Monday, May 31, 2010


I am always fascinated by the sheer number of churches. Not the number of physical buildings, but the number of denominations. In the protestant community alone there are Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Congregationalists, Quakers, United Church of Christ, etc, all considering themselves Protestants. The Catholics are not as numerous but they have: Dominicans, Jesuits, Franciscans, Monks, Nuns of various persuasions and the Eastern rite, etc. all considered Catholics. In addition there are the Jewish sects, reformed, conservative, etc. And of course there are the Muslims.

All these groups use the same book to preach from. All base their beliefs on the word as written in the Bible. They are the people of the book.

The bible is a long narrative beginning with the creation myth of the world and consisting of many books. All of the books are recorded sayings of ancient people. Not a word is current history. The Christians begin about the last third of the life of the world, which according to the bible is six thousand years old. The Muslims began about fourteen hundred years ago, while Judaism began at the beginning, six thousand years ago. The sheer number of denominations of religion to base their beliefs on the word as recorded in the bible is astounding. No one who wrote the New Testament was alive when the events took place. We, in modern day America have a difficult time agreeing on the events that occurred in the Clinton presidency and we have videos, spoken words, letters, commentators who are still alive when the events took place. The inconsistencies of the bible are many. The various groups merely accept the parts they deem more correct and adhere to them. The variety of religious interpretation lies in the vagueness and contradictions of the bible which owes a lot to the fact that it was recorded from spoken words. It is always difficult to write down precisely what someone meant. I think the problem is that humans, being what they are, are always ready to create uniqueness. Us versus them. The religious sects have used selections of the bible as bricks and mortar to create a religion that they and only they think is correct, except for the resurrection which all Christian religions accept. Religion is a human creation. The bible is a collection of sometimes very good advice written by, we suspect, respected members of the village, but as for stoning women, just maybe they got it wrong.

Monday, May 24, 2010


Like all kids we were fascinated by lightning bugs. We caught them at dusk and in the dark summer evenings in the small village where I lived. They loved elderberry bushes and we searched around the bushes for them. We held them in our hand and waited until they glowed and quickly, while they were lit, squashed them on our shirts trying to spell our name in fluorescence. Kids do strange things.

Butterflies were also around, but they were special. We only caught them on occasion being careful not to touch their wings or remove the powdery material from the wings. For some reason we were certain that touching the wings would remove the powder and prevent them from ever flying again.

I lived in a coal mining village, not too different from other coal mining villages in Kentucky or West Virginia. Most of our parents were immigrants from Eastern Europe or the older offspring of the immigrants. We were all poor; some poorer than others, but all poor. The school we attended was the pet project of the man that owned the houses where we lived and he paid for the teachers and books and all school supplies.

The company store was the lifeline for us. It held the post office, the shoe store, the clothing store, the hardware store and all owned by the same man. Even though the mines that he had operated were now depleted and no one worked for him, he still owned some of the buildings and the processing plant for the coal mined from other mines. He was very wealthy and lived in a wonderful house in an area that we were only allowed to visit on special occasions, such as Christmas.

Most of us spoke another language at home, but at school only English was allowed.
I always remember Poor Anne S. who could only speak Russian and was sent home from first grade until she learned enough English to be allowed to return.

And for several winters we all received cod liver oil doses at school, provided by the man that owned the houses. We all lined up and the teacher used an eye dropper to deposit foul tasting cod liver oil on our tongue and made sure we swallowed before letting us go.

Work in the mines was hard and dirty. Often it was dangerous and cave-ins were not unusual. Men died in the mines or were disabled. My fathers’ hands had patches of dark blue from the small coal particles that had permanently remained under the skin from accidents.

We went to high school at a neighboring township; we only had a grade school.

Coal gradually was replaced with oil for home heating in the cities that served as the market for coal. Work at the mines was gradually disappearing, so when I graduated high school the Korean War was starting and I enlisted in the Air Force and left the village. After I was discharged, I used the GI bill which provided me with the necessary funds to go to college. I never returned, except for a brief stay while attending college and visits.

Butterflies undergo a metamorphism in the cocoon stage. I’m sure most zoologists can describe the mechanism of how it all works. I find it one of the most fascinating works of nature.

