The Broad is Back!

June 24, 2016

Southern Hospitality

So yes, I’m back in the US, but I still have some culture shock because now I’m living in Tennessee, in an area some folks refer to as “the buckle of the Bible Belt”. My mom’s dad was a Southerner from Virginia, but as he lived in NYC and I lived in NYC, there’s very little Southern influence in my upbringing.

We see America becoming more and more homogenized thanks to television, the internet and less poverty. But there are still regional differences.

Southerns are polite. Southern hospitality is a real thing.

People take the time to say hello to strangers. I am addressed as “ma’am” by strangers and even by acquaintances. People use please and thank you on a regular basis. And instead of calling each other “idiots,” “jerk-offs” or “stunad” (I come from the NYC area so lots of Italian influence), it’s “bless your heart”. Basically, it means the same thing (geez you’re being an idiot), but it’s so much nicer to hear. To be fair, it’s also used when people are overworked or doing something difficult, but I get it a lot at work when I trip over something or break something.

My students are polite and helpful. The young couples living on both sides of my Mom have offered to help her if she ever needs it, and I have yet to encounter someone surly behind a counter or serving in a restaurant.

Now, before you tell me that people in other parts of the country are polite, good to elders and all the rest, I actually agree with you. I’ve always encountered great folks and had good neighbors in NYC. My students were a mixed bunch, but if I ever asked for help, someone would help me. I think New Yorkers would give the shirt off their back to help people–but we can be curt, rushed, and sometimes even potty mouthed. Imagine that.

Down here, I’ve never felt rushed (of course as a  New Yorker, it’s pretty difficult to make me feel rushed. I’m usually the one doing the rushing. And I don’t hear much cussing at all. Even I’ve cleaned up my act and only drop the F-bomb around my family. And some people at work. And some young people. Mostly.

I find myself constantly trying to slow down my pace. It’s not easy, but I realize that I unintentionally fluster folks when I move or talk or speak my thoughts too quickly.

This slowness in Southerners has led to the stereotype that they are not so smart. One of the easiest ways for an actor to portray “dumb” is to assume a Southern accent. Well, bless your heart, you just go right on and believe that one. Southern folks encourage it. The easier to pull the wool over your eyes and fleece you.

The smartest person I ever knew was my grandfather, the southerner, so that’s not something I’ve ever believed. And I’ve taught local students long enough to know that there are sharp brains here. Polite and slow speaking, but never confuse that with slow thinking. I mean, really, think of all the brilliant American minds that have come from the South. Google if you must.

Many folks from other parts of the country often stereotype Southerners as “hicks” or “rednecks” or ünsophisticated or flat out ignorant and violent because many have guns, support the 2nd Amendment, hunt and fish. Many are also religious, conservative, and patriotic.

I have no problem with hunting and fishing, and many of the folks I know who engage in those sports eat what they catch and appreciate the lives they are taking. Guns are tools, not toys or weapons to be used during crimes. Is there gun violence? Yes. Are there accidental shootings or intentional murders? Oh, yes.But it’s a small portion of the gun owners who are shooting and killing.

I’m no NRA member, and I support tighter controls on who has access to guns and what type of guns people have access to. One of my favorite lines in film is spoken by Samuel L. Jackson in Tarantino’s Jackie Brown: “The AK-47. The very best there is. When you absolutely, positively got to kill every m—–f—– in the room, accept no substitutes.”

It’s a rare situation when one has to kill everyone in the room. And I understand that if we ever need to overthrow the government as a militia, an AK-47 would be handy to have. There is a conflict there for me. But then there’s Orlando and and and. I know guns don’t kill, but people do, but we allow some crazy people to have those guns. It’s a conundrum, but I don’t think it’s just a Southern problem.

I grew up in a very patriotic family. Anyone who’s read my blog in the past knows that I love my country deeply. That doesn’t mean I follow my government blindly. Being around patriotic folks doesn’t bother me. Being around blind followers of anything does. And I have seen that attitude on both sides of the Mason-Dixon.

I can be conservative about some things, but I’m incredibly liberal about others. I do believe very much on self-reliance, but I also believe in safety nets and social programs to help those who need it. So again, this isn’t something that bothers me. Some of my own New York relatives are conservative Republicans. As long as people are respectful and open to learning facts instead of soundbites, we’re good.

