Still Standing

Ruth S was the first to live in the top floor apartment after our collective household of four lesbians bought the three-unit building on Richland Avenue. She confided that in big storms it felt like a boat on the sea. You could get seasick with the rocking.

386 Front
It’s a weird looking building

I’ve now lived in all the flats—A B and C—and I can testify that Ruth was not exaggerating. One afternoon, lying on my bed in the far southern reaches on the lowest floor of the four-story building, I could feel a gentle rocking. It might have rocked me to sleep had I not been worrying about its source. There was no wind. I could see the blue sky from my window. Later I asked my partner D, whose bedroom was on the top floor in the far northern corner, what she thought might have caused it. Sex, she answered rather sheepishly. “We were having sex.”

As amusing as this was, to have knowledge of my house partners’ sexual habits by just lying on my bed in a distant part of the building, it concerned me greatly about the constitution of our home. Was it going to fall down? And if so, when?

With this question in mind, I invited one of my building inspection coworkers to come by and have a look (I didn’t tell him about the sex). I just felt there was something terribly wrong with the way this building had been constructed. What could the problem be and how might we fix it?

Of course he had no idea. The walls had long been closed and I didn’t at that time have the energy for a big project that included opening walls and inspecting structural members. But I had at various times opened pieces of walls to pull in low voltage wiring or to try to parse out what the builders might have had in mind.

I first moved into the lowest unit, apartment A, in 1980 with my lover Nancy. We noticed immediately that the kitchen floor’s angle was far steeper than, say, the angle of repose for raw eggs. Whenever we dropped anything liquid it would run so quickly from one side to the other that the cook would have to dive to the floor in order to catch it before it disappeared into the framing.

The interior had been finished, but badly. We could see that the previous owner had covered the kitchen with quarter inch sheetrock, painting it all a bright white so that no one would notice. The sheetrock covered the window trim, making you wonder what he had been trying to hide. Nancy was a carpenter and I an electrician. We couldn’t stand not knowing what was behind the quarter inch. And we wanted to even out the kitchen ceiling, which had a mysterious soffit hanging over the entrance door. One Saturday while I was away at a tradeswomen meeting Nancy demo’d the soffit (it had seemed like a simple quick job) and I returned to a kitchen full of rats’ nest material and rat poison boxes from the 1920s. We could only guess that a previous owner had built the soffit around the rats’ nest to avoid cleaning it up. After that we did not open walls with such abandon.

RatsNest
Rats’ nest inside the ceiling

But later I did have to open the kitchen wall. Investigating a short, I opened electrical boxes trying to figure out where the kitchen outlet was fed from with no success. I finally pulled off a piece of the quarter inch sheetrock thinking I’d find a pipe or a piece of electrical cable leading to another outlet. Instead I found that someone (clearly not an electrician) had run not cable but two wires stapled directly to the wooden original kitchen wall and then covered the whole mess with the quarter inch sheetrock. The wires disappeared under the sheetrock. Where did they go? There was no telling. This discovery horrified me. No electrician or anyone concerned with fire hazard would ever have done such a thing. It meant that we could hang a picture on the wall and short out a circuit or start a fire. But there was nothing to be done then. I patched the sheetrock and made a mental note to never hang a picture on that wall. It wouldn’t be till 20 years later that I would have the money and gumption to open the walls to see what was really inside.

386 Richland
So that’s where the wire went!

After closing up the kitchen wall and vowing not to think about the wiring, Nancy and I lived together in Apartment A for a couple of years before experiencing a devastating breakup involving our mutual best friend who lived across the street. Nancy was the first of our original collective of four to be bought out.

We all had thought long and hard about all the possibilities of home ownership, drawing up a contract that spelled out how collective members would be bought out and how new owners would be chosen, how much monthly “rent” would cost and the amount of homeowners’ dues. We even consulted a lawyer from which we learned that contracts drawn up between people are whatever the people agree to. In other words, the lawyer was no help. What we failed to understand was the concept of equity as it relates to real estate. Our idea was that each member’s equity was equal to all the money she had put into the pot, including monthly mortgage payments. None of us had owned real estate. We didn’t understand that most of the payment went toward interest on the loan. So we ended up buying Nancy out for more than her actual equity. But it was a good lesson. We became real estate mavens.

Then I moved in to apartment B. At the culmination of a lovely housewarming dinner, I turned on the coffee maker and all the lights went out. The electrician’s house, my friends laughed, like the unshod cobbler’s kids. That was the start of a long journey of discovery that would shock my electrical sensibilities and make me wonder why the building had not burned down in an electrical fire long before my time here.

