Archive for Books

Important Perspective…

Monday’s catastrophic fire inside the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, terrible as it was, might just allow us to step back from the 24-hour news cycle and reflect on the longer horizon of human history. The fire damage to this iconic structure provides us an opportunity to look at a longer horizon and set other events in perspective. There is little doubt that the church will be rebuilt and restored. Even as the embers were still glowing, President Emmanuel Macron was promising to rebuild. This is not the first time its existence has been in peril. With luck, however, it may be the last. read more

Cultural Placeholders…

I’ve been thinking about generational differences lately and how each generation anchors itself with a set of creative icons, go-to figures, that serve as reference points on a timeline of cultural awareness.

What do you say or who do you think of when people ask you for your favorite movie, book, painting, or rock group? Who’s on that playlist? What music pops to mind? What paintings do you think of? What writers do you refer to and re-read? How you answer those questions most likely depends on the artistic/creative imprinting of your generation.  read more

Rite of Passage…

Every culture has rites of passage, those ceremonies or events that mark important transitions in a person’s life. Birth, puberty, and death are generic passages. Baptisms, bar mitzvahs, graduations, and weddings are more specific, but the most important traditional rite across all societies is the passage from childhood or youth to adult. Native American boys endured strenuous ceremonial tests to prove their manhood while African girls often suffer grisly genital mutilation to cross over. Most modern societies have less ritualistic rites to mark important the transition.

The first tests in my personal rite of passage were surviving Marine Corps Officer Candidate Class at Quantico, Virginia and Naval flight training in Florida and Texas. When the golden wings of a Naval Aviator were pinned on, I thought that was it. I was puffed up and ready to go. All the boxes were checked, all the tests passed, and Jack Jet was set to roll.

But, that wasn’t “it.” The rite of passage wasn’t complete until a true American hero scolded my sorry ass and made me grow up.

For years, since my time as a Marine pilot, I’ve entertained friends by telling the story of my last flight on active duty. The length and drama of the story often depends on the number of tequila shots I’ve had, but at the time I was flying the F8 Crusader at MCAS El Toro, loving the airplane and the esprit de corps of my squadron mates. We were young, full of testosterone, and had a self-confidence that came from flying the world’s hottest fighter at speeds up to 1000 mph. Pretty heady stuff for a 23-year-old.

In August of 1962 I was just wrapping up my active duty obligation and about to start law school. On that last day at El Toro I was scheduled for an air-to-air tactics sortie with a squadron mate – a dogfight – the thing we most loved to do. As we were briefing for the flight, we learned that one of the aircraft was down for maintenance and the flight was going to be canceled. We were both disappointed, but, the Ops officer intervened and told me to take the good plane out alone and “wring it out and have some fun.” This was his gift to me on my last day in the squadron.

Without going into detail, I did “have some fun,” flying high, low, and everyplace in between – enough fun that when I returned to the base, Ops radioed to warn me that the skipper was pissed, and staff cars were pulling into the squadron parking lot in droves.

The next day the Santa Ana Register reported an F8 Crusader was seen “at car top level on 17th Street” and I carried that clipping around in my wallet until it turned from white to yellow and eventually to powder. Local citizens reported an airplane flying through backyards and one threatened to sue because the airplane had singed the leaves on his orange tree.

It was the beginning of a miserable self-inflicted three weeks for me. I was held on active duty, kind of like house-arrest, while “the episode” was under investigation and a decision made about whether a court-martial was the appropriate punishment. All complainants were to be interviewed and their stories duly recorded.

In the end, the investigating officer recommended a formal 40-page Letter of Reprimand, forfeiture of $180 ($1530 in today’s dollars) fine, and indefinite grounding, no more flying, but no court-martial.

I was released from active duty with barely enough time to load the car and drive to Berkeley for the start of school. I had been planning to pay for school by flying with the Marine Reserve squadron at Alameda, but the grounding kept me from joining the squadron. Money was so tight that I lived on Kraft Mac and Cheese and an apple a day ($17 worth) the last month of my first year in school, but in June my grounding ended and I was allowed to resume flying with an A4 squadron at Alameda.

It’s always fun to tell the story, but over the years and many moves the Letter of Reprimand was lost. Last summer a squadron mate told me how to get a copy, and last week it showed up in my mailbox.

I remembered it as something like the police report in Alice’s Restaurant, complete with diagrams, maps with arrows, and hyperbolic descriptions of “willful and wanton disregard for human life” etc. What I found was a well-documented description of my airborne transgressions along with my own apology for embarrassing the service and putting lives in danger. The story is still funny, but I had a humbling epiphany when I read through the file and decided to Google the name of the steely-eyed general who signed and delivered the Letter.