When it comes to religion, I have no problem with people’s religion. I have no problem with people asking me where I worship. I have had fewer problems dealing with my Christian friends questioning my beliefs than with my atheist friends questioning my beliefs. Most Christians pray for me. Most atheists mock me. Guess which I’d prefer?

I have a problem with people’s religion being codified into restrictive laws, and that’s something I’v had to deal with here, but only tangentially.I don’t teach young people, and I refuse to teach young people because of the things I’m not allowed to talk about. That’s something that bothers me, I admit.

I currently work for a domestic abuse and sexual violence prevention organization, and the folks who do programs in schools are not allowed to use “gateway words” like sex, alcohol, drinking and so on. It frustrates them and makes the kids laugh. “Gateway words”? Seriously? Religion getting in the way of science is something the rationalist in me can not understand and will not accept.That’s a big culture shock for me.

Overall, though, I enjoy the slower pace, the friendlier faces, the openness. The guns were prevalent where I can from, too, so nothing new there. Even concealed carry permits don’t really bother me. It’s not like the armed folks in NYC were wearing the guns on the outside of their clothes.

In upcoming blogs, I want to look at some of the things that flummox me and have my students laughing at me.

May 30, 2016

Memorial Day Tears

One of the guys I went to HS with, Anthony Tormey, who, after a career in the military went on to found and currently is CEO of the Leader Development Institute, did a post on facebook of the young men from our hometown who died in Vietnam.

One of those young men, who died in 1968, is buried right next to my dad, who died four years later.

As an 11 year old girl, who was pretty much traumatized by war reports and body counts on the nightly news, seeing that white military headstone, alone on a gentle hill, made me sad. I realized he was only 19. That was “grown up” to me, but still I knew it was too young to be dead.

And so every time I’d go to the cemetery to see Dad, I’d say hello. He was PFC Kenneth R. Totten. And every Memorial Day I pray for him, this unknown young man.

I soon grew older than he ever did. Now my own son is older than he ever was, but still I pray, and still I say hello when I am back in my hometown and go visit Dad’s grave.

Today Anthony said he googled about the local men killed in action, and only found a picture of one, Capt. Edward Starr, a handsome young man, also too young to die, not yet 30.

Then I googled, too, and found a memory page to young Kenneth Totten. His friends and relatives had posted–they called him Kenny. Makes sense for such a young guy.

But then I saw a picture, and all of a sudden, this young man who had been a part of my life for 44 years, sprang into focus. I burst into tears. Now he is a real person to me.

He’s so handsome in his Marine blues. So damn young.

Kenny, your sacrifice is remembered and praised and mourned.  When I pray for your eternal rest, I add my prayers may no more babies have to die in war. A futile prayer as long as humanity stays the way it is, I know, but I am the eternal optimist.

Rest in peace, sweet boy. And thank you for your sacrifice.

The picture is from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund


January 29, 2014

Thank You, Mr. Seeger

“I love my country very dearly, and I greatly resent the implication that some of the places that I have sung and some of the people that I have known, and some of my opinions, whether they are religious or philosophical, make me less of an American.” ~ Pete Seeger

America lost one of its greats this week with the passing of Pete Seeger. Not everyone will agree with me, but many of us who criticize government policies and social mores have heard the same criticism as the one he comments on in this quote.   Knowing that we we in the company of someone like Pete Seeger made it a little easier.


But criticism never shut up Pete Seeger. He fought for a more equal, just and fair America since he was a teen singing around the country during the Depression until the very last year of his long and productive life.


Politics aside, Seeger also played an important role in keeping folk music alive in America. Folks songs are an important part of a culture, and thanks to the efforts of people like Seeger, much of our heritage has been saved.


When I lived in Europe, I would often give one of Pete Seeger’s children’s albums to new parents to give them something “American” to celebrate their child’s birth. I was given one when my son was born, and we wore that tape thin singing together in the car.

July 4, 2013

A Thought about a Declaration

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.” From the Declaration of Independence of the thirteen united States of America

I really can’t say it any better than this section of a document written 237 years ago before this was the United States. We were just united. This is what we’re celebrating in America today.

And this is a very long segment from that Declaration, one of the main documents forming American culture. But when I read it today, it makes me think. And it makes me think hard.

