A BOY, A LETTER, A JOURNEY…

Pull from a pile of paper this September evening, a long-ago July memory:

July 24, 1966, Sunday

Innsbruck, Austria

Dear Mom,

I leave for Lucerne in the morning. I don’t suppose that anything you sent me there if you spelled the city’s name as I did — without its final “e” — will be delayed (mea culpa.)

After Lucerne and possibly a brief stay in Zurich, I will head for Munich, Germany — again only for a brief stay. I have heard so much in my travels about Munich’s joyous and boisterous beer halls that I simply must have a look for myself.

I should leave Munich on about the 28th. I will then attempt to make a brief stay in Amsterdam. — another place highly recommended by fellow travelers.

At any rate, I must be in Rotterdam by August 1, if I am to get my bearings in time to catch the boat on August 2nd.

At present, my plans for the return are simply this: I will sail from Rotterdam on or about August 2nd ( I expect there will be no delay this time — the Groote Beer is a passenger ship committed to a schedule. The voyage should last about nine days; I should arrive in New York about August 11. Upon arriving, I will call home and advise you of my plan for reaching Boston. If my funds seem dangerously low at the time of my Rotterdam debarkation, I will have you wire me enough money to pay a U.S. plane or train fare. My funds at present, however, are quite well.

I left Vienna late last night for Innsbruck. This morning, I awoke in a first class compartment and found the window of the train beaded with cold rain (there has been much rain in Europe over the past week). I knelt up and slid down the window of the train. There before me in the driven rain was a massive mountain peak — my first view of the Alps. The top of it was cloaked in clouds, the bottom was thick with pines and the furrows of ski trails.

You who love the Austrian landscape depicted in The Sound of Music would have loved as well the view I had of it this morning — despite the rain. So high were we that clouds drifted like smoke over the rich green fields. The field were filled with clover and small shacks housing thick billows of hay. It was a wonderful sight. I must admit that I have had momentary compunctions over one point of this journey. I had not planned to buy gift for anyone on this trip, and so I have not. But in Florence, a city where anyone may bargain on the straw market for cameos, leather goods and whatnot — as most tourists do — I felt I should not pass up the opportunity to bring home authentic souvenirs for one and all. But I bought nothing — how could I store them? What and for whom should I buy? So be it.

SEND NEXT LETTER TO ROTTERDAM AMERICAN EXPRESS

I will receive any and all Lucerne mail tomorrow JULY 25, 1966.

SO LONG FOR NOW.

Love,

Greg

I actually did buy my brothers some good Dutch cigars and bought Delft salt and pepper shakers (if memory serves me) for my mother. I had bought a very nice leather billfold in Florence — for myself. It was a beauty. I wonder what ever happened to it. I hope I gave it to one of my brothers.

I had only $500 for the whole trip.

I have many European memories such as this, preserved in letters. Only when a news station sent me to Rome to cover the death and funeral of Pope John Paul II in April, 2005 did I ever return. There’s always the future. But the Europe of 1966, only twenty-one years after the war, still recovering from that cataclysm but still at peace, still relatively cheap to travel and still four decades from the coming terror, viruses and dubious waves of immigration — that Europe is gone.

I’ll keep my memories.

THE FLIGHT FROM “RELIGIOUS POLITICS”.

The following are small excerpts from a provocative essay called, “Sources of Life”, by a writer named Greg Jackson, which appeared in the August, 2021 issue of Harper’s Magazine. It originally appeared in the Spring, 2021 issue of another magazine called, The Point.

(Note: for some reason, wordpress working annoyingly in ways I can’t yet figure out, I’ve so far been unable to correct some typos and mistaken elision of words in this copied text. Sorry.)

A false theory of culture is worse than a false theory of the heavens. The planets stick to their orbits nomatter what we th ink, but culture becomes what we believe it to be….It is extremely difficult to make conscious choices amid systems and technologies that tax our forbearance and reward our worst impulses….half an hour on Twitter or YouTube may…reduce us to an exposed nerve, pulsing with rage born of fear, a sense of vagrant and ubiquitous threats….

Today, media and social media organize our conformity. Calculated self-preservation dominates.

(Here, Jackson makes the case for art.)

By awakening people to the legitimacy of their feelings, art gives them confidence that their experience is not an anomalous, lonely event, but something others share in, and that it may be reasonable, therefore, to question the tyranny of public opinion.

