Category Archives: Writings

My forays into the wordy-jungle.

Distinction between Civil Rights and Civil Liberties

“I just wonder when [Obama’s] gonna get the memo that pot is the new gay marriage.” – Bill Maher, 5/3/2013

You know, I love Real Time. I watch it every week. I love the discussions and I love the bits Bill does, but every once in awhile, he sticks his foot in it. While thousands of people are in prison for unfair prosecutions of a drug that I wholly support the legalization of, none of those people have pot-use written into their identity. While we can make a case for how many of them may have been predisposed to drug use because of poorly funded educational institutions, widespread poverty, institutional racism and the lack of a social safety net to ensure basic life necessities; there is no statistically significant number of those people who did not make a choice to use that drug or become involved in its distribution. And those that were wrongfully convicted should be vindicated on the wrongfulness of their convictions – it has nothing to do with the nature of the crime they were convicted of.

Homosexuality in our society, on the other hand, suffers from a completely different set of circumstances. I think Bill misspoke in comparing the two. Sure, the movement to legalize recreational marijuana use is gathering momentum and will probably be the next large issue we discuss as a nation, but comparing it to the fight for civil rights (as opposed to civil liberties) is inconsiderate.

There is no evidence to suggest that people are killed solely for the use of pot. People who use pot are not denied, under the laws of many states, access to housing or medical services. The truth is most people who smoke pot lead completely normal lives and no one knows any better. They are still able to visit their partners in the hospital in every state in the nation, and they are able to adopt children together, and apply for tax benefits on a federal level.

Yes, legalization of pot will probably be the next big issue we discuss, but it will never be the next gay marriage. The next gay marriage will be society addressing the fundamental rights, which are nominally guaranteed to all people under the constitution, denied to a specific class of people due to an intrinsic quality of their character.

Let’s just be clear about that, Bill.

Unspoken Understanding

Somewhere across this mountain range, he’s lying in a hospital bed. He could be injecting himself with a poison to end his life at this very moment. I’m driving as fast as I can in ice and snow, listening to a Tiësto trance remix to help keep my head. Not even an hour ago, I finished a video game where I killed myself to save my friends and loved ones. Five minutes later, I got the call that grandpa wanted to die.

Upset and near exhaustion, I barely gathered enough of myself to send an email to my professors and pack a bag. When I sat down in my car, all emotional strength left me. Tears were impossible to hold back. Grandpa wasn’t dead yet, but I was already grieving for him. I’d managed to more or less hold it together for two years, but I feel like I’m approaching my limits.

I went back to college two years ago to finish my degree, but for as long as I’ve been at school, my family has been falling ill. I’ve driven across this mountain pass at midnight dozens of times in the past 18 months. My oldest sister Katie had a baby, nearly died from lupus, and then her boyfriend was hit by a car, left with broken legs and back. My second oldest sister Jenny tore ligaments in her knee and shattered two bones in her leg. My mother had tumors which caused life-crippling ulcers that burned holes so large in her stomach, she was periodically drained of blood. My grandmother died in her sleep, which set my grandfather on a downward spiral, and a year later he is suffering from failing kidneys, liver and heart valve. Not necessarily in that order. Continue reading Unspoken Understanding

Moral Imperative 0.5

“I said open fire, damn it!”

The unfeminine voice on the radio crackled with distortion as the Lord Admiral shouted.

Captain Jim Keery stood beside the helm of the airship Powdered Maiden, a swift but lightly armored cruiser. The leather of his gloves groaned as he tightened his grip on the radio transmitter. Despite the overcast weather, light poured through the ballistic glass at the fore of the bridge, but the brim of Keery’s peaked cap cast shadows below his brow. They melded into the trim brown beard that followed the contours of his jaw from temple to temple.

From behind him, a man in a similar, though less adorned, dark blue uniform stepped forward, his boots echoing on the steel floors. “Orders, Captain?”

“Commander Doget,” Keery said, hesitating with a command.

After a moment, Doget prompted him, “Sir?”

The words fell out of Keery’s mouth like lead weights, “Order the forward battery to open fire.”

“Aye, sir,” Commander Doget said. He stepped to the back of the bridge and lifted the mouthpiece of the ship intercom to his mouth. “Forward battery, fire at will!”

Keery stepped toward the ballistic glass at the front of the bridge and raised a gloved hand to his chin. The bow of the ship stretched dozens of yards ahead, but the bridge was situated high enough to treat Keery to a stellar view of the massacre. Fifty feet below the iron-sided airship, a beautiful sea of green foliage surrounded a sizeable encampment of refugees from the Azurian countryside.

A few moments passed before the forward guns rotated toward their targets, but soon shockwaves from the muffled blasts shook the ship and delivered death upon the civilians below. The canvas tents erected by the refugees erupted in flames, while shells tore people apart. Some were lucky to be struck directly, while others received terrible wounds from shrapnel as the ordnance exploded into thousands of shards. Keery hand slide to his mouth to hide the horror on his face.

A few minutes of carnage were enough. Keery turned to Doget, “Cease fire.”

“Aye, sir,” Doget responded, and relayed the command to the ship. The firing stopped.

Keery grabbed the transmitter to the radio, “The main camp has been destroyed, Lord Admiral.”

The voice came through the receiver with more clarity than before, “Excellent, are there survivors?”

“Some, my Lord,” Keery said, trying to maintain his composure.

“How many are there, Captain?”

“A few hundred remain, my Lord. They are scattered, but most are dead or dying.”

Without a delay, the Lord Admiral ordered, “Notify the Army of their location and return to Laurel for debriefing.”

“Aye, my Lord. We’ll return at once.” Keery hung the transmitter on the side of the radio then turned to Commander Doget.

“You heard him, Commander. I’ll be in my quarters.” Keery did not wait for acknowledgement.

Continue reading Moral Imperative 0.5

The Hand of God

Paige drew the copper cable along behind her as she stepped off the banks of the Yakima River. The earth beneath her feet was pale brown and dry. She stopped short to untangle the cable from the leafless shrubs that filled the landscape. As she struggled with the branches of the shrubs, her messy brown hair slipped into her eyes. She stood a moment, pulled her hair back, wrapped it into a bun and secured it with a screwdriver from the front pocket of her faded blue-grey boilersuit. In the distance she could see the hills and mountains that once were covered with lush forests, now only forests of rot. The sky was drab, dirty clouds hanging low and spanning from one horizon to another. The comet had changed everything.

It wasn’t one of those events commonly seen in movies where a giant ball of rock strikes the Earth and causes massive ocean waves to crash over cities. This comet had a more subtle method of destruction. Paige had seen it wreak all the havoc one might imagine, without ever touching the planet. As it passed by with a calm disinterest, its wake left humanity in ruin.

Paige looked up toward the foot of the hill a few meters ahead. Her green eyes scanned the base of it for her indolent partner. The hill was covered in brush, much of it brown and lifeless, but some of it showed a hint of green. The hill inclined at a sharp angle and peaked two hundred feet above the river level. From a distance, it looked like any other dry, empty husk of the once green landscape of the valley. However, upon closer inspection, one might notice a pile of litter – empty boxes, broken appliances and other useless junk – about fifty feet from a small entrance to an abandoned mine in the hillside.

