Lessons in disruption

I’m a big fan of disruption. It’s an acquired taste. But because virtually everything is being disrupted these days, from groceries to government, it’s something we should learn to appreciate.

We often cheer disruption from a safe distance because overturning established institutions is in the American DNA. Most of us like to think of ourselves as rebels (unless we’re taking about the Confederate kind). But when we’re invested in the institution being overturned, our first impulse is to dig in our heels.

I was immersed in disruption for much of my career. I worked for the telephone company from 1968 to 1990 and had a front-row seat for the breakup of AT&T, at that time the largest corporate reorganization in history. It was a great experience, though I did not always think so at the time.

The Bell System was a well-managed monopoly with a century-long tradition of excellent telephone service, a close-knit corporate culture and nearly a million loyal employees. It was disrupted by advancing technology, changing markets and shifting consumer sentiment — culminating in an antitrust suit in 1974 that broke up the company a decade later. The phone company had done nothing wrong, but the things we did well were no longer as important to our customers as the promise of wider choice and cheaper long-distance calls.

Our initial response was to circle the wagons because everyone’s identity was rooted in the Bell System’s stability and security. It was hard for us to believe that customers liked their telephone service but still favored breaking up the company. We were convinced that telephone service was going to fall apart.

Once change was inevitable we learned to cope with uncertainty and massive reorganization. It was messy at times, with management missteps and downsizing, but telephone service did not fall apart and neither did we. If the antitrust judge had changed his decision a decade later and told us to go back to being a monopoly, he would not have had many takers.

This sort of upheaval has been going on throughout American history. If competition is the engine of our economy, disruption is its turbocharger. Companies are routinely disrupted by innovation and competitive pressure, and successful companies disrupt themselves. We’ve seen Apple disrupt music and telecommunications. Video streaming services are displacing television and cable networks. Amazon disrupted publishing and is quickly taking over retail markets. Retail jobs are disappearing but distribution centers are hiring.

Disruptive renewal is harder for institutions that are insulated from the economy. Universities have been sheltered from market forces because they are either state-owned or government-subsidized. But declining enrollment, online competition, soaring costs and political unrest make higher education ripe for disruption. Can we get Amazon to buy a university?

The latest target of disruption is government itself. Donald Trump’s election was a hostile takeover of a government that had lost the trust of at least half the country. Unlike past changes of administration that left a permanent governing class untouched, this election repudiated a bipartisan set of assumptions and values to an extent we have not seen in more than a century.

It’s natural for bureaucrats, politicians and interest groups who were invested in the status quo to feel the same sense of existential threat I saw among telephone company managers in 1984. Historians recorded similar outrage after the presidential election of 1860.

Unlike a corporate takeover, government disruption can be reversed in the next election. This gives opponents incentive and opportunity to continue the fight and that’s what we’re seeing. Because Americans still identify with rebellion, it’s a smart tactic for the Democrats to brand their campaign to restore the old order as a Les Miz resistance movement.

Business disruptions take place when consumers embrace new ways to meet their needs and shop at Amazon instead of Sears. Whether this holds true for government remains to be seen. All we know right now is that the disruption and drama is not going to end any time soon and we’d better get used to it. The good news is that we get to vote on the outcome.

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Columbus and my neighbors

Columbus Day used to be a really boring holiday (unless you’re Italian). Now it’s nearly as controversial as, say, a football game, as a growing number of cities dump Christopher Columbus in favor of Indigenous People.

I’m all for giving indigenous folks their own holiday, perhaps in March or April, and don’t begrudge government workers yet another day off. But it’s hard to escape the impression that re-naming the holiday is more about dissing Chris than celebrating the indigenous.

Whether or not Columbus was a bad hombre personally, his principal accomplishment was to open the Western Hemisphere to Spanish colonization. So are the anti-Columbus folks saying that the continent would be a better place if the Spanish had never interfered with idyllic folk like the Mayans? If so, doesn’t that disparage Hispanic Americans?

For a closer look at Columbus’ legacy, consider my adopted home state of New Mexico: Hispanics make up 45% of the population and Native Americans another 10%. The result is a rich, blended culture that makes Columbus impossible to erase and Native Americans impossible to dismiss.

