Memorial Day – 2021

Memorial Day – 2021

Some years ago, Ken Stewart, a longtime friend and filmmaker was kind enough to ask me what I was likely to take on in my next play. I’d just finished a play about trans-national adoption and wanted a subject that would absorb my attention for the next year or so. He’d recently wrapped up his documentary, The Richmond Rosies, an account of the contribution made by women working in the Kaiser shipyards in Richmond, California turning out Victory and Liberty ships. He’d interviewed the surviving women who had been known as Rosie the Riveters or Welding Wendys and had pulled together some amazing footage. He’d also built a friendship with the Rosies, continuing to visit with them after the film had been released. A subject had been on my mind, but I feared it would be something he wouldn’t recognize although it is a significant chapter in race relations in the United States . With some care, I began to speak about Black sailors put on trial for mutiny during WWII. I hadn’t finished the sentence when he jumped in:

 “Port Chicago? That’s what I’m doing next.”

Ken’s focus is sharper than mine, and he has staying power as a writer, director, and producer. His new film, a documentary entitled The Port Chicago Incident, is in distribution. The synopsis of the film is straightforward, echoing the mission statement of the National Park’s Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Monument.

A violent and powerful explosion in July 1944 sent shock waves through Port Chicago, Ca and the US Navy. 320 sailors were killed instantly, and 50 sailors were charged with mutiny in the aftermath. It became the largest mutiny trial in US Naval history and was the tipping point for the desegregation of the U.S. Navy and ultimately the entire U.S. Military.

It is not surprising that the Park Service does not identify the personnel assigned to the loading of munitions at this isolated facility as Black stevedores, nor does it describe the triple shifts worked,the lack of instruction given the men loading munitions,the absence of safety measures, the poor maintenance of of the machinery used in loading explosives on ships, or the gambling on daily totals of pounds loaded by White officers who had returned to active duty or newly commissioned with no experience in handling munitions.  The Park Service doesn’t describe the contempt with which White officers held the men who worked with munitions.  A common supposition among officers was that the Black sailors assigned to Port Chicago were not capable of understanding procedural regulations or safety measures; neither were in place.

My play never came together, largely because I couldn’t decide what story I wanted to tell. As I set out to work on the project, I saw three separate and equally compelling chapters. The first would describe the conditions under which Black Americans served in WWII, at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine in particular, a munitions depot and loading facility that provided the munitions needed by the Paciific Fleet. 160,000 Black Americans enlisted in the Navy during the war; they were permitted to serve as cooks, stewards, or stevedores.  An “Intelligence” test determined which would be assigned the most physically demanding job – loading explosives at Port Chicago.  One study found that  the Alpha Intelligence used by the Army after WWI designated 89% of Black enlistees as “morons”.  

The second story chronicles the ineptitude of White officers who operated the facility with no regard for the lives of the men in their command and a description of the explosion.  Three shifts operated around the clock, ordered to enter into speed contests; the officers amused themselves by betting in which shift would load the greatest tonnage; Blackboards were placed on the docks so that the tally was always visible. Given no instruction in handling the explosives, men working on the docks were told that large bombs, torpedoes, and shells could not explode without fuses.  Officers ordered the men to use crowbars to unpack the bombs, to roll the heavy bombs and shells to the docks, and to drop the munitions in nets into the hold of receiving ships. The winches used to deposit the over full nets were not maintained; their brakes often gave out.  The explosion which took place at 10:18 pm on July 17, 1944 sent smoke and fire almost two miles into the sky.  The effects were felt 30 miles away in San Francisco, and the blast was heard in Nevada.  All personnel working on the docks were killed and many at the station were killed or injured.  In the end, 535 Black sailors were killed or injured, roughly two thirds of the men assigned to the station.

The third story is the account of what was called a mutiny.

Following the explosion, White officers were given hardship leave, and 329 Black sailors were transferred to the Mare Island munitions facility.  On August 8th, the men were marched to the dock and ordered to load explosives on a ship in port.  The men refused; no measures had been taken to ensure the safe transfer of munitions. The 258 men who refused were taken by barge to a makeshift prison intended to hold no more than 70 prisoners. On August 11th, the prisoners were addressed by Admiral Carleton Wright and told that those who continued to refuse orders would be subject to the charge of mutiny.  He suggested that while fear of another disaster was understandable, death by firing squad was a worse option.  The 50 men who continued to refuse orders were declared mutinous.

