Nazis I Have Known

As a wave of overt hatred and prejudice is rising in America like the polluted Jersey shore tide, fueled by white nationalists, the Alt-Right, and of all things Neo-Nazis, I’ve been reminiscing back to the simpler times of my childhood, when all of the U.S. of A. could agree that Nazis were bad, and that that conflict fought and won – WWII for the historically challenged – had put an end to that question. We had defeated the Krauts, Hitler, the Nazis, and then, having beaten them, took a victory lap at Nuremberg mostly for moral show, and then hired their best scientists to work for us, put their civic officials back in place (for they did know best how to ‘make their own trains run on time’), and considered the matter finished. Wasn’t it a simpler time?

Growing up outside Reading, PA with a music studio in our basement gave me an opportunity to meet some ‘interesting people’ as Bugs Bunny used to say. I’ve remarked previously about the high priest of a satanic cult (Mom and the Satan Worshiper). In this case, I want to briefly introduce you to Mrs. Schubert: Nazi Apologist. Mrs. Schubert either brought her children or grandchildren for lessons in our basement; those details are a blur and irrelevant. What is important is that Mrs. Schubert had been in Germany throughout World War II and had emigrated to the U.S. after the war with her family to seek new opportunities and economic advantage. She was (to my young mind) an elderly, pulled-back-grey-haired-harsh-voiced-bespectacled matron type that was neither nice nor naughty—just brusque, taut, and imposing. She was never anything but civil to me, and my memories of her are scant and few. However, I do remember one conversation vividly she had with my mother when I was a pre-teen. My mother, rarely afraid to ask the hard questions, inquired of Mrs. Schubert how much she actually knew of what was happening in Germany during Hitler: to the Jews, the gays, the minorities etc.? Mrs. Schubert stiffened and drew herself up, and spoke with an icy and almost comic defensiveness reminiscent of Sgt. Schultz from Hogan’s Heroes.

“We knew nothing of it. Nothing. There were rumors of course, but nothing that we knew for certain.”

And then she added with venomous emphasis…

“You think you know what your government does, but you don’t! Your government does vicious things all around the world too, but you don’t know about it, do you? We knew nothing!”

And that ended the interrogation, and she left, and it was never spoken of again. After all, business is business and Mrs. Schubert was a loyal customer. Right, Mom?

What Mrs. Schubert did or didn’t know will never be known, but her defensiveness, and her deflection, spoke volumes. Either she knew absolutely nothing and was ashamed after the fact (which is somewhat unlikely given what we know from history); or she knew something and supported it; or she knew something, but like so many was afraid to speak out. My vote, perhaps naively, will remain on the latter. One thing that is certain: she was an opportunist that found the first available transport to come to America and make a better life for herself and her family, and leave that pesky Nazi-business behind.

But wait! There’s more. Lest you think this a falsely advertised blog post, I want to introduce you to Erwin “the German,” a gym buddy of mine. I don’t remember Erwin’s last name (if I ever knew it). We used to work out together at the Wyomissing Sheraton fitness center when hotels used to have open memberships. This was in the early ‘90s and Erwin was much older than me. That’s because he was a real-life-honest-to-goodness/evilness Nazi. By the time I knew Erwin he was a tall, loud, rugged, portly, slow-moving and half-blind, jovial joy. He made no secret of his past, and his contemporaries often teased him about his past by calling him “Erwin the German” loudly from the other side of the pool. It was meant, oddly, endearingly, and he took it as such. He had joined the Hitler Youth as a boy, and later been stationed on the Eastern Front to counter the Ruskie incursion. He implied he had been in the Battle of Stalingrad. He implied he had killed Russians. But he always talked about his past briefly, somewhat romantically, and without passion. The war had happened, he was an American citizen (still with a thick German accent, as was Mrs. Schubert), and he had moved to the States to become a plumber. He had had a good life in America and seemed to have no regrets.

