“Never confuse a single defeat with a final defeat.” F. Scott Fitzgerald
Longtime IUN Sociology and Anthropology secretary Delores Crawford loaned me “An Astronaut’s Story of Grit, Grace, and Second Chances” (2017), an inspiring autobiography written by her cousin Leland Melvin. Reared by nurturing middle school teachers in a black middle-class neighborhood in Lynchburg, Virginia, Melvin begins by stating that, growing up, his hero had been African-American tennis star Arthur Ashe, who trained under Lynchburg physician and coach Robert Walter “Whirlwind” Johnson. A star athlete in high school, Melvin dropped a critical pass in a championship game only to score the winning touchdown when given a second chance. He took it as a life lesson that helped him overcome several traumatic events that might have overwhelmed a weaker person. When just five, he was sexually abused by two older boys. In college he was accused of cheating on a chemistry test because he’d overheard students discussing a similar exam they’d taken earlier. Drafted by the Detroit Lions, Melvin saw a promising NFL career derailed by injuries. Joining NASA, he was training for space flights when an injury left him deaf. Rather than quit the program, he eventually recovered partial hearing, served as mission specialist on two Atlantisshuttle flights and worked on the International Space Station. An inspirational speaker, Melvin tells young people, “The two most important days of your life are the day you are born and the day you figure out why.”
Rapper-singer Lizzo (Melissa Jefferson) is Time’s 2019 entertainer of the year. Nominated for eight GRAMMYs, the 31-year-old struggled with various female groups before finding solo commercial success in 2016 with “Good As Hell” and subsequent hits advocating body positivity and self-love such as “Truth Hurts” (2017). Los Angeles Times critic Gerrick D. Kennedy described a recent sold-out concert at the Hollywood Palladium:
The church of Lizzo is one of blissful liberation and self-care. She’s a sweat-soaked preacher delivering her message through witty, razor-sharp testimonies. It’s why she starts her show standing upon an actual pulpit (wrapped in gold and affixed with glowing strobe lights), cloaked in a cropped metallic choir robe. “Can I take you higher? This is a safe space,” she said before diving into her rollicking, funky romp “Worship” — a brassy call for lovers to get on their knees and worship her “patiently, quietly, faithfully” that was nearly drowned out by 5,000 fans chanting the lyrics back to her.
Much of the night went like this, Lizzo stretching out soul ballads like “Cuz I Love You” and “Jerome” into hymnals with a raw-throated wail that sent her eyes bulging out of her head and doling out bits of positive preaching to a devoted congregation answering back with the occasional “yass, queen” and “amen” (although Lizzo welcomes all who want to hear her word, she spent the evening making sure the “big girls” and “gay boys” were especially listening).
I’ve been given several second chances in life. Growing up watching Perry Mason on TV, I wanted to become a lawyer but decided to quit Virginia Law School to pursue a teaching career as a historian. Toni agreed to marry me and move to Hawaii, where I embarked on a master’s degree. One day I started to cross the street just as a bus drove by. It would have killed me had Toni not suddenly grabbed hold of me. Needing a book publication for tenure, I sent a manuscript titled “Jacob A. Riis and the American City” to Richard C. Wade, editor of a prestigious urban history series. I waited two years for a reply and then heard that it was rejected because the series already had enough books dealing with that time period. Fortunately, Raymond A. Mohl, my urban history predecessor at IUN, was editing a series for Kennikat Press and agreed to publish it. I later met Professor Wade at an American Studies conference in Dubrovnik, who proved to be a self-centered snob and had no recollection of ever perusing my manuscript.
In “Mrs. Fletcher” Brendan’s college adviser asks him what he hopes to get from his undergraduate experience. “A job that makes six figures,” he answers, adding that he hopes to join a fraternity (“go Greek”). He joins a group of jocks at a lunch table who are discussing global warming, tries to show them a YouTube video of a guy surfing during a tsunami, and says his philosophy is to just ride it out if disaster strikes. That night, he turns down an invite from nerdy dorm-mate Sanjay (Cheech Manohar) to watch nature docs and drink Beaujolais wine. Critic Ali Sciarabba wrote:
The contrast between the sullen, lonely Brendan and Sanjay, who is completely comfortable in his own skin and seems to be thriving at BSU, really demonstrates not only that Brendan is a fish out of water but that his inability to open himself up to new experiences and people (especially other guys) is a huge impediment to his growth. Brendan is exactly the same guy he was in high school, and that is not a good thing.