Wires live inside walls and ceilings and so without opening up walls it would be very difficult to understand what was going on, but I could surmise that the apartment was served by only a single circuit. That in itself was troubling and there was no way of knowing the quality of workmanship or the condition of the wiring. At least the old fuse panel had been replaced with a circuit breaker panel so the wires were protected from overload. I wasn’t prepared to start a construction project on my home at that time in the early 80s. That would have to wait until after my retirement as an electrical inspector. My job as an inspector required me to explain to other home owners and business owners that their faulty electrical wiring could cause a fire. Every time I said, “If you don’t fix this problem, a fire could result,” I would think to myself, “My own home could burn down!” I didn’t know the half of it.

Over the years collective members sold their shares, others bought in and sold out until I was the only one left. It wasn’t until the year 2000 that I had the time and inclination, and also a partner who wanted to get her hands dirty, to begin to open walls and really see the structure. What we found was worse than anything I’d imagined: no studs in half of the third story apartment, bearing walls cut off at the garage level causing the building to sag in the middle (the answer to the raw egg question), a monstrous electrical fire hazard.

As we deconstructed the building, we kept wondering why it is so oddly shaped, why construction methods differed from floor to floor and room to room, why floors were different heights in adjacent rooms, why floor and ceiling joists sometimes went north and south, sometimes east and west, why when wall coverings were removed we could see sky through cracks in the exterior walls.

 

Then one day when I was standing across the street looking at the building I had an epiphany. Our home was never a plan in some architect’s mind. It was a collection of buildings set on top of one another, cut off, pushed together, raised up, and without benefit of removal of siding, spiked together with a few big nails. Suddenly all the mysteries we’d catalogued made sense. Our four-story three-unit building had probably begun life as a homesteader’s shack in 1893, the year of the newspapers that had been pasted on interior redwood walls as insulation. We read the San Francisco Call as we uncovered the walls. 1893 was a very interesting year.

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MUNI Stories: I Said, What Are You?

“Are your parents here in this country?” asked the garrulous drunk of the Chinese boys. The drunk, a florid, swarthy, affable man holding a big beer can, sat in the back of the 14 Mission bus. I sat to the left of the boys in seats with our backs to the side of the bus. We looked across to people sitting on the other side. It was a little like sitting around a dinner table but without the table.

“Yes,” said one boy. “We’re from here.”

I’d been swapping stories with the boys. They were clearly all-American. We had started assessing taco places as the bus sped up Mission Street on Sunday. A long line waited outside La Taqueria at 25th Street.

“It’s good, but not that good,” I said.

“Yeah,” said one of the boys. “I live in the Excelsior and there’s a great taco place out by Onondaga. The line is shorter. But my favorite is El Farolito.”

I could see this kid was a regular taco aficionado.

“No, really,” said the drunk. “When did you come from China?”

After that, the boys stopped interacting with him. But I couldn’t restrain myself, even though I could see others on the bus would prefer to ignore him. We continued to chat loudly about ethnicities.

“I’m Mexican,” he announced.

“I’m Scandinavian, but way back there,” I said, waving my arm toward ancestors in the distance.

I looked around at the others at our “table.” A young dark-skinned black man with a thin nose sat in the corner on the back bench frowning as he read Dale Carnegie’s How to Develop Self-Confidence and Influence People by Public Speaking. He looked so serious, I wanted to hug him. A young pale woman sitting across from me pretended to float in another universe, looking past me out the window with half-closed eyes. Next to her a beautiful well-dressed Latinx adjusted his ear buds and consulted his phone, multitasking. I knew he was paying nearly as much attention to us as he had to the product on his glossy, curly black mane, but he tried not to look up. He was enjoying the conversation. I kind of wanted to hug him too.

An old Mexican man sitting on my left was the only rider as obviously entertained by the drunk as I was. The drunk had been mostly talking to himself in Spanish and periodically the man on my left would translate for my benefit, then giggle. But the drunk also spoke fluent English. He wanted us to know that he was more than just Mexican. His family was Spanish.

“My grandmother in Spain had blue eyes and everything,” he announced.

“My Swedish grandmother had brown eyes,” I said. “I guess that’s where I got them. The purple hair is all mine, though. None of my people had purple hair.”

The drunk grinned, the Latinx smiled, the old guy sitting on my left giggled. The boys were still quiet, but as I got off at my stop, I thought I could see them smirking.

