Thursday, April 17, 2008

Washington Journal

In Search of a Sense of Place
Washington Journal: The Union Jack and Other Emblems
March 5, 2008

“One difference between the West and the South, I came to realize in 1970, was this: in the South they remained convinced that they had bloodied their land with history. In California we did not believe that history could bloody the land, or even touch it.”

So wrote Joan Didion in Where I Was From, a deeply personal history of California.

Back in June I drove down to Charlottesville, Virginia for a wedding, which took place in a large red brick Episcopal Church near the campus of the University of Virginia. I spent the night at a motel. In the morning, I walked around the famous old red-brick porticoed campus designed by Jefferson and justly celebrated since. Standing in front of the rotunda one looks past receding columns of student residences towards the southwest. It is like a miniature National Mall or Versailles, made all the more beautiful by being smaller and quite functional. Students still live here and I presume it is a very dear place to them during their college years and for the long years of remembrance afterward. I know that there are plenty of busy streets and highways not far beyond the horizon, which is partially blocked by a large building, but as the grassy lawn sweeps gradually downhill it leads the imagination into the infinitude of the American west.

I noticed some plaques on the wall of the rotunda building, monuments to the students of the University who had died in the Civil War. Their names were listed in alphabetical order with a quotation at the bottom:

“They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old; age shall not weary them nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.”

It touched something deep within me, but I was unable to place it. I inquired of the student guides within. Not a clue. Look it up on the web, they suggested, motioning to a nearby screen and keyboard. It is from For the Fallen by Laurence Binyon, not a southerner at all, but one of the British World War I poets. He was too old to serve in the army, but he visited the front and served in the Red Cross. He wrote For the Fallen in 1914 and it is still used in services of remembrance by the many countries of the British Commonwealth, as I learned when I was a university student in Canterbury over thirty years ago.

I was working as a volunteer for one of the drug crisis centers that sprang up like mushrooms in those years and somehow got the assignment of contacting a veterans group that had some experience in counseling shell-shocked and lonely veterans. So one warm spring evening I found my way into a church basement in that ancient town to talk to these aging veterans about my work with teenagers freaked out on LSD and etc. They listened attentively, responded in some fashion that I forget, thanked me for coming and asked me to join them in their closing prayer. We stood, they lit some candles, my teenage brain came to some sort of stillness, and they recited, slowly, deliberately:

“They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old; age shall not weary them nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them,” the last words intoned loudly and deliberately.

They blew out the candles.

I slowly walked up the hill to my residence hall, taking in the view at dusk of Canterbury Cathedral below. Birds twittered. Church bells rang. It was spring of 1972. The Vietnam War was sputtering to a conclusion. Apparently these guys had been meeting regularly since 1918 to pray and care for anyone who needed help. Their war ended over fifty years ago, and there was yet another war after that. They had been dodging bullets and artillery shells at age 19, while my contemporaries and I were dodging the draft and drug-induced demons.

Later that spring a friend and I hitch-hiked back to Canterbury from London and caught a ride with a lorry driver. He remarked matter-of-factly at one point that his entire unit was wiped out in Normandy, except, obviously, for him. We shook his hand when he left us off by the Norman walls that still encircle the city.

No question about Europe being bloodied with history; or Washington, south of the Mason-Dixon Line, where a general’s statue graces every traffic circle, where the crocusses and daffodils are blooming. In my study overlooking the National Cathedral, I keep thinking about the Royal Navy Ensign flying above HMS Rodney and HMS King George V as they destroyed the Bismarck in May of 1941. The Royal Navy Ensign is a red Cross of Saint George on a white flag, with a Union Jack in the upper left quadrant, not unlike the banner that we often see these days fluttering in front of an Episcopal church. What difference does a symbol make?

A red cross in use since the Crusades, if not before, versus a swastika, a symbol found in many cultures, used by German nativist groups in the late 19th Century, then borrowed or absorbed by the Nazi Party and used as a battle flag. The German armed forces in World War II also used the traditional black iron cross as a personal decoration and identification device on its vehicles, but the symbol of choice for parades, ships, planes and tanks was the swastika. The word “swastika” comes from the Sanskrit, I have read, and simply means “good luck.” Rudyard Kipling used the symbol as decorations for his book covers until the Nazis started using it.

An anti-Christian regime that wanted to remake history confronted the European nation that was most proud of its ancient heritage, still ruled by a king, whose ships flew an ancient Christian emblem, yet were strong and modern enough to keep the German Navy at bay.

His Majesty’s ships had to break off the engagement that distant morning in May because they were running out of fuel and because the firing of their enormous guns was threatening to shake the ships apart. They fired over 2,000 shells at the Bismarck. Somewhere around 500 of them found their mark, leaving the ship a smoking ruin. The Nazi captain never struck his colors. Destroyers moved in to sink it with torpedoes, but a recent investigation of the hulk on the ocean floor revealed that the ship finally sank because it was scuttled. The Nazi crew opened up the valves to let in the sea before abandoning ship.

British cruisers moved in to pick up the survivors, some 200, then quickly departed for fear of submarines. Some historians have criticized the British commanders for not lingering longer. After sinking the battleship Scharnhorst in waters off of northern Norway in December of 1943, the British could rescue only 36 out almost 2,000 crew members. Conditions then were even worse: a boiling pitch-black sea in the middle of winter. It is worth noting that German submarines or surface ships during World War II rarely picked up anybody. They offered no quarter and fought until they sank.

The captain of the Scharnhorst decided to go down with guns blazing, which sounds in a way admirable until one learns that his radar had been knocked out and all his gunnery officers could do was fire at muzzle flashes. They did virtually no damage. The radar-guided British guns eventually found the range and literally broke the Scharnhorst in two, whereupon it sank within minutes.