I do think that the American form of government is a fine one. But I have to wonder if the Government itself is protecting our citizens and allowing us life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Daily I see a “long train of abuses” done in the name of the American people that are actually causing nearly irreparable harm. Change is scary. Revolution is a hard word. The men who wrote this document knew that they were taking a destiny-changing step. They were either about to change the world or die trying, quite literally. Had the revolution failed many, if not all, would be hanged as traitors.

I would truly hate to see armed conflict in this country. But I also hate to see my country run by corporations and oligarchs. And from what I see, this is what it’s become. Maybe I’m alarmist. Maybe I’m crazy. Or maybe I’m just paying attention.

I believe in the ideals of this nation. I love this nation. But when I see what’s happening to my nation, my heart breaks.

We need change, change we really can believe in. A number of times in my adult life, I’ve thought there was going to be real change. But so far all I can think is: “The king is dead. Long live the king.” A few things change, but nothing of substance.

I know this isn’t very cheery and holiday-ish. I should be barbecuing and picnicking with family. And later today I will be. But I couldn’t let this solemn and important day pass without voicing some very real concerns. If we want another 237 years–another 50 years–something has to change.


This is another blog inspired in part from Patchouli Haze, my daily inspirational blog. I realized that it had turned dire, so I moved it here and expanded.

May 27, 2013

We Must Remember

Filed under: heroes,military,New Broads,soldiers,war — by maggiec @ 10:20 am
Tags: , , , , ,

It’s Memorial Day in America, a day to honor those who fell fighting for America. When I was growing up this was a solemn occasion, and most of the time I was marching in a parade with the Girl Scouts, laying a wreath at one of the many memorial sites dotted through my town.

My family was full of veterans, but we were a lucky family. The last one to die was my grandmother’s fiance, killed in France in 1918. The man she ultimately married was torpedoed more than once during WWII but lived to tell the tale, as did all the uncles, aunts and cousins who have served all the way through Afghanistan and Iraq.

But all those who had served had lost someone, and as children we were not allowed to forget that. Yes, there would be a barbecue later in the day, but not until the solemn rites were fulfilled.

I don’t march anymore, but I do remember every year.  These days, our society has a troubled relationship with our armed forces and war in general. There are good reasons for questioning some of America’s latest wars, but never have I doubted the sacrifice of those who did go, who heeded the call and paid the ultimate price.

But as long as there are wars and our men and women are dying, I can not forget. I hope that in the future, generations will forget the horror of war and the war dead will be nothing but lines in a history book like the dead Peloponnesians are to us today.

But until then, I believe deeply that we must remember. It is only by remembering the sacrifice and the dead that people will remember the reality that is war. It’s not just like the videos. There are humans involved in the battles, not just avatars.

The day will come, someday in the far distant future, perhaps, when humans will stop fighting and realize that war is not the answer.  I tell myself this, and sometimes I actually believe it.

But as long as days like Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day are seen only as times for fun or shopping, this will never happen. The dead mean nothing to too many. And that is one of the most important reasons we must remember. So that those who died will not have died in vain.  So that there will finally, ultimately be a “war to end all wars” that doesn’t mean we destroy each other in a nuclear or biological disaster.

A time when we realize that peaceful engagement can and does work.


The first half of this essay is self-plagiarized from my other blog, Patchouli Haze, but I wanted to expand the themes here.

April 30, 2013

Tired of the Lack of Integrity

I did it again. I started writing for one blog and realized I was overlapping myself.  Instead of linking you to Patchouli Haze, I’m just going to repeat myself here. Nothing like self-plagiarism!  But the version you’ll read here is a little longer and a bit sharper in tone, I think. Instead of being optimistic, I’m slightly bitter, I fear.

So, here goes:

“The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionably integrity. Without it, no real success is possible, no matter whether it is on a section gang, a football field, in an army, or in an office.” ~ Dwight D. Eisenhower

The more I read things Eisenhower said, the more I think he had great common sense and great moral fiber. I think this is easy for me to say because I wasn’t alive when he was president. Looking at his record, I think we may have had slight differences of opinion.  But this quote? Amen, sir.

I’m thinking a lot about integrity in office today.  I’m not picking on any one sitting office holder. I’m thinking of all of them. Ethics have become “situational” in the 21st century. I’m not saying that politics have been cleaner in the past. Far from it. But I do think that when people transgressed, they knew they transgressed. There was a sense of crossing an ethical boundary for expediency’s sake.