MUNI Stories: What Are You?

“What are you?” asked the Filipina lady sitting next to me at the bus stop. She looked to be about my age—grandmotherly. She was talking with her female friend who had been telling her a joke in Tagalog, and she was laughing uproariously. Then, when she saw me smile, she translated the whole joke for me into English. I confess I didn’t totally understand but I laughed anyway. She was trying so very hard to include me.

I thanked her for translating the joke and then she asked me, ”What are you?”

My MUNI stop at Richland and Mission Streets where all the most interesting people gather.

It took a minute to understand what she was asking. Put to me, this question has been about gender, usually asked by children. People often mistake me for a man. But once I open my mouth I’m seen as female, and we had already been talking, so I didn’t think this woman was asking after my gender.

It’s the same question white people are admonished not to ask people of color. White people don’t get asked that question. It’s often assumed we have no culture. But this woman knew I came from somewhere, and once I figured out that she was asking after my ethnicity, I was delighted to answer.

“I’m mostly Swedish and Norwegian. But I’m third-generation so I don’t know either of those languages. I’m sorry to say my only language is English,” I confessed, embarrassed.

“What languages did they teach you in school in the Philippines?” I asked her. She told me they had learned both Spanish and English. I asked about Tagalog. She said they didn’t have to study that because they already knew it. That sounded like the argument of colonialists to me—Filipinas being taught the language of the oppressors but not their native language in school. But the main thing I thought was that this woman from the far reaches of the imperialist project got a better education than I did, at least where languages are concerned.

I’m the beneficiary of the American school system in a country and culture that believes we are the center of the universe, so there is no need to learn other peoples’ languages. Funding the football team was the primary objective of our school board in Yakima, Washington. Art, music, language and girls’ sports were seen as secondary. Or in the case of girls’ sports, completely unimportant. About this, as a pre-Title IX kid, I am still angry. I coulda been a contenda!

I know some things have changed since I was a student out there in education land in the 1950s and 60s. I sure hope so, because it’s this way of thinking that reinforces the xenophobia and nativism plaguing us now.

A Civil But Chilling Exchange

On the plane, I sit next to an old guy, white hair, who is busily underlining the folded pages of USA Today as he reads. I finally have to ask him why. He tells me he reads, underlines and then gives the paper to his wife so she can read it and they can discuss at breakfast every morning. It’s his ritual, but he usually reads the Wall Street Journal. They had USA Today at the hotel where they were staying in Palo Alto. They had attended his grandson’s Stanford graduation. His wife is sitting across the aisle watching video.

We strike up a conversation. He wants to tell me about the Stanford Experience. I wonder to myself if it’s like the Jimi Hendrix Experience. But no. He paints a picture of privileged seclusion on a beautiful campus. The graduation ceremony was impressive. The mass spectacular.

A Catholic mass? At the graduation?

Well, yes, but there were masses for every religion.

I wonder to myself what the atheists did.

He wants to brag about his grandchildren who are serially graduating from colleges around the country, keeping him and his wife busy this season. They live in Florida on the west side. He was originally from Chicago.

I steer him away from grandchildren, who it seems are all whip smart, super athletes and excel at everything.

Stanford teaches critical thinking skills he says. We agree this is important.

What did you do before retiring?

I made a great career in the FBI, starting as an agent and working my way up. I worked all over, headed the FBI in South Carolina, worked in Washington DC for four years.

Ok, this is getting interesting, far better than grandchildren. He starts by condescending. Read, he says, pointing to the paper he is underlining.

I doubt USA Today will tell me about the FBI, I say.

He smiles. Well, you’re right about that.

Did you start under Hoover? What did you think of him?

He looks me over. His eyes are robin egg blue. You won’t agree with me. I never met him. I think he built a great organization.

What about all the people falsely accused during the McCarthy period whose lives were ruined?

No answer to that.

We start on immigration. He tells me he doesn’t think we should let Muslims in to the US. Their law is different from ours. They should stay in Muslim countries, but they all want to go to Germany. They want the free stuff. He starts to lecture about Shia, Sunni.

But don’t we have some responsibility for creating the refugee crisis? Have you seen the pictures of Syria? It’s a bombed out wasteland. Would you want to be sent back there? How is this different from our sending boatloads of Jews back to Germany to face Nazi extermination during WWII?

He says his wife is Jewish. FDR was an anti-Semite.

What about the Japanese incarceration?

In retrospect? Terrible. He doesn’t see the similarity.

