“I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” James Baldwin
Bob Bergen in 2015; NWI Times photo by Monte Martin
Along with 110 other old soldiers, Korean War veteran Bob Bergren went on an Honor Flight to Washington D.C., on a tour of war memorials. Just 17 in 1949 when his mother signed papers that made him eligible for the marines, Bergren saw extensive combat as a member of a 4.2-inch mortar company. Providing background for a Chesterton Tribune profile on Bergren, Kevin Nevers wrote:
Sandwiched between the most catastrophic conflict in human history and this country’s most unpopular military adventure, the Korean War – as Bergren himself points out – has been dubbed the Forgotten War. Not forgotten by those who fought it, certainly, not forgotten by those whose loved ones died in it, but there’s a truth in the cynicism anyway.
In an America where millions of veterans were trying to forget the last war from their ranch houses in suburbia, where men in gray flannel suits were inventing brand-new ways to sell brand-new modern conveniences, where TV was teaching a rising middle-class how to be middle class, the brutality and privations of the battlefields of the Korean Peninsula must have seemed very distant, alien, and unassimilable, even – in some sense – offensive to the fruits and promises of the American Dream.
Nevers added: “If Bergren ever had reason to feel his service unappreciated, he doesn’t say so.” Seldom far from the front lines, he fought in six major battles and spent ten weeks hospitalized when his vehicle hit a land mine. Nevers wrote:
Bergren recalls the cold of the Korean winter, where temperatures could fall to -50 Fahrenheit and rifles would freeze after firing a handful of rounds. Marines fortunate to have gunnery experience who served in World War II – and who knew a few tricks for keeping warm, like carrying an extra pair of felt boot linings under the arm pits – did okay.
Bergren is particularly proud to have served under Col. Lewis “Chesty” Puller, still the most decorated marine in the history of the USMC. “Chesty was a great leader. He had the confidence of his men. If you were advancing, he would walk in front. He would give us pep talks and tell us why we should do what we were going to do.”
Marla Gee and Lanes; photo by Liz Wuerffel
Marla's sister Sybil Gee-Burns
Marla Gee’s sisters hosted a “Bon Voyage” party at Valpo University’s Harre Student Union “Brown and Gold Room.” Marla will be living in Liverpool, England, for a year in pursuit of a master’s thesis on the Beatles. Toni and I sat with fellow grad student Lisa Davison (who grew up in Gary’s Northside across from Holy Angels) and her daughter Jillian, VU professors and Welcome Project founders Liz Wuerffel and Allison Schuette, Marla’s sister Sybil, and IUN music historian and classical guitarist Peter Aglinskas. Also attending were IUN Anthropology adjunct Stephen Zolvinski and VU museum curator and popular instructor Gregg Hertzlieb. I said hello to Gary radio host Sarge Stewart, whose guest I’ve been several times. A half-century ago, his wife taught Marla secretarial skills as well as life lessons. Marla’s younger brother has worked as tech manager for thrash metal bands such as Anthrax and Megadeth. Marla showed Beatles clips, followed by a quiz. When she asked who had introduced the Fab Four at Shea Stadium, I told Lisa to answer, “Ed Sullivan” and she won a Beatles tote bag.
We attended a picnic honoring Bob and Rhea Laramie (above with Lanes) on their fiftieth wedding anniversary. It took place at Woodland Park, site both of soccer exploits for Phil and Dave and (for me) softball memories. Phil came in from Michigan, and Dave would have joined us but was chaperoning the EC Central prom. A year ago, I attended a graduation party at the same location for Bob and Rhea’s granddaughter Stephanie, who just completed a successful freshman year at Vincennes University. Despite the large crowd (the Laramies have 16 grandchildren and 24 great-grandchildren) Bob and son Bobby found time to share soccer anecdotes. One involved driving to Illinois in a blizzard for an indoor game and playing the entire match a man short, while the opposition had a half-dozen subs. Even so, they almost won the game.
Phil noticed I’d placed his TELLY award for producing and filming a PBS show based on “Petruska: A Puppet Show” next to one Dave and I earned at a father-son tennis tournament. Petruska, kind of an iniquitous Pinochio, has appeared in Russian puppets shows for at least 400 years. The crude folktale gradually morphed into a children’s play. Phil explained that it took three people each to manipulate the marionettes that he filmed against a black background to a musical score by Igor Stravinsky. At the condo, Phil, Dave, and I got in five board games and two pinochle contests with Toni as my partner; twice we made our bid on the nose to clinch each game.
Emma and Stephen
Emma Balay’s wedding to Stephen Hmiel took place near Turtle Lake in Miller on Shirley Heinze Trust Fund property. Anne’s brother and sister from Connecticut and Alaska were both there, as were Stephen’s cool parents from St. Louis, where the couple met. The wedding party was dressed as fantasy fiction characters, and Emma’s sister Avi read passages from C.S. Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia.” The invite had promised hot dogs and beer, but Stephen’s dad upgraded considerably with two cases of champagne, and the food was from Emma’s favorite Indian restaurant in Chicago. During the toasts, I mentioned how sweet it was that Anne’s family chose to have the ceremony in Miller despite some bad memories, earning me a hug from my good friend. They love the beach, their Miller friends, including host Bob, who’d take Emma fishing and taught her how to feed the snapping turtles and beaver (carefully!) from his pier (which was under water due to heavy rains). There was dancing, and Stephen and his mom did a spot-on syncopated singalong to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Riva Lehrer and Anne Balay
My lasting memory of the weekend are of two remarkable spina bifida survivors. Bob Laramie’s cheerful wheelchair-bound great-grandkid carried on a spirited conversation with me. You’d have never known from his sweet disposition and maturity that he’d spent nearly half his life in hospitals due to a plethora of serious setbacks. Anne Balay’s warmhearted lover Riva Lehrer, also frequently hospitalized, is one who stands by her friends through thick and thin and, according to a Wikipedia profile, “is well known as both an artist and an activist in the field of Disability Culture [whose] work focuses on issues of physical identity and the socially challenged body, especially in explorations of cultural depictions of disability.” At the reception, Riva talked about being bullied in high school in Cincinnati.
Judge Lorenzo Arredondo treated me to lunch at Casa Blanca in East Chicago. Beforehand, I toured the Lorenzo Arredondo Justice Center and said hello to his sister Camile and assistant Nicki Angel, daughter of former county commissioner and treasurer Nick Angel, Arredondo’s political mentor. At the East Chicago Public Library is a room in Lorenzo’s honor, a file cabinet of his papers, and his portrait on a Wall of Fame. He gave me “Justices of the Indiana Supreme Court” (2010) edited by Linda C. Gugin and James E. St. Clair, which contains chapters Lorenzo wrote about two Gary attorneys, Oliver Starr (1845-1951) and Floyd S. Draper (1951-1955), who served on the state’s high court.
above, Oliver Starr; below, Floyd Draper
Following Lorenzo’s advice, I ordered Casa Blanca’s specialty, red snapper, which was the best I’ve ever eaten. Stopping at our table were Congressman Pete Visclosky and State Representative Earl Harris, Jr., on their way to a groundbreaking ceremony to kick off a multi-million-dollar project at Jeorse Park.
above, Earl Harris, Jr.: below Rep. Pete Visclosky at Jeorse Park (Post-Trib photo by Javonte Anderson)