Admiral Wright convened the General Court Martial which was held in Marine barracks at the Treasure Island Navy, charging the Port Chicago 50 with “a deliberate purpose and intent to override superior military authority,” a charge which in wartime could be punished by death.  The surviving records of the trial are appalling, filled with racial slurs and dismissal of the defendants accounts of the events.  The defense attempted to present the actions of the prisoners as insubordination rather than mutiny, a defense NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall endorsed and one that he continued to cite in the aftermath of the court-martial.  All 50 were found guilty.  They were given a 15 year sentence to be served at the Terminal Island DisciplinaryBarracks in San Pedro.  Marshall continued to advocate for the prisoners, filing an appeal, which was unsuccessful.  At the end of the war, the sentences were reduced, and by 1946 all but three had been released on parole to complete their enlistment.

The Navy had closed ranks in carrying out the court-martial and in imprisoning the Port Chicago 50, but the Secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal, had already begun the integration of Black sailors into service on all auxiliary ships.  The Navy, formerly the most segregated, was the first of the services to end segregation in all aspects of enlistment, including assignments, ranks, facilities, and housing.  The rest of the armed forces were not integrated until 1948.

Courtroom dramas always allow for great moments of passion and reckless histrionics, catnip for clumsy dramatists such as I am.  I was tempted for a few weeks, then I came against the hard truth:  Although there is a great deal of value in bringing the Port Chicago Disaster to public attention, as Ken has done so well, the very human dimensions of the mutiny trial are not mine to tell.  It has to be told in language and cadences that are not mine; the world does not need the Uncle Remus version of the mutiny trial.  

This story is one of hundreds, perhaps thousands, that reveal a dark history we as a nation have been reluctant to face.  A cherished and carefully decorated idealization of ourselves as people more aware of justice, more capable of kindness, more worthy of admiration has started to crumble.  Story by story, voice by voice, we have an opportunity to see ourselves as we have been and as we are.  

Alive and unconscious … who doesn’t love sleep?

Alive and unconscious … who doesn’t love sleep?

Look, I’ve got a mind of my own, occasionally borrowed by one misguided enthusiasm or another, but still, mine.  I’m capable of change. I used to love Turkish Taffy; now I give it a wide berth.  I’m fond of wordplay and British humor and can’t watch what passes for comedy on broadcast television.

The point is, damn it, as I edge ever closer to the last frontier, I am still relegated to the class of human known as “Baby Boomer”.  I’ve never liked the term; “Boomer” is less infantilizing, but reeks of bonhomie and machismo.  I’ll admit that “The Pig in the Python” is clever until my over-active suggestibility kicks in, and I’m gifted with the image of an enormous snake roiling in discomfort as its distended belly is attacked from within by the frantic flailing of an undigested animal, in this case, “Babe”.

Apparently, that’s us, and before grammarians leave the room, please, nobody in their right mind would say, “That’s we”.  Don’t start questioning my use of “their” to modify a singular subject either; we’re over it.

“Is that it?”, you ask; “in a universe of grievances, you sat down to gripe about your generational nickname?”

Well, yes, but only in passing.  As you have probably guessed, this morning’s meditation has to do with the eternal questions: “What do we know, and how do we know it?”  

More precisely, “what the hell is wrong with sleeping through the night?”  See, that’s where the generational carping comes in.  Apparently, my generation has arrived at yet another of life’s check points, and I am not amused. I’m grumpy and mildly delusional, clumsy and thick witted, and it seems I’m not alone.  I’ve been informed that nobody cares, and that’s fine; I can maintain a full head of discontent without an audience.  

“Have you tried … ?”