He says he loves the Hispanics. They are Christian, they work hard, they come from a similar culture. They can assimilate. Muslims can’t.

What is your vision? Do you see this as a Christian nation? Is this a war for religious domination?

He wants to change to subject back to Stanford, but can’t remember a word. The problem with an old brain, he says, and I sympathize. He taps his wife’s shoulder to ask. She looks annoyed, pulls out an earbud and answers. We talk more about the Stanford Experience, but I can never get him to explain its essence.

Since retiring from the FBI he has worked as a legal ethicist in private business helping businesses to do the right thing.

Yeah, it hurts the bottom line if you’re getting sued all the time.

No it’s more than that. It’s about morals. He thinks Comey should have been fired immediately after Loretta Lynch had the private meeting with Bill Clinton on that plane. I don’t understand this, but get that he is not a Comey fan, that he thinks Comey was unethical.

Sometime later he is still underlining furiously. I wonder if this is a holdover from his FBI work. The headline on the print-out is “Trump’s Cheese in the Maze Strategy.” It comes from a right-wing site called Big League Politics which refers to the media as the Fake News Media.

You should read what I read, he says.

I ask how he thinks Trump is doing.

He wasn’t a Trump supporter in the beginning, but now he’s on board. Likes his style. Likes what he did with NATO. They have to pay their share. Thinks he sent North Korea a message.

He and his wife go to lectures, read about world affairs. They heard a lecture at the World Affairs Council where the speaker thought we ought to ally with Russia. They are another white country he said.

How does he reconcile this with our war in Syria?

The Kurds are doing the fighting. He likes the Kurds. But then there’s Turkey.

Do you think the Kurds should have their own homeland?

He starts to lecture about the history but doesn’t answer. Mentions Israel, Saudi Arabia.

Why are we selling arms to the Saudis? Those 9-11 guys were Saudi. Why are we so close to them? Are we sending them to war with Iran? Where do you see it leading? Will borders change? No answer to that.

What’s your vision? How do you see it ending? Do you think there’s any possible strategy other than war?

No.

We move to history. He thinks we should have kept fighting in Vietnam. We could have won that war with two more weeks.

What was the point? To open a market for American goods? We’ve done that. Do you think it would have been worth the tens of thousand of lives lost?

Yes, if we’d won. Were you against the war?

Yes, I was a protester.

My wife was too. But she’s come over to my side.

I wish I could talk to his wife. Has she come over in the interest of domestic tranquility?

We agree to disagree. It’s been a polite conversation and we agree we could keep talking for days. I’ve been the one asking questions. He hasn’t seemed particularly interested in me. But he asks me why I’m going to DC. I tell him about the Great Labor Arts Exchange and that my chorus is doing a performance about Paul Robeson. Do you know who he was?

No. The name is familiar.

My wife Holly thinks I should always introduce Robeson as the Old Man River singer. People don’t know who he was. I describe him as a football player, then as a singer and actor, a black activist, a communist.

Ah, he was a commie is all he says.

The FBI and US government harassed him and ruined his life.

We talk about travel. He has been to far more places in the world than I. They have a bucket list and are planning a trip to Israel, Jordan and Egypt in the near future.

The topic turns to health care. Beware single payer he says. The Canadians have to wait in line.

But isn’t that better than no healthcare? Rich people always have the option of paying for faster doctor visits. I’m a big fan of single payer and will work to get it in California.

Do you like Bernie Sanders?

I hesitate, thinking about the rift in the Democratic Party. Well, I consider myself a socialist. Yes.

As the long flight ends and we stand up, the people in seats around us chime in. They could hear our conversation. One says it’s just like her family. I say did it feel like Thanksgiving and apologize. Another says she is passionate about single payer. We introduce ourselves. Her name is Toni Rizzo and she has had a radio show in Mendocino County where she’s talked about healthcare often. The look on her face is pained, knowing. She’s talked to other guys like this.

It’s important to be passionate says the man.

As we wait to deplane he tells me all about his workout schedule, how strong he is at 70. I thought he was older. He wants to know if we need help with luggage. Asserting his physical dominance. I think he wants to arm wrestle. The last defense. I demur.

Sing loud he says as he departs.

I am left chilled by this experience. Here is a guy who claims to be a critical thinker, who claims to care about ethics, but who supports Trump, who believes we must exile Muslims, who thinks we should have kept fighting till we won the war in Vietnam, who thinks there is no answer to world problems other than war. We had a civil, respectful conversation. I really wanted to understand his point of view and now that I do, I’m horrified.