Many New Mexicans trace their families all the way back to Spain (because the priests that accompanied the Spanish invaders recorded all the baptisms and marriages). They are unlikely to agree that their ancestors should have stayed there instead of following Columbus – especially when the family tree includes the occasional Native American. Some New Mexicans have embraced the “indigenous” label themselves because their families were on the land before it was part of the United States.

If Columbus had never arrived, my house would be a Cape Cod.

The Spanish arrived in 1541 and their influence is everywhere: in architecture, religion, art, food, etc. Spanish is the state’s official second language and practically every place has a Spanish name (including the street where I live).

Native American influence is nearly as strong. While indigenous populations were evicted from most other states, Navajos and Apaches returned to their ancestral lands after the displacements of the Nineteenth Century and the 19 pueblos never left. So while Native Americans may be a political abstraction in New York and Washington, they’re neighbors and co-workers in New Mexico.

Over the centuries the two cultures have co-existed and blended. Santa Fe’s two biggest art events are Spanish Market and Indian Market. You can see Indian dances and flamenco in the same day in Albuquerque. Catholic churches on the pueblos have a distinctive Native American atmosphere. New Mexico’s unique cuisine combines both traditions on the same plate.

Reconciling Columbus’ legacy is an ongoing process here. Everyone acknowledges that the Conquistador ancestors of my neighbors enslaved the Indians and converted them to Catholicism at swordpoint. For the past 300 years Santa Fe’s biggest festival has celebrated the Entrada, the 1692 “bloodless reconquest” of New Mexico by the Spanish after the Pueblo Revolt in 1680 kicked them out. The bloodless part was a whitewash, it turns out, and the city is re-thinking the festival. A monument in Santa Fe erected in 1868 commemorates the soldiers who fought against the “savage Indians.” The word “savage” has been chiseled out.

A few years ago the Taos town council removed Kit Carson’s name from a local park because of the famous explorer’s role in a brutal forced migration of Navajo people. They changed the name back again because Kit’s buried there, but discussion is likely to continue.

There’s a high school team called the Redskins. It’s on the Navajo reservation and everybody’s cool with it. An elderly state senator closes every session of the legislature by singing a Navajo song. It’s a tradition.

When the “Occupy” protests popped up a few years ago, the local version called itself “(Un)occupy Albuquerque” to protest the 400-year occupation of Native American land.

In a more sensible way to cast off colonialism, a couple of New Mexico’s pueblos voted to revive their Native American names. The Spanish had named the pueblos for the churches they forced the inhabitants to build. So San Juan Pueblo is now Ohkay Owingeh and Santo Domingo is Kewa Pueblo.

So Albuquerque and Santa Fe are joining the national movement to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day, but Hispanic city employees still get the day off. Meanwhile, New Mexico’s celebration of its blended culture will continue to evolve with updated monuments and festivals. And folks who want to atone for Columbus’ sins against indigenous people can pay reparations at the nearest Native American casino.

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Mississippi summers

Note to readers: This exploration of my family history is primarily for my kids and kinfolk. I’m posting it in my blog because I’m too cheap to set up a separate website. If you are not among my relatives you probably won’t be interested in this stuff and that’s okay.

When you’re growing up in a big city, it’s a treat to spend the summer in a small town with indulgent grandparents. My brother and I spent most of every summer in my father’s hometown of Corinth, Mississippi.

The adventure started with a train ride. My grandmother would take the train to Chicago (free because my grandfather was a railroad retiree) to collect me or my brother for the overnight trip. We’d board the train in Chicago’s bustling Illinois Central terminal, arrive at the sleepy Corinth station and ride in my grandfather’s Ford through tree-lined streets to their house.

A house! Compared to our three-room apartment, my grandparents’ modest house was a palace. A bedroom all to myself! A front porch and, best of all, a yard! That was a big deal for a city kid, because if we ventured onto the tiny front lawn of our apartment building the janitor yelled at us. In Corinth I luxuriated in the single-family territoriality of a big lawn and garden. My grandfather even built a playhouse for us.

