Stephen W. Browne Rants and Raves

February 27, 2013

Some background to “The Americans” Part 2

Filed under: Movies,Politics,Social Science & History — Stephen W. Browne @ 10:39 am

Note: Cross-posted on my professional blog at The Marshall Independent.

In my post on recommended reading for anyone whose interest in Cold War history has been piqued by the FX series, “The Americans” I provided a reading list of sources which have been authenticated to a reasonable degree.

There’s something else I’d like to mention, but this is in the realm of pure speculation.

One of the sources I found when researching my review said there are estimates of “as many as 50 couples” like the couple portrayed in the series, in place in the U.S.

I have no idea how they got that figure or what it’s worth. But some years back I heard a very intriguing rumor.

According to this, the United States was never able to put agents in place within the Soviet Union. Among other reasons, their society isn’t as mobile as ours. They don’t habitually move around the country looking for work, or just because they think they might like someplace else better. Most people grow up among people they’ve known all their lives.

For another, functioning in their society required a lot of documentation, official permissions etc that presented an almost insurmountable barrier to passing as a native.

What U.S. intelligence did was to have American handlers recruit locals to pass information with the promise that they and their families would eventually be extracted and taken to live in the U.S., as Col. Kuklinski’s family was.

The Soviets on the other hand, had little trouble putting agents in place in our country. Constructing an identity is not terribly difficult. I understand it starts with touring cemeteries, looking for someone who died in childhood who would have been about your own age. You then write to the county records office and say, “I’m so-and-so and I’d like a copy of my birth certificate.”

With the birth certificate you generate all the other documents you need. It won’t pass a background check of the degree of thoroughness required to get a job with the FBI, but that’s not the point. You can settle in a part of the country that’s rich in information, and blend into society, hoping to cultivate the acquaintance of people who do have access to useful information.

No here’s the rumor I heard. The Soviets could do that – but they tended to lose people.

Agents in place, like the couple in the series, would realize, “Life is good here. Life is not good back home.”

If you’ve generated one identity, it’s no trick to generate another and move somewhere else in this vast and varied country of ours.

So why not just defect? Turn yourself in.

Well, there’s another rumor, and it’s an ugly one.

The U.S. government did not in fact welcome all potential defectors with open arms. The reasoning is that unless they came with valuable information or skills, it was better to leave malcontents in place within Soviet society where they were a potentially disruptive influence.

We know defectors have been turned away. Vasilli Mitrokhin was, that’s how the British got the KGB archives first.

There is a rumor that defectors who didn’t have sufficiently valuable information were sometimes traded back. (I was told this by an Air Force noncom with a hobby interest in political and military history.)

So, blend in, lie low, and never tell your children.

I wonder about this. Are there living among us people who appear like any other of our countrymen, who were born half a world away?

I wonder if we’ll ever know.

February 25, 2013

Review: Argo

Filed under: Movies,Social Science & History,Terrorism,War — Stephen W. Browne @ 9:48 am

Note: I see “Argo” won an academy award, and I see I neglected to post my review which first appeared in the print-only TV Guide of The Marshall Independent. So here it is.

After a slow beginning the reputation of “Argo” as a taut psychological thriller and intelligent action flick is getting around.

“Argo” achieves the most difficult feat for a thriller, keeping you on edge even when you know the outcome walking in. As action flick it hearkens back to an earlier time before the “non-stop action” genre, when films paid attention to set up and character development. And for once, the CIA are shown as the good guys.

And if you’re paying careful attention there are some interesting questions about realpolitik and ethics versus practicalities raised therein.

“Argo” tells the story of the “Canadian caper,” a joint CIA-Canadian operation that spirited six American diplomatic personnel out of Iran during the Iranian hostage crisis in January, 1980.

Since a generation has passed since those days, the film begins with a narrator relating the background. In 1979 the Shah of Iran was forced into exile and the Ayatollah Khomeni returned from his own exile to assume spiritual leadership of the new Islamic Republic of Iran.

Enraged that the U.S. admitted the Shah into the country for medical treatment, militants stormed and seized the American embassy, taking the staff hostage for what was to become a 444 day ordeal.

Six diplomats escaped out a back door and ultimately found refuge in the residence of the Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor (Victor Garber.)

CIA officials brainstorm various plans to extract the six, discarding all of them as impractical, until agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, who also directs) comes up with an audacious plan to extract the six disguised as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a science fiction movie to be called Argo.

The plan is green-lighted as the “least bad” option.

Mendez contacts makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) who did contract work for the CIA with disguises.

“Let me get this straight, you want to come to Hollywood, make a fake movie, and do nothing?” Chambers asked. “You’ll fit right in.”

Chambers helps Mendez recruit producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to establish a thorough cover for the operation.