The episode reminds me of a favorite lyric from the Indigo Girls song “Tether

I kicked up the dirt, and I said to my neighbor
We keep making it worse, we keep getting it wrong.
He tucked in his shirt, he stood a little bit straighter
He said we need a few less words, dear, we need a few more guns

 

We Were Once All Antifascists

When you hear the word antifascist, you might think of the people who try to reason with right-wing paramilitary brawlers in Berkeley. Or it might call to mind the black bloc, hooded with faces covered, on a rampage smashing windows. Probably you don’t think of the US government.

But there was a time when the villains of US foreign policy were fascists. It was after the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39, in which the US refused to intervene, letting the fascists win with the help of Hitler, Mussolini and US oilmen (see Spain in Our Hearts by Adam Hochschild). It was before the CIA incorporated Nazi war criminals into its organization and focused our wrath on communists and the Soviet Union after WWII (see The Devil’s Chessboard by David Talbot).

Flo in ARC uniform
Mom in uniform

In the aftermath of WWI, European writers sought to alert the world about the fascist threat and Americans—if they were paying attention—would have known about what was happening in Europe. My mother, Florence Wick, was paying attention. Trying to understand why she decided to join the American Red Cross (ARC) and serve in Europe during the war was what impelled me to study this period.

Watch on the Rhine

In the years before television, theater played an influential role in shaping the culture. Visiting New York City in 1941, my mother saw Watch on the Rhine, an antifascist play written by Lillian Hellman. The popular play won the New York Drama Critics prize that year and was still on Broadway when Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7, 1941. Made into a movie starring Bette Davis in 1943, Watch on the Rhine was representative of a genre of antifascist art popular in the US during the early years of WWII whose purpose was to persuade isolationist Americans to get involved in the European war. It certainly influenced my mother’s decision to join the Red Cross and go to war. I think it may have been one reason she chose to join the ARC, which promised a job in Europe, rather than other slots that opened for women, which may have kept her behind a desk back in the States.

watchrhine
Playbook saved by Mom in 1941

I watched the movie, intrigued by the genre, and several others with similar messages. Some are just naked propaganda with unbelievable characters and dialog. Others, like Hellman’s, seek to educate Americans about the crisis in Europe, about class and about anti-Semitism. Hellman, who had briefly joined the Communist Party, wrote the play in 1940 following the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact of 1939. Her call for a united international alliance against Hitler contradicted the Communist position at the time. She was labeled a “premature antifascist” by the Communist Party, ironically later a moniker used by the FBI during the McCarthy purges to target communists. Her lover, Dashiell Hammett, who had also joined the Communist Party, wrote the screenplay.

His introduction reads: In the first week of April 1940 there were few men in the world who could have believed that, in less than three months, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Holland and France would fall to the German invaders. But there were some men, ordinary men, not prophets, who knew this mighty tragedy was on the way. They had fought it from the beginning, and they understood it. We are most deeply in their debt. This is the story of one of these men.

The man is Kurt Muller, a German who has devoted his life to the antifascist movement. We learn that he and many of his comrades fought in international brigades along with the Spanish Republicans to defend Spain’s democratically elected government against Francisco Franco’s fascists. They and others have constructed an underground antifascist organization in Europe. Watch on the Rhine shows us that fascists come in many shades; that Americans, naive about world politics, haven’t moved so far from slavery; that Bette Davis (bless her heart) excelled at overacting. The part played by Davis, Muller’s American wife, was expanded for the movie to make use of her star power at the box office.

The play is set in the Washington DC mansion of the wife’s family, whose dead patriarch had been a respected US Supreme Court justice. The family matriarch, Mama Fanny, runs it like a plantation, overseeing black servants with strict control. When Joseph, the male servant, is summoned, he answers “Yasum.”

But Joseph gets some good lines. When Mama Fanny orders, “That silver has lasted 200 years. Now clean that silver,” Joseph says, “Not the way you take care of it Miss Fanny. I see you at the table and I say to myself, ‘There’s Miss Fanny doing it to that knife again.’ ”

Hellman uses the three Muller children, sophisticated, language rich and worldly, to teach Americans about the outside world. “Grandma has not seen much of the world,” says the oldest, Joshua. “She does not understand that a great many work most hard to get something to eat.”

We learn that the antifascist movement is nonviolent. The youngest kid, Bodo, says, “We must not be angry. Anger is protest and should only be used for the good of one’s fellow man.”