Everything about Corinth was different. The population was about 10,000 in those days, and I could walk downtown along quiet streets with practically no traffic. Downtown consisted of a few blocks of shops, including a Kroger supermarket and a dry-goods store with an old-fashioned trolley that carried money to a cashier upstairs and came back with change. The courthouse square had a Confederate monument (wonder if it’s still there?) and a series of park benches where elderly men in overalls spent the day whittling.

What was more interesting was a drainage ditch down the street where we could catch tadpoles. The neighbor kids and I went barefoot, which was unheard of in Chicago. My grandfather took me fishing at a nearby lake, taught me to shoot a .22 rifle and permitted me to putter around in a workshop shed that smelled like cedar shavings.

The Jim Crow South of the 1950s was strange to a Northern kid. I had never seen separate drinking fountains before, and was disappointed to find that the water in the “colored” fountain was clear instead of, say, blue or green. Despite the segregation of that era I saw more daily contact between white and black folks in Corinth than I did in Chicago, and never saw my grandparents treat any African-American individual with disrespect.

My grandmother’s cooking was plain but delicious. I helped shell peas: blackeyed, not the green peas we ate in Chicago. My grandmother made memorable cornbread and purchased fresh produce from a mule-drawn farm wagon that came down the street. She spoiled me with Dr. Pepper soda pop, a regional delicacy that was not sold nationwide until 1963. I still drink the stuff. There was no restaurant in Corinth, but a neighbor ran a hamburger stand on the highway.

Everybody knew my grandparents: They taught Sunday school at the Baptist church and my grandfather was a big wheel in the Masons. The local radio station even mentioned that the McClures’ grandson was visiting all the way from Chicago.

The pace of life was slow and the hot, humid summers made sitting still the best way to stay cool. Air conditioning was rare in those days, and the grownups sat on their front porches every evening and fanned themselves. My grandparents’ church supplied cardboard fans (sponsored by a local funeral home) in the hymnal racks at each pew. So the minister could tell at a glance whether the congregation was staying awake through the sermon.

Years later, when I was in college, I made a brief visit and saw Brad, one of my childhood playmates, sitting on his porch across the street. We chatted a while and I asked what guys our age did for fun in Corinth.

“We go fishing, play a little softball, but mostly just set around,” he said.

Just then a teenage girl, visibly pregnant, walked by and waved. I asked: “Isn’t that little Maynette who lives around the corner?”

“Yes, she got married about a year ago,” Brad said.

“Are all the girls around here married?”

“Yep, that’s why we just set around,”

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Observations from Harvey

I can’t stop watching TV coverage of Hurricane Harvey (and couldn’t avoid it if I wanted to). It’s simultaneously terrible, tragic and heartwarming.

The good news us that we’re seeing a learning curve in responding to disasters after the missteps of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Public agency screw-ups made Karina an even bigger disaster, but government seems to have its act together this time around. People are getting rescued, shelters are up and running, and state and federal resources are coordinated. We’re getting better at this, and will continue learning from the inevitable mistakes in the Harvey response.

We’re also learning that government can’t do everything. Every newscast shows ordinary folks rescuing people in boats, and volunteers distributing clothing and food at shelters. The Cajun Navy drove in from Louisiana. A brewery shifted production from beer to bottled water.

I wish they’d stop giving big storms innocuous human names. That’s unfair to the actual people whose parents named them Harvey, Sandy and Katrina. How about aggressive names like Godzilla, Kraken, Sasquatch or Chupacabra?

Environmentalists blame global warming, but eliminating fossil fuels and bankrolling the Paris Climate Accord won’t prevent the next storm and the one after that. Long-term efforts to reduce emissions need to continue, but mitigating severe weather is a more immediate priority.

One factor in the impact of natural disasters is poverty. Destructive storms in the U.S. destroy property but kill fewer people than in poor countries: 230,000 were killed in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and 160,000 Haitians died in the 2010 earthquake. Closer to home, the poverty rate of 23% in New Orleans (and associated breakdown in local institutions) may have contributed to the death toll of 1,833 in Hurricane Katrina. Houston, with a poverty rate of 14.6%, looks like it will fare better.