Afterward, Admiral Fraser said to his officers on board HMS Duke of York: "Gentlemen, the battle against Scharnhorst has ended in victory for us. I hope that if any of you are ever called upon to lead a ship into action against an opponent many times superior, you will command your ship as gallantly as Scharnhorst was commanded today.”

What difference do flags and national anthems make? Would the British Captain and crew have been as courteous, as chivalrous without an ancient Christian symbol fluttering above their heads? Would the Second World War have come to as satisfactory a conclusion without President Roosevelt, Prime Minister Churchill and ship’s company singing hymns that they learned in school on board HMS Prince of Wales off the coast of Newfoundland in 1941?

During World War II, over 1 million agents reported to British intelligence, people from every country in Europe and every continent on earth. They all knew that the English-speaking world offered them a far better deal than what the Germans and Japanese had in mind. Every time a Nazi raider left its moorings in a Norwegian fjord, the Norwegians relayed the news to London.

In the end, a sense of fair play may be the best thing we have to offer a world that is bloodied with history.

California Journal

In Search of a Sense of Place
California Journal
November 12, 2007

I arrived in California again in late October. While I have spent the last twenty years living on one coast or the other, over the past couple of years I have developed a truly bi-coastal life. Home base is still an apartment on the highest point of land in Washington, but for several months each year I become a migrant worker of sorts and practice massage in beautiful places in California.

I found a classy yoga studio and restaurant (yoga upstairs, restaurant downstairs) in downtown Napa (Napa is a city, a county, a river, a valley and the second most visited place in California after Disneyland), where, it so happens, every Thursday night there is yoga class followed by dinner, family-style at a great long table. The young chef rolled out roasted Jerusalem artichokes to start with, followed by an arugula (urugla? aroogla?) - persimmon salad with shaved parmesan.

Geez, just three days in California and I’m eating stuff I don’t even know how to SPELL.

Then several enormous round platters appeared: radish salad (three kinds of radishes, or was it four? Five?). Thin ones, thick ones sliced into long curlicues, a red one, a black one, plus some little green things. I think. Next came great shallow bowls of roasted Brussels sprouts in a dark, yummy sauce, surrounded by grits; not polenta, but white, thick, viscous, creamy gree-its. Lordy.

What next? Thin-crust pizza. Accompanied by local wines, of course. I had a light pinot grigio and a spicy zinfandel, both of which complemented everything.

Dessert? Dessert: various sorbets and a lime tart with orange-pomegranate sauce.

The great architecture historian and critic Vincent Scully wrote of the old Pennsylvania Station in New York, that through its arches, modeled on the baths of Caracalla, one entered New York City like a god. In California,the food and wine are godly enough.

I dined with some friendly people mostly in my age range, somewhere around fifty, including a gentleman who looked so much like New York Mayor Bloomberg that I had to remark on it. Everyone notices, he said.

Several of them had been to Burning Man.

Burning Man?

A great Woodstock festival, sans rain, held in the Nevada desert every September. Pack everything in, pack everything out. A city in the middle of nowhere appears, then disappears after three or four days, during which everyone there is a work of art, or gets to act like one. Everything is free. The climax is the burning of an immense effigy of no one in particular, hence the name.

I announced my recent arrival from Washington. People shook their heads, grimaced, scowled, made gestures with their hands as if waving away insects, or bad smells. Can you go back there and change it?, someone asked. Well, welcome, someone else said, as more food appeared and smiles returned. These people seemed happy as clams in the wine country and apparently hadn’t thought of moving anywhere else; perhaps Hawaii.

Now that I’m in a good mood, and having referred to the unpopularity of Washington, I would like to amend my last missive, which, in its early redaction, was rather embittered in tone, if not outright Manichaean. I added the following paragraph to balance things out a bit:

Yet unselfish acts occasionally take place in this city. The Bush administration announced stronger sanctions against and froze the assets of the weird generals who run Burma. President Bush and members of Congress warmly welcomed the Dalai Lama and gave him a medal, which left the Chinese government fuming. Acts like this remind us that freedom is still the name of the game in Washington, and throughout America. Our government, like all government, everywhere, makes compromises. Likewise, it makes clear occasionally what it ultimately values. In this country, it’s freedom.

This seems worth repeating on Veteran’s Day.

Now how DO you spell “arugula”? And what IS it, anyway? Let’s see. I think I have Hoefnagel’s Comprehensive Guide to Edible Plants, Fifteenth Edition, 2005, lying around here somewhere . . .


Arugula: South Pacific herbaceous plant related to the common dandelion, with soft furry leaves, favored by the famous south seas Oogle Bird for making its nest. The happy cry of the bird “oogle, oogle, oogle,” while nesting gave both plant and bird their names. 19th century Christian missionaries cultivated the plant, hybridized it into its current form and transplanted it in Europe. In the process they got rid of the furry texture but retained its wonderfully astringent flavor. German botanists theorized that it was one of the first plants on earth, hence adding the prefix ur- and giving us the current pronunciation, “ur-oogle-a,” meaning the original or primordial “oogla”(Germans pronounce the final “e.”) Late Twentieth Century marketing consultants hired by the International Uroogle Growers Association concluded that the plant needed a further Europeanizing of its spelling for the English-speaking market (double o’s did not pass with a number of focus groups, neither did the initial “u” or final, enunciated “e”), which gives us the current, “arugula,” which looked vaguely Italian and thus excellent for sales to international food fanciers; although this, like all English spellings, is contested.

Well, whaddya know?