“If I’m going to make a fake movie, I’m going to make a fake hit,” Siegel said.

The cover involved a real script that justified an exotic location shoot (an adaptation of Roger Zelazny’s novel, “Lord of Light” by the way,) full-page ads in Variety, press conferences, casting calls, and an office that existed to answer precisely one phone call from Iran to verify that Mendez’s cover character was “out of the country on location.”

The understated tension is marvelously done, Afleck has a great future as a director. The living conditions of the six, in comfortable but cramped conditions, living in fear, getting on each others nerves, is shown in images with few words. A glimpse of a man shot by firing squad through a window, a man hanged from a crane, the growing suspicion that the Iranian housekeeper knows who the ambassador’s guests are. This could be a textbook illustration of the novelist’s dictum, “Show – don’t tell.”

“Argo” doesn’t shy away from the moral ambiguity of the U.S.- Iranian conflict. Yes the U.S. sponsored a coup against Iranian Prime Minister Mossadegh in 1953, and supported a despot who ruled with the brutal CIA-trained secret police SAVAK.

But with the Shah gone, what replaced him? Even more brutal religious fanatics who threw a rich and modernizing country into poverty and chaos.

And who were the militant leaders? Mendez tells the six while briefing them. Not semi-literate goat-herders but American and European-educated English speakers who had seen the west close up, and hated it. Hated the west enough to throw away ancient laws on the treatment of diplomats and stage sadistic mock-execution with their captives.

There’s food for thought here, now more than ever.

There’s also some choices Afleck made he should have thought twice about. “Argo” has it the six were refused refuge at the British and New Zealand embassies. In fact both embassies aided the six in important ways, as did the Swedish embassy which briefly sheltered one of them.

Afleck calls this dramatic license to heighten the sense the six had no place else to go.

No, having the Swissair plane chased down the runway by gunmen in trucks as it’s taking off is dramatic license. This is slander.

After the preview at the Toronto Film Festival in September, critics charged “Argo” unfairly minimized Canadian participation in the operation. Well perhaps, but then again the Canadians got all the credit until 1997 when the operation was declassified and Mendez got to claim his Intelligence Star medal, and Chambers his Intelligence medal.

February 21, 2013

Danger from the Sky

Filed under: Uncategorized — Stephen W. Browne @ 6:50 am

Note: This is my weekly op-ed column.

Last week the world learned of a meteor that exploded over the Ural mountains on Friday, shattering windows over a 2,000,000 square foot area and injuring roughly 200 children and 1,000 adults.

The meteor broke up in the atmosphere creating damage through the shock wave, but at least one piece fell to earth and broke through the ice of a local lake.

It could have been worse. In the Tunguska event of June 30, 1908, a meteor exploding in the air over Krasnoyarsk Krai, Russia, knocked down an estimated 80 million trees over an 830 square mile area. If it had hit anywhere but out in the Siberian boonies, it would have been a Hiroshima-level event.

To give you an idea of the difference, the energy from Friday’s event has been compared to a nuclear explosions measured in kilotons of TNT. The Tunguska event is measured in megatons.

Estimates of the size of the Tunguska meteor vary, but it was probably on the order of 330 feet.

If that hasn’t disturbed your sleep yet, on Friday asteroid 2012 DA14 flew by the earth within 17,150 miles. That’s within the orbit of the moon, in fact closer than the orbit of some communications satellites.

Estimates of the size of 2012 DA14 vary between 130 and 160 feet, and most accounts just call it “football field” sized. You could call it half a Tunguska.

Now what’s really scary is, the two events are not related. Astronomers say the two objects were going in different directions, the fact they happened the same day is, “just a coincidence.”

Let that sink in for a moment. Purely by chance we had one hit and one near-miss on the same day.

A bit of background, highly simplified. The solar system used to have a lot more sky junk zipping around. Much of it has been hooverd up by great Jupiter, but quite a lot of it has impacted the inner planets over time.

The surface of the other major rocky bodies: the moon, Mars, and Mercury are pitted with craters like a very bad case of acne.

Venus and the earth have thick atmospheres that are highly erosive, so evidence of past strikes is worn away over time. Yet even on earth there remains evidence of past giant impacts.

The extinction-level event that wiped out the dinosaurs, and an estimated 90 percent of the species living on earth at the time is now generally accepted to have been a meteor strike.

The Manson Crater in Iowa, now buried under glacial till, is evidence of the ancient impact of an asteroid more than a mile across. It was once a prime candidate for the dinosaur extinction event, until proven to be too old.

Meteor Crater in Arizona is 4,000 in diameter and 570 feet deep, after 50,000 of erosion.

Getting nearer historical times, about 14,000 years ago a meteorite (when one actually hits the ground it’s called a meteorite) hit northern Canada and caused a mini-ice age.