Living in a place that has decent infrastructure, a functioning economy and a competent government makes people less vulnerable to severe weather. A storm probably will kill you in Bangladesh, but in Houston someone will rescue you.  And your cat, too.

Prosperity is important because we need to spend big bucks on infrastructure: coastal seawalls like the ones in the Netherlands, reservoirs and diversion channels in flood-prone areas like Houston. If the U.S. economy grows at an annual rate of 3% or better we can afford this. If we settle for the lower growth of the past eight years, we can’t.

We also need to re-think local development and growth policies. Paving over floodplain farms with subdivisions and shopping centers makes floods more severe. Federal flood insurance needs to be overhauled: not only to adequately compensate homeowners and small businesses, but also to eliminate perverse incentives to build and rebuild in vulnerable areas.

If a neighborhood gets flattened or flooded every few years, perhaps federal insurance should help residents relocate instead of rebuilding the place yet again. That’s how folks coped with climate change in the days before federal insurance. In Shawneetown, IL, for instance, residents moved the entire town a few miles inland after the Ohio River flood of 1937.

The most important lesson of Hurricane Harvey has nothing to do with government policy. What makes the TV coverage compelling is the spontaneous outpouring of support, compassion and courage: first responders in helicopters, neighbors in small boats and the shelter volunteer who just had to come and help. Contributions are pouring in and the entire nation is cheering them on.

So while pundits bemoan the nation’s divisive politics, the news cameras are revealing that Americans really can come together. For a while, anyway.

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Visit to a bird farm

USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78)

I enjoyed watching the commissioning ceremony for the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) on TV over the weekend. The news media consensus is… it’s big. Really BIG. President Trump’s commissioning speech showed uncharacteristic restraint by not calling the ship yuge.

One memorable episode in my Navy career was a visit to the USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) in the 1980s. Carriers were a novelty to me because my sea duty was aboard one of the Navy’s smallest ships, a coastal minesweeper with a crew of 35. When I told people aboard the Vinson that my first ship displaced 400 tons, I was told: “That’s about how much we eat.”

Carriers, nicknamed “bird farms,” are as crowded as they are gigantic. Take a two-acre aircraft hangar, put a 4.5-acre airstrip on top and build a ship around it. Add all the equipment and supplies needed to operate the ship and its aircraft, and squeeze 5,000 people into whatever space is left.

Every deck, or level, is a maze of compartments and passageways. The Navy gives each compartment a numerical “address” that indicates its deck, fore-and-aft frame number and port-or-starboard location. Because it’s easy to get lost, floor-plan maps of each deck are posted prominently. When I visited Vinson some prankster had removed the “you are here” stickers.

President Trump described Ford as 100,000 tons of U.S. territory but carriers don’t operate alone. A carrier battle group includes cruisers, destroyers and submarines: not to protect the carrier, as they did in World War II, but to form an integrated system that can detect and defeat anything within a radius of several hundred miles, from the ocean floor to the stratosphere. Think of it as the world’s largest safe space.

The wonder of an aircraft carrier is its ability to launch and recover airplanes. I arrived aboard Vinson on the COD (carrier onboard delivery), a C-2 Greyhound turboprop transport with about 20 passengers. Before takeoff in San Diego we donned helmets and life jackets, and strapped into rear-facing seats in the windowless passenger cabin.

Landing on a carrier requires catching a cable stretched across the ship’s deck with a hook on the aircraft’s tail to drag the aircraft to a stop within a few hundred feet. It took us three tries. We were waved off the first time because the wingtip of a parked airplane was intruding into the landing area.  The second attempt was a “bolter.” The tailhook missed the cable – we could hear it bumping along the deck – and the pilot hit the throttles and took off again. The hook caught the third time and we were pressed into our seats as the aircraft went from 145 mph to a dead stop in a few seconds.

Landing on the deck of a ship is an unnatural act for both aircraft and aviator. Every pilot has to re-qualify at the beginning of every cruise, and every landing is recorded on video, critiqued and graded. Every landing is assisted by a landing signal officer (LSO), an experienced aviator who guides the pilot down or waves him off. LSOs stand on an open platform at the edge of the flight deck uncomfortably close to landing aircraft.