Yep, not the cryogenic bath or rohypnol, but pretty much every other nostrum and sleep inducing practice.  The weighted blanket and banana tea were not terrible ideas; the jury is still out on making a to-do list, slathering myself with essential oils, and breathing through the left nostril.  After years in denial, I’ve gone through several sleep studies and now slap on my Respironics DreamWear mask, hit the switch, and hope nobody has to find me in the end, lifeless, looking like the star of 1907’s Le Cochon Danseur, a terrifying anthropomorphic dancing pig.  My two or three hours of “sleep” then ended, I check my AHI (apnea hypopnea Index) to see how many times I stop breathing per hour.  On a good night, my brain forgets to tell me to breathe about 25 times an hour; last night the needle was buried at 51, indicating that my apnea can be characterized as moderately severe.  I thought severity was a condition like uniqueness, incapable of modification, but again, nobody cares or wants to know.

Here’s what interests me, however, and what should be of interest to anyone who sleeps … or doesn’t:  We (and by “we” I mean anyone) don’t know what sleep is, why we sleep, how we fall asleep, why we dream, or why the same “we”, having evolved to the peak of mentation, spend about a third of a lifetime unconscious.

“Wait …” you interject.  “What about the four stages of non-Rem sleep and the four or five cycles of REM sleep?  What about that?  We know that/”

Uh huh.  This is a messy analog, but let’s say you leave a partially eaten melon out on the sidewalk.  Let’s say you do that under laboratory conditions, day after day.  You’ll gather a lot of facts about what melons look like on day one and day five, you have some information about who shows up to live in the rapidly decomposing melon, You’ll even be able to talk about the relative speed of decomposition based on temperature.  But if our understanding of melon half-life is based entirely on external observation, all we’ve got is description.  

It’s not easy to get beyond external description with regard to the brain. The temptation is to say that we’ve got a Schrodinger’s cat here; a paradox of quantum superposition in which a subatomic event may or may not happen in an arena we cannot see without affecting the outcome, but we’ve been slicing and dicing brains for quite a spell, mapping brain activities with magnetic resonance imaging, and from time to time carrying out what is gently called Deep Brain Stimulation, implanting electrodes in certain areas of the brain and turning on the juice.  We’ve zapped enough brains to deduce that the four lobes have specific jobs to do, finally able to say, for example, that the temporal lobe controls memory, speech, and sense of smell. 

Again, uh huh.  Got that temporal lobe business all wrapped up, do we?

I’m not prepared to say that everything we know about the operation of anything is really only available to us when it doesn’t work, but let’s agree that with regard to the brain, information arrives with dysfunction.  Ok, so let’s take a look at what happens when a temporal lobe is damaged.  Sure, we get impairments in auditory functions, visual functions, loss of language perception, impaired long term memory, and … altered personality and altered sexual behavior.  

So, where are dreams?  All over it seems, although there’s a little less activity in the frontal lobe during REM, leading highly trained researchers with postdoctoral expertise to suggest that paucity of frontal lobe activity may explain why we do not self-correct or criticize the wacky stuff that comes up in our dreams.  In other words, no idea.

I’m cranky this morning and inclined to hang the entire medical profession out to dry, but the truth is that nobody really knows what they are doing with regard to sleep, so I might just as well slip into my pig face, drink some banana tea, listen to the calming sound of a forest primeval, rub myself with extract of henbane, breathe through my left nostril, and make a to-do list.

Never A Cross Word …

Never A Cross Word …

I am a creature of habit. 

My morning ritual is not quite as intricately methodical as chado or sado, the Japanese tea ceremony, the “way of tea”. No tatami mats. No hanging scrolls. There are, however, certain items placed in certain order, necessary to the shaving ritual, a three part exercise involving a shaving cream bowl provided by Taylor of Old Bond Street, and two razors with double edged blades made with highest quality steel by Gilette in the Czech Republic. 

That portion of the ritualized greeting of the day accomplished, I set aside fifteen minutes of silent mental exercise, accomplished with the assistance of one of the New York Times collections of crossword puzzles. I can’t explain why other crossword compendia do not speak to me, but there it is. The Times or nothing.

There are limits, however, that cannot be breached. The time limit is flexible, and I have put down a cortex damaging puzzle to be completed on another try, but my sweet spot is the puzzles published on Wednesdays and Thursdays. I can work with the Friday and Saturday puzzles when I can spend more than fifteen minutes on the task, but the ritual demands orderly procession from one task to the next,and there are dogs to feed. 

Have I done a Sunday puzzle? I have; the cost was great and the hours lost will never be recaptured. 