But today, I no longer think the boundary exists.  And it’s not just politicians. I see it every day with students–I’ve been asked when it’s “okay” to steal and lie. When I say never, I am laughed at. Students routinely cheat in their homework. It is so endemic to college classrooms that I have colleagues who have given up even trying to stem it.

But those of us who are striving to “be the change we want to see,” still try to live with integrity.  I know I encourage it as a worthy value in my students.

It’s hard for them to take me seriously, though. They see politicians lying boldly. CEOs lying, sports figures lying, and not only lying, getting away with it! Being rewarded for it!

I know from class discussions that many of them pity me because I am so adamant in my sense of right and wrong.  It’s not all bad. Some I know admire me, and I appreciate that.  I don’t do it for admiration, per se, but I do take my job as role model very seriously.  I am not just teaching my students English. I am modeling a life that I think is well lived. At least I try very hard to demonstrate qualities I think are important for success.

Of course, my students and I often have a very different definition of “success”.  Mine comes from Bessie Stanley in 1905.  It is often misattributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, though he never said it. When I first saw it, it was as an Emerson quote. I’m not surprised he didn’t write it, as it’s not his style, but I still think it’s perfect:

He has achieved success who has lived well,
laughed often and loved much;
who has gained the respect of intelligent men
and the love of little children;
who has filled his niche and accomplished his task;
who has left the world better than he found it,
whether by an improved poppy, a perfect poem, or a rescued soul;
who has never lacked appreciation of earth’s beauty
or failed to express it;
who has always looked for the best in others
and given them the best he had;
whose life was an inspiration;
whose memory a benediction.

Many of my students see success as quick wealth and an easy life, and this is what they tell me themselves.  Not all of them, but enough for me to sigh heavily on many occasions.

I know I am not alone in this cry for more integrity in American public life.  And I don’t mean a false integrity hiding behind words like “Family,” “Marriage,” “Christianity”.  I mean real integrity with a value system based on not putting one’s self and one’s desires first.

It’s time for our society to start rewarding integrity more.  It may seem like an impossible task, but society has changed, improved, many times in the past. And it can again.

If we don’t start real reform soon, we are doomed as a nation. I don’t usually use such bleak words, but the hollowness will destroy things.

November 1, 2012

Voter ennui

When I came back to America mid-2007, within months I was smack in the middle of a presidential election. It started with primaries, building to a fever pitch in November. I had been away for three elections, it had been a strange 12 years, and I was raring to be involved. This blog on being an expat got temporarily hijacked as I wrote about watching and participating in the process after so long. This year? Not a peep. And I’ve decided it’s ennui.

There’s a lot said in the country about voter apathy. I am not apathetic. I do care; I care far too much, and as a result I am experiencing “a feeling of utter weariness and discontent resulting from satiety.”  And not satiety in a good way. It’s the surfeit of politicking that has done me in.

America has become so polarized, so mean-spirited, that there are very few people I care to discuss politics with. Make that dare to. Vitriol, hate, venom and absolutes are the order of the day. It’s disgusting.

Sometimes I agree with ideas on both sides. Sometimes I want to say, “I agree, but…” but there is never time to finish the thought. As soon as I start “I agree” the fireworks start.

A lot of the talk is disrespectful and downright childish. So many times I want to say, “what are you? Eight?”  I don’t, but I’m thinking it.  So instead, I am just quiet.

I’ve become completely convinced that the system needs a complete overhaul. A Constitutional Amendment level overhaul. The days of the two-party system have got to end.  There are over 300 million people in this country and around 220 million of them are eligible to vote.  Two parties–two people–representing that many people is just impossible.  Oh, sure, there are small parties. Good old Wikipedia lists five major parties: Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Greens, Constitution.  It also lists 33 minor parties.  So that’s 38 parties in the US, and for 220 million, that’s better.  But we all know there are only two viable parties.  And if I were to cast my presidential vote for even one of the “major” party candidates who was not Obama or Romney, I’d be “wasting” my vote.

If I even said the names Gary Johnson, Jill Stein, or Virgil Goode, who would recognize them? (I had to google for Goode’s name!)  I’ve explored Johnson and Stein’s candidacies, but I’ve realized, I need to play it safe.  As a New Yorker, I’m probably “okay” voting my conscience but I probably won’t.  I’m still up in the air about it.  I’ll see how I feel Tuesday.