General J. P. Condon was the Commanding Officer of the 3rd Marine Air Wing, and it was he who summoned me to receive the Letter of Reprimand. I arrived at base headquarters, and after what seemed like an eternity his adjutant told me the General was ready. I entered his office and had to walk across what seemed like an acre of carpet to stand in front of his desk. My heart was pounding when he looked up. His elbows were on the desk and his gnarled hands were clasped under his chin. He paused and stared at me before delivering the line I will never forget, “Son, that shit when out with V-J Day.”

That was it. He handed the Letter of Reprimand and returned to the paperwork on his desk. I said, “Yes sir” took the Letter, did an about face, and left his office. I never saw him again, but I will never forget thinking he looked like a movie general – someone out of central casting – blue eyes, close-cropped white hair, leathery brown face, and two big stars on his collar.

At the time, I didn’t fully appreciate what General John P. Condon had done for me. I thought he was simply going through the pro forma steps of scolding a junior officer for engaging in a stupid ill-conceived testosterone fueled “episode.” The truth is he saved my sorry ass.

At first, I thought the Captain in charge of the investigation was kidding when he mentioned the possibility of a court-martial, but he wasn’t. General Condon could have ruined my life. Maybe he saw a version of his younger self in me –young, brash, and aggressive – something he thought a Marine fighter pilot should be that dictated the choice of the reprimand rather than court-martial. Or maybe he may simply wanted to get rid of me and hoped a Letter of Reprimand would take care of the matter at Marine Corps headquarters and the Santa Ana Register.

What I didn’t know, quaking before his desk, is that I was in the presence of greatness. I didn’t realize that Major General J.P. Condon was a true American hero, and as a young Commanding Officer in a Corsair squadron on Guadalcanal, it was Major Condon who developed the plan that succeeded in intercepting and shooting down Admiral Yamamoto, Japan’s Navy Minister and Commander of the Japanese fleet, a turning point in WWII, and that later on that he commanded a Marine Air Group at Okinawa during the last major battle of WWII or that in Korea he commanded the last Marine Air Wing to fly the Corsair and transition to the jets in combat.

These are pictures of John Pomeroy Condon, USMC. The picture on the far left is Condon as a 1st Lt., about the same age and rank I was when I flew through Santa Ana. On the far right is General Condon before his hair turned white and he handed me the Letter, and in the middle is Major J.P. Condon when he was serving in the Pacific and credited with bringing down Admiral Yamamoto’s airplane.

General Condon retired from the Marine Corps in 1962 shortly after delivering his “Son, that shit went out with V-J Day” showstopper line to 1st Lt. John D. Bernard. Following his Marine retirement he became an executive with North American Aviation and later President and CEO of the National Alliance of Businessmen in Washington DC. In addition to his other accomplishments, he earned a doctorate in Public Administration from UC Irvine and wrote a history entitled Corsairs to Panthers: Marine Aviation in the Korean War. Another hero of the Greatest Generation, he lived a remarkable life. He died in December 1996 at age 85.

I will forever be grateful to him for his generous treatment and for delivering the final lesson in my rite of passage. I’m sorry I didn’t have a chance to meet him under different circumstances. I’d like to have thanked him.

Semper Fidelis

Gnarled and Twisted…

I love this gnarled, twisted tree trunk. It’s “growing” in the front yard of my friends, Dick and Kit Duane, in Berkeley. Dick and I were law school classmates there 57 years ago. They bought the house 47 years ago, raised their children there, played music, made plans, drank wine, cooked meals and read poetry there. The tree is old growth by any standard of time, just as we are old growth by the standards of the Social Security Life Expectancy chart.

Kit wants to have the tree taken out. She has a point; it could fall on the house when one of those fast-moving Pacific storms rips through the Golden Gate and blasts the Berkeley flats, but I’m betting on the tree. It’s seen a lot of those storms.

Dick and I can’t remember the specifics of how our friendship began. We were in the same law school section, one of three, in a class of 750. He was recently out of the Navy and I was fresh from the Marine Corps but early on we uncovered a mutual interest in swimming. I had no talent…still don’t…despite millions of laps in thousands of pools around the world. He, on the other hand, was a competitive swimmer at Cal… but everything about him was relaxed. He never minded doing 3 laps for every 1 of mine, and I was grateful he didn’t mention it. We both needed a release from those mind-numbing hours in the law library and found it in our noon workouts at the UC pool and browsing stops at Cody’s Books on Telegraph Avenue.