I was so impressed with this movie, I watched it twice, taking notes the second time. It’s both a critique of American culture and an attempt to school Americans about developments in Europe. Hellman did deep research for her script, and I thank her for helping me to understand this historical period and the forces that shaped it. Like most films from this era, it’s not available on Netflix, but I was able to check it out from the San Francisco Public Library.

The Moon Is Down

During Hitler’s rise, Nazis were winning the propaganda war. Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will, was and still is much admired. Alarmed artists approached the US government with proposals for antifascist plays, movies and books, among them the famous writer John Steinbeck. The result of his effort, the novella, The Moon is Down, was published in March 1942. The next month it played on Broadway and a year later premiered as a movie. Its purpose was to motivate the resistance movements in occupied countries. The sinister title comes from Shakespeare’s Macbeth.JohnSteinbeck_TheMoonIsDown

I accidentally discovered the thin book in a friend’s library and read it with great interest. Perhaps there are many books like this one, which describes life in a town that has been invaded, but I have never encountered another.

There is bloodshed. Orders are followed. People resist, are arrested and executed. People flee. Some people collaborate. Others form an underground to communicate with those on the outside. At the end of the book, the war is still going. But the invaders have been surrounded and we are very aware that the invaders have become the harassed. In a way, the occupiers have become the occupied.

Steinbeck acknowledges the humanity of the enemy. We learn as much about the motivations and humanness of the invaders as the invaded. For that reason the book was criticized mercilessly in the US and Steinbeck’s patriotism questioned. But Europeans loved it. It was translated into many languages and became the most popular piece of Allied propaganda in WWII. This year the Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California is celebrating the book’s 75th anniversary.

Five Came Back

Things weren’t looking good for the Allies as the US joined the war effort after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Germany and Japan were conquering Europe and the Pacific. The US had only just started to gear up its factories to make war materiel and Europe feared we wouldn’t get it there in time to stop the Nazi advance. It was during this time that the US antifascist propaganda machine went into high gear.Five_Came_Back_(poster)

 From 1942 to 1945, Frank Capra directed a series of seven antifascist propaganda films, narrated by the actor Walter Huston. The series, called Why We Fight, was produced by the War Department to make the case for US involvement in WWII. These films can now be accessed online. I also saw Five Came Back, a three-part Netflix series about five American film directors, including Capra, who produced propaganda for the US government during the war. The others were John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, and George Stevens.

Making movies of the war changed the filmmakers as well as audiences. We learn that they were haunted by what they saw. Wyler was shocked by racism against black soldiers and refused to make a film meant to recruit blacks. Stevens, at Dachau, realized he should be there to film evidence of crimes against humanity, not propaganda. Ford turned to drink after witnessing the bloodbath on D-Day. Huston took on PTSD only to have his film suppressed by the government. Racism was present in these films. While Germans were depicted as humans, Japanese were often seen as subhuman caricatures. The government worried, rightly, that violence against Japanese Americans would result. Then, in 1942, it incarcerated them until the end of the war.

Women in WWII: 13 short films featuring America’s Secret Weapon

Most of these are US military propaganda films whose purpose was to convince women to join the WACS or other service, and also to persuade men that women could do the work. Some were written by Eleanor Roosevelt and narrated by famous actors like Katherine Hepburn. The American Red Cross, in which my mother served, wasn’t mentioned, but there was a picture of an ARC club in North Africa.WomenWWII

I wish the government had made films like this for women in the trades. In one scene a couple of men are talking on their front porch about how one’s sister wants to join the WACS and they think she’s crazy. It’s a man’s war, they say. Then the film counters their sexism and shows competent women doing all sorts of jobs. However, these films also endeavored to persuade women that they were taking men’s jobs and they needed to go back home after the war and relinquish their war jobs to returning soldiers. It was made clear that the jobs belonged to men.

I don’t know if my mother saw any of these films, but it was this sort of government propaganda that propelled her and her generation into World War II. When the enemy was fascism, she was “as patriotic as they come,” according to her sister. Only after the war did she begin to question the government-constructed enemies of the state.

Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust

Released in 2004, this film makes the case that the story of the Holocaust has been told to the world by films made in Hollywood, starting with Warner Bros. Confessions of a Nazi Spy in 1939, then MGM’s The Mortal Storm in 1940. Neither of these films used the word Jew. The Jewish studio heads wanted to stay in the closet and just be known as Americans. Also, the movie industry made a lot of money from selling its films to Germany during the early years of Hitler’s takeover. Some historians now view studio directors as Nazi collaborators.