Erwin died while I still frequented the gym and was mourned by all who knew him as a kind and generous friend. I have no doubt that Mrs. Shubert is also gone. I say Nazis – plural – in this blog title because, whatever Mrs. Schubert’s feeling on the subject of Nazism, it was evident that she was there, was not the target of their evil, and did little to nothing to stop their spread. Guilty by association perhaps. But I’ve written none of this to condemn either individual, but rather to draw a gentle parallel from the past to the present. Both of my Nazi acquaintances had been caught in something both unfortunate and larger than themselves – partly through fear, ignorance, disadvantage, youth or the combination, but when that something larger was defeated, they reverted back to being decent, productive citizens of a free society, and went on to lead fine and benign lives.  I look at all the young men and women in Charlottesville and elsewhere, that have been caught up in the wave of hatred, ignorance, fake news, and economic instability, and as much as I know we need to stop the spread of their ideology and terror, I also know that they are our friends, neighbors, fellow citizens, and colleagues, and we’re going to have to work together to bring them back into a basic understanding of what it really means to be an American, to live in a free and equal society. And that, of course, will require some punching of Nazis at the outset. But it will also require some measure of reaching out to those who can be reached, forgiving, and modeling a better way to be. Repaying hatred with hatred is not the answer. It will only perpetuate the resentment and violence. Hatred must be met with strength, firstly yes, but then needs to be listening, compassion, and healing. Perhaps if we try this we’ll find ourselves forty years from now with a few more Erwin’s than David Duke’s. It’s just a thought.

Auf wiedersehen,

Jason

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Happy 100th Birthday National Park Service!

Tomorrow, August 25, 2016, is the one hundredth birthday of the U.S. National Park Service. Founded on August 25, 1916, the United States has had national parks since 1872. But the NPS as we know it, as an agency within the Department of the Interior, only came fully into being and modern legitimacy in 1916. The history of the NPS is beautifully, if slowly, recounted in Ken Burns’s six-part 2009 sweeping documentary The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. It is a fascinating look at the history of the idea and evolution of national parks, starting with Yellowstone, Yosemite, John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, Theodore Roosevelt, and other less familiar names, and ending with present-day concerns and speculations as to the future of the NPS. It is one of my favorite long-form documentaries and I highly recommend it.

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A view of Bar Harbor from within Acadia NP, 2009

National Parks have held an important place in my life and well-being for as long as I can remember. The NPS is vast and spans military battlefields, seashores, parkways, homes, and, of course, areas of natural beauty that are earmarked (more or less) to be left in their original state. Over the course of my life and travels I’ve visited the battlefields of Gettysburg and Valley Forge, the homes of Edgar Allan Poe and FDR, the National Mall, Lake Mead, and the Statue of Liberty, to name a few. I’ve spent more than a little time in the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and Assateague Island National Seashore, birding, swimming, watching wild ponies, and testing salinity, temperature, and cyclic changes to the salt marsh ecosystem. Living in King George, VA, my wife and I have had the privilege of being within easy striking distance of four major battlefields of the Civil War, to say nothing of the countless historic homes of Presidents of the US, their families, and Signers of the Declaration of Independence, many of which are managed by the NPS.

As I said, national parks have played a very important role in my life, both for education and entertainment. But it wasn’t until this anniversary came around that I realized that, while I’ve visited many sites managed by the National Park Service, I’ve really only visited two of the fifty-nine “crown jewel” National Parks, set exclusively aside for their beauty: Acadia and Shenandoah. Acadia, in and about Bar Harbor, Maine, I’ve visited twice: once alone and once with Nancy several years ago. Oh, that blueberry ice cream! Shenandoah I’ve visited more frequently; dined, slept, and most importantly, introduced my son John Adams to the wonders of nature there. Together we’ve seen bears, hiked down to Dark Hollows Falls, been on a piece of the Appalachian Trail, and witnessed all manner of natural wonders. Oh, that black raspberry ice cream! I look forward to many more visits to Shenandoah in the coming years, and I can’t wait to see how he takes to the Great Outdoors as he grows and matures, or what outside activities strike his fancy. Nancy and I envision family camping trips!