“Liam!” Paige called and waited a moment. Nothing stirred. “Hey Liam! Are you gonna sit on your ass all day or what?” Continue reading The Hand of God

Fissile Cultures

From a land of rivers once full of fish and hills rich with wildlife – now a site with a couple stable nuclear reactors – Rex Buck, Jr., with an aged brown face trimmed with braided strands of hair, clad in plaid and blue jeans, stands before a standing crowd of pale faces. His hands are upraised, and he calls out a prayer that fills the hall. He is glad to be here, he is proud of the exhibit he is christening, and he is glad they built a nuclear facility atop his ancestral lands.

On the wall behind Rex is a projected image of the logo for the exhibit Particles on the Wall, an atomic symbol with an origami paper crane at its center. The exhibit is sponsored by the Museum of Culture and Environment located inside Dean Hall on the northeast side of the Central Washington University campus in Ellensburg, Washington. It tells the story of how the Manhattan Project – a momentous scientific project to develop fission and the nuclear bomb – shaped the culture, industry and history of the lower Columbia River. Rex is a representative of the Wanapum Indians, a tribe who willingly gave up their home to a site that would contribute directly to the bombing of Nagasaki.

In 1942, the United States was embroiled in World War II, the largest war in human history. While supporting its allies in Europe, the US was also fighting a war against the Empire of Japan in the Pacific Ocean. American leaders were worried about the research being done in Germany to exploit the energies of the atom. In splitting the atoms of a fissile material like plutonium or uranium, huge amounts of energy were released. Science conceived it as an energy source. Governments conceived it as a weapon.

That same year, a group that had been researching development of nuclear fission since 1939 was placed under the command of the United States Army Corps of Engineers. Over the next year, dozens of sites were prepared to support the project, but most of the land fell within sites named Oak Ridge, Los Alamos and Hanford. Between these three sites, the US government had acquired over 150,000 acres for research, development and testing. Much of the design and testing took place around Los Alamos, but enrichment took place at the other sites. The uranium for the bomb dropped on Hiroshima was enriched at Oak Ridge and the plutonium for the bomb dropped on Nagasaki came from Hanford.

Hanford is located in the southeast corner of Washington state, outside a town named Richland. Prior to 1943, Richland was a small farm town of little note. When the US Army acquired an area nearby approximately half the size of the state of Rhode Island, evicting 300 residents of Richland and the entire towns of White Bluffs and Hanford in the process, Richland was transformed into a bedroom community for the Hanford Site overnight. Between 1943 and 1945, Richland’s population rose from 300 to 25,000.

Township evictions aside, the bulk of the land the Army acquired for Hanford largely belonged to the Wanapum Indians, a tribe that had occupied the territory as far back as history records. The Wanapum tribe once occupied the banks of the Columbia River from atop the Priest Rapids to the confluence of the Snake and Columbia Rivers. Their name means “river people” in the Sahaptin language – the primary language spoken by the tribes of the Columbia Basin in modern-day Washington, Oregon and Idaho.

 

***

White water sprays over the tip of the canoe, a tree trunk hallowed out, shaped and smoothed by hands and stones. The Snake River is swift and rocks obstruct the path.

“They’re caught back there, William,” Meriwether Lewis, a dignified and slender man with hair the color of aged wood, calls to his companion. In a nearby canoe, William Clark – a slightly older man – turns to look, his short light-brown hair resisting the pull of the stiff winds cutting across the water. His eyes settle on one of the expedition canoes, full of supplies and manned by a pair of Nez Perce Indians, stuck on a rock. The canoe rocked violently as the river relentlessly followed its course.

“We’ll have to retrieve them,” Clark responded.

Much of the morning was spent retrieving the canoe, and its crew and cargo. Once all were safe on land, the Lewis and Clark Expedition re-loaded the canoes and traveled much of the afternoon down more such rapids, though more carefully now than before. For one part of the river, the expedition was forced to exit the canoes once more and march across land for about a mile before settling back into the river.

Late in the afternoon, one of the Nez Perce guides turned to Lewis and spoke in a tongue none of the white men could understand. Immediately, he followed the words with signs to indicate that the rapids were ending. The canoes lurched forward and sped through section after section of river, though less obstructed now by the rocky obstacles. As the sun sat low against the western horizon, a wide space opened before the expedition. A larger river, deep blue from edge to edge and water moving swiftly at the surface, joined the Snake.

“We had better make camp before it gets too dark,” Lewis shouted to the canoes behind him and with the help of his guides, pushed the canoe to the side of the massive river. A village sat at the fork of the two rivers. As the canoes were pulled up on the banks of the river and unloaded, Clark sought out his superior.

“There must be 200 savages in that encampment at the fork.”

“We should see if they have anything to trade,” Lewis responded. “First, we’ll make camp.”

 

The surrounding country was smooth and level with not a tree to be seen as far as vision allowed. There were a few willows scattered along the shores of the river, and at the base of the fork, sat a large settlement of Yakama and Wanapum Indians. The dwellings were primarily teepees – long thin sticks lashed together at their zenith with crude rope and sides covered in hide. The Indians welcomed the expedition and were happy to trade. A sergeant in the expedition, John Ordway, recorded the event in his journal:

They Sold us eight fat dogs and Some fresh sammon. In the evening the whole band came Singing in their way to our Camp around our fires and Smoaked with us, and appeared verry friendly. They have pleanty of beeds Copper & brass trinkets, about them which they Sign to us that they got them from Some tradors on a River to the North of this place.

 

***

 

Just twelve miles north along the Columbia, where this important meeting of cultures occurred, a stone slab is supported by a column of brick on either side. There is a large “R” etched into the stone, with a mushroom cloud ascending over it. Above the image it reads, “Richland High School” – to the side, “Home of the Bombers”.

The school is a series of blocky buildings, mostly red brick. On the walls of the school gym, a mural is painted depicting a B-17 Bomber, also famously known as the Flying Fortress. In the wake of the D-Day operation, in which thousands of Allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy to begin the reclamation of Europe from Hitler’s Germany, the workers of Hanford were so moved by the sacrifice that over 50,000 of them donated a full day’s pay to a collection effort. The resulting sum was nearly $300,000.

The workers donated the money to the Army Air Force, which was put directly to the building of a B-17 Bomber by the Boeing Company in Seattle, Washington. On July 23, 1944, in a ceremony at Hanford Airport, the plane was christened “Day’s Pay”. It quickly became a symbol of the community. Though Day’s Pay was assigned to the European Theater (where it flew nearly 70 missions before the end of the war), this was not the only contribution the workers of Hanford made to the effort.

In May of 1945, the defeat of Germany set all eyes on the Pacific Theater. Japan remained at war with the Allies, though it had ceded nearly all of its Pacific territories to Allied forces and had largely retreated to the mainland. President Harry S. Truman was faced with the difficult task of subduing the Empire of Japan. An invasion of the mainland would be a costly campaign, sure to result in massive casualties for both sides. The Japanese had been extremely resilient in giving up the outer islands they had colonized. They would surely defend their homeland with an unimaginable ferocity. Truman sought other options.

For the past year, both Oak Ridge and Hanford had been enriching large quantities of fissile materials in their reactors for testing and eventual deployment of the atomic bomb. By the summer of 1945, the materials were not only abundant, but ready to be deployed. The uranium from Oak Ridge was incorporated into the bomb codenamed “Little Boy”, and the plutonium from Hanford was incorporated into “Fat Man”.