When I visited there my guide pointed out a padded ramp several feet below the platform, where the LSO’s can jump if an errant aircraft heads for them. “If you see the other guys jumping, you jump too,” I was told. “But if you’re the first one to jump the other guys will land on top of you.”

The orchestrated chaos of the flight deck, and the care and feeding of 75 aircraft, are only part of what goes on aboard a carrier. It’s a floating city with a hospital, a police force of Marines, food service, laundry, gym, brig (jail) and even a TV station. Not to mention advanced electronics and a nuclear power plant.

It’s a city of youngsters with an average age of 24. The men and women fueling and maintaining the aircraft are in their teens. The aviators are in their twenties, and the squadron commanders and senior enlisted people are in their thirties.

My tour of the Vinson included clambering down into the bowels of the ship to see a pump room of some sort. Ships have lots of places like this: neat, utilitarian arrays of well-oiled machinery. But in this one the sailors decided to polish the equipment to a parade-ground sheen and transform an ordinary pump room into an immaculate showplace. Because it was theirs.

Departing a carrier is just as dramatic as arriving. The aircraft is hitched to a catapult driven by a hydraulic ram, and is held in place as the pilot revs up the engines. When maximum power is reached the catapult yanks the aircraft forward and flings it into the air. As my transport flight was launched we levitated against our seat harnesses for a moment and two young crew attendants let out a joyful whoop. It’s a rush and yeah, it’s fun!

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My stuttering family reunion

Last week I spent four days reconnecting with an extended family of 700 people at the annual conference of the National Stuttering Association.

This is the world’s largest organization for people who stutter with about 150 local support groups, educational programs and a national conference. Stuttering was a problem for me when I was younger but is practically a non-issue in my life today, thanks in part to conferences like these.

We who stutter make up about one percent of the population. Stuttering is mostly neurological in origin and often genetic. (Short answer: Our brains process speech less efficiently.) It’s not psychological but comes with a lot of emotional baggage – particularly because stuttering is widely misunderstood and may be the only disability it’s still acceptable to ridicule.

Speech therapy helps, but overcoming the effects of stuttering requires attitude change and a lot of emotional healing: letting go of lifelong fear and shame, bringing your stuttering out in the open and accepting that it’s okay to stutter.

Many people who stutter have never talked with another stutterer about stuttering, and some have never met anyone else who stuttered. So walking into a gathering of hundreds of people who stutter – a place where stuttering is normal – is a new experience. Newcomers are accepted the moment they walk in the door and there’s an instant bond of kinship.

The kids are fun to watch. A child who is the only kid in the class who stutters suddenly meets dozens of new friends. I’ve seen a generation of these youngsters grow into confident young adults.

The conference has educational workshops, keynote speakers and a gala banquet. But the main attraction is a family reunion on a massive scale, where people reconnect with old friends and make new ones. People come back year after year, and some arrive a couple of days early just to socialize.

People who usually have difficulty talking are immersed in nonstop conversation. Groups form spontaneously for lunch or dinner, and first-time attendees (identified by a ribbon on their nametags) get special attention. Nobody is alone for long. For people who are still struggling with stuttering, the conference is a boost in self-confidence that carries over into their daily lives.

This year one of our long-time members was ill and could not make it to the conference. So another friend posted a video on Facebook with hundreds of people cheering for him. Another guy walked up to the stage during the conference and proposed to his girlfriend: one of several couples I know who met at these conferences.

This was my 22nd National Stuttering Association conference and I’ve made many friends over the years. It’s a varied group: Engineers, retail workers, college professors, accountants, a retired postal worker, a veterinarian. I’ve learned a lot from all of them.

I keep in touch with many of these people on Facebook and we frequently argue about politics, as practically everybody does these days. At the conference, the subject rarely came up because we had so many other things to talk about.

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Confessions of a Civil War addict

A couple of weeks ago I spent a few hours hiking around the Civil War site of the Battle of Glorieta Pass, which ended an ill-conceived Confederate invasion of New Mexico in 1862. Last year I attended a Civil War re-enactment of the Battle of Valverde.