 

Finally in 1940 Charlie Chaplin used the word Jew in The Great Dictator, which he made with his own money. Imagining that an antifascist film can also be hysterically funny might be difficult until you see The Great Dictator. Chaplin slays as Adenoid Hynkel, a thinly disguised Hitler. Jack Oakie’s spoof of Mussolini inspires hilarity. I confess I had never seen the film. Now, having watched it, I understand why Chaplin is praised as a comic genius. In the globe scene, Chaplin/Hynkel performs a ballet dance with a balloon earth, achieving perfect domination. Chaplin impersonates Hitler to great comic effect. He watched Riefenstahl’s propaganda film Triumph of the Will to learn Hitler’s speech patterns and body movements. Chaplin later said that if he had known the extent of Nazi atrocities, he wouldn’t have made the film.

My mother told us kids stories about her time in Europe during the war, but she never talked about the Holocaust and we were not taught about this historical period in school. So I didn’t learn until 1970 that she had been present at the liberation of Dachau. What finally got her talking was an American TV mini-series, QB VII, about a British court case involving concentration camp crimes. It exemplifies how American media jogged the memories and imaginations of war survivors even 25 years after the war.

Night Will Fall

Night Will FallIn 1945 a team of British filmmakers overseen by Alfred Hitchcock went to Germany to document the Nazi death camps. Their documentary, German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, was suppressed and then lost for seven decades. Night Will Fall, a 2014 documentary directed by Andre Singer, chronicles the making of the 1945 film and includes original footage. These images are hard to watch, but I think we need to see them, to witness the consequences of fascism.

The death camp films were suppressed partly because they were thought too graphic for British and American tastes. And American tastes had changed almost as fast as superstate enemies revolved in Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984. The Germans, our most recent deadly enemy, had become our friends. The Soviet Union, our recent ally, and communism, was now our mortal enemy.

Florence E Wick dogtag

 

 

What Old Tradeswomen Talk About

My friend Marg was building a coffin for her friend Bob.

Marg was happy and excited that she could give back in this way, being a carpenter. But her project plans had to take into account her disability, a persistent back pain that had put an end to her career as a building inspector and that she now spends her life managing.

When we get together Marg and I often collaborate on inventions and engineer projects that never get built. But now she was actually completing one of them.

The funeral home had given Marg the dimensions of the concrete box that the coffin would have to fit into with the admonition that another coffin builder had exceeded the dimensions and at the burial the coffin had not fit.

At lunch with our retired carpenter friend Pat, Marg described her plan—a rectangular box rather than the typical hexagonal coffin shape. She used one four by eight sheet of plywood ripped lengthwise for the sides and ends. Another ripped sheet made the bottom and top. She made the handles with rope.

“I had the lumberyard rip the ply for me, to save my back,” said Marg. “I can still use a Skil saw for short lengths but I don’t do ripping anymore.”

She screwed a ledger around the inside of the box so the bottom could just be dropped in and sit on the ledger. I’m an electrician, not a skilled carpenter, so I was proud of myself for knowing that a ledger is the ribbon of wood attached to the framing of a wall that the floor hangs on. I could totally visualize it.

“What size plywood are you using?” asked Pat.

“Half inch,” said Marg.

“Cross bracing?” asked Pat.

“Well, no,” said Marg. “I don’t think it needs it. I used structural plywood. Anyway, the coffin is now at the funeral home.”

Pat and I looked at each other and each knew what the other was thinking. I imagined the bottom piece of plywood bending with the weight of Bob’s body, the ply slipping off the ledger and the bottom piece along with the body falling out the bottom of the coffin as it was lifted up.

A moment of collective panic ensued. Marg frowned. She is a worrier.

“I’m sure it will be fine,” said Pat.

Marg’s description of her liberal use of glue and screws eased my concern.

Marg says there have been great strides made lately in screw technology. Hex head screws that go in easily and you don’t have to pre-drill.

“Remember when we didn’t have battery-operated drills?” I said. “I had to reach into my tool belt for a hammer and an awl to start the hole, and then screw in the screw with an old fashioned slotted head screwdriver. In those days we used ¾ inch sheet metal screws to strap our pipe to plywood. I had awesome forearms. People noticed my forearms.”

“Yeah, I had an awesome back till I fell off that ladder,” said Marg.

“And my knees were once awesome,” said Pat, who was recovering slowly from a recent knee replacement.

We were just generally awesome.

Single Life

At 71, my father, Carroll, has been single for two years.