Most of us who grew up in the village must have had our wings touched and the powder removed. Some of us however did not and we escaped, flying to other worlds.

Monday, May 17, 2010


As I recall from my early days’ of studying Catechism, required by the church before confirmation, the vows of poverty are one of the fundamental vows of the Catholic clergy. Priests take these vows before ordination, and nuns also live a life of poverty. The definition of poverty is different according to who writes the definition. When I was growing up we were poor; poverty would probably also be an accepted description.

After high school, I joined the Air Force for four years during the Korean conflict. Because of the largess of the government the World War II GI bill was reinstated and I went on to college.

Money was scarce and I attended the local center of the University and lived at home. My brother loaned me his car when it was my week to drive the car pool and after two years, I moved to the main campus.

I was from a large family and one of my sisters had a child when I was attending college. She asked me to be the God Father for the child, which I readily agreed to.
Baptisms are one of the sacraments of the church and performed by a priest as one of his duties. On the appointed day, a pleasant Saturday, we all went to church along with several other families who were also baptizing a child. The priest arrived only after all of the families had gathered. It is permissible for the priest to be discreetly late.

During the baptism, I took a vow that I would aid in bringing up the child in the ways of the Church should it be needed. As the God Father, I was the designated person to go to the church office to get the baptism certificate.

My sister mentioned that as a gesture of kindness, a small donation to the priest would be appropriate. Priests are allowed to accept a monetary gift for performing the baptism. She suggested a dollar or two would be appropriate. I waited in line along with the other God Fathers, two one dollar bills held firmly in my hand. When it was my turn I mentioned the name and the priest dutifully signed the papers and putting them into an envelope, handed it to me with the admonition that the usual donation was five dollars. Five dollars was at that time a fairly large sum of money for me. I fumbled around and finally retrieved a five dollar bill and put it on the desk. The priest did not even say thank you or look up at me. ‘Next’ was all he said. Afterward, I casually asked the other God Fathers and they all had given at least five dollars. That was a long time ago and I did not have to help in the upbringing of my god child, except for an occasional birthday gift. My vow was never tested. I still regret my decision of going along with the crowd. At such a wonderful occasion, a vow of poverty, like all vows, should have been honored.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Seventh Grade

I often wonder what would have happened if the fight I had with Billy O’Brien would have been allowed to finish. Some older guys stopped the fight before it was over. But that was a long time ago. Seventh grade has come and gone and that’s all I really remember about seventh grade. Time went on; Billy and I became good friends during high school. Neither he nor I ever mentioned the aborted fight, except in a joking way. And after high school I enlisted in the Air Force and Billy stayed around. I never saw him again except at a twenty fifth class reunion. I had gone to college and was living away and came back for the reunion. It was not a memorable event, we had a very small class and we were separated by distance. The locals still stayed in touch with each other, while I and others who had left were a group unto ourselves. Billy was there and we chatted, drinking a beer or two, and we sparred in a friendly manner, each of us claiming to win.

Some events cast a long spell. I still remember the day in June 1951 the day before I landed in the Philippines. The ship I was on also transported Dependents and my duty was to deliver the ship’s newspaper to the dependent’s quarters. That day the paper had an article about the next days docking in Manila cautioning that anyone who was of Japanese’s descent to remain on board. The hatred of the Japanese was still rampant in the Island. Hatred dies slowly.

An acquaintance of mine fought in the Vietnam War and still contends that we would have won if the Administration allowed the Military to fight the war in the way they wanted to. We argue about it, stopping just short of saying things to each other that we would probably regret. Now of course we are deciding who is to be our next president and one of the candidates is also a Vietnam veteran. Like my acquaintance, he still wants to fight the war and win. He is also determined that we do not forgo the opportunity to win in Iraq. We all have our Seventh grades.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Red light

The bible forbids prostitution. The bible forbids most things. There are more don’ts than dos in the bible. The Calvinists for instance never smiled or sang or danced; it was not allowed and celebrating Christmas was banned. Somewhere in the bible, frivolity must be forbidden and somewhere in the bible there is a prohibition against the oldest trade. Yet prostitution exists in every culture and has existed in all times.