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Nancy and John Adams posing on the bridge by Dark Hollow Falls, Shenandoah NP, 2016

But that said about Shenandoah, I now realize how many other national parks there are to explore, and I can’t wait to see some new ones. Great Smoky Mountains NP, for instance, spans both North Carolina and Tennessee and is the most visited national park of them all. We’ve had friends visit there, but maybe someday soon we can see the park for ourselves. Mammoth Cave NP in Kentucky is reportedly the largest cavern system in the world. That might scare the little guy right now, but someday…someday. There’s Pinnacles NP, the most recent park added to the system by President Obama in 2013 in California. Of course the biggies – Mount Rainier, the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Crater Lake – are bucket list favorites. Or how about Congaree NP, fairly close to us in South Carolina, and a park I’d never even heard of?

There are so many wonderful places to visit throughout the United States, and now I have a new list of misadventures to plan with my family. And of course, there are always those politicians who see no value in preserving such places of beauty; that would rather make a buck, grease a palm, or line a pocket, than preserve for posterity. Ken Burns’s epic is replete with such types, and they’re still with us today. I can only hope that those men and women never achieve high office, or get put in a position to make policy, so that my son can travel off road and see America’s pristine beauty without it being cannibalized for resources and needless profit. I’m watching you D.C. But for now, the National Park Service is alive and thriving, if underfunded, and I have big dreams of sharing as many of them with my family as anyone can pack into a lifetime.

For all the memories past and all the new one’s yet to come I say “Thank You National Park Service” and, on behalf of my family,

“Happy 100th Birthday!!!”

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My little boy says it all!!!

Here’s to many, many more.

Peace,

Jason

What’s your favorite National Park or National Park memory? Let me know in the comments below.

 

 

The Adams Family

Nancy and I stood in the basement of the United First Parish Church of Quincy, in a small white-washed cell, brilliantly lit by unflattering fluorescent light, and gawked at the four unassuming stone tombs laid out side by side without pretense. Here lay John Adams and wife Abigail, John Quincy Adams and wife Louisa Catherine. Their grey granite tombs said nothing but their names – no titles, no relationships, nothing. The church above was crammed with facts about their lives, but down below, nothing. The four-person tomb left barely enough room to walk around each resting place. We were crammed in with a few Japanese tourists and a few others that one could only guess why they were visiting a presidential tomb. We were told by the docent that we were as close as we could get to the tombs of any presidents. That this was only one of two churches in the country where Presidents of the United States were buried, (the other being Woodrow Wilson in the National Cathedral), we were told that annually members of the Adams family came and lay wreaths on each of the tombs. There were a few snapshots of the ceremony on a counter just outside the tomb in the basement hallway. Each of us in turn made our way around each of the four raised tombs. Like good Americans, Nancy and I each took selfies with the deceased to prove our pilgrimage had been successful, and to be approved by our Facebook families at a later time. We stood in self-imposed silence at the head of each stone, trying to feel something significant, trying to cry or not to cry, trying to receive the guidance of the Founders. And then we thanked our host, headed to our car, and met and old and dear friend for tapas and booze.

Standing between the tombs of John and Abigail.

Standing between the tombs of John and Abigail.

Earlier that day we had taken a three hour trolley tour out to the birth homes of John and John Quincy, to John Quincy’s stone library, and to John and Abigail’s place of death at Peacefield. We toured each house in turn, somewhat hurriedly, as the trolley had a schedule to keep and summers and Saturdays are peak season for visiting the homes of dead presidents in Massachusetts. We saw the rooms at Peacefield where both Abigail and John met their end. We marveled at the climate controlled library with skylights and a slightly imperfect tile floor. We took our pictures with statues of John and Abigail longing for one another on either side of the busy highway. We agonized over what souvenirs to get our son, John Adams, since the National Park Service had seen fit to stock stuffed animals of both Franklin and Washington, but no Adams; NO ADAMS! And we finally settled on a picture book of eagles, father and son, time traveling through history to America’s key moments, which could have been written by Stephen Colbert’s less talented progeny.

Sitting in the John Quincy Adams pew at United First Parish Church

Sitting in the John Quincy Adams pew at United First Parish Church

We deemed the visitations, and the entire day a success and, indeed, it was. But cramming so much in out of desire and necessity was a strain and allowed little time for reflection. We had walked the same floorboards as John and Abigail in their own houses. We had each in turn sat in the pew of the church where John Quincy and Louisa Catherine had worshiped. We were just inches away from the resting skeletons of these giants of American Independence, and yet in the heat of a hot touristy moment our thoughts were often on the snapshot, the souvenir, and the schedule of the trolley. Don’t get me wrong our visitations were profound, moving, inspiring, and worth every moment. But layered in around the experience was the press and rush of American life that demands that we do more, see more, and record every moment for the “Me Generation” to give a thumbs up or down to at a later and more convenient time. I loved every minute of our time spent in Massachusetts, but now as I sit home writing about it and considering it more fully, I just wish that I could have been more present for it.