And about 5,000 years ago one landed in the Indian Ocean, causing a tsunami thought by some to be the origin of the Great Flood legends.

However, these are very rare. Thousands of meteors hit the earth every day, most ranging in size from a grain of sand to a basketball. They are the ones which burn up in the atmosphere, creating the glorious “shooting stars.”

Occasionally, on the order of once a week, a meteor the size of a car will hit the earth, about once a month one the size of a house. Recently one of those exploded over Indonesia, causing some panic but no damage.

There are a couple of things we ought to take into consideration. One is that there are far more densely populated areas around the world than ever before. A Tunguska-sized event in just the right place, or another Indian Ocean event would have far more disastrous consequences today than at any time in the past.

Another is, “rare” does not mean “never will happen.” Wait long enough and it’ll happen again.

For the first time in history we’re able to keep track of sky junk that passes close enough to give cause for alarm, and we’re getting better at it every day. Forewarned is forearmed as they say. Given enough warning we have the capability to smack an asteroid out of the way.

As often happens, a profound observation was recently expressed as a joke going around.

“That asteroid was God’s way of asking, ‘How’s that space program going?’”

February 20, 2013

Review: A Good Day to Die Hard

Filed under: Movies — Stephen W. Browne @ 10:06 am

Note: This appeared in the print-only TV Guide of The Marshall Independent.

The Die Hard series is one of those movies you have to classify as “guilty pleasures.”

“A Good Day to Die Hard” is the fifth in the Die Hard franchise which began in 1988 (!!!) and follows the adventures of John McLain (Bruce Willis), a New York city cop who improbable stuff just happens to, a running joke in the series.

This is McLain’s first outing outside the country, if you don’t count the final scene in Canada in the third. Russia to be exact, although they kind of pass without mentioning that Chernobyl is actually in Ukraine.

And there was one jarring moment for me when I sat up and thought, “Hey that corridor looks familar, I remember it from Budapest!”

The action is unbelieveable, performed by heroes who are, to say the least, irresponsible. They blithely destroy property on a massive scale in car chases and shoot outs which miraculously never seem to cause casualties among innocent bystanders.

It’s kind of dumb fun, but it’s getting to the point of being done to death now. In this reviewer’s humble opinion, the best car-chase-destroy-a-town was in the George C. Scott classic, “The Flim-Flam Man” (1967). Mordecai Jones (Scott) and and Curley (Michael Sarrazin) wrecked a small Kentucky town in a convertible, and somehow got more out of it than wrecking a downtown metropolitan area with armored cars and helicopter gunships.

Nonetheless there is something terribly appealing about the series that sets it apart from the usual crop of mindless action movies, seen today, forgotten next year.

The series’ formula rests on three elements underlying the action.

One is an unexpected series of plot twists. Good guys turn out to be bad guys and McLain has to figure out which, though observation, deduction, and intuition. Motives turn out not to be as they are originally presented. Which is fun, but also makes them harder to review without spoilers.

In the first “Die Hard” it was a gang of hijackers motivated by simple gain, masquerading as terrorists in the service of a cause. A pattern followed in the third sequel, and something like it in the latest.

Another is the underlying theme of bonding with an estranged family member. In the first two it was McLain’s estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) and a supporting character (Reginald VelJohnson).

By the third installment Bedelia had evidently opted out of the series and was only referred to. The bonding-through-shared-action happened with Samuel L. Jackson’s character. In the fourth, it’s McLain’s estranged daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who was brought on scene for a few minutes to establish continuity in this installment.

In “A Good Day to Die Hard” it’s McLain’s estranged son Jack (Jai Courtney), who is also not what he seems at first.

“Your mother thought you were doing drugs,” McLain tells him. “I thought you were dealing drugs.”

Nope, he’s CIA on a mission to recover documents which will reveal the corruption of a powerful Rusian oligarch. Which turns out to be red herring about halfway through the movie.

The third element is banter.

Nobody does banter like Bruce Willis. Since his breakthrough role in the TV “dramedy” series “Moonlighting” (1984-1989) a great many of his roles seem to have been created to showcase his flair for devil-may-care spit-in-the-eye-of-death banter.

And starting with the third Die Hard, they created an oppositional dynamic to the McLain family dynamics. This was foreshadowed in “Die Hard 2” (1990) where the villaiins were a military “band of brothers” gone rogue.

“Die Hard with a Vengeance” (1995) introduced Simon Peter Gruber (Jeremy Irons) the brother of the East German villain Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) of “Die Hard.” Irons had a romantic partner in villainy who was a stone killer (Sam Phillips).

The trope was repeated in “Live Free or Die Hard” (2007) where a villainous romantic couple (Timothy Olyphant and Maggie Q) are paired off against McLain and daughter.