The state of Nevada legalized prostitution many years ago. As far as I know there has never been a problem associated with the business. I have seen pictures of the girls who work there and they all seem like nice young girls, not the kind of women whose photographs appear in the local paper whenever there is a raid on the red light district.

I don’t know if the pictures are purposely doctored to make the women look awful, but they generally look like they are down on their luck and not very attractive.
Numerous studies have been done to discredit legalization of the oldest profession.
You might wonder if the studies are purposely distorted by the people who control the girls and make all the money using women who are for various reasons down and out.

On a recent trip to Europe, we went to Amsterdam and as all tourists do, walked around the red light district. There in perfect display, in window after window on the first and upper floors are a variety of women, most are scantily clad, most young and pretty, but there is the occasional plump mature female. All tastes must be catered to. The tourist book mentions that the predominant country of origin of the customers is, surprisingly, England. Who would ever think the straight and fussy British would come all the way to Amsterdam for a day of fun and yet condemn the practice at home? The patrons of the Nevada girls are probably from out of state, visitors to Las Vegas or Reno perhaps, who likewise disapprove of prostitution at home. Not in my backyard is a strong sentiment.

The town near where I grew up had a brothel. When I was in high school a group of us went there and rang the door bell, but no one answered. We rang and rang and even shouted, but then realizing that disturbing the peace might attract the police we bade a hasty retreat. It was not legal of course but everyone knew the address and on occasion, there was what the police called a ‘raid’. The papers were replete with the story of how the police had cleaned up the town. But the brothel was in business soon after at the same address. For such a business it is too difficult to advertise a new location.

European cultures are generally more tolerant of the oldest profession. The British and we Americans, since we derived a lot of culture from the British, are determined to stamp out such behavior. But humans, being what they are, Amsterdam and the Bunny Ranch in Nevada are destined to enjoy a long life.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Doing Good

I enjoy reading the writings of Henry D. Thoreau, the New England writer who lived alone in a cabin in the woods along Walden Pond. He built the cabin himself for only several dollars choosing to use discarded material he got from the town dump or as gifts from the town’s folk.

When I was gainfully employed, the wife of one of my employees was pregnant with multiple births. They were both of an age when childbearing should probably not be considered and in addition he had a child from a previous marriage. But times being what they were and still are, she took fertility pills to increase the odds of pregnancy. Trouble soon appeared. Under doctors’ orders, she was confined to her bed for several months and under constant medication, to prevent a miscarriage. Still the babies were born too early. All had some degree of problems. Because of modern medicine, they survived but were kept at the hospital for several months before being sent home. The mother was fine.

The company had insurance of course and so they had no financial risks. I never knew the total amount of the bills, but they must have been nearing a half million.
After the babies were home and they had accepted the fact that one of them would have lifelong problems, I talked to the father about his family. He was happy that things were going as well as they were. He was somewhat annoyed that the county did not have a visiting nurse to come and help out families with multiple births. The children were quite a handful.

My mother had eleven of us spaced about one and a half years apart. She had no washing machine, no throw away diapers, no baby food and no family doctor to rely on. She was the sole care taker: washing, cleaning, feeding, dressing and otherwise caring for us. When there were five or so, the county provided a visiting nurse to come and offer advice and help with the children medically. Probably the doctor who delivered us talked to the county nurse and suggested it. Up to that time, all the children were of course born at home.

My mother was a strong willed person. She did not need help and was not happy to have the nurse come. However the nurse, wanting to help or just under county rules, continued to come offering advice and maybe some criticism on how to care for children, intruding, I am sure my mother thought, in how she was raising us children.
Finally, one fine day my mother waited by the front door and when the nurse appeared, she was summarily chased by an angry mother, broom in hand, shouting Polish expressions, until she was safely in her car. She drove away, never to reappear at my mothers’ house.

Henry liked to say that if he knew that someone was coming to his house with the intent of doing him good, he would run.

My mother chose to stay and fight. Henry, I am sure, would have been proud.