After extensive deliberation with his advisors, Truman ordered the bombs to be delivered by the Army Air Force to the Pacific Fleet. On August 7, 1945, a B-29 Superfortress bomber named “Enola Gay” departed from the island Tinian with Little Boy in its hold. The bomb was released over the downtown area of Hiroshima in the southwest of Japan. The resulting blast and fireball instantly killed over 70,000 Japanese citizens, approximately a third of the city’s population. Another 70,000 were injured by the detonation. Over 90 percent of the city’s medical staff were killed or injured. Over the next five years, deaths directly resulting from the detonation of Little Boy would climb to over 200,000 – mostly from cancer and other effects of radiation.

The devastation of Hiroshima not enough to cause immediate surrender of the Japanese, the American administration decided to continue with a second bombing. Just two days later, another B-29 nicknamed “Bockscar”, departed from the same island carrying Fat Man. This time the target was Nagasaki, 200 miles south and west of Hiroshima. This time, the target was a district of factories producing war materials – primarily the Mitsubishi-Urakami Ordnance Works, which produced the torpedoes that were used in the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Despite the Nagasaki target being less civilian than Hiroshima, the detonation over Nagasaki resulted in the immediate deaths of as many as 75,000 people. The fireball reached a temperature of 3900 degrees Celsius, over half the temperature of the Sun. Winds of over 600mph blew outward from ground zero. The immediate devastation stretched a mile across, and fires burned throughout the city. The bombing resulted in an immediate and total surrender by the Empire of Japan. The United States had ended the most devastating war in human history with a brutal display of modern technology. Regarding the method by which he ended the war, Truman had this to say:

I realize the tragic significance of the atomic bomb… It is an awful responsibility which has come to us… We thank God that it has come to us, instead of to our enemies; and we pray that He may guide us to use it in His ways and for His purposes.

A photograph of Sumiteru Taniguchi’s back injuries taken Nagasaki in January 1946

After the end of the Second World War, the former Columbia High of Richland, Washington was renamed to Richland High School, and the mascot was changed from the Beavers to the Bombers. It was only natural, considering the end they had helped to bring to the war in the Pacific Theater, that an atomic mushroom cloud should become the school logo. At the time, no one considered it distasteful or inappropriate to memorialize the masses of dead Japanese citizens with such a prominent display of hubris – as long as the attribution of power and victory fell to God. This still appears to be the prevailing notion among residents of Richland. Or else, how might this symbol remain a representative of the high school? How else might a paper crane at the center of an atomic symbol adequately represent the sacrifice the Japanese made in an exhibit dedicated nearly 70 years after the bombings?

Comparison of Nagasaki before and after detonation of Fat Man

***

For all the contributions the workers of Hanford made, a still greater contribution stands as the lynchpin holding this entire series of events together. Had it not been for the small tribe Lewis and Clark discovered along the Columbia, all of this might not have happened. One of the notable Columbia Basin tribes that did not participate in the bloody Yakima War between the United States Army and the Yakama and allied tribes was the Wanapum. The diminutive tribe, sparsely populated and occupying a relatively small territory, was overlooked. White settlers had already built up communities around the land the Wanapum occupied and as they were not considered a threat, they became one of the few Native American tribes in U.S. history to not sign a treaty and be forcibly relocated to a reservation.

The Wanapum culture permeated the Native American societies of the Columbia Basin. They followed the Waashat Religion, or Washani (meaning “Dreamer Religion”). One of their most famous leaders during the 19th century was Smohalla, a dreamer-prophet who advocated a revitalization of traditional Indian culture. He promoted a return to Washani rituals, claiming divine influence through visions. Smohalla exhorted his followers to reject the beliefs and goods of the white settlers and re-established ceremonial music and dancing. His charismatic “Shouting Mountain” speech inspired the tribes of the Columbia Basin and gained adherents throughout the region, among them Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce and Kotiakan, a prophet of the Yakama. They believed that following traditional rituals, nature would return to its original state and the white settlers would disappear. Instead of violent conflict, they advocated prayer.

Following the Yakima War, the United States Army eventually forced the Nez Perce to leave their home. Not wanting to be relocated to a reservation, over 800 Nez Perce and Palouse, led by Chief Joseph, fled eastward toward Montana seeking refuge with the Crow and the Lakota tribes. They were harried by the Army along the path, with multiple battles resulting in relatively equal casualties for both sides. The Army troops outnumbered the Nez Perce warriors six to one, and possessed full provisions and equipment. The Nez Perce warriors numbered 250 and protected nearly 600 women and children. Chief Joseph seeking always to avoid the fighting, stuck true to the Washani teachings, and eventually surrendered. A statement that has been attributed to Joseph following the surrender echoes in history: “From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”

Just prior to the flight of the Nez Perce in May 1877, General Howard, the man that would eventually force the surrender of Chief Joseph, met with Smohalla and Chief Moses near the mouth of the Snake River. He accused Smohalla of preaching a religion that was “calculated to appeal to the Indians and stir them up against the whites.” Smohalla assured him that they only wanted peace and the right to occupy their ancestral lands. He met with General Howard again two months later at Fort Simcoe and agreed to relocate his people to the Yakama Reservation. During the Nez Perce War, the Wanapum relocated as Smohalla had promised, but afterward returned to their home at P’na Village, along the Priest Rapids of the Columbia River.

Smohalla passed away in 1895 after teaching his beliefs to his son Yoyouoni, nicknamed Little Smohalla, and his nephew Puck Hyah Toot. After his death, his position was passed on to Yoyouoni, but in 1917, Yoyouoni died while hunting in the Colockum Mountains, southwest of Wenatchee. The position fell to Puck Hyah Toot who married Yoyouoni’s widow. Puck Hyah Toot later became known to the white settlers of Priest Rapids as Johnny Buck. Johnny Buck would go on to become an advocate for Wanapum fishing rights and the right to remain at Priest Rapids. He would also become a grandfather to Rex Buck, Jr.

 

  ***

 

The hall listens quietly as Rex chants out a long song with shifting melodies and repeating themes. Occasionally a familiar word or two reclaims the wandering attention of the audience: Wanapum, Hanford. The curator nods solemnly from the sideline, certain he appreciates the meaning of the prayer. In truth, there is probably no other person in the hall that understands the Sahaptin tongue reverberating over their heads. There is only a handful in the entirety of Ellensburg that do. Still, for these few minutes, gratitude of the audience knows no bounds.

 

The audience might imagine a scene in which Rex stands atop a mountain beside the Columbia River, shouting the peaceful philosophies of Smohalla over the valley. He looks out across the housing developments that would surely occupy the Hanford Site by now had the Wanapum not ceded their land to the US Army Corps of Engineers. As if guided by the chant, a backhoe cuts the foundation of another house into the banks of the river, uncovering the faceless remains of a Wanapum ancestor – a skeleton added to the pile bones of Kennewick Men unearthed in the manifested destiny of American expansion.

Buried dumps of expended nuclear fuel and waste absorb into the ether instead of the aquifer. The radiation clouds from Hanford and the plumes over Nagasaki and Hiroshima retreat, as though in a film moving backward, shrinking so as to never exist. The thousands of victims of cancer in Richland and the victims of the blasts in Japan are suddenly resurrected in a reverse stop-motion massacre.

The Empire of Japan surrenders, under threat of invasion and starvation of resources, to the superior power of the Allies. Under pressure from the coalition, Japan is reformed as a democracy. Russia never finds significant threat in American technological power and never seeks to rival it at an ever-increasing rate of armament. The Red Threat of Communism never chokes the Western World and the resultant proxy wars never occur. The world knows peace for a time.