In “A Good Day to Die Hard” it’s McClain and son against a father-daughter team of villains Yuri and Irina Komorov, played by German actor Sebastian Koch, and Russian actress/model Yuliya Snigir.

(Snigir by the way, aside from being easy to look at was awarded the title of Candidate Chess Master by the International Chess Federation at age 15.)

The twist is, the McLain family is dysfunctional. John and Holly love each other but wind up divorced. John McLain’s kids are estanged from Dad, until bonded by shared danger.

But the villains: comrades-in-arms, brothers, lovers, and now father and daughter, all have great relationships!

So if you’re in the mood, turn off your critical faculties and watch the heart-warming family drama of McLain and son bonding to the music of machine gun fire and massive explosions.

February 17, 2013

Some background to “The Americans” Part 1

Filed under: Movies,Social Science & History — Stephen W. Browne @ 12:27 pm

Note: Cross-posted from my blog at The Marshall Independent.

My review of “The Americans” appeared in the print-only TV Guide of The Marshall Independent.

For those wishing to know more about that era, or just want to know if I’m a paranoid conspiracy nut or not, I can recommend a few books.

“A Secret Life: The Polish Officer, His Covert Mission, and the Price He Paid to Save His Country” by Benjamin Weiser.

You can read the short form here, but there’s a lot missing.

Col. Kuklinski contacted and started passing information to the CIA when as a member of the General Staff he discovered the Soviets not only planned to invade Western Europe, but had written off Poland as the proverbial self-lighted glass parking lot if the war went nuclear.

A controversial figure in Poland even today, his grave in the Honor Row of the Powazki Military Cemetery in Warsaw has been vandalized on a few occasions.

The Wikipedia article mentions his two sons died in America. What they don’t elaborate on is that one was killed in a hit-and-run accident, the driver was never found. The other disappeared on a diving trip along with a few friends. His daughter is living in hiding in America.

Whatever they call it these days, the KGB still has a long arm.

“Engineering Communism: How Two Americans Spied for Stalin and Founded the Soviet Silicon Valley” by Steven T. Usdin.

This is a fascinating read. The book was conceived after Usdin met a Soviet scientist who spoke perfect English. The scientist told him he’d learned it in school.

Usdin replied, “You didn’t learn that Brooklyn accent in school.”

The scientist turned out to be Joel Barr, one of the two members of the Rosenberg spy ring who escaped to the USSR and together with fellow escapee Alfred Sarant helped found Zelenograd, the “Soviet Silicon Valley.”

It turns out not only were the Rosenberg’s guilty, they were so guilty you have to wonder what the heck the FBI was doing, sitting on their hands?

The KGB officer who was sent over to be the ring’s handler was shocked at the amateurishness of these idiots. For example, before their handler taught them the elements of tradecraft, Julius Rosenberg’s self-chosen code name was “Julius.”

Interestingly, though the Rosenberg ring did indeed pass on the atomic bomb secrets to the Soviets, the more practical secret they gave them was the proximity fuse, the force multiplier for artillery. The A-bomb was after all never used by the end of the Cold War, but artillery certainly was.

And speaking of the A-bomb, if anybody doubts that nuclear weapons technology was stolen from the U.S. by the USSR rather than developed independently, “The Red Bomb” documentary disposes of that lie.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen it but I remember there was an interview with the head of the Soviet bomb project just before his death, in which he freely admitted that every month he got a box full of documents straight from Los Alamos, which only he was allowed to read.

The Venona Transcripts… you don’t want to read thousands of source documents unless you’re a professional and you have to. A good book about them, and how they came to be can be found here. Or just glance at the Wikipedia entry, with the proviso that the ‘pedia is sometimes incomplete, sometimes contains deliberately planted disinformation, and is sometimes just flat wrong.

“The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB” by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin.

Mitrokhin wasn’t a KGB field agent, he was an archivist with unlimited access to KGB files. Of course with that kind of stuff in his head they’d never have put him in the field. What he did was make copies and immensely detailed notes of documents in the archives from 1972-1984. He retired in 1985 and defected to the United Kingdom in 1992 – after the CIA didn’t believe he could have done this and turned him down.

And of course the classic “Witness” by Whittaker Chambers. First published in 1952, this is the almost-forgotten autobiography of a former American Communist and Soviet agent who became a Christian, a political conservative, and an editor at National Review.

Chambers was vilified for accusing respectable and powerful upper-class figures such as Alger Hiss and Harry White of being Soviet agents. Surprise! He was right and they were liars.

Word of caution, it’s looooong and I first read it out of a sense of duty to history. However it’s oddly compelling and there is a sweet sense of nobility about Chambers’ apologia pro vita sua. He knew he wasn’t going to win any popularity contests, and to the end of his life he never quite shook the Marxist notion of historical inevitability. He thought he’d jumped ship to the losing side.