Politics’ colonization of culture in contemporary America has greatly damaged this public lifeline to the private psyche….(W)e may each measure for ourselves the toleration of our beliefs by judging how often we wonder in our hearts whether stating them in public is perilous. Where, when public opinion rules, does private truth find and outlet?

The vacant secular despair that sends us searching for a religious politics (emphasis added)…is precisely what culture of this category is meant to address….our emptiness is an emptiness that comes from continuing to consume something that resembles nourishment but consists of nothing but fat-burning calories.

Unless we claw back some sphere of cultural and civic activity from the totaling force of religious politics (again, emphasis added), we are unlikely to find venues where we can get outside the rigid struggle of political combat to explore and expand who we are, what we want, and how we relate to one another.

END OF EXCERPTS.

BEGINNING OF A BRIEF ANALYSIS:

I don’t know this writer, nor do I know much about the magazine from which his essay was re-published by Harpers. But I regard much or most of his diagnosis of contemporary culture hearteningly accurate.

I emphasized his phrase “religious politics” and must note that he never defines it. One could say that it’s obvious, self-explanatory. But, is it?

I would suggest that the seeming obsession of seemingly millions with modern politics suggests that it has rushed into the vacuum created by the decline of supernatural religious belief.

It is telling, at least to me, that the last sentence copied above, asserting the need for all of us to move away from this disordered “sphere” created by politics-as-religion is followed by this sentence: “In midieval Europe, there was no such thing as nonreligious art or nonreligious politics. We are backsliding.

I happen to adhere to the religious faith that dominated medieval Europe, i.e., Catholicism. What the Church taught then, it teaches now. The spirit and letter of that core faith was not obliterated by the Renaissance, but, rather, slipped into it at the tip of Michelangelo’s brush and chisel and grew and developed, as did Catholic religious dogma, though it was destined, in our time, to be largely discarded, ignored or, to the extent that it has survived, vilified — or, in the case of Joe Biden and Nancy Pilosi — adopted as a cultural shroud over their rabidly secular ideology.

True, culture did over time secularized and we should not wish for the return of a theocratic domination of society and culture. But I, for one, believe the product of the medieval scribes and artists were informed by a culturally and spiritually redemptive force superior to the “totalizing” force of contemporary politics –which, again, has become our religion, propagated and zealously enflamed by media, social and mainstream.

Author Jackson probably has another idea — that art for art sake is where true and self-knowledge lies. I can live with that, if only as an anodyne balm for the “totalizing” effects on our inner lives of modern politics.

Art for art’s sake, or, more accurately, art as “religion”. If I’m not mistaken, that’s the path James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus is last seen pursuing at the close of Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, as he flees the intense religiosity of his native Ireland. (He needn’t have worried about contemporary Ireland, which, with the rest of western nations, has radically secularized. Is this what Stephen meant when he said he was off to forge “in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race”?

But the radical politics Jackson identifies in the essay is more of the rightist variety, e.g., extreme nationalism and conspiracy theories as generated by the poisonous likes of AQnon. So be it. It is toxic, I acknowledge, though, I also submit, no less toxic than the “religious politics” of the left, which I also submit is far more ascendant and dominant in our culture. Either way, Jackson posits this as the basis for his argument that, as a consequence of all this, we find ourselves escaping into the endless diversion of entertainment, narcotics, video games and social media…all that “false nourishment.”

So, Greg Jackson, obviously a thoughtful man duly suspicious of formal religion says, further down in this essay, “Art, unlike religion, does not ask us to be better than we are; it asks instead only that we understand ourselves, and then, from the evidence of this understanding, it points us “toward sources of light” — hence, the title of his essay, and he attributes this phrase –“sources of light” – to Saul Bellow, another very thoughtful fellow.

I guess Jackson does not see religion as a “source of light”. Much religion in our time has given his good cause to feel that way.

But, with Saul Bellow, writing in his novel, Mr. Sammler’s Planet, I might say, “The earth is literally a mirror of thoughts. Objects themselves are embodied thoughts. Death is the dark backing that a mirror needs if we are to see anything.”

And, with Saint Augustine I would call for self-knowledge amid the storm of contemporary diversions and politics. And Mr. Sammler would add, “(t)he terms which, in his inmost heart, each man knows. As I know mine. As all know. For that is the truth of it — that we all know, God, that we know, that we know, we know, we know.”

Amen.