Oh, I will vote. I always vote. It was drummed into my head as a child that we vote.  And I’m paying attention.  I just don’t want to talk about it, and I don’t want to hear about it, either.

But I am calling for an end of the two party system, an end to the antiquated Electoral College and more intellect and less emotion in American politics.  The first two can happen through Constitutional Amendments.  The last? An act of God, perhaps.

September 30, 2012

Still a Girl Scout at heart

I was explaining my theory of teaching for a class I was taking, and I stopped and laughed at myself. I sounded like a Girl Scout.

I was a Girl Scout, from Brownies to Seniors, 1968-1977. For the most part, I loved it. My leaders, Mrs. Bechtler, Mrs. Wind, Mrs Tormey, Carol Kumpost (a young woman who led my Cadette/Senior troop–we daringly got to call her Carol) all contributed to the woman I am today.  The skills I learned, the values that were upheld, are things I still use.

I spent summers at Camp Ludington, a Girl Scout camp, learning to macrame, tie dye, canoe, swim, save lives, cook on an open fire, recognize stars in the sky, get along with strangers.  These are some of the best memories of my young life.

So much of the person I am today comes from the Girl Scouts.

Out of curiosity, I looked at the pledge, and it was different.  So thanks to the internet, I found the one of the 60s.

On my honor, I will try to do my duty to God and my country, to help other people at all times, and to obey the Girl Scout laws.

Here are the laws:

I will do my best:
– to be honest
– to be fair
– to help where I am needed
– to be cheerful
– to be friendly and considerate
– to be a sister to every Girl Scout
– to respect authority
– to use resources wisely
– to protect and improve the world around me
– to show respect for myself and others through my words and actions.

OK, so I’m not overly good at the respecting authority thing, but I pay attention to authority. I question it. And it if’s righteous, I respect it.  And I admit, I show respect to authority in most situations.  I’m a Girl Scout.

And other Girl Scouts being my sister has been replaced with other women are my sisters. Men are my brothers. Or nieces and nephews when it comes to students. We’re in it together.

I think it’s a good list. I do believe in God, so doing my duty to God and my country works for me.  I do my duty every day by teaching.  And for me duty is a good word, a fine word, not a harsh word at all.   It’s difficult, but good. See? It’s the Girl Scout in me.

A lot of people attack the Girl Scouts lately for being too liberal.  I don’t have a daughter, so my only contact with Girl Scouts has been buying cookies from friends’ daughters.  So I checked out their page,

Here’s the new pledge and laws:

The Girl Scout Promise

On my honor, I will try:
To serve God and my country,
To help people at all times,
And to live by the Girl Scout Law.

The Girl Scout Law

I will do my best to be
honest and fair,
friendly and helpful,
considerate and caring,
courageous and strong, and
responsible for what I say and do,
and to
respect myself and others,
respect authority,
use resources wisely,
make the world a better place, and
be a sister to every Girl Scout.

No more duty. Not a “PC” word.  The badges are different, but then the world these girls are preparing for is different. Still wish they said duty, but that’s me.  But girls who learn to live by these laws will be stronger girls for it.

Doesn’t seem overly godless as God’s still in the pledge. But what do I know? I think I’m pretty conservative because I still believe in duty, but when I take those online tests, I come out so far liberal I’m falling off the left of the page.

But duty, responsibility, these are words that are at the heart of liberalism. Of course, I’m an 18th century scholar, so for me liberalism is the belief in liberty and equality. And at the heart of both of those ideals is responsibility. We must be responsible for ourselves and we do have a responsibility to help others. Not to cripple them, marginalize them, or disempower them, but to give them the tools they need to be free.

These are thoughts that have been coming up for me in my teaching lately. I feel it is my duty, responsibility, choose your word, to make sure my students have the tools they need to succeed in a hard world. No one out there is going to think they are special or give credit for trying. No one is going to cut them slack.  I sometimes think I’m too hard nosed. Other days I think I’m too lax.

But now I can remember that I’m a Girl Scout. I will do my best, and as long as I’m striving, I’m on the right track.

April 10, 2012

In Memoriam: The Bataan Death March at 70

My father’s uncle, Thomas O’Connor, or the Chief, as he was known to the family, lied about his age to get into the US Navy just before the outbreak of WWII. At 17, he was shipped overseas. Shortly afterwards, he was captured by the Japanese and became part of the infamous Bataan Death March, which started 70 years ago today.