For the testimony of another former communist who didn’t go quite so far right, I’d recommend “Being Red: A Memoir” by Howard Fast.

I love Howard Fast’s novels. In particular, “Citizen Tom Paine,” “April Morning,” and “My Glorious Brothers.”

Unlike Chambers, Fast never quite got over his time in the CPUSA and referred to his old comrades as “Some of the finest people I’ve ever known.”

Or was he just terrified, who knows?

This is one of those autobiographies that tends to confirm the adage that you should never meet an author whose work you admire. Fast tells how as a Communist Party official writer, he had an advance look at Krushchev’s “Secret Speech” to the 20th Party Congress on February 14, 1956, in which Stalin’s atrocities were confirmed. However Fast didn’t quit the CP until years later.

Fast talks about how traumatized by the shattering of his illusions he was, and how he had to work it out with his analyst.

Uh, what about the tens of millions of victims Howie?

There is a fascinating glimpse into the origins of Political Correctness herein. Fast records his disaffection with the CP hierarchy when they published lists of words and phrases not to be used. For example, never use the expression “whitewash” because it’s racist.

That’s a writer for you. Tell him tens of millions of innocents were slaughtered by his hero and he starts to get a bit uneasy. But tell him how to write and his indignation knows no bounds!

If you’re interested in the history of that period, this list is a good starting point.

What you can get from it is 1) the realization that the history that “everybody knows” can be a lie, 2) the truth does tend to come out in the end, and 3) no kidding, truth really is more interesting than fiction.

February 15, 2013

Review: The Americans

Filed under: Movies,Social Science & History,War — Stephen W. Browne @ 9:18 am

Note: This appeared in the print-only TV Guide of The Marshall Independent.

“The Americans” on FX network may be the series that blows open the secret history of the Cold War – the secret that’s been out in the open for some time now, except nobody is looking. If the network suits don’t chicken out.

Created by Joe Weisberg, a former CIA officer, “The Americans” is the story of Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings (Mathew Rhys and Keri Russell) an American couple living in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. in the 1980s.

A devoted couple with two children Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati) they are living the American Dream.

Except they’re not American, they’re Russian. They know nothing about each other’s real pasts before they were introduced by their KGB superiors and told they were to be husband and wife. They only know their “legends,” the false pasts of their cover identities. Their children were born in America and have no idea what their parents really are.

After the end of the Cold War, the declassified Venona Transcripts and the testimony of high-level defectors such as KGB Major Vassili Mitrokhin and Polish Colonel Ryszard Kuklinski, revealed the received wisdom of the Cold War as a lie.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were guilty, not even their children deny that anymore. Alger Hiss was guilty. The State Department was riddled with traitors in the 1940s and early ‘50s. Franklin Roosevelt’s closest advisor was a Soviet agent. The Communist Party U.S.A. was not a home-grown movement, but a puppet of the Comintern supported by Soviet funds.

The Soviet Union never intended to coexist peacefully with us; their long-range goal was always to conquer us. In the nearer term future they planned to invade and occupy Western Europe using Warsaw Pact forces from Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia driven ahead of the Red Army to remind them which side they were on.

The scheduled date of the invasion was originally the early 1980s, the period “The Americans” is set in. This is not a paranoid fantasy, my children’s grandfather was a Polish officer in the Secret Chancellery and knew very well the order was going to come, someday. As did my son’s godmother, the widow of a KGB defector.

The story of the Jennings life in America mirrors a stark reality. Deep cover agents were taught everything necessary to function in America and trained to speak perfect unaccented English from an early age. Once in America they were ordered to keep language discipline, never to speak their native language under any circumstances.

This is not a fantasy either. In 1996 I worked with a young Russian in Bulgaria who spoke perfect English with a Midwestern American accent.

“Special schools since I was 10,” he explained.

Elizabeth believes in the mission, believes Reagan is a dangerous madman out to destroy the Rodina (Motherland). When a comrade on a mission to kidnap a KGB defector is mortally wounded, Phillip takes the time to drop him off within walking distance of an ER.

“The mission comes first!” Elizabeth says angrily.

Phillip is conflicted. In the very first episode he openly suggests defecting.

“We could be millionaires!” he says. “And the children are American anyway.”

Their situation is complex. Phillip wants to release the defector – until Elizabeth reveals he was a training officer in the KGB academy who raped her, with official sanction.

“Sorry,” he says. “We were told to do anything we wanted with the cadets.”

Phillip kills him.

Elizabeth and Phillip are developing feelings for each other, after 15 years of “marriage” and two children. Complicated by the fact Elizabeth sometimes has to seduce potential sources.

Phillip also seduces a source by posing as a Swedish diplomat. But his source is flighty and threatens to expose him if he doesn’t leave his “wife.” Phillip may have to kill her.