I was always interested in the American Civil War, even as a kid. I spent summers with my grandparents in Corinth, Mississippi, where my father told of digging up Minie balls in the old fortifications when he was a boy, and visited the nearby Shiloh battlefield.

The Civil War is fascinating on a number of levels. The conflict defined and transformed the United States as a nation, and historians will make careers of studying the war for generations to come.

There is much to study. Because the American Civil War was the first conflict in which most soldiers were literate, a rich paper trail of letters, journals and memoirs is still being explored in scholarly works and TV documentaries. I renewed my interest in the Civil War a few years ago when I got a Kindle e-book reader and stumbled across an online treasure trove of Civil War histories and memoirs.

In addition to the massive human drama of the war, I’ve been fascinated by some of its military and political aspects.

Much of the Civil War was fought by amateurs because there were not enough professional soldiers to go around. Politicians and businessmen became instant colonels and generals and sometimes outperformed the West Point elite. Military leadership was a mix of tactical brilliance and tragic incompetence.

It was a war of technology. Accurate muskets made Napoleonic infantry charges a slaughter. Military campaigns incorporated railroads, the telegraph and the occasional observation balloon. The Navy improvised riverine warfare with a motley flotilla of ponderous gunboats that often ran aground and were inclined to blow up when a cannon shot hit the unprotected steam boiler. We had better technology when the Navy re-invented riverine warfare a century later in Vietnam.

The war was a political football with micromanagement from Congress, ambitious politician-generals and rumormongering newspapers. Grant was unable to dismiss an incompetent general whose support was needed for Lincoln’s re-election campaign. Inept generals who were Jefferson Davis’ favorites hastened the defeat of the Confederacy.

European military observers disparaged both armies’ informality and lack of discipline: the same American characteristics of irreverence and individual initiative that helped win World Wars I and II.

Historical analysis of the Civil War has evolved. Today’s consensus is that yes, the war was about slavery: It tied up a loose end in the Constitution and began a quest for equality that continues to be a work in progress. A war that divided the country ultimately strengthened the identity of a nation as men left home for the first time and served with soldiers from other states.

The Civil War is important because it was a transformative chapter in our history and raised issues that remain relevant today. It makes sense to remove the Confederate flag from government property. We probably can do without some of the Confederate monuments that attempted to falsely romanticize the “lost cause” in the decades following the war.

But wholesale elimination of every vestige of the Confederacy smacks of the Taliban’s destruction of historic Buddhist statues. If we truly intend to resolve the lingering vestiges of slavery, destroying the evidence avoids the issue rather than confronting it. Better to put history into context with explanatory plaques and monuments to civil rights heroes as well as military ones, as a few communities are doing.

Educating ourselves more fully about this chapter of history may reduce the risk of repeating it – and remind the folks in California flirting with secession that it did not end well the last time it was tried.

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Freedom of the press is alive and well

We’re hearing solemn pronouncements from prominent journalists that the freedom of the press is under siege. I’m not concerned – yet – because all I’m seeing so far is mutual sniping between a partisan press and a new administration responding in kind.

I can’t blame journalists for getting upset. It must hurt when the President says something like: “Nothing can now be believed which is to be seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle. The real extent of this state of misinformation is known only to those who are in situations to confront facts within their knowledge with the lies of the day.”

No, President Trump didn’t say that. (It’s more than 140 characters, after all.) The quotation is from Thomas Jefferson but the idea is the same: fake news. Presidents fought bitterly with the press for the first half of our existence as a republic.

What’s happening today is that the news media have returned to their partisan roots after roughly a century of attempted objectivity. Trust in the media has been diminishing steadily as Internet media outlets have proliferated and traditional news media have become politicized, and the election of Donald Trump brought this to a head.

When journalists announce that they are not going to “normalize” the president by covering him objectively, they forfeit any claim to the respect the media enjoyed when Walter Cronkite was the most trusted man in America.

Yet the media folks want to have it both ways. They’re hyperventilating because the President is calling them out as the opposition party they’ve declared themselves to be. It’s ironic (and a little sad) to see poor old Dan Rather stumbling out of retirement to preach about journalistic integrity in the hope that people have forgotten the fake news story that ended his career.