The following account was written by my father’s cousin, Al O’Connor, who was a boy of eight when the war broke out. He and my dad lived with their Grandmother O’Connor, Thomas’s mother, so Al was on the scene for much of what happened, but of course, his memories are those of a child.

With his permission, I have pasted together two emails he sent to younger members of the family, but when I read them, I realized that even though this is the oral history of a family, this is something that needs to be kept alive and shared with interested people.

I haven’t edited his language, so some might find his term “Japs” offensive. I left it in because on some levels, he went back to that young wartime boy as he wrote this. The Japanese were America’s enemies, they had his uncle, and hatred simmered.

According to Al, the Chief had such hateful memories of all things Japanese that he wouldn’t even eat rice pudding for the rest of his life.

My memories of the Chief are all good—a tall fair man who smoked turkeys in a converted oil barrel. Quiet, red-faced, nice to me, but probably not one to cross. He died in 1990 when I was pregnant with my son, so I missed his funeral. He would have been in his mid-60s. So young, but since he survived Bataan and lived another 48 years, that was a ripe old age.

And now, my cousin, Al O’Connor


The Chief was a crew member aboard a submarine tender, the U.S.S.Canopus. Imagine being aboard a submarine tender in the middle of Manila Bay when some bad guys started a war! You are aboard a ship that is not only a floating arsenal with torpedoes and ammo for deck guns but also a floating supermarket! A ship made to resupply submarines at sea, loaded with clothing, munitions and food! This vessel had cargo of frozen meat, vegetables and dairy products. The Canopus was a floating super market! The wise Captain of this vessel, after a few air attacks, wisely chose to play dead. He flooded a few compartment to give the ship a list, then he arranged to burn rubber to make black smoke. The result was to appear as a derelict in the harbor, bent over and smoking. The result was no more air attacks!
Now imagine how Tom felt when ordered to go ashore and act as infantry. Tom told me how when the Japs attacked his position he tossed a hand grenade which was tossed back at him (he did not hold it long enough before tossing). It exploded and he wound up with shrapnel in his rear end, which was removed when the war ended.
Information [about the Chief’s time as a POW] is sketchy. Grandma O’Connor [his mother] did receive a telegram advising her that Tom was a prisoner of the Japanese. During the war, she received at least three post cards from Tom via the International Red Cross. These cards were a multiple choice type card. Check the box and sign it. I am well, Not well, I am hospitalized, that type of stuff, can’t recall it all. It was very vague but there was a space where the prisoner could write a sentence. Tom wrote, “I am well, and in as good shape as Arthur Barret.” Grandma took that to mean he was on the thin side. Also during the war there was a time when Grandma got a phone call from somewhere from a HAM Radio guy telling her he had intercepted a radio broadcast from the Japanese who had allowed some prisoners to speak on the radio. One of them was Tom and his message was a sort of Hello Mom, I’M ok.
Tom was moved from the Philippines to Osaka, Japan. Prisoners were stuffed into the holds of three ships with little food or water; it was like an oven. Two of the ships were sunk by our forces as they were not marked as POW ships. The Japs did not open the hatches so the prisoners went down with the ships; a few that did get out were gunned down in the water by the Japs.

Once in Japan, Tom was put to work as a lumberjack. He told me about a day when a young Jap boy on a bicycle rode by where the prisoners were doing some work on a bridge. The boy was so intent on looking at the prisoners that he misjudged where he was headed and wound up in the drink. Tom dove in the river and saved the buy. After that, the Japs gave Tom a Red Cross Parcel of which they had a warehouse full.
As the war was ending, B-29 bombers after their runs would sometimes fly low over the POW camps and drop canned fruit on the prison along with vitamin pills. The understanding was that if the cans fell inside the wire it was for the POWs, outside the wire it was for the Japs. Tom told me he saw Japs lying on their bellies lapping at a can of peaches that had burst open when it hit the ground.

Back in the Philippines, Tom had escaped once with another fellow. They floated on a log to another Island on a foggy night but were picked up by a Jap patrol boat and returned to camp. The POWs were doing well on the vitamins dropped to them by the B-29s. The Japs who were always hungry and malnutritioned noticed this and demanded their share of vitamins. So a prison Industry was born. The prisoners made vitamin pills out of plaster from the walls of their huts and sold them to the guards for food.