I like words well enough and challenge, but the exercise comes in practicing a particular sort of discipline. Each of us has certain abilities; recognizing words by simply looking at empty boxes is not one of mine. My wife and daughter, for example, are whizzes at solving Wheel of Fortune missing word challenges; my daughter actually got a word before the first letter appeared. Lacking the spatial genius they possess, my method is more deliberate. 

I won’t say that everything I learned I learned from completing crossword puzzles, but the lessons I have learned in black and white are significant.

In the first place, I might not start at the first place. The temptation is to start with the clues running across the page from left to right, then turning to the clues running down the page, top to bottom. As is often true of life its own self, however, clues are likely to be obscure or ambiguous.  A first clue might be “Shaver’s purchase” in four letters. OK, I’ll take a leap and assume that we’re talking about the sort of shaving that is part of my ritual, but several words might fit the bill. I’m inclined to go with “soap” or “blade”, but in this case, the correct entry would have been “foam”.  Then, of course, the clue might have referred to those who shave wood, or points, or minutes off a commute.

The point is that without knowing that my entry is absolutely the only answer that could work in that space, I might happily pencil in “blade” and find myself hamstrung when answers to the first clues running down the page are at odds with the letters in place. In this case, for example, “blade” would have been useless in finding the answer to, “Big sugar exporter”, which turned out to be Fiji. Who knew?

The first lesson has been this: I’m best served by starting with what I know.  Had I been completely stuck in ambiguity, I could have turned to clues 50 and 51 across, way down at the bottom of the page – “Sitcom pioneer Desi” and “Nicolas of Con Air”.   No ambiguity there.  Desi Arnaz and Nicolas Cage.  I had to remember that Desi’s last name, pronounced ArNEZ, is spelled with an ‘a’, but other than that, slam dunk.  Having those two words in place, 50 down – “Elemental particle” in four letters – has to be “atom”, and having “atom”, 60 across – “Doomsayer’s sign” in four letters – is pretty likely ‘omen”.

The second lesson follows the first in recognizing that as one word clarifies the identity of another, the process works best by tugging at each available string until the entire puzzle is pulled apart, and that tugging is not necessarily done by serially attacking clues one through fifty in order.  In fact, the task is not only more difficult when order has to be maintained, it is changed.  By the time I have encountered eight clues running across the page, each of which is shrouded in deceptive ambiguity, I have nothing. Let’s say this is a Wednesday puzzle, considered to be far less challenging than those that follow it.  I’m looking at empty squares and quickly overwhelmed by my inadequacy on this, a medium level puzzle.  I take a breath and try the eight clues running in sequence down the page, only to find that once again, no rock-solid answers arrive.  I’ve now exhausted sixteen clues without putting pencil to paper.

What does this say about me? Maybe I need to scale down my ambition and do the Monday puzzle on The Atlantic’s website, twenty-four spaces in all, five across and nine down, with clues such as “Gargantuan aquatic mammal with a blowhole” in five letters.  Maybe I should admit defeat and watch youtube videos of animal best friends.  I should do that in any case, but in this moment the choice before me is to yield or push my brain a bit farther until I find a clue I can answer, then the next, and the next.

The lesson for me is that I can’t know what I know if I walk away.  I have to take it one word at a time.  As Anne Lamott’s father advised her brother, stuck and overwhelmed by a project on birds, “Bird by bird, buddy.  Just take it bird by bird.”

We’re talking about fifteen minutes before I grab a cup of coffee and a yoghurt.  Fifteen minutes of brain tuning.  Some days are better than others.  I’ve raced through an entire puzzle in ten minutes and on others found myself stuck on “Gargantuan mammal with a blowhole”.  

The final lesson is that I’m content with finishing a puzzle even as I meet friends who polish off the Sunday crossword in ink.  This not “Zen and the Art of Crosswords”, but things do go better when I am amused by a crossword’s tricky word play and appreciative of the lengths to which someone has gone to provide me with fifteen minutes not engaged in culture wars, financial planning, or the to-do list languishing on the refrigerator door.

So, mammals with blowholes?  I began the quest, whale by whale until I hit the headline: “Scientists Discover A Mouth Breathing Dolphin”.  The world is unimaginably surprising.