Brendan hooks up with sexy coed Farah, his partner in a skit at a Consent lecture and has rough sex with her, talking dirt as she replies, “Oh, give it to me, daddy.” Attracted to biracial Chloe, who invites him to attend a session on interacting with autistic family members (such as Brendan’s half-brother John-John), he is told not to use the works retarded or normal (the politically correct word being neurotypical).
Ray Smock posted “The Battle of the Bulge – One Son’s Story:
December 16, 2019, marked the 75th Anniversary of one of the greatest battles of World War II in the forests, woods, and hills of the Ardennes region of Belgium and Luxembourg. Most of us know it as the Battle of the Bulge, the shape of the massive German counteroffensive that caught the Americans off guard. The battle lasted until late January of 1945. More than 19,000 soldiers were killed and another 89,000 wounded. My father, Richard Smock, of Harvey, Illinois, was one of the 610,000 Americans who fought in that battle. He passed in 2010, at age 92, but today my thoughts were with him and with the immensity of that battle.
Dad joined the Illinois National Guard during the Great Depression, partly to earn a little extra money pulling targets on weekends at the shooting range. He was a corporal in 1938. His day job was that of a surveyor and he got a job with the DuPont Company helping to lay out a huge munitions plant in Charleston, Indiana. The United States was not in the war yet, but Franklin Roosevelt’s Lend Lease program finally allowed the United States to aid Great Britain, already at war with Germany. In February of ’41, I was born in Jeffersonville, Indiana, the place with the nearest hospital to Charleston.
Dad was drafted into the Army in the spring of 1944 and shipped overseas that fall. He was 27 years old and was assigned to the 1262 Combat Engineers, a detached unit of General Patton’s 3rd Army. Detached units often got assigned where they were most needed and for a while his group was under the command of Field Marshal Montgomery.
Dad made sergeant in no time. Most of the men were much younger so they called him “the old man,” a title sometimes reserved for generals or senior officers. He told me, “We built bridges or tried to blow them up. We laid mines or swept for German mines. War needs a lot of construction to go with all the things we blew up.” When he returned from the war, he became a construction superintendent and built hospitals, power plants, and factories.
I have only a handful of the V-mail letters he sent home from the war. My mother died when I was 18 months old in the summer of ’42, so I was being raised by dad’s mother, a widow, then in her fifties. She would read dad’s letters to me, even though I didn’t understand much. But he always ended the letter’s with “How’s Daddy’s Little Man?” I would eagerly wait for this. And Gram would always give me a big hug right after she read it.
One letter, written in the vague terms soldiers used to get past the Army censors, written not long after the Ardennes Campaign, simply reported that he had been in combat, and this might result in a little extra pay, which he would send home if he got it. He never talked much about the war, until he was in his late 70s and his son, by then a professional historian, kept after him. He always started a story with “War is the god-damnedest thing mankind ever invented.” After a night of constant bombardment in the snowy forests of the Ardennes, dad told me that the wad of tobacco he had in his cheek had turned to powder. “No juice left,” he said.
He liked to tell the story of how in boot camp they would put heavy pack packs on you and march you until you dropped. “But when I got overseas,” he said, “they gave me a Dodge Weapons Carrier to drive and I never had to march anywhere. I drove all over Germany, once we got there.”
I had a good week at bridge (first with Joel Charpentier, second with new partner Al Marks. Pressed into bowling with two Electric Engineers on the DL, despite the ailing shoulder, I rolled a 470 series, well above my average. Former student Jim Daubenhower subbed for us; years ago, I spoke in his History class at Wheeler H.S. The holiday buffet included homemade corn pudding, Puerto Rican rice, Polish sausage and sauerkraut, and teammate Joe Piunti’s wife’s potato salad. I offered my condolences to Terry Kegebein, whose wife Charlotte passed after a brave fight. A friend named Stephanie wrote this touching message on the funeral home guest book:
Charlotte and Terry were our landlords. They’re the most loving and kind-hearted people we have ever met & consider them family. Hearing the loss of Charlotte has left us broken & speechless... she was truly a wonderful woman and both of them were a blessing to our family! Our hearts pour out to Terry during this emotional time.. endless prayers!
Liz Wuerffel posted a photo of a tree and water tower in Valpo near Northside Tap on Poplar Street along with the caption, “Consider this my Christmas tree.” She received about 80 likes and this comment from Isabel Coffey, a creative writing VU student who works at Uptown Cafe: “A very American ornament – large, industrial, obtrusive.”
drawing by Rick Brandt