Just different…

I’m old enough to have caught the tail end of what could be called “local retail.” When I was a kid even our small town of a few hundred had what in generations past would have been called a dry good store. My home town wasn’t big enough to justify its own hardware store, but the next town of any size in either direction along the George’s Creek valley had one – Pritchard’s in Frostburg anchored the central stretch of Main Street, Ternent’s in Coney sat (where it still does business) at the center of town on Jackson Street. Ames provided a primitive “big box” style of retail while G.C. Murphy represented the last bastion of traditional American department stores. Murphy’s, though, was “in town” and usually involved a special trip. You didn’t end up there to pick something up on a whim.

There was a proper 1980’s mall, of course, decorated in shades of beige with it’s glass dome and sunken fountain centerpiece. It was anchored by JC Penny, The Bon Ton / Eyerly’s, K-mart, and Sears.

I’m taking this stroll down memory lane because of all these stores – many of them one-time giants of American retail, only a handful remain. Ternent’s lives still, I suspect as much due to the loyalty of the surrounding community (and inconvenience of making the 30 minute one-way drive to the next closest hardware store) as anything else. JC Penny creaks along providing the area with “something that isn’t Walmart. Now Sears has filed for bankruptcy protection. Its lone store back home isn’t on the closure list this time, but I don’t think anyone really expects it will last forever or even that it will last long. It’s only a matter of time before Sears too becomes part of consumer history.

Protected here by my walls of books and largely tucked away from people to the extent I can manage, it’s easy to dismiss just how much the world has changed in the last 30 or 40 years. A guy I use to work for was fond of saying that on average “it’s not better or worse, it’s just different.” It’s a nice sound bite and maybe it’s even true. But I can tell you without a moment’s shame that the older I get the less interest I have in “different” overall. Slowly, the words “different” and “worse” feel like they’re becoming synonymous.

I know intellectually that bankruptcy delivers creative destruction to the marketplace, but I’d consider it an awfully big favor if we could somehow avoid sweeping away all vestiges of the world that was.

We remember…

I remember growing up hearing stories about where people in my parent’s generation were when President Kennedy was assassinated. My grandparent’s generation could tell you where they were on a Sunday in December when news broke of a sneak attack on America’s fleet in the Pacific. To me, those dates and names were pages in a history book. I was too young then to appreciate that these events weren’t dusty history to the men and women who lived through them. They were visceral, living parts of their life’s narrative.

As each year we’re further removed from the shock and disbelief of a September morning. For more and more of our citizens, September 11th is just one more of those dates that mark an historical reference point rather than a life experience. For those of us who lived through it and the days that followed, though, I have an increasing suspicion that the day will always feel a bit like current events – a recent memory, still very much alive and tangible.

The stories of where we were, what we were doing, and who we were with will probably always be seared into our individual and collective memories for as long as one of us remains to tell it. The confusion at first report, the wide mouthed disbelief at seeing the second plan burrowing in, the continuous loop of smoke rising from the Pentagon, and two buildings that crumbled in front of us are were a clarion call to arms, to unity, and to remind us that our long experiment in democracy was and remains surrounded by those who would snuff it out.

Seventeen years on, it’s a punch to the gut I can feel just as strongly today as I did all those years ago. Over all the long years from then to now, we sought justice and rough vengeance, we rebuilt, thousands of families found the internal fortitude to go on living and endure, but most important, on this day and always, we remember.

The so what…

For the last few days I’ve seen a lot of people asking why anyone cares about a Royal wedding – or really why do we here in the States care at all about the Royal Family.

I can’t answer that question as far as why you should be interested, but as for me, I’m an unapologetic, unreconstructed Anglophile. I watched because no one does pomp and ceremony like the British. Even a “small” private wedding (i.e. not an official State occasion) demands a herculean marvel of planning. Trust me, as a glorified wedding planner myself I know these things.

So much of what makes the British who they are also makes we Americans who we are. Our shared past as mother country and far off colony is imprinted on our national DNA – the shared history, laws, and blood ties are those things that bind us together across the Atlantic.

Lastly, as a life-long student of history, I’m in awe of an institution that stretches back in an (almost) unbroken succession for over a thousand years. From our place here at the bleeding edge of the 21st century, I find nearly anything that stands the test of millennia something of remarkable interest.

If you think of it as just a wedding between some minor foreign prince and a Hollywood starlet, I can see why you’re not interested. But frankly, the spectacle was worth watching just to get an extended look at the architecture and design of Windsor Castle and the St. George’s Chapel. The fact that it put a large part of the pomp, pageantry, and nobility of the United Kingdom on display for the camera is just a perk.

So, in conclusion, God Save The Queen.

There will be no rending of garments here…

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The Washington Post ran an editorial recently that went to great pains to denounce Sir Winston Churchill as a genocidal despot in the same vein as Stalin and Hitler. I’m not going to link to it as a matter of principle. It’s bad enough that I gave them the benefit of my click. I don’t want to be directly responsible for any others. Im satisfied enough calling it an agenda driven hatchet job along the same lines as those penned by scads of contemporary revisionists who want everyone to trip over themselves apologizing for history.

There will be no apologies here. I will not gnash my teeth nor rend my garments. I’m simply unwilling to suspend disbelief and malign the clarion voice that stood alone and rallied the world to the defense of Western democracy in it’s most endangered moment.

Was he a man of his time, a voice for empire in the imperial age? Yes, of course. Did he advocate actions that, from our oh so enlightened vantage point deep into the 21st century, strike a sour note? Yes. Was he a man full of human faults and failings? Undoubtedly.

Still, taken all in all, if I were pushed deep into a corner and could have only one man rise to my defense, I would take the lionhearted Churchill over the poisoned pen editorialist any day of the week and twice on St. George’s Day.

God Save the Queen.

Ordeal and hope…

 
I just finished reading the second volume of Forrest Pogue’s monumental biography of George Marshall. At least two nights of reading featured the weeks immediately preceding and following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It’s like being a spectator to a train wreck – You can see the thousands of tons of steel barreling down the track at a high rate of speed but there’s way to slow down and no off ramp and the people around the bend have no idea what’s heading their way.

Sometimes hindsight is infuriating – knowing that what the planners in Washington were thinking made perfect sense based on what they knew at the time, but also knowing how history was about to play out. I ended up needing to give the book a rest when I caught myself grinding my teeth to the point of real, physical pain.

I wanted to reach back through history, grab the Army Staff by the lapels and shake them. I wanted to scream in exasperation at a story that only makes complete sense when all the pieces are put in place after the fact. It’s not the Philippines! For God’s sake they want to blunt the fleet! Read the cable! Understand!

But the bombs fall and the fleet, still at anchor, is decimated. You can’t change history.

I’ve always found it easy enough to disappear into a world of fiction and lose myself. It’s a rare writer than can present history in a way that also lets you lose yourself into those moments. Forrest Pogue clearly doesn’t need my accolades, because his work speaks for itself. Even so, here is a writer who finds a way to make what could be dull, dry stuff jump off the page larger than life. I’m simply in awe.