Anyway, I can’t keep sitting here writing.

The day commences…

Namaste!

The John Adams birth home.

The John Adams birth home.

The Whole Man Theory

From time to time, especially around the Fourth of July, the subject of my son, John Adams’s, name comes up. People typically admiringly ask one of the following questions: “Why did you name him John Adams?” “Do you like the President?” “Are we related to the Adams Family in some way?” “Do we know the musical 1776?” The questions are pretty much the same all the time. Only rarely do I get someone who openly challenges our decision. “Why would you name him after John Adams?” “He was the second president, not the first (so first loser, I suppose).” “He was insecure and arrogant.” “He was a Federalist.” “He was the first one-term president because he was so unpopular.” Or most damning of all, “He signed the Alien and Sedition Acts allowing the Federalists to lock up score of political opponents!” “Guilty as charged,” is my usual reply. You cannot alter history (though many in this country try). But where most people tend to judge the lives of others like John Adams solely upon one or two events – he was President of the United States, his letters with wife Abigail and Thomas Jefferson, the dreaded Alien and Sedition Acts – the John Adams I’ve come to know and admire is more the product of knowing a little more about many of the aspects of his life, and trying to tease out his overall net worth as a person post-mortem. This approach to assessing the entire life of a person is appropriately called The Whole Man Theory.

I had never heard of The Whole Man Theory until I started listening to The Thomas Jefferson Hour several years ago. As a matter of fact as I was researching for this article I found a related article written by Clay S. Jenkinson of The Thomas Jefferson Hour fame for The Bismarck Tribune. Here is the link to that article if you’d like his specific take on the subject:

http://bismarcktribune.com/news/columnists/clay-jenkinson/life-shouldn-t-be-judged-by-one-foible/article_36103974-ce2d-519f-b949-f09343ec3f92.html

As I understand it, The Whole Man Theory asks us to consider all of a person’s positive attributes and contributions to civilization, and then do the same for their negatives, weigh the two against each other, and finally assess their life based on the balance, or imbalance of the two. That’s it. No secret formula. No drawn out plan. Just look at the big, entire picture before you judge. It should be easy. But our own biases of right and wrong frequently skew our tallies and cloud our judgement. And then there’s the fact that often overall good people have seriously bad baggage. Consider the following:

Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, but he owned slaves. George Washington defeated the British to secure us our country, but he owned slaves. FDR all but won World War II and got America through the Great Depression, but he imprisoned all the Asian-Americans in concentration camps. Though I’m citing extreme cases here, I firmly believe that no one who has lived a life of some significance has no dirty laundry in their past. Please believe me when I say I’m not making light of their faults, I just don’t think there is any such thing as a perfect human.

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President John Adams as painted by Asher B. Durand

We have a troublesome tendency towards vilifying our public figures over singular incidents, Nixon and Watergate for example. And sometimes, rarely thankfully, there is an Adolf Hitler who tips the scale so far toward the “dark” side that there is no hope of looking for balance. But most lives are made up of good and bad, successes and failures, periods of light and darkness, and we would do well to remember that until the day we die the sum total of our experiences has yet to be tallied.

As for naming my son John Adams, well, Nancy and I do admire the second president with all of his faults. He was irascible and vain, insecure and at times an elitist, and he did sign the Alien and Sedition Acts. However, putting the Alien and Sedition Acts aside, he was a loving husband and father, a brilliant rhetorician and statesman, arguably the most well-read man in the colonies, first vice-president, second president, first United States Ambassador to Great Britain and, most importantly, without his dogged tenacity in Congress we would very likely not have our own country. It’s true that the Alien and Sedition Acts must be researched and wrestled with if you really want to know the man and not just lionize him. But based on my own research, within the context of history there are very real and unfortunately valid reasons why he gave in to temptation on this one issue. It’s a decision that stained his character, marred his presidency and subsequent legacy in the eyes of generations after him, and he regretted it the rest of his life. But I have the benefit of time and historical context on my side and so see the mistake for what it was (or at least what I think it was), and in my final analysis I can still greatly admire the rest of him. I have forgiven John his tragic error in judgment, and slowly much of the rest of the country has come around to the same conclusion.