When the day of liberation arrived, the Jap Commander called an assembly of all the Prisoners and announced, “The war has ended and Gentlemen you are free”. American Paratroopers descended on the camp to maintain order. Tom was amazed at them, big, healthy guys in uniforms he did not recognize. Nothing like the skeletal POWs! On the way home on a Hospital ship, they were fattened up, had medical and dental attention. When Tom came home he was in a Marine uniform instead of a Navy uniform. I never knew why. After the war Tom spent some time at a Naval Hospital. Eventually he returned to active duty in the Navy as a Chief.


So, that is a slice of the story of my great uncle, Thomas “The Chief” O’Connor, former POW and survivor of the infamous Bataan Death March.  There are no details of the actual march as that was something that I was told he never spoke of.  In fact, I’m surprised and pleased that my cousin Al has so much detail.  My father would have known these things as well because he was there on the scene with Al, but my father died when I was a child, when he was 39, so almost all of his memories are lost to us. And my younger aunts and uncles were either infants during the war or were post war babies. As with many families, bad times were not really spoken of once they were past, so thanks to Al, we have these stories, but he was just a boy, and there aren’t many older than him who are left. It might be a cultural stereotype, but I do know that the Irish are very good at burying the bad.  This might work well for family sanity, but it’s a great loss to history.

There are very few of the survivors left now, as so few survived, and of those who did, many faced health problems in connection with their imprisonment, and even the youngest would be in their 80s now anyway. But the world needs to remember. And I offer my thanks to the sacrifice of those who died and those who lived, which by all accounts, was the much harder path.  Theirs was a blood sacrifice that must never be forgotten.

I’m proud of my great uncle, both for having the tenacity to survive, but also for being human enough to save a child, even the child of his enemy. To me, that speaks to his character more than survival.

Because of Uncle Tom, I’ve grown up knowing a little about Bataan, but I fear it’s being forgotten.  World War II, something very real to me growing up in the 60s as I was surrounded by a family of veterans, to my students is nothing more than a war from the middle of the last century, no more real to them than the Civil War was to me.  This is the nature of history. For my Virginian grandfather the War of Northern Aggression, or the Civil War to history books, was a real thing to him, though born 25 years after its end, as he was surrounded by those who had lived through it.

To learn more about Bataan, PBS provides some details and memories in the show The American Experience and there are a number of US history sites on line with information.  A news story from a memorial yesterday gives words of a few survivors who gathered in Sante Fe.

July 3, 2009

Proud to be an American? Perhaps

Filed under: American culture,New Broads,patriotism — by maggiec @ 2:23 pm
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Today on Facebook, a friend posted the question: “So tell me, why are you proud to be an American?”

Because I’m either contrary or a precise user of words, I initially wrote this:

“I don’t take pride in being an American, because that would be like being proud of being white or a woman or Irish-American. I was born that way. BUT, I love my country fiercely because it is, in theory, a republic of virtue, striving to uphold the highest ideals of Western Humanism: freedom, liberty, responsibility, charity. We fail too many times because America is made of humans, but at least we’re trying. I’ve lived around the world and seen other countries. I know this country is hated, envied, feared and loved. I know my country has done things in the past of which I am not proud at all. But I continue to love my country because we are the great experiment. Sometimes we fail, but then we keep trying. And because I love my country, I hold it to the highest standards. Like many in America’s history, I am an idealist. We also have the best possible government humans can design, I think. Our administrations aren’t all that great far too many times, but the design is brilliant.

And I wouldn’t NOT be an American ever. I’ve met lots of Americans in my time overseas who gave up their American citizenship. I would never ever do that. Maybe it’s how I use the word “proud”. I tend to be proud of accomplishments. I am proud that I am an active participant in the experiment that is America. Uh-oh, I’ve got too much to say on this to post here. I’m going to post on my blog.”

And so here I am.

I think it’s proud that I was reacting to.  But anyone who’s read me for a while knows I love America.  That’s one of the reasons I write.

Since I also teach American Cultural Studies in Sweden, I’m taking a short cut here and posting a lecture I did in Sweden.  So here it goes:

Many Europeans wags have said that there is no such thing as American culture, that it’s an oxymoron like military intelligence and plastic glasses. Or at the very most, it’s nothing but a conglomeration of pop culture – Barbie, Campbell’s Soup and the Brady Bunch. That always burns my biscuits, since America has a great cultural heritage. Yes, much of it was brought over from the Old World, but it melded with the New. The Constitution of the United States is a prime example. It blends the ideals of John Locke, the great British philosopher with the ideals and format of the Constitution of the Iroquois Nation, something that was in place and working even in pre-colonial times.