An FBI agent (Noah Emmerich) moves into their neighborhood. He’s quite open about his work, but is this a ruse to rattle them?

Elizabeth shows signs of softening. She forces a maid in Secretary of Defense “Cap” Weinberger’s house to install a covert recording device by injecting her son with poison via an umbrella gun. But she gives the boy the antidote even when the mission is only a partial success.

Not a James Bond fantasy either. My first coup as an amateur journalist was interviewing the widow of a Belarusian dissident murdered this way.

The tradecraft portrayed in “The Americans” is utterly convincing. The tension is almost unbearable, though we know how the Cold War ended.

Will the series show how WWIII was avoided? Will the suits have to guts to tell it like it was? Will the Jennings come in from the cold?

When Elizabeth softens towards Phillip, she tells him, “My name was Nadezhda.”

In Russian that means, “Hope.”

February 13, 2013

The kindness of strangers

Filed under: Op-eds — Stephen W. Browne @ 8:41 am

Note: This is my weekly column.

My children and I came back from the Twin Cities this past Sunday after spending a weekend at the Mall of America, a journey that was not without incident.

I had a seminar class to teach in Redwood Falls, and on occasions like this I very often have to bring them along if I can’t find a sitter for my six-year-old. Soooo, I promised them if they were patient and sat around the corridor of a school bored out of their minds for seven hours straight, I’d take them to the Mall of America.

By Saturday, a winter storm warning complicated things a bit, so we stayed in a motel and I deferred the decisions whether to return on Sunday or wait another day, given that school would probably be cancelled.

Well fools rush in. I decided to come back on Sunday, after the freezing rain and snow of the night before, knowing the trip would take at least twice as long but still hoping to beat the blizzard.

In winter I do have extra blankets in the car, an emergency kit and entrenching tool of course.

Just outside of Norwood-Young America we hit a patch of slush and dove into the ditch.

But within a few minutes of sliding into the ditch, people started stopping to ask if we needed help. One gentleman got out of his car, walked up to us and told me to shut off the engine because the tail pipe was buried in snow.

Another couple asked if we needed a ride anywhere.

All in all, I think more people stopped than passed by, except when they saw somebody had already stopped.

Of course I have AAA, and of course they did their best, and of course they were swamped. Ultimately they recommended we find a motel for the night.

Having an AAA membership is something I’d recommend for everyone who ever drives outside the city limits. Triple-A is the finest example of non-government social power I can think of. But even they get swamped in weather like this.

Just as we were starting to unpack, no less than two cars stopped, carrying an elderly couple and one young man. They agreed since I had all-wheel drive they could probably get us out.

The elderly gentleman hooked up a tow cable, the young guy started shoveling in the back, with some assistance from my 11-year-old. After waving off yet another driver who stopped to offer assistance, they got us out and on our way.

Nor was that the end of it. Down the road I stopped at an intersection briefly to check a suspicious noise. A driver coming crossways stopped, rolled down his window and asked if I needed help.

A few minutes later AAA called back and asked how we were doing. I told them everything was OK, we’d gotten out with the help of kind strangers.

The operator said, “I’ve been hearing that all night.”

This is not the first time this has happened to me, nor the only place in America. It seems to happen more often in rural areas, but perhaps that’s because in more densely populated places people assume help is more conveniently available.

I was going to say that natural disasters bring out the best in people. But I don’t actually think disaster brings it out.

It’s always there, we just don’t get a chance to see it as often.

February 6, 2013

What I learned from garbage

Filed under: Uncategorized — Stephen W. Browne @ 1:02 pm

Note: My weekly column.

During the recent cold snap I wrote a story for my newspaper about workingmen who have to be out in the weather, no matter how cold it gets.

I interviewed a sanitation company worker driving a rear-end loader.

Of course I had to tell him that in my youth I’d spent a total of six years working for a city sanitation department in Oklahoma. And of course just because he was going back out into the bitter cold, I had to rib him about it.

“Yeah, I was a garbageman back when it was a real man’s job, back when we carried the garbage on our backs!” I said. “We didn’t have a robot to do the work.”

He good-naturedly offered to let me come along on his route and pull the dumpsters around.

I became a garbageman after I’d dropped out of college and found myself in an economic downturn with little work experience, no higher education, and no vocational skills. I actually stuck with it for a few years before I went back to college and got my bachelors degree in anthropology.

I then worked a few more years in the refuse rangers before transferring to the sewage treatment plant, which actually taught me useful skills, and had shifts flexible enough for me to attend graduate school part time.

At one time I despaired of the years I’d spent on the job. Till an old gentleman who’d been a successful businessman in many different fields told me, “They’ll be the most valuable years you’ve ever spent.”