 

Instead, the audience thanks its stars that President Truman made the right call. The Japanese thank the Allies for their swift and merciful end to a long, trying, bloody war. The Wanapum thank the US Government for allowing them to contribute to the war effort in such a tangible way. To most in the room, the logo of a paper crane and atomic symbol is certainly a clever and touching devotion to the victims of the bombings, and the museum dedicated to the creation of the bombs a tribute to American ingenuity.

The prayer ends. Rex lowers his arms and says, “We are proud of this museum. We are proud of our contribution to America.” The crowd is eager to applaud the old Indian, relieved that the long chant is over, but remaining respectfully silent in their boredom. A smattering of applause begins, but Rex interrupts, “We are all Americans.” The roar of clapping hands now fills the hall, a river of sound expressing thanks for the river of fish that was traded for the atomic bomb.

The Man That Died Twice

“…you will be compelled to grapple with the limitless kindness and bottomless cruelty of humankind – and perhaps realize that you yourself are capable of both. This will change you. Nothing will ever again be black-and-white.”

– Mark Jenkins

In 2002, my friend shot and killed 11 people, was linked to 10 more and injured three others. He terrorized over a half-dozen states with murders, woundings and a climate of fear that descended over the Washington Metropolitan Area for three weeks. People stayed home from work, kept their children out of school, avoided going on daily errands – all for fear that my friend would find them.

Now when I say friend, I should also say I don’t mean that I supported his actions – not even remotely. Just like everyone else in the country, I had no idea who was responsible during that October in 2002. I saw the reports on the news; I listened in on the radio on my way to and from school every morning. On the west coast, in my small town of Puyallup, Washington, we felt insulated from the events unfolding across the nation. Having been born in Tacoma in the 80s and having grown up just a few miles out of town, I was no strangers to gun violence – but at least we didn’t have a sniper running around killing people from cover at 300 meters with a civilian version of an M16. To this day, I’m not convinced the man who killed those people was the man I knew. Surely, they occupied the same body as the body of evidence proved – but I maintain that the man I knew died long before his execution; long, even, before he committed those heinous crimes.

I knew John Allen Muhammad for years before those attacks took place. His calm and friendly demeanor often warmed my family’s household. I met him around 1995. I was just into sixth grade. My parents had bought an old Volvo for my sister’s 16th birthday that spring and needed a guy who would help them fix it up and take care of the rest of our family’s cars. We had a brand new Beagle puppy named Cody. John would sometimes bring treats for him and greet him warmly at the door as Cody stood up against him. He knew all of our names: Bill, Andi, Katie, James, Britt… he had a special name for my older sister Jenny. First, he called her JennyPenny, then later simply Penny.

We couldn’t know that John was planning something abominable. We couldn’t know that he would later preach a holocaust of anger and death against white people. People like us. Could the man that offered me advice about life, and struggle, and God, really shoot a boy not much younger than me in the gut on his way to school?

What changed?

That is a question I’ve tried to answer for over a decade. Two months ago was the 10-year anniversary of his murder spree. Last month was the third anniversary of his execution by lethal-injection. I’ve always wondered what happened to my friend that died twice.

 

1. John Allen Williams

 

“Hi there, I’m John. I’m here about the Mitsubishi,” said the tall man at the door. He was African-American with deep brown eyes, clothed in a charcoal grey jumpsuit spotted with black grease stains, and wore gigantic steel toe boots. At twelve, I was taller than most of my class, but this man towered over me. He smelled of oil and gasoline, but there was also a warm smell that even today I recall but could never identify. “Is your father here?” he asked, looking down at me. Continue reading The Man That Died Twice

Fake Pigtails, Authentic Smile

Seventeen years have passed and I don’t even remember why we fought. We were at the 1994 Joey Waters Soccer Clinic summer camp in Puyallup, Washington, celebrating our shared interest in soccer. We were both on select teams. Kristin Reitz was ten, I was eleven; we both left angry – she threw my Collector’s Edition Shamu water bottle off the top of Spark’s Stadium, and I punched her in the stomach for the transgression. A few short months later, she didn’t come back to school.

Kristin’s older sisters and brother were friends with my older sisters and they had all sung or played in my mom and dad’s choirs and bands at Bellarmine Prep., my eventual high school. Because my parents needed to be in Tacoma very early and Mrs. Reitz was a stay-at-home mother, and the Reitz’ lived near our elementary school, my parents would drop me off at the Reitz’ house and Kristin and I would ride with her mother to school each morning.

“Don’t put in too much water,” Kristin said one morning, the school year before that summer – the year I met Kristin.

“Is this too much?” I asked.

“No, stop there. Maybe drain a little. Yeah, now put it in the microwave.” Kristin punched in 5 minutes on the microwave timer.

“Whoa, 5 minutes? The package says like 1-2.”

“It’s awesome, just watch.” Kristin jumped up on the countertop and stared intently into the glass window of the microwave. I joined her.

I looked at her as much as I looked at the oatmeal heating in the microwave. Her golden hair fell in loose curls over her shoulders, in stark contrast to the red sweatshirt we wore that was one of the uniform options of our private elementary, All Saints School, or ASS as we liked to abbreviate it. Below the sweatshirts, we each wore blue corduroys. Her face was bright with anticipation, confidence and excitement, the edge of her smile crooked with deviousness. Only minutes ago, I had arrived at Kristin’s house and both of us were still sleepy, our skin pale and eyes half open. It struck me how quickly Kristin could wake up, just from the intrigue of microwaving oatmeal. Her smile was contagious, and despite my confusion, I smiled too. Around her, it was impossible to resist smiling.

My breakfast began to bubble. Slowly a convex shape began to rise out of the center of the bowl. We passed the 2 minute mark and I began to imagine all the horrible scenarios my parents had warned me about when learning to use a microwave – can oatmeal burn? Could the flames get out of the microwave? I had no idea. By the look on her face, I suspected Kristin had an answer to those questions.

POOM. Oatmeal coated the window of the microwave. The sudden sound made me jump and backpedal from the countertop. Kristin was laughing so hard, she fell off the counter, and then I was laughing too.

 ***

Over that school year, Kristin and I became inseparable. After school, we’d go to baseball practice, or else we’d return to the Reitz household where I would await my parents, and Kristin and I would play soccer in the racquetball court built into their house. Sometimes, we’d play near the creek in their backyard, or walk down the street to the park, or sit in the living room and do our homework and practice our saxophones. We were both in the elementary school band and my dad’s afterschool Parochial Jazz Band. We both played Alto Saxophone, I was first chair, she was second chair and would sit next to me – we often shared a music stand. She was in the Girl Scouts, I was in the Boy Scouts – sometimes we’d work on our badges together.

In the months following that summer camp, Kristin was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Her parents immediately began treatment and Kristin was a rare sight at school. Kristin was in the hospital for a few weeks, so my mornings were spent with her older brother Norm, instead. Norm was as much a fan of oatmeal experiments as Kristin, he often boasted that he taught her everything she knows, but they were never quite the same without her. After a few weeks, Kristin came back, but now she wore a hat with fake pigtails dangling out the back. She was always exhausted but always smiling. Slowly, we resumed our regular schedule. I arrived in the morning, we ate and woke up together, and her mother drove us to school.

“Why does Kristin get to wear a hat?” Mike asked one day in class.

“It’s a special circumstance,” Mrs. Gilsdorf responded.

“What’s up with her hair?” he continued.