So far, the presidential assault on the media has been limited mostly to verbal insults and mean tweets. The only governmental action to date has been to invite more reporters to White House press briefings and pay less attention to previously favored media like the New York Times and CNN. This is not a First Amendment issue: There is no constitutional right to be called upon at a news conference or included in a press pool.

Freedom of the press will be a concern if the Trump administration blocks access to public information or uses government authority against journalists. If federal agencies refuse to honor Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for public records, that’s a problem. It’s also a First Amendment issue if the government launches criminal investigations against reporters for publishing information from whistleblowers. This bears watching as the new administration settles in.

Ironically, we did not hear sanctimonious speeches at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner when the Obama administration denied 77 percent of FOIA requests, spied on reporters and named one journalist as an unindicted co-conspirator.

Another indicator of press freedom is the degree to which the President and key officials are accessible for media interviews. President Obama gave many interviews but often dodged serious news outlets in favor of friendly entertainment shows and online niche publications. The chatterbox currently in the White House is on track to surpass that record and appears willing be interviewed by anyone, though he may insult them in the process.

Much as I mourn the end of objective journalism, it’s refreshing to see an oppositional press after eight years of lapdog passivity. This administration will be the most transparent in history whether the President likes it or not. We can count on the news media to expose nine out of every five potential presidential scandals.

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Keeping up the brightwork at Great Lakes

Another story from my Navy days that is still mostly true.

Every so often the military personnel system puts a round peg in a round hole almost by accident. The Navy urgently needed a speechwriter at the Great Lakes Naval Station in Illinois. I had a journalism degree and was awaiting reassignment from a minesweeper in Japan. And the Navy would have to move me back to Chicago anyway when my hitch was over.

Great Lakes is the largest training installation in the Navy, located on Lake Michigan halfway between Chicago and Milwaukee. When I arrived in March of 1967, the Vietnam War military was pumping thousands of sailors through boot camp and specialty training.

110701-N-IK959-260I worked in a post-Victorian headquarters building with a tall tower.  The place exuded military formality: high ceilings, grand staircases and broad hallways lined with portraits of dead admirals. A formal rotunda was decorated in nautical rococo of polished brass and intricate ropework. An antique, highly-polished brass cannon guarded the entrance to the admiral’s office.

My boss, a public affairs captain with a flair for wisecracks, retired from the Navy in a formal ceremony in the rotunda. He was ceremonially “piped ashore” and walked down the aisle of brass shell casings. Then he turned and proclaimed: “Damn the torpedoes. Keep up the brightwork!”

Cannon bang

The flag was a prank

My office actually was in the tower: a sort of penthouse at the base of the tower that housed my small group of enlisted journalists and photographers. We thought it an ideal location because the long flight of stairs to our office ensured that senior officers rarely dropped by.

In those days Great Lakes was long on military pomp and ceremony. Morning colors at the flagpole in front of the headquarters building was expanded several times a week from a color guard and bugler to a platoon of marines and a band. In mild weather the weekly recruit graduation took place on the parade ground.

The recruit training center was impressive in its sheer scale. Visitors were most impressed with a mess hall that served more than 10,000 meals a day – and watching a tattooed, tough-looking sailor expertly turning out delicate cake decorations. Elsewhere on the base, technical training took place in specialized facilities such as operating models of ships’ power plants, guns and missiles.

A large naval hospital trained the Navy’s hospital corpsmen, and was treating hundreds of marines who often arrived at Great Lakes within days after being wounded in Vietnam. When my son was born there a few months after we arrived, the young sailors who staffed the nursery got a kick out of caring for the babies. They probably became wonderful fathers because they could change a diaper in seconds.

Great Lakes was clean and well-maintained because sailors who were between schools or waiting for orders provided a steady supply of free labor. One building had two full-time crews – one mopping and scrubbing and another waxing and buffing – that followed each other up and down the corridors.

My chief petty officer was an expert at working the system. He arranged for a crew of prisoners from the brig to paint our office, and somehow got two enlisted people from a different command permanently assigned to our group.

The chief also operated a rescue mission for enlisted journalists. Every so often the journalist petty officer at the recruit center would alert him that a recruit with a journalism degree was getting orders to the deck force of a destroyer. The chief would get on the phone and work the chief journalists’ network to get the recruit assigned to a public affairs billet.