Well, perhaps he was right. I’ve lately thought about some of the things I learned on that job, and while I might wish it hadn’t taken quite so many years, I really don’t see how I’d have learned them any other way.

In no particular order, some of them are:

You’d be amazed at the things American’s throw away. Utensils, working appliances, clothes and shoes, unopened bottles of liquor… What a wealthy country we are in material things we can afford to be so casual about discarding!

Market forces rule. If there is a job that has to be done, and they can’t find people to do it, they’ll raise the wages until they find people who’ll do it, and they won’t look too closely at your background either.

We found this out in the heat wave of 1980, when for months the temperature never got below 100 degrees day or night, and often got as high as 114.

We couldn’t keep men. Guys would sign on in the morning and disappear at lunchtime. We were running two-man crews instead of the usual three and putting in hours of overtime every day.

We finally banded together and told our supervisors that we’d come in, work our eight hours, but we weren’t putting in anymore overtime. We just couldn’t maintain it physically anymore. The city responded by raising our wages to make them attractive enough for people to stay on the job.

They also found a way to collaborate with the union (American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees) to make life for the shop steward who’d organized the job action miserable enough to convince him to find work elsewhere. For the union rep who’d helped settle the situation, they created an easy make-work position of “foreman.”

I found that it really does take all kinds. I worked with guys with masters degrees, illiterates, cons from the local medium-security prison on work release, men who later went to prison for heinous crimes, devoted family men, hell raisers who regularly came to work from the drunk tank of the county jail.

I learned that though you may think there is a job a chimpanzee could do, somebody will find a way to screw up.

And I learned there are some jobs that just have to be done No matter the weather, no matter the burden, no matter what. They never end, there’s no point you can stop and say, “That’s it, we’re finished.”

They are the essential unglamorous jobs that hold civilization together. Nobody pats you on the back for doing them, but they’d miss you pretty quick if you were gone.

February 5, 2013

Review: ‘Shakespeare Uncovered’ on PBS

Filed under: Movies,Social Science & History — Stephen W. Browne @ 1:20 pm

Note: This appeared in the print-only Marshall Independent TV Guide

The first Shakespeare play I ever saw when I was a boy, was “The Tragedy of MacBeth,” with Maurice Evans and Dame Judith Anderson (1954). It’s still one of my favorite plays, running neck and neck with Henry V, though I prefer the Roman Polanski version with Jon Finch and Francesca Annis (1971).

Shakespeare, together with the King James Bible, is one of the gems of the modern English language. It’s been noted English changed more in the two centuries between Chaucer and Shakespeare, than it has in the four centuries between Shakespeare and us, as if we weren’t meant to lose touch with the Bard. The dialect is a bit archaic and we need a glossary of old words and expressions to follow some passages. There have been pronunciation shifts that make some wonderfully ribald puns inaccessible, but even without special study you can just sit down and let the language roll over you.

Shakespeare’s appeal goes beyond the English-speaking world. Akira Kurosawa adapted “MacBeth” to the samurai era in “Throne of Blood” (1957).
Filipinos have quoted Shakespeare at me, (“When my love says she is made of truth, I do believe her though I know she lies”) and explained how “Romeo and Juliet” is more meaningful for them than Americans.

“Here if a couple’s parents don’t like each other they just say, ‘Oh they’ll get over it when children come,’ but in the Philippines if their families are against each other, they have no chance.”

I took a Chinese woman to see “Hamlet” once, and got an unforgettable lesson in Shakespeare.

The fashionable interpretation of Hamlet is a man who could not make up his mind and caused the tragedy by dithering. She didn’t see it that way at all.
“Ghost comes and tells prince to kill the king?” she asked. “You got to be crazy! Kill the king on the unsupported word of a ghost? Ghosts lie! All Chinese know that.”

She thought Hamlet was taking reasonable precautions to ascertain whether the ghost really was his father, and was telling the truth, and the result was simply unfortunate.

I think she’s right and we’re wrong.

If I haven’t lost you by now, you must love Shakespeare, or are intrigued about this guy you’ve heard about all your life and would like to know more. Here’s your chance.

I just caught the first two episodes of the series, “Shakespeare Uncovered” on PBS.

The first was Ethan Hawke preparing to play MacBeth and researching the character. The second was Joelly Richardson talking about two cross-dressing roles, women who disguise themselves as men in two of the plays: “As You Like It,” and “Twelfth Night.” (To make it even more complicated, in Shakespeare’s time it would have been boys playing girls, disguising themselves as men.)

Hawke tells you how he’s prepping to play MacBeth. He looks at movie versions back to Orson Welles’. He talks to actors who’ve played the roll, asks them to read for him, and explain how they see it and how they’ve done it. He talks to Shakespearean scholars for details on the life and times of the Bard.