This time, Mrs. Gilsdorf only gave him a stare that clearly meant this topic was off-limits.

  ***

One of the gifts from my parents during Christmas 1994 was a large Ken Griffey, Jr. rookie poster and a rare Griffey card. While Kristin visited once, we looked up the value of several of my baseball cards in that year’s Beckett Price Guide. The rare card my parents had bought me was worth over $50 already, easily the most valuable card in my collection. Kristin suggested I keep it carefully, so we walked up to the collector’s store and bought a hard-plastic card holder and carefully screwed the plastic cover into place, entombing the card. We spent the rest of the night imagining what we would do if we had the most valuable card in the Beckett – a Mickey Mantle rookie card, worth over $10,000 in mint condition in 1994. Our fantasies didn’t stop at such a low number, however. I remember reading that in 2001, one of those sold for $275,000.

In late spring, my mom got a call from Mrs. Reitz that she was going to accompany Kristin back to the hospital. My mom began driving me to school in the morning and in the afternoon I would stay in the cafeteria with the afterschool care program. Kristin was completely absent during this time. Eventually, we got word that she was back at home and I asked Mrs. Reitz if I could hang out with Kristin. She said that it would be fine if I came over, but that Kristin would need to stay indoors. I told her I understood and went over that afternoon.

Kristin had the same hat on with fake pigtails. Her eyelids sagged and there were circles under her eyes. Her skin was ashen and her body moved with a jerky frailty. I smiled and greeted her, approaching for our customary hug. She smiled, but only half of her face moved. The other half had been disabled by the progression of her tumor. For a moment, she stood back and searched my face for a reaction, but finally seeing my best friend after so long I felt nothing but the same warmth radiating from her. Her smile widened and she closed the distance and embraced me. Caught in the spell, my smile widened too.

We talked a lot about the future that night. I told her that I would sell some of my baseball cards and start a business so I could be a millionaire by 25, and then I would retire early and travel the world. She told me that she wanted to be a professional soccer player. I told her that I wanted tickets to her first game in the World Cup and she promised I would have them. We laid plans for our birthdays, which fell during the same week in late August – we would go to the batting cages downtown and knock some balls over the nets. It was difficult to return home that night – it felt like we had so much to catch up on, and so much more left to say to each other. I never apologized for the fight we’d had, but I think she knew I was sorry.

Kristin didn’t return to school after that. I wasn’t allowed to see her anymore. She was frequently between the hospital and home, but never available. After a couple weeks the tumor took its final toll on her. She passed away on June 10th.

Her parents asked our jazz band to play at the funeral. We played from the choir loft at All Saints and left an empty seat for Kristin in the 2nd Alto position beside me.

When I returned home, I lay silently on my bed and stared at the obituary in the newspaper:

She attended All Saints Catholic School, was a member of the F.C. Royals Soccer Club and the Girl Scouts; she loved playing the piano, saxophone and singing. Other sports she was active in were swimming, baseball and basketball. Kristin strove to be the best in whatever she did and touched many lives in her lifetime. She was a source of light and energy for everyone that she was with and influenced everybody with her love, faith, hope and positive attitude. Her determination to excel at whatever she chose to do gave her a wonderful outlook on life and it showed in her face and radiant smile.

The words couldn’t more perfectly summarize my feelings for her. Accompanying the obituary was a small photo of Kristin bearing that same radiant smile and I was compelled to smile back. I cut the picture out of the obituary tacked it to the wall of my room above my dresser, between an Adidas soccer poster and the Griffey rookie poster.

The Christmas after Kristin’s passing, my parents gave me a signed Ken Griffey, Jr. baseball – one of the five that he had knocked into the stands during the Seattle Mariners’ dramatic victory over the Yankees in the 1995 post-season. It came with a Certificate of Authenticity and a stand to hold the ball and a baseball card. I carefully placed the ball in the stand and adjusted it so the signature faced forward, then reached under my bed to retrieve a card for the cardholder sticking out of the base of the stand. I flipped to the middle, where I kept my more valuable cards, and pulled the plastic-entombed Griffey card out of the sleeve where Kristin and I had last left it. I slid the card into the cardholder over the baseball’s certificate and placed the stand on top of my dresser, underneath the Griffey Rookie poster.

I stepped back to take in the scene – a Griffey signed ball, with a Griffey card, under a Griffey rookie poster… next to Kristin’s obituary.

I stood and crossed my bedroom, reached to the top of my dresser and pulled down the ball stand. Carefully, I slid the baseball card out of the holder and replaced it with the photo of Kristin, the Certificate of Authenticity in the background. The baseball card went back in its sleeve and under the bed. Kristin’s photo and the ball stand went on top of my dresser so her smile could light the room. It’s been seventeen years and her radiance has not dulled, and I still can’t help but return the smile whenever I see her looking down at me from the dresser.

Reach Into the Fire

In every society, there is a “child in a closet”. That child often represents the downtrodden – the classes of society that are oppressed, beaten, killed or forced to suffer in any number of ways. The child sometimes represents non-human or non-tangible things – the environment, equality or justice. More often than not, the child represents all of these – children who have no food to eat, women who can’t achieve equal footing with men, people who are attacked for their gender identity, race, religion, sexuality, appearance or disability; it represents the inefficiency of capitalism, the inequality of socio-economic structures, the destruction of our planet’s natural resources – all these people, ideas and things, all at the same time. Often a story explores the notion that there is a linchpin upon which rests all the troubles of its characters or the society in which its characters live. Those stories might challenge the reader to consider the moral choices offered to those characters. In two stories, Ursula K. La Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” and Ralph Ellison’s “A Party Down at the Square”, the authors offer two moral choices to the character: to participate in the torture of an individual, or to not participate at all – rejecting the society that supports such torture. What is not offered to the character is a choice that she or he, and the reader as well, must arrive at on their own – a choice that requires strength and courage and insight: to save the child, to stop the torture.

Guin illustrates a very metaphorical image of the child – hungry, dirty and alone in the closet, and the scapegoat and trash bin for everything that’s wrong in Omelas. Meanwhile, Ellison presents a much subtler child – the subjugation of a race of people and the brutal murder of them in a much more literal setting. In each story, the author offers the characters of the story the choice of participation. Should the citizens of Omelas leave, or accept that which they couldn’t possibly change? Should the protagonist join the mob and murder a black man, or leave the mob in distaste? What is never stated in either work is that there is a third choice: choose to change the circumstances. Le Guin doesn’t suggest that it’s possible to save the child of Omelas – to pull her from the closet and alter, fundamentally, how Omelas works (indeed, destroy it in the process); Ellison doesn’t suggest that the protagonist could charge through the crowd, shame the lot and rescue the black man from a gruesome death. This is because the authors of these stories have presented a challenge to us. First, can you discover the underlying message – the outrage that drove the author to write such a story? And second, can you find the courage to change the world, or will you simply either participate or walk away?

Le Guin’s “child” is illustrated as either a boy or a girl, that appears to be six, but is nearly ten; feeble-minded, possibly born “defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect.” (Le Guin 245). It sits in a locked room in the basement of a public building in Omelas, crowded by rusted and rotting tools, unvisited, except for those of Omelas whose time has come to be educated about how Utopia is maintained in Omelas. The child screams for help, cries, begs, but sits back in defeat upon its buttocks, “a mass of festered sores, as it sits in its own excrement continually.” (Le Guin 246).