There is probably something deeply psychological about my affection for the Duane’s gnarly twisted tree. It’s like my gnarly wrinkled hand in some ways. Both show the effect of time in lumps, veins and scars on surfaces that were once  smooth and elastic. When I suggested to Marilynn that we take a photo of our hands for this article she didn’t want any part of it. I love her hands, but she tells me that women are sensitive about their hands and rarely does a “woman of a certain age” allow her hands to be photographed. I love her vanity. It means she still cares about showing the world the best side of herself. Me? Not so much.

Nevertheless, last weekend M and I watched an interview with Angie Dickinson, a woman famous for her physical beauty who, at 87, was astonishingly unselfconscious about her gray hair, wrinkles, and hands. I found her confidence reassuring. After a lifetime of living shouldn’t we all be able to present ourselves proudly, and confidently “as is?”

Dick and I took much different paths after law school. Things have changed since we were there, but the curriculum and vector in those days was toward an elite private law practice. I followed the vector by way of Loeb & Loeb in Los Angeles and lasted nine months. Dick, who spent a law school summer in Georgia doing civil rights work before graduation, spent a couple of years doing poverty law in DC and San Francisco before returning to Berkeley to start his own small general practice. I remember Professor John Jackson, our Contracts teacher, taking time to extoll the virtues of small private community based practice. It seemed so contrary to Boalt’s big firm bias, but that’s what Dick chose and I know after all these years that he loved it and never thought of looking back.

Friendship, like love, is a mix of intangibles. Several of my most enduring friendships were formed in law school, though most of these were with classmates who didn’t follow traditional paths. Like friendships formed anywhere, law school was simply the nexus that brought together a cohort of people with similar characteristics, interests, and experience. We were all achievers in one way or another, competitive and curious in others. Some moved on according to someone else’s plan and some worked out their own.

The cement in my friendship with Dick is probably that we were slightly out of synch with the curriculum and our classmates. We maintained those friendships too, but ours didn’t depend on a shared professional experience. We were focused elsewhere. We both loved the outdoors. He was a serious rock climber (including El Capitan and some first ascents) and I spent most of my adult life skiing and living in ski areas. He’s an avid reader and lover of poetry. So am I, and we both play the guitar, though neither of us is very good. On top of that, Kit was a book editor and both couples have spent serious chunks of time traveling and living abroad. It’s all added up to a great recipe for friendship.

Steep rock faces and snowy steep chutes are behind the two of us now. His granddaughter is on her way to becoming a world-class rock climber and my grandsons are serious freestyle and backcountry skiers. We’ve had a hand in paying it forward for them and are enjoying the ride as they figure out their futures…but the best part for us now is our enduring friendship, memories of shared experience, and talk about what’s next. Neither of us is through…just adapting to changed circumstances.

Dick and Kit in Provence last year.

Present at the Creation…

My “office” these days is a scarred up antique table at Folio, Seattle’s membership non-profit for people who love books. Out my window this morning is a quintessential Northwest scene with the January sun reflecting off the Bainbridge Island ferry’s trailing wake and the dark blue waters of Elliott Bay. Further west are the peninsula’s foothills and the sharpened peaks of the Olympic mountains. So, while the rest of the country is being cold-soaked by a Polar Vortex, I’m in one of my favorite settings, surrounded by books and the natural beauty of the Northwest.

Founded by David Brewster, a serial literary entrepreneur, Folio is located one floor above Pike Place Market, where it functions as a library, event space, work area for writers, and book lover’s sanctuary. Since opening its door three years ago, Folio has assembled a rich collection of books through the donation of private library collections supplemented by the purchase of noteworthy current releases.

When new books arrive at Folio it’s common to find duplicates of books already in the collection, and in that case some are sold, some donated to school libraries, and others placed on a cart outside the door and given away. These give aways change on a daily basis and I never pass the cart without looking to see what’s on it.

Today, on my way to lunch, one title caught my eye – Acheson Country – a memoir by David Acheson of his father, Dean Acheson, former Secretary of State and all-around American statesman. I might have ignored it had it not been for the fact that the senior Acheson was the commencement speaker at my law school graduation in 1965.

On that long ago afternoon in Berkeley, the former diplomat and advisor to presidents gave a graduation address that was memorable not for the advice it contained but for the aura surrounding its speaker. There, in the hot California sun, Mr. Acheson was, as my father might have said, “bandbox” perfect. The expression is dated now, but maybe not inappropriate in this case. The reference is to the container or “bandbox” used to store and preserve the condition of a clergymen’s vestments in earlier times. In the vernacular, according to the Oxford Dictionary, it is used to “convey the smartness or neatness of someone’s appearance.”