Friday, May 7, 2010


When I enlisted in the Air Force, my first haircut took about two minutes, no fuss no asking how I wanted it cut. The barber did not even say hello, just a bored ‘next’ when he was done. We all got the same haircut. When we were kids, whenever we got a haircut, everyone asked us if we had our ears lowered.

My sisters, we were Catholic, never went to church without a hat, except for evening choir practice; but for Sunday mass, hats were required. It was a no, no for women to enter the church without a hat. Men of course are required to remove their hats upon entering a church, or a mosque; for a temple a yarmulke is accepted. For men its hat in your hand when you enter the Lord’s house; a sign of humility.

But for some reason God does not like to see women’s hair.

Women and men react differently in regard to hair. Men have their hair cut when it gets too long, except if they are musicians or famous scientists, then they are allowed to let it grow long. Long haired musicians are considered great musicians and so we have the term long haired music.

On a serious note, women always shield their hair from God. It is interesting to note that Nuns, Islamic women and Eastern European women always cover their hair. My mother always wore a babushka when she went outside. Women of some Jewish sects wear wigs whenever and only when they go outside. God, who is all powerful, is foiled by a hat, scarf or wig, but indoors the roof suffices. In those sects the females will not wear a wig made in India for fear the wig may have been made from hair from females who are prostitutes. God would be furious if he knew he was being thwarted by a prostitutes’ hair. Maybe that explains why women spend so much time on their hair. Whenever we need a prohibition it is always directed at the women.

When I go to a barber, I like the fastest barber and the cheapest. Of course today even men are spending more time on their hair, what with dyeing and curling and of all things styling. But, women still spend an inordinately longer amount of time with their hair: frequent washing, curling, dyeing, drying, discussing with their friends who is the best hairdresser and their current hair style, which salon is the best, etc.

Why did such a custom originate? What is it about hair that is so different from other parts of the human anatomy? Skin is not treated the same.

I try not to find answers to these questions. God, I am sure, must like it this way.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Air Raid

I was just a young boy growing up in Eastern Pennsylvania during the Second World War. We often had air raid alerts. Several of our neighbors were air raid wardens. My best friend’s father was the designated leader. He wore a soldiers’ helmet and carried a flashlight and went from house to house and if he could see any light coming through the windows, he knocked on the door and warned you that your blinds were not pulled or some other light was on. No one was allowed to smoke outside since a lit cigarette could be seen for miles. Some of us, as all young kids would do, went outside during the drill, and searched the skies for the airplanes we supposed were definitely headed our way. On occasions, we actually thought we saw planes. Our necks were sore from searching the skies. After what seemed like a long time, the air raid leader sounded an all clear horn. Window blinds went up, lights were turned on and people came outside and talked and smoked and were glad that it was just an alert. The parents discussed the air raid and supposed that the planes were shot down out at sea or somewhere east of us. The excitement of the drill, never knowing if it was for real, was magnificent to us kids.

But to my knowledge, there was never an actual attack. The US government scheduled these drills for the duration of the war ending them when Germany surrendered.

All the adults, mostly immigrants from Eastern Europe, were glad that the drills were done, most of whom having gone through the First World War were glad they were only drills. They thanked FDR for his concern and careful planning.

It was only much later, when I grew up and was able to reflect on the logistics that I discovered that the drills were pure propaganda. There was not an airplane in the world that could have flown from Germany or Japan, dropped its load of bombs in Pennsylvania and returned home. The planes that were used to bomb Europe, flying from England, were barely able to traverse that round trip. It was just a rouse to scare the American people into supporting the war.

It sometimes reminds me of our current Homeland Security Department that continues to issue alerts with not a shred of verifiable evidence that harm is headed our way. They were just like the air raid alerts, another ruse to scare us and be thankful that the administration was doing their job.

Contrary to Peter, Paul and Mary the times are not a changing.

Monday, May 3, 2010


To quote Sir William Congreve (18 Century ): ‘music hath charm to soothe the savage breast.’ Or as the bible commands: make a joyous noise unto the lord. Take your pick. Music comes in a wide range of types: rock, country, pop, symphonic, opera, etc.