Le Guin offers the reader an abstract idea of a perfect society – in all ways but one. The society was able to achieve happiness for all its citizens, equality, cheer and love for all but one of its own. The citizens of Omelas willingly sacrifice a child of Omelas, who becomes the focal point and mascot of all Omelas’ suffering, neglect, hatred and apathy. By some magical transference, all those negative emotions and actions and their constituent effects are transferred to the child, so that the rest may exist in pure ecstasy. It is made perfectly clear that were the child not to absorb all that is wrong in Omelas, the very foundations of Omelas would crumble: “… their happiness, the beauty of their city, … the wisdom of their scholars, … even the abundance of their harvest … depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery” (Le Guin 246). The citizens are all made aware of the child at some point in their life, and all who live in Omelas make a conscious choice to ignore the suffering of the child so they might maintain their own livelihoods. Some citizens choose, instead, to leave Omelas – unable to cope with the idea that their happiness is derived from the suffering of another. These two choices, alone, are given: stay or leave; ignore the child, or stop hurting the child.

Ellison offers the reader a more concrete representation of Omelas – a society where any white, heterosexual, Christian man can achieve all the happiness in the world (20th Century America), and often has the path to happiness laid out before him, but he must be willing to build it on the backs of “Others”. Others are the less privileged. In Ellison’s “A Party Down at the Square”, the Others are specifically black people – a man being burned to death for the color of his skin. However, the society being represented in this story is one of 20th Century America – the land of the free and home of the bigot. Indeed, this society is not a fictional component of the story, but a true setting, in an actual time where these exact events took place en masse across the United States. The Others in this country, our metaphorical children in the closet, continue to be exploited and attacked – just for being different from the powerful privileged majority.

Offering only the two choices to the character is a challenge for the readers presented by the authors to read between the lines. To come right out and state the challenge would cheapen the value. These stories are a call to action, a request for change, a challenge to courageousness. Can you find it within yourself to fight the establishment of Omelas? To fight the racism and oppression and marginalization of minorities in the United States? The authors are making a subtle call for readers to respond with an outcry of dissatisfaction, outrage and conviction to change the society in which they live. Don’t leave, don’t participate in it. Change it. Rush downstairs and pull the child from the closet, feed it, educate it, give it a name and stop referring to it with gender-neutral pronouns that only serve to marginalize and degrade the child! Push through the crowd, knock over the bigoted sheriff, pull the man from the flames and shame the mob – call them out by name, disgrace them and show them a better way of living. Show the people of Omelas, show the prejudicial: how to live with compassion, with love, with equality, with understanding, with respect! Tear down the barriers, destroy the frameworks of discrimination and oppression and find peace and harmony.

Even after the years of social evolution and civil liberty revolutions of the late 20th Century, the United States is still embroiled in the controversies of miscegenation and marginalization of minorities. Racism still exists, but the hot-button issues of the late 20th and early 21st Century America are the treatment of the poor (as ever), the continuing inequality of women and now the discrimination against sexuality and gender identity. In Culture of intolerance: chauvinism, class, and racism in the United States, Mark Cohen states:

After decades of slowly bringing minorities toward full partnership and gradually starting to protect the poor from the worst ravages of poverty, there has been an upsurge of indifference, fear, or outright hatred of others on the part of the American public and cynical manipulation of our fears by elected leaders, political candidates, media, and political commentators. […] It is also fashionable to assume that their failures must be rooted in the immutable nature of things – in their own inherent biology – and not in the American political system or the circumstances of their birth and life. (Cohen 1)

Cohen points out that despite the struggles of those who would fight the oppression of Omelas or the Square, and in spite of decades of work and huge leaps in progress, there remains an undercurrent of actively supported inequality in the United States that must be addressed. American leaders continue to sow fear of differences for political gain, wealth and power. American culture even encourages a “polite” ignorance of difference, in which one might suggest they “see no color” or don’t mind another person’s sexuality, but when confronted by those differences and their own privilege – when the veil of feigned tolerance is disturbed –the same ignorance that underlies classism, racism, sexism and homophobia is discovered. Clearly not enough has been done. As Cohen advocates for bringing to light the institutionalized prejudice in the United States, so might one do in Omelas or in the Deep South on Ellison’s story.

In Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism, Suzanne Pharr suggests that all forms of oppression share common elements and to seek an end to any oppression must necessarily seek to end all forms of oppression:

It is virtually impossible to view one oppression, such as sexism or homophobia, in isolation because they are all connected: sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, ableism, anti-Semitism, ageism. They are linked by a common origin— economic power and control— and by common methods of limiting, controlling and destroying lives. There is no hierarchy of oppressions. Each is terrible and destructive. To eliminate one oppression successfully, a movement has to include work to eliminate them all or else success will always be limited and incomplete. (Pharr 53)

Pharr states that in order for equality for any minority or oppressed class to be achieved, sensitivity and understanding must first be proliferated so that all oppression can be ended simultaneously – by virtue of the heightened awareness and empathy gained from social education. She goes on to state that oppression must be fought on several fronts – economic, social and institutional. She states that institutional oppression is one of the most pervasive, but also the easiest to change and sends ripples throughout society, “In the 25 states that still have sodomy laws, there is an increase in tolerance for violence against lesbians and gay men, whether it is police harassment or the lack of police protection when gay and lesbian people are assaulted.” (Pharr 56). To focus on changing the institutional oppression of minorities would be an effective way to channel the energies of outrage and conviction that result from the readings of those short stories.

If one were to design a plan, following Pharr’s assertions, to rescue the child of Omelas, or the black people of the Deep South in Ellison’s story, one would begin with a broad program of education of the people of those societies and relate the suffering of the under-privileged to the intrinsic humanity of each individual. One might compare the divides between people of those societies based on other differences, differences that incite less fear and hatred than to those of the underprivileged, and demonstrate how those differences are of the same degree – demonstrate that no difference is worth torture or murder.

In Ellison’s story, one might compare, because the story is set in a historical context, the inequality of men and women or rich and poor – relate the differences in terms that are known and understood. Work for the equality of all classes of people and thereby stop the senseless murder of a man because of the color of his skin. In Omelas, one might seek to educate the citizens of Omelas of alternative lifestyles where people can achieve happiness without the necessary suffering of one person. Humanize the child. Make the child’s suffering ever-present in the daily lives of the citizens of Omelas. If a utopia would be broken by the salvation of one child, then let it be broken by the constant reminder of the citizens’ active destruction of the child’s life. Seek to end that oppression and seek to support the equality of all others in society.

The conjoining of oppressions to identify their underlying oppressive mechanisms is possibly the most effective method of breaking down the frameworks of oppression – institutional or otherwise. To turn the tables a bit, Marjorie Quinn, writing as a minority white woman in Zambia, demonstrates how relying on terms like “race”, “white”, “black” and so forth, which are meant to emphasize difference, diversity and power relations can quickly lose their power: “These categories quickly and easily become reified as fixed, separate and monolithic categories of experience and identity, rather than being seen as socially constructed, blurred and changing. The reality is much more complex than these dualistic terms apply.” (Quinn 78). It is not a large leap to join her statement to terms like “gay”, “lesbian”, “straight”, “transgender” or “feminist” as well, as we can see how quickly stereotypes have reified around those words in our contemporary culture.