BLACK CORDUROY JACKET

In this picture I have of me standing in a harvested rice paddy — stubble stitching the level earth in rows, stretching to the mountains and the river — I am wearing a black corduroy jacket. It belonged to Bruce Walker, fellow G.I.. I borrowed it for much of that winter of 1970-71 when we weren’t in our fatigues and on duty. Bruce was from St. Petersburg, Florida. His room was next to mine in the barracks. This was on Kanghwa Island, Republic of Korea. We were both M.P.s

I moved to St. Petersburg for the first time in December, 1980, stayed for three- and- half-years, pretty much having forgotten about Bruce and a lot of other guys. Seeing that picture recently, and that jacket, reminded me of Bruce.

Once, toward the end of my St. Petersburg stay, it occurred to me to look in the phone book for any Bruce Walkers. There were phone books in those days. There was, as I recall, only one Bruce Walker, just one. I don’t know if I noted the number. I glanced at it, anyway. Would he remember me?

Then, down to my final hours in town in August, 1983, I recall sitting down before for a thoughtful moment before the move to a new job in Boston, looking out at the waters of Tampa Bay around dusk, thinking of what was ahead, and of what was now behind me, and, for some reason, that was the moment I suddenly thought of how I’d never connected with Bruce Walker; never even tried that number.

It was too late now, I thought. I’m out of here.

There was considerable turmoil to divert and distract me before my departure for that new job. I’d been a news reporter on local television during those three-and-a-half years. Had Bruce, wherever he lived locally, perhaps looked up at a TV once day over a beer and beheld a vaguely familiar face or heard a vaguely familiar name or voice; maybe suddenly blurted out to himself, “hell, that’s Wayland.!”

If so, he never called. We hadn’t been real close friends, just fellow M.P.s.. My guess is, Bruce didn’t watch a lot of TV news, and never saw me.

But maybe,wherever he was, he remembered the night we partied with some other guys in the main island village, somehow stayed beyond the midnight national curfew in force in those days (intended to protect the nation from Communist infiltrators). We rented separate little rooms with rice paper walls in a village inn. I woke in the night wailing in pain from sudden, severe stomach cramps, thinking, to my horror, that maybe the feast of local cuisine we’d eaten contained bad shellfish or something; thinking, too, that maybe I was about to die. I stumbled out into the stark, dimly lit little foyer and lay down in distress on the bare indoor-outdoor cement floor with a drain in the middle. The awakened and alarmed female innkeepers suddenly gathered around me, sending for a doctor. Only then did Bruce, obviously sleeping soundly to that point, wake — or more likely, having drunk his share of Korean beer, get woken with some difficulty and summoned by the women who doubtless told him his chingo was in trouble. He suddenly appeared, as in a dream, blurry eyed, still half asleep, standing over me where I was sprawled out in my skivvies. I recall his bemused and groggy look. At that point I was no longer dying; I was just embarrassed. The pain had vanished, thankfully.

The village doctor showed up quickly — bless him — felt all around my stomach, finally said, “gastritis.” I agreed it was the probable cause. Then he produced a huge hypodermic needle with green liquid in it and offered to give me an injection. I looked up at Bruce — and Bruce sagely shook his head, affirming my own good judgement. We thanked the doctor, who went on his way and Bruce and I retired to our separate quarters to resume our sleep, and the gathering of grateful female innkeepers retired as well, doubtless grateful they would not have an expired G.I. on their hands that night.

In 1990, in the middle of a literally up-and-down career, I moved back to St. Petersburg, once again to work at the same TV station for another six years. At some point during those six years, probably at least once, I looked in the white pages (there were still phone books) and found no Bruce Walker.

Now, I’m back in Florida again, Largo, right next to St. Petersburg. On line or by other means, I’ve searched again, without much hope of success, for Bruce Walker, former G.I and fellow M.P. assigned, like me, to the Army Security Agency on Kanghwa Island in the Republic of Korea during 1970-71.

Among other things, I want to thank him for all those days of island fellowship, and for reinforcing my then-still potentially fatally wobbly middle-of-the-night judgement that could have seen me injected with something I’m sure would have fallen far short of FDA approval.

Bruce smoked, and we all drank our share of booze in those days. Life, and life habits, can catch up with us before we catch up with one another.

If you’re alive, Bruce, I hope you’re well. If, by chance, you’re gone, may you rest in peace. But I hope you’re alive, and happy, with grandchildren.

And thanks for loaning me that nice corduroy jacket. It looked pretty good on me — and probably even better on you, if you’d ever gotten a chance to wear it.