Great Lakes remained my home base during most of my career in the reserves. Over the years the headquarters building added more portraits of admirals and my old tower office was converted to a storage room. But they still kept up the brightwork.

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The old neighborhood

Note to readers: This exploration of my family history is primarily for my kids and kinfolk. I’m posting it in my blog because I’m too cheap to set up a separate website. If you are not among my relatives you probably won’t be interested in this stuff and that’s fine with me.

I’m a city kid. My childhood home was a three-room, third-floor apartment at 5025 Maypole Ave. in the Austin neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side. My brother and I slept on bunk beds in the bedroom, and our folks used a fold-out sofa bed in a living room that also housed a pull-down desk and an upright piano. The four of us could just fit around the kitchen table.

The location was ideal for a family without a car. Spencer School was across the street.  A store at the end of the block sold milk, bread and penny candy. My father walked to work at the Dowst Manufacturing plant a half-mile away. There was a movie theater five blocks away on Cicero Avenue, and we hauled groceries home from a nearby A&P supermarket in a little red wagon.

A Green Hornet at Madison and Crawford

A Green Hornet streetcar at Madison & Crawford

Public transportation took us everywhere, even after my folks bought a car in the early 1950s. The Laramie Avenue station on the Lake Street elevated line was four blocks away, with a 20-minute ride downtown to the Loop. A bus on Washington Boulevard two blocks away took me to Cub Scout meetings. The Madison Street “green hornet” streetcar three blocks away took us to Goldblatt’s department store at Madison and Crawford. I rode a “red rattler” streetcar on Lake Street to the library and the YMCA.

The neighborhood was a working-class mix of apartment buildings and two-flats with a few single-family homes. Our playground was the sidewalk in front or the alley in back. The front lawn of our apartment building was off limits: If we stepped over the low chain fence to play on the grass the janitor would yell at us. The nearest actual playground was blocks away, across two busy streets, and generally wasn’t worth the trek. The alley was more interesting than swings and monkey bars on bare gravel.

There were spontaneous games of baseball in the alley or, more often, bouncing a ball against a garage door. Girls played hopscotch and jump-rope. And there were things to explore: discarded furniture in an alley, nearby industrial goings-on and the occasional construction site. Our mothers taught us to always look both ways when crossing streets, and we developed the knack of judging traffic before dashing across. Kids grew up agile and smart and no one I knew was ever hit by a car.

Our immediate neighborhood was mostly Irish-Catholic, and most of the neighbor kids went to St. Thomas Aquinas School a few blocks away. (We envied them a little because saints’ days were school holidays and they seemed to have lots of saints.) Many of my classmates at Spencer School were Jewish kids who lived in slightly nicer apartment buildings on Washington Boulevard, and I attended Cub Scout meetings in a synagogue.

Spencer School

Spencer School

Spencer School was a massive, red-brick edifice with stout doors and dim hallways. It’s still there and the exterior looks pretty much the same. Chicago schools were on a semester system that graduated two classes a year and enabled bright kids to skip half a grade at a time. I skipped the first half of fourth grade (after being reprimanded for reading two chapters ahead of the class) and the first half of sixth. Because two half-grades shared a classroom, skipping a grade was merely a move from one side of the room to the other. All the kids walked to school and went home for lunch. After school I had a paper route, delivering the Chicago Daily News from a pushcart.

Free-range kids were the norm in those days. Our neighborhood had its share of tough kids but I don’t recall feeling particularly unsafe. My folks turned us loose but set limits. They were displeased one Halloween when one of my friends suggested trick-or-treating in the taverns along Cicero Avenue and I came home with a pocketful of change. Parents generally didn’t drive kids around: I walked or took public transportation to Boy Scout meetings and activities at the Y.

Lake Street El

Lake Street El

In my middle-school years my parents let me ride the El to the Loop alone to wander around State Street and Marshall Field’s. When we moved to a suburb a few years later, I was appalled to learn that one of my high school friends was not allowed to go downtown by himself because his mother thought it was unsafe.

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