Of course from a physics point of view music is just noise, not different on an oscilloscope from a blast of pure random noise. Just listen to music from China or India or Japan or Peru or many other countries to get a taste of different forms of music. Music is generated by a wide range of instruments: piano, guitar, violin, flute and trumpet to name just a few and of course the human voice. Each type requires a great deal of practice and training to achieve great skill.

Some music is used for its snob appeal. Country music as an example is not considered to be on the same level as the symphony. Opera is of course the tops in vocal music. The opera singers train all their lives and we pay homage to the great tenors and sopranos accepting their huge egos. They live as Hollywood stars do: the Paparazzi following them relentlessly. Still they are technically not too different from the popular singers. The notable opera star Fredrica Von Stade remarked in a television interview that her singing was not any more difficult or required more training than popular singers; it was just a different form. Try that on opera buffs.

Of course country music is more visceral, more homespun, and easier to listen to and sing while taking a shower. The emotions expressed are sometimes a little silly, but so is the stuff of operas. The country musicians are perhaps not as technical as the symphonic artists, but the overall effect is pleasant. No country fiddler plays a Stradivarius. Pop music is somewhat the same, easy listening, and memorable. Some couples have a favorite song that they remember from their courting days and they call it their song.

Maybe music has both the charm to soothe the savage breast and to cause all of us once in a while to hum or sing a pleasant tune whether it is country, pop or an operatic aria, but its just noise if it doesn’t make our hearts beat a little faster.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Danny Boy

I am always intrigued by the Irish each March when ‘Saint Patty’s Day’ is celebrated. All countries have their own music or some distinguishing art form. The Irish of course, have their songs, their brogue and their playwrights. The English their literature-who can deny Shakespeare, the French their art, the Italians their Operas and sculpture, the Austrians their waltzes, the Poles their polkas, the Germans their Wagnerian music, and so the list goes on.

But of all the ethnic songs, I think the songs of Ireland are the saddest. Perhaps it’s because of the potato famine and the subsequent great migration to America, perhaps because of the oppression by the British, perhaps the rugged country. But certainly theirs is a culture of contrast. The Irish of course like to tip a few as they say, dance a jig or just confound you with their brogue, perhaps in an attempt to ease the burden of sadness.

In the anthracite region of Eastern Pennsylvania where I grew up, Irish immigrants worked in the coal mines along side the Poles, Germans, Italians, and other Eastern Europeans. In the evenings and especially during weekends, the neighborhood bars were filled with loud laughter, occasional brawls and always songs. It was often said that more coal was mined in the taverns at night than in the mines during the day. In addition to tipping a few, the Irish loved to sing. Singing would erupt spontaneously in the bars, usually late at night, near closing time. Songs like ‘I’ll take you home again Kathleen’, ‘Danny Boy’, ‘When Irish eyes are smiling’ and ‘Galway Bay’ could be heard almost nightly. All the ethnic groups joined in and the songs became great barroom favorites, except for Danny Boy. It was the saddest of all.

Calling someone a Danny Boy was considered a derogatory term. It referred to Irishmen who had forgotten their promise to some lovely colleen who stayed on the old sod, and waited for them to return, or send tickets to bring them to America. The men left, no jobs were available, and sailed for America where after a time they married Polish or Eastern European girls. They were not treated well by the Irish who had married their colleens or by the Poles or Eastern Europeans.

We lived for a time near one such family. When he tipped too many and was not able to report for work, the men said he was just a Danny Boy. Somehow people found out that he had promised to return to the old sod, but instead married a Ukrainian girl. A nice lady who often gave us treats. He was a frequent visitor to our house and told tales of how he was in training to become a doctor before he came to America. But he was shunned by the Irish contingent and could never fit into the Eastern European culture. The language barrier alone was difficult enough. After his wife died, and the children left, never to return, he tipped a few more than he should have and his life slipped away in drunkenness.

The Irish potato famine caused a great migration and many colleens grew old and died waiting on the old sod for their Danny Boys who never returned. They are the sad ones remembered in the song. But like my neighbor, there were perhaps an equal number of forgotten Danny Boys, never remembered in song, who also suffered in silence or tipped one too many.