smoke coming up from the side of the bed. I asked where the smoke was coming from. He jumped up and began pounding out the fire with his pillow. He never smoked in bed again. Our company house was so hot in the summer. At night I’d pull my bed to the window so I might get a breath of air. If that didn’t work, I’d take my pillow and sheet downstairs. Doors were left open. The milkman would wake me up in the morning with his clattering bottles.
Brian Berger asked if he could do a Facebook chat with an uncle who has since moved away. I liked the idea and told him I enjoyed his “Star Trek” references in David Parnell’s Crusades class. When David mentioned that lions lived in the Levant a thousand years ago but now only in sub-Sahara Africa, Brian interjected that there were a few in India. Switching from lions to horses, David mentioned that knights traveled with a pack animal, a favorite horse for normal travel, and one or two chargers for battle outfitted with armor.
Someone mentioned that that the board game Risk was on the agenda for the next History Club meeting. “That’ll be a long meeting,” David noted, not skipping a beat. Brian wondered if the St. Bernard dog was named for St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153). Parnell told Brian to look up the answer. The dog’s namesake is another medieval monk, St. Bernard of Menthon in the western Alps. St. Bernard of Clairvaux rallied troops for the Second Crusade and then blamed its failure on the sins of participants. One of his alleged miracles was restoring an old man’s power of speech to so he could confess his sins before he died. WTF? He once plunged into ice-cold water to assuage his lustful temptation and allegedly rid a cathedral of bees by excommunicating them. He wrote: “Truly, love is delightful and pleasant food, supplying, as it does, rest to the weary, strength to the weak, and joy to the sorrowful.”
Parnell spoke of a tiny, twelfth-century Shiite sect known as the Assassins who twice tried to kill Saladin. Enemies referred to them as the hashish because supposedly those selected to carry out assassinations would be drugged with hashish. They ingested rather than smoked it, perhaps, David quipped, in the form of brownies. He referenced the 2005 film “Kingdom of Heaven” starring Orlando Bloom and Jeremy Irons, about Balian, a French village blacksmith on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to defend the kingdom against the forces of Saladin. Balian ends up with a higher opinion of the Sunni sultan than the rulers of Jerusalem after the death of the leper king Baldwin IV. I wonder whether the movie was inspired by America’s misadventure in Iraq.
Archbishop James Tobin expressed thanks for the latest Steel Shavings, which mentioned him in connection with ministering to prisoners and befriending Paula Cooper. He called the magazine intriguing, entertaining, and informative and expressed delight that I was friends with two people he admired, prison survivor George Van Til and Bill Pelke, advocate for abolishing the death penalty.
Crossing campus, I ran into former student Larry Larson, who noted with approval my Hillary button. He teaches Speech classes at a community college in Illinois. At Chesterton library I checked out the Clash CD “London Calling” and Craig Nelson’s “Pearl Harbor: From Infamy to Greatness.” New York Times reviewer Doug Stanton wrote: “The book has a thousand poignant and unforgettable moments.” Finding territorial governor Joseph B. Poindexter (subject of my MA thesis) in the Index, I read that General Walter Short pressured FDR into forcing Poindexter to declaring martial law, claiming it would end within a short time unless Pearl Harbor was prelude to an invasion. Poindexter took that to mean about 30 days, but martial law lasted three years, an unpopular development that Poindexter got blamed for. The Governor told an aide that he never hated doing anything so much in all his life.