That expression from bygone days perfectly describes the Dean Acheson I observed that day. His neatly trimmed trademark mustache, bespoke steel-gray suit, starched white shirt, pinched regimental tie, and spit-shined shoes reinforced the impression that I was in the presence of one of the 20th century’s greatest statesmen. My father and mother, who attended the graduation, both rock-ribbed Republicans, were equally in awe of Mr. Acheson as they listened to him in the courtyard at Boalt Hall.

Yesterday, reading the memoir’s foreword by historian David McCullough, took me back to that day and gave me an opportunity to revisit the major figures and events of America’s most critical decades in the last century and to measure their contributions against those of today’s leaders.

Dean Acheson’s biography reveals a scholarly but pragmatic man, a Groton and Yale patrician who forged a unique bond with Harry Truman, the quintessential common man. Together, they, with the help of others crafted the institutions and policies that maintained the world order for 70 years until recent disruptions upset that balance. His post-WWII foreign policy accomplishments included the establishment of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, Truman Doctrine, Marshall Plan, United Nations, and the creation of NATO. And, it was he who, during the early 1950s strongly defended State Department employees whose loyalty and patriotism were under attack by Senator Joseph McCarthy. He remained an important advisor to Truman when the US entered the Korean War and participated in the controversial decision to fire General Douglas MacArthur during that conflict.

Mr. Acheson left government service in 1953 and entered private practice in Washington where he remained a trusted advisor to presidents Kennedy and Johnson. In 1964 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and in 1970 the Pulitzer Prize for History for his memoir, Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department. His son’s memoir is an important reminder of the importance of character, diplomacy, and historical perspective. His was a pivotal time in American history, and the contrast with today’s leaders is stark. Dean Acheson, George Marshall, George Kennan, Henry Cabot Lodge II, and Clark Clifford were all public servants who dedicated years to public service.

As world powers jockey for position in the 21st century, it’s clear that America has fallen from grace and is struggling to find its place in the world order. The Trump administration does not appear to have a comprehensive world view. Foreign affairs is a chess game that requires a grasp of history, culture, politics, economics, and military strategy. Donald Trump is purely transactional. His guiding star is his own self-interest. He gathers ideas by watching Fox News, denigrates his intelligence and national security advisors, and doesn’t read, understand or value the lessons of history that should be guiding him in the global chess match. Is it any wonder he is being played so easily by a former KGB functionary? Why else would he want to pull out of NATO or shred the Paris Climate Accords, Trans Pacific Partnership, Non-Proliferation and Iran Nuclear Treaties? These are the organizations and institutions that hold the world together and keep war at bay.

Today, the US Secretary of State is an ambitious, smug former Congressman from Kansas who’s attached himself to Donald Trump’s too long, too big, too black overcoat’s coattails and now smiles and prostrates himself with murderous dictators like Saudi’s Mohamed Bin Salman and Turkey’s Recep Erdogan. I don’t want to be pessimistic, but, in light of our present predicament, if Dean Acheson was “present at the creation“ will we have to write that we were present at the destruction? I hope not, but I’m not sure.

As I write this I’m reminded of the many outstanding US Foreign Service officers I’ve known, especially Angela Dickey, who was interim Consul General in Ho Chi Minh City when I was there. I know she shares my concern for the shredding of Foreign Service professionals at the State Department.

At the moment I’m pinning my hopes on another patrician public servant, Robert Swan Mueller III,  a graduate of St. Paul’s School, Princeton University, and the University of Virginia Law School who also earned a Master’s in international studies from NYU and served as a Marine Corps officer in Vietnam. His public service includes time as a US Attorney, Assistant Attorney General, and twelve-years as Director of the FBI. While at the Justice Department he oversaw the investigation and prosecution of those responsible for the bombing of Pan Am 103 where 270 lives, including three friends of mine, were lost.

I’m glad to have serendipitously run across Acheson Country, where my memory was refreshed and faith restored. Dean Gooderham Acheson was a giant among giants, and even though my connection was only a glimpse of the man late in his monumentally important career, I feel honored to have been present and to have heard him speak. I’m sure his words were inspiring, but what I remember most is the imposing figure who made me feel I was in the company of greatness. I think Robert Mueller can stand beside Acheson as an American hero and patriot. It’s possible that future generations will praise him for turning the American ship away from its destructive course and someone like me will read his daughter’s recollections – maybe it will even be called Mueller Country.

“Always remember that the future comes one day at a time.”

Dean Acheson