Using Quinn’s example, it is clear that a powerful first step of ending the suffering of the African Americans of the deep south or the child of Omelas – even before education of the masses, is to cease the use of words that carry with them stereotypes. In Omelas, the use of the term “the child” and referring to that child with gender neutral pronouns, create a non-human entity to which horrific characteristics can be attributed and all relatability is hidden. The people of Omelas give the child monstrous qualities and reject any shred of humanity the child may have. Similarly, the people of the Deep South in Ellison’s story attach all sorts of stereotypes to the term “nigger”, and belittle any humanity of the man about to burn by hurling that epithet. The “protagonist” of Ellison’s story shows just how the term “nigger” can be used to present a near meaningless sentence (short of the actual context), made meaningful by the term and all the stereotypes it brings with it, meanwhile dehumanizing the man who burned before his eyes:  “I was right there watching it all. It was my first party and my last. God, but that nigger was tough. That Bacote nigger was some nigger!” (Ellison 193). Even use of that term among the community of African Americans in that historical context reinforces the stereotypes of their community. Instead, all societies should be encouraged to embrace sensitive terminology for all people. They should refer to individuals by name, relate to them by common experience and elevate their under-privileged brothers and sisters to a state of equality.

If we can accept the advice of luminaries like Quinn, Pharr and Cohen, and accept the challenge presented to us by Ellison and Le Guin, we can find the inequalities in our own lives and societies – root them out and end them. We can stop the oppression of under-privileged people, seek to end poverty, destroy glass ceilings, protect those unable to protect themselves and allow lifestyles to co-exist. First, the reader must read and understand these ideas and have sufficient insight to see the meaning; readers must have the courage to stand with one another against the forces of prejudice, recognize their own privilege and seek to end it. Readers must reach into the closet and rescue the child; reach into the flames and pull out the man. The child will be dirty, so we’ll get dirty too – the fire will be hot, so we may be burnt; but to suffer together is better than to leave one person to suffer for all of us.

Works Cited

Le Guin, Ursula. “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” Fiction: A Pocket Anthology. 7th ed.  Ed. R. S. Gwynn. New York: Penguin, 2012.  242-247.  Print.

Ellison, Ralph. “A Party Down at the Square.” Fiction: A Pocket Anthology. 7th ed.  Ed. R. S. Gwynn. New York: Penguin, 2012.  188-193.  Print.

Cohen, Mark Nathan. Culture of intolerance : chauvinism, class, and racism in the United States. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998. Print.

Pharr, Suzanne. Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism. Berkeley: Chardon Press, 1997. Print.

Quinn, Marjorie.”Immigrants and refugees: towards anti-racist culturally affirming practices.” Critical Social Work: An Introduction to Theories and Practices. Ed. J. Allan, B. Pease, L. Briskman. CrowsNest NSW: Allen and Unwin, 2003. Print.

Mother Savage Marches to War

Guy de Maupassant makes a stunning assertion in his short story “Mother Savage” when he describes the lower class as “those who pay the most because they are poor […], those who are slaughtered wholesale, those who make up the real cannon fodder […], those who […] suffer most hideously from the miserable atrocities of war because they are the most vulnerable and the least powerful…” (Maupassant, 78). Throughout the story, Maupassant gives the reader a picture of the daily life of members of the lower class during a time of strife, thereby offering a subtle commentary on how wars declared by the upper classes of Europe adversely affect the lives of the common people, and how the common people eventually adopted a national identity as a means of survival.

At the time of writing, 1884, “Mother Savage” was a one of many pieces of literature drawing inspiration from the European wars of the late 19th century – a string of bloody wars over relatively small tracts of land and sometimes simply fought as reactions to insults or provocations between the noble houses of Europe, between countries left independent following the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire. The blood barely dry on the ground from the Austro-Prussian War, the European nobility once more launched into what would be known as the Franco-Prussian War, using their respective populations as ammunition (Hazen 441-457).

The story begins in 1869, one year before the insults of the Ems Dispatch was made public and the relations between France and Prussia devolved into war. The narrator paints an idyllic scene in the French countryside when he last visited the property that stirs the memory of Mother Savage. A quaint house covered in vines with livestock in the yard is a stark comparison to what remains of it 15 years later: “… a dead house with its skeleton still standing, ruined and sinister” (Maupassant, 77). The comparison of the house from 1869 to the house of 1884 also describes the result of a long suffering in that part of Europe – a part that saw the Franco-Prussian war, and then immediately following, experienced some of the worst of the Long Depression, which was instigated by the Panic of 1873. The cause of the Panic of 1873 is commonly attributed to Germany’s decision to abandon the silver standard following the Franco-Prussian War. It sent ripples through the economies of all the Western Nations and their dependents across the world. Europe saw great economic prosperity under the Holy Roman Empire, but following its dissolution and endless wars, by 1884, it was hardly a shadow of its former glory. The economies were shattered, the people scattered and dead, the culture stagnated and sights like Mother Savage’s burned and skeletal home were commonplace (Hobsbawm, 133-137).

As the support for the aristocracies of Europe continued to decline (arguably beginning with the French Revolution at the start of the 19th century), the common people of Europe began to adopt constitutions and require representation in government politics. Parliaments became common in Europe, even in the North German Confederation (which backed Prussia in the Franco-Prussian War) and the following German Empire – the Reichstag, where all male citizens over 25 were entitled to vote (Hazen, 475), an analog to the French Parliament established in 1791 to ensure the popular sovereignty of the French people in the likeness of the United States of America (Hazen, 411, 435-438).

The rise of popular sovereignty lead commoners away from identifying by the nobility they served, identifying instead with the political identities of the countries they now had a right to run. This was the rise of nationalism. Coalitions of states formed nation-states and crystallized their national identity around regional and ethnic heritage. Under these ideologies, the French Empire was established, and not long after the events of “Mother Savage”, the German states were unified into the German Empire under the King of Prussia, Wilhelm I. Nationalism was rising in Europe, but the common people were still struggling with the idea of patriotism. The narrator of “Mother Savage” states: “…country people do not as a rule feel patriotic hatred – those feelings are reserved for the upper classes. […] [S]uch people do not understand war fever or the fine points of military honor or, even less, those so-called political necessities which exhaust two nations in six months” (78). In other words, the common people were too preoccupied with the trauma of the decisions of those in power to consider their national identity. This naïveté leaves in the character Mother Savage, or Victoire Simon as we learn later, before the end of the story.

After hearing of her son’s death, Simon initially doesn’t react – much as one would expect of a woman of the countryside “who seldom laughed and whom nobody dared cross.” Slowly, though, the emotion overcame her as realization crept in. She had outlived both her husband and her son, one killed by the police, the other by war – both at the hand of governments and those in power. Before the speaker describes further Simon’s reaction, Simon’s thoughts are interrupted by the sound of the Prussian soldiers living in her house. She hid her tears, calmed her face and greeted them dispassionately. The seed of revenge had been planted.

Simon proceeds to cook dinner (albeit somewhat unsuccessfully, struggling with the main course – a live rabbit), struggling with her emotions inside. All the while, the Prussian soldiers laugh and enjoy their fellow company and meal – much as things had been before. Clearly, at this point, Simon is plotting her revenge, “… she watched them from the corners of her eyes, not speaking – turning an idea over and over in her head…” She realizes she doesn’t know their names, and so she finds the path to revenge – an institutional death, much as her son had received. She would kill them and be sure their mothers received notice of their death. She wanted their mothers to know who had done the killing, “You can write them how this all happened, and you can their parents that I was the one who did it – I, Victoire Simon, The Savage! Never forget it!” (Maupassant, 82) – French woman, host of Prussian sons, enemy of Prussia. Simon had found her nationality. She was then killed by Prussian firing squad, the death of a dissident, a resistance fighter, a war criminal, a patriot.