For an interesting look at the documents important to the culture of our government, and indeed, our culture, I recommend the page maintained by the University of Oklahoma’s College of Law. There you’ll find links to important documents from the Magna Carta to the 2009 Inaugural Address. And you’ll also find the documents that have blended in to create American culture.

There’s the rousing speech Patrick Henry gave in 1775, ending with the famous words, “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!” There’s the Declaration of Independence, the writings of Ben Franklin and the Federalist Papers.

Moving on in history, the page includes links to the short but extremely moving Gettysburg Address.  What American can’t recite its opening lines, “”Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

And there are more documents – the Emancipation Proclamation, Martin Luther King’s stirring I Have a Dream speech, even things as seemingly mundane as the lyrics to Yankee Doodle Dandy and The Battle Hymn of the Republic.

One of the most moving documents I found there was President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address. I highly recommend reading it, for it is as powerful and as timely today as it was on that January morning in 1961. I’m sure you know it by its famous line: “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.

But it goes on:

“My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

“Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”

Heady stuff, all of this. It’s wonderful, stirring rhetoric, and I recommend it. Perhaps it’s not always easy to read, but nothing worthwhile is easy, right?

I get back to the question: “Why am I who I am?”  I find that as a broad abroad, with a kid abroad, it’s something I ask more and more. What makes me the person I am? What cultural references inform the way I see the world?

Most Americans never read all this material, but it’s there in our subconscious. We got highlights in history class and can quote King, Kennedy, Jefferson and Franklin without even stopping to think about it. I didn’t read Ralph Waldo Emerson until I was in graduate school, but as soon as I read his essays on education I understood American schools.

Living abroad has changed my worldview. That was inevitable. But my core values haven’t been changed. I still believe in the same things I believed in when I lived in America.

This musing in turn leads me to America and the Great American Experiment. How have we managed to become such a unified country when for the past 227 years we’ve been swept by wave after wave of immigrants? Not only have we managed, we’ve done pretty well. It’s our immigrants that make us great, just as it’s something that weakens us. Not the immigrants, per se, but our reaction to them. Every time we as a nation do something racist or xenophobic towards our immigrants, we weaken America as a whole, the ideal that is America.

The American Dream: The term was first used by James Truslow Adams in his book The Epic of America which was written in 1931. He states: “The American Dream is “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of t he fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”

Some say, that the American Dream has become the pursuit of material prosperity – that people work more hours to get bigger cars, fancier homes, the fruits of prosperity for their families – but have less time to enjoy their prosperity. Others say that the American Dream is beyond the grasp of the working poor who must work two jobs to insure their family’s survival. Yet others look toward a new American Dream with less focus on financial gain and more emphasis on living a simple, fulfilling life.

Thomas Wolfe said, “…to every man, regardless of his birth, his shining, golden opportunity ….the right to live, to work, to be himself, and to become whatever thing his manhood and his vision can combine to make him.”

Core Values

I talk about American core values, but what do I mean by that phrase?  A core value is a value that is an integral part of a belief system.  A Christian core value is that Christ is the Messiah.

Americans themselves debate on our “core values,” but there are some that we all believe.  It’s the interpretations that vary.

Liberty is one.  This is so important to Americans that we have Lady Liberty at our border.

People visit this monument, and get choked up when they see it, not because it’s beautiful art.  But because we believe in what she stands for.

I was trying to list the others and was having trouble making it clear.  Then I found this on a blog (got to love the Net).

A while back, I saw a presentation by public opinion researcher John Russonello, who has advised many progressive organizations on messaging and framing.

Russonello lists only a few core values, and divides them into two tiers.

Primary values * individual responsibility * family security * honesty * fairness * freedom * work * spirituality

Secondary values * responsibility to help others * compassion * personal fulfillment * respect for authority * love of country (Jom Stalh’s Journal)

So for all these reasons I love America. I’m proud of America because it tries. It doesn’t always get it, but we strive, and that’s half the battle.

Note on this text: I am an inveterate recycler of my own writing.  I had forgotten that much of this lecture came from the post Multicultural Children, which is also on this site.  It you’re copying from yourself, is it still plagiarism?

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