He pulls out all the stops and talks to a psychologist who has interviewed hundreds of murderers. This guy is awed at how Shakespeare got MacBeth’s affect after he’s murdered King Duncan just dead on.

And he briefly, too briefly, compares how Shakespeare took liberties with the historical MacBeth as recorded in Holinshed’s Chronicles (1577).

I wish he’d done more with this, as Isaac Asimov did in “Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare.”

Hawke mentions the historical MacBeth did not murder Duncan, but killed him fair and square on the field of battle. He didn’t mention that MacBeth’s wife is never referred to as anything but “Lady MacBeth,” perhaps because her name was Gruoch, and she was the grand-daughter of Brian Boru, High King of Ireland. (It means something if you’re Irish, trust me.)

But never mind, Shakespeare is a broad subject, to put it mildly. If you go to the series’ website http://www.pbs.org/wnet/shakespeare-uncovered/ you’ll see they’re going to do this with a lot of the plays.

There are also lesson plans for grades 9-12. Ignore these, they’re boring.

Get the kids a good video of the play, anything done by Kenneth Brannaugh. Get an annotated copy of the play with glossary.

You might use Asimov’s guides for background. He’ll tell you where Shakespeare edited history for political reasons, and when he was shamelessly sucking up to the King.

And by all means get two books: “Shakespeare’s Bawdy” by Eric Partridge, a systematic listing of every dirty joke in the plays, and “Shakespeare’s Insults: Educating Your Wit” by Wayne F. Hill and Cynthia J. Ottchen. They’ll be hooked for life.

February 1, 2013

Women in Combat

Filed under: News commentary,Politics,War — Stephen W. Browne @ 6:44 am

Note: This is my weekly syndicated column.

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has announced that women are necessary to our military’s success, that they are willing to fight and die alongside men, and “The time has come for our policies to recognize that reality.”

And of course, the sky is falling.

Opponents have pointed out, quite correctly, that the function of the military is not social engineering, but the defense of the nation.

“While their focus must remain on winning the battles and protecting their troops, they will now have the distraction of having to provide some separation of the genders during fast-moving and deadly situations,” said Jerry Boykin, executive vice president of the Family Research Council and a retired Army lieutenant general.

The move seems to be supported mostly by men who are not veterans and women who don’t personally intend to make a career of the infantry.

I have to ask, is this going to make any difference at all?

I notice that Panetta has left himself an out. He said physical standards will not be lowered, and admitted few women can meet them, but “everyone is entitled to a chance.”

That sounds like, “Hey, you’re welcome to try, so don’t blame me if you can’t pass the test.”

In my younger days I worked as a garbage man in a town which had yard service. Meaning we went into the yards, emptied the cans into our containers, and toted them to the truck on our backs – an average of 65 pounds and often much more. Not distributed as well as a backpack either. We worked in all weathers, including Oklahoma summers when the temperature regularly got above 100.

There was nothing to prevent women from applying for the job, but in six years total I remember two woman who actually tried it on for size and stuck with it for a few months. Nobody complained about their ability to do the work, there just weren’t many like them.

Oh yes, and one was fired along with a male colleague for hanky-panky on the job.

The argument from some female officers is there are women at the high end of that bell curve of strength and stamina who can outperform men at the low end.

This is not news. The question is, is it worthwhile for the military to make some fairly expensive and troublesome accommodations for a statistically tiny minority of women who can meet the physical standards required of an infantryman?

Panneta said standards won’t be lowered, but in fact they have been in a number of cases. There are also reports of serious problems of unit cohesion in Army units and on Navy ships.

My father, a retired Naval officer, put it bluntly that women at sea doesn’t work unless everybody gets one. Anything else is asking for trouble.

The gender equality crowd usually responds with, “Men have to change.”

OK, so what if the changes, if possible at all, result in men who don’t make good soldiers and sailors anymore?

On the other hand… there are plenty of women in combat positions that aren’t infantry. There are helicopter pilots, I believe at least one door gunner, and women qualified to be fighter pilots.

On average women have physical characteristics such as smaller average size, resistance to G-forces, quick reflexes, etc that might make them as good or better than men in the cockpit of a fighter jet.

Lots of women drive trucks and operate heavy equipment and do all the 20-odd support tasks that enable the military to put one combat soldier in the field.

Russian woman served as snipers in WWII and racked up impressive kill records.

Army and Navy nurses have been near enough to the front lines to be killed or captured since World War II.

Israeli women serve in the IDF, making it one of the most attractive as well as most kick-butt armies in the world.

The role of female Israeli soldiers has been overstated though. Israel does not by choice put women into combat. They receive thorough training in arms because in Israel there are no rear areas, and their enemies do not recognize non-combatant status.

I suspect this is going to sort itself out eventually, after a lot of trouble, expense, and scandal no doubt. But that’s the way we do things these days.

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