Attrition during wartime and occupation is not such a modern concept, but the tone of the speaker as Simon’s death is recounted, along with her own statements, indicate pride in her actions and a feeling of justification. Simon didn’t murder random people for revenge of her son; she didn’t even murder the people responsible. She murdered the countrymen, men of the same nationality, of those who killed her son as recompense for his death. In a time of war, does killing out of national identity equate to murder? If the circumstances are considered, this event took place in a private home, away from the battlefront, not in combat. It also took place during war and between members of opposing factions.

Simon’s actions are anything but murderous. They were patriotic. In a pure numbers game, Simon managed to kill four enemy soldiers for the modest sum of two Frenchmen – and that’s not even counting how many Prussian deaths could be attributed to her son. If every Frenchman achieved a ratio of two to one against the Prussians, the war could be easily won. Not only did Simon achieve such a high ratio, but she did it completely without training and killed four trained soldiers. The resource lost to the Prussian army in that moment was far greater than four men. All of their training and the cost of their wages to that point had been exacted on the enemy by a widow. This is a story that should give any Frenchman pride.

Simon thereby demonstrates exactly the kind of power the common people have over those in authority. She was forced to house those soldiers by the occupying army – an army of a foreign nation fighting a war for the selfish gains of a growing empire, in the wake of the people’s uprising and establishment of a European republic nearly four score years earlier. She did not stand idly by. Simon struck back at those in power over her in the best way she could. In the process, she struck an economic blow more than worthy of her station in life, and certainly large enough for a story to relate her legacy. It was an act within the power of any common person. While such an act seems minor to the economies of modern nations, the key is not the economic impact of an individual act, but rather the impact of countless acts against the same forces. Those people “…make up the real cannon fodder because there are so many of them…” (78), but when used appropriately, represent a devastatingly large force which can enact change that no single person, no matter their status, power or wealth, could ever hope to achieve. And no force was better at uniting the common people than the belief in and their own desire to be proud of their national identity. At the end, even the speaker takes a moment to reflect on “…the terrible heroism of [Mother Savage], shot dead against that wall.” (Maupassant, 83)

As common people across Europe sought a way to simplify their allegiances, justify their actions and further remove power from the aristocracy, they began to adopt national identities much in the way Victoire Simon did. She found a way to take pride in her actions – the brutal murder of four common soldiers of the Kingdom of Prussia, and simultaneously avenge the death of her son. Instead of selfish revenge, she achieved selfless patriotism. The division of the common people of Europe along national lines continues in Europe through the 20th century, arguably until the establishment of the European Union in the last decade of the millennium – when Europe set aside its constituent national identities in pursuit of the greater happiness of its citizens and the aristocracies that once controlled the continent faded into history.

Work Cited

de Maupassant, Guy. “Mother Savage.” Fiction: A Pocket Anthology. 7th ed. Ed. R. S. Gwynn. New York: Penguin, 2012. 76-83. Print.

Hazen, Charles Downer. Modern European History. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1920. Print.

Hobsbawm, E.J. Industry and Empire: from 1750 to the present day. New York: New York Press, 1999. Print.

Moral Imperative

A thump woke Hayden with a start to the empty blackness of her room. In the bed next to her, her sororal twin sister, Wynn, slept soundly. Hayden walked to the window of her bedroom and pulled back the curtain, seeing the cold dark sky warmed by a large fire in the distance. She pulled the curtain closed and ran out of her bedroom. Standing at the front door, she pulled up her nightgown and carefully slid her feet into the galoshes by the door. As she slipped into the street, a dark figure quickly approached, treading carefully over snow piles scraped to the sides of the road.

“Hayden, get inside!” the figure called out.

“Daddy? What’s going on?”

“Get inside! It’s not safe out here.”

Hayden obliged. “Is something on fire? Is that your lab?” she asked, as her father closed the door behind him.

“Take off your boots, honey.” He avoided the question and knelt to help Hayden remove the galoshes over her bare feet. His parted brown hair was combed neatly. He leaned in for a kiss, his short beard scratching her cheek.

“I heard a thump and then saw the fire.”

Her father looked down at her with a hard stare, as though he was deciding what to say.

“I’m old enough to understand, Daddy,” she said suddenly. He smiled.

“You’re eight, Hayden.”

“I’m old enough.”

“Of course you are. Look sweetie, I need to talk to your mother.”

He walked past Hayden and entered the master bedroom. Hayden sat in confusion on the furniture in the parlor. Curiosity was giving way to concern. She could hear her parents talking in hushed voices behind the door of their bedroom. Hayden approached the door and tried to decipher the sounds.

“…were innocent, Helen. I swear they’d done nothing, but they were just killing them all. I had to do something,” her father’s voice seemed to shake.

“Gods, what have you done, Oscar?”

“You remember before the Dynasty. We were Azurians too. They’re no different from us.”

Dripping with contempt, her mother replied, “But they’ll kill you now. The Enclave will brand you a criminal. Were the lives of a few refugees worth the lives of your daughters?”

“That’s not fair.”

“They’re going to imprison us all! You’ve doomed this family. How could you be so selfish?”

“Helen…”

A violent slap split the relative silence of the Stokes household. Hayden could hear Wynn stirring, and tried to maintain her silence as tears crept into her eyes. The door in front of Hayden opened and her father loomed, the darkness hiding his expression. He stepped past Hayden and walked toward the parlor in silence.

“Mommy?” Wynn had finally woken and stood at the door of their bedroom, rubbing her eyes. “What’s going on?” she asked.

“Go back to bed, girls,” their mother approached, shooing them back into their bedroom. Hayden slipped past her mother, chasing after her father.

Shouts from the street penetrated the house, the sound of boots striking the ground in rapid succession echoed in the darkness. “Daddy…” Hayden said as her father turned toward her. He knelt to her level and held her cheeks in his hands. His bright green eyes shone in the darkness and searched her face. Hayden knew he could see her thoughts. All eyes were on the door as the sounds subsided. A harsh knock broke the silence. Wynn and her mother stepped into the parlor. Hayden’s father turned to her again.

“Remember Hayden, inquiring mind and discerning eyes. Don’t believe everything they tell you. There are greater goods in this world than anything the Enclave says. Follow your heart, become the strongest person you can. Even if you fail, keep trying. You can’t learn if you don’t lose.” Another harsh knock.

Her father stood and walked toward the door. Her mother grabbed his shoulder, tears in her eyes, “Oscar…”

He only nodded, continued to the door and opened it. Lantern light and cold winter air poured into the house. Soldiers stood in a rank that extended beyond where Hayden could see. Her father stepped into the street and Hayden ran after him.

“Oscar Stokes,” an officer in a dark blue uniform trimmed with braided gold addressed him, a platoon of Enclave soldiers standing at attention behind him.

“Captain Bannam,” Hayden’s father replied. Against the show of force, her father seemed small and insignificant, dressed plainly in brown breeches held up by suspenders over a pin-stripe shirt, its sleeves rolled up to his elbows. The bright lantern light cast an aura around his shape.

“You are accused of disobeying an Enclave order and aiding the escape of Azurian criminals,” the officer said, loud enough so the entire street could hear. Window shutters all around them slid open silently. Continue reading Moral Imperative