The larger challenge is applying the principles of The Whole Man Theory to people who do us personally wrong. Is their decision to harm us unique from their overall character or is it a hallmark of their overall personality? How can the world at large admire those who hurt us? Can we move past a personal injury to see the big picture that is another person’s life still in progress without the benefits of time and distance? It’s not easy. And even as I write I can think of several individuals I still struggle to see clearly through the pain. But President John Adams is not one of them for me. His life balanced well in my book and, despite his flaws, I’m proud my son is named in his honor.

Now, for my son’s middle name, Tiberius…

Well, we’ll save that discussion for another day.

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My John Adams Tiberius Michael

The Thomas Jefferson Hour: Jefferson and Jesus

The following is a list of notes culled from a listening of the Thomas Jefferson Hour by Clay Jenkinson. It is my hope to make these notes a series on my blog in which I distill all the relevant information that Mr. Jenkinson provides into a studyable format.

 Notes from Episode 831

1. Jefferson’s daily routine:

                A. Get up before the Light.

                B. Bathe his feet in cool water.

                C. Write 3 to 5 Letters.

                D. Take a Stroll before Breakfast.

                E. Read.

                F. Take a horseback riding survey of his land.

                G. Get his hands in the soil.

                H. Garden in the evening.

                I. Spend time with his daughter Martha.

2. Much of this episode is devoted to a discussion of an article that appeared on www.ethicsdaily.com entitled ”Who Do We Follow, Jesus or Jefferson?”

3. Jefferson was not a Christian in the classical sense.

4. Jesus was a man according to the historian Josephus.

5. Jesus was a profound ethicist.

6. Jesus moved culture away from tribalism and towards individualism.

7. Jefferson believed that if we followed the Sermon on the Mount we would all be better off.

8. What Jefferson would call the beliefs of the cult of Jesus bears little resemblance to the   historical man.

9. Jesus would have opposed unbridled capitalism.

10. Jesus was a political revolutionary.

11. According to Jefferson’s reading of Jesus teachings, saved are the victims of capitalism.

12. The Book of Acts supports that Jesus was a communitarian.

13. Question: How do practicing Americans reconcile democracy with Jesus teaching?

14. From 350 A.D. onward Jesus teachings became corrupted.

15. The Christian church does not represent the views of Jesus.

16. The Gospels do not harmonize.

17. Jefferson was a Jesusite.

18. Jesus’ ethics were perfect.

19. We do not follow the code of Jesus.

20. The goal of good government is to treat us all as equal even if we’re not.

21. Jefferson does not believe in heaven, hell, grace, or sin.

22. Jefferson believes in: civility, the citizenship of farmers, and a blind system.

23. He believes in a minimalist government which acts as a referee.

24. America is a nation with a secular government that allows for religious freedom.

25. “We are a nation of Christians, but we are not a Christian nation.” – Clay Jenkinson

26. The word “subjects” in the Declaration of Independence was changed to “citizens.”

27. Alexander Hamilton spoke for five hours at the 1787 Constitutional convention and called for both the president and senators to serve for life.

28. The validity of a hereditary monarchy for the presidency, an argument put forth by Alexander Hamilton, was challenged by Jefferson by suggesting that we first tested theory by having a hereditary chair of mathematics at a university.

29. George Washington died in 1799.

30. There were no term limits on the presidency until after FDR.

31. Jefferson was not a Pauline Christian.

32. Approximately 300,000,000 Americans are Christians.

33. God is never mentioned in the Constitution.

34. 1786: The Virginia Statute for Religious Liberty is enacted.

35. The Book of Acts was written by Luke.

36. Alexander de Tocqueville said that Americans were the most religious people alive.

37. Thomas Jefferson was born at the height of the Enlightenment.

38. Jefferson thought that within fifty years of his life time all Americans would be Unitarian.