“What’s it like?” I ask. “Do you think it’s different from single at 30, or 40?” I’m in a relationship at the moment, but considering the impermanence of modern lesbian relationships, this is information I intend to store for the future.

He looks at the sky and smooths his gray mustache. “Probably not,” he says.

We sit on the deck of his tiny trailer in a run-down resort in the California desert. We are drinking vodka and grapefruit juice, perhaps a bit too fast. Vodka is his drink, not mine. He likes whiskey, he says, but his system just can’t take it. Gin gives him an asthmatic reaction. But with vodka, he says, he’s never had a hangover.

He has returned home from his travels to a stack of mail and he reads it as we talk, half-glasses perched on his nose. “This GD insurance company. I’ve been fighting with them for months. Who’s this from? Oh, my friends the Carlsons. You remember Ben and Karen. They’re coming to visit.

I move the stack of mail around and spot an envelope with recognizable handwriting. It is a card from my brother, Don, a notoriously poor correspondent.

“Dear Carroll,” it says, “Hope you are enjoying life in the desert. Everything is fine up here. I recently moved into a new apartment with a new roommate, a college student at the university. I’m working really hard on the Little Theater production of Cinderella, and work is going fine. Hope you had a good holiday.”

“Have you talked to Don lately?” says Carroll.

“Not too long ago. He seems to be doing fine.” I don’t elaborate. Why should I explain, when Don does not, that he plays the part of the fairy godmother in Cinderella? I have met the new “roommate,” a young man who clearly does not have his own bed.

Carroll leans back in the old metal deck chair and gives me a look, but asks no more questions. He has never wanted to know the details of my brother’s private life, nor mine, and we have never told him in so many words.

“That was something, Liberace dying,” he says.

“Yes, it was sad.” What I think is Don hasn’t had the test. I’m terrified that he is positive. For a moment I wish I could talk to Carroll about it.

“I don’t think it’s right that people should be able to hide the cause of death like he did,” he says.

“I think it was a terrible thing they did to him,” I say. “He should have been allowed to die in peace.” Carroll makes some more protests, but he’s not much of a fighter and I don’t feel very argumentative at the moment.

I go back to riffling through his mail. “What’s this?” I say, turning over an envelope with flowery handwriting.

He has saved the good stuff for last. “From Irma,” he says, opening the envelope and scanning the card quickly. He passes it to me.

A teddy bear in a lacy bed looks forlornly out from the card. “I think of you daily and miss you enormously,” it says.

Somehow I have the feeling this thinking and missing is not reciprocal. “How sweet.” I take a swig.

I suspect Carroll had been seeing Irma before my mother died, but I try not to hold that against her. Carroll was a little too pushy about it was all, wanting everything to be okay. He insisted I meet her, and the one time I did, she seemed fine. She told me Carroll was the first man who’d appealed to her in fifteen years.

“You’re obviously putting some distance between you and Irma,” I say, pulling myself out of the chair.

“She drinks too much for me,” he says. “I tell her I think she’s an alcoholic and she doesn’t like that.”

“I was just getting up to freshen our drinks,” I say, thinking Irma’s habit must be serious. For as long as I can remember, Carroll has had a drinking problem. Cracked up two company cars. Always had a pint under the front seat. During my childhood many a dinner was eaten in the tension of his absence.

I duck into the trailer’s kitchen. “Are you trying to cut down?” I ask through the screen door as I assemble juice, vodka and ice.

“The doctor bugs me about it. I try to watch myself,” he says, “but when I’m with Irma I drink more. It’s harder to control. I don’t want to get mixed up with an alcoholic.”

“I think that’s smart,” I say, resisting the burden of my mother’s anguish.

The trailer is spare as a monk’s quarters. Only one picture—of my brother Terry’s children—is displayed on the kitchen table. There are no pictures of my mother or the four of us kids, and none of her things are here. She collected old things, I believe because she wanted a link with history. When she died, Carroll ignored our objections and sold the farm and the contents of our childhood home. “What do I want with things?” he’d said. “I’ll die soon anyhow.” Then he bought a pickup and went on the road. Later, he tried to make it up to me. “Take it,” he would say about objects I expressed interest in, but there was nothing I really wanted then.

I walk back out, hand him a drink, sit across from him and pick out another large envelope. “Who’s this from?”

He smiles, devilishly I think. “That’s Eleanor, my South Dakota girlfriend.”

This one has a serious message lettered on the front.

“I hope only that you can love me just the way I am,” it says. Inside a handwritten message adds, “I do hope someday this can be so.”

“What does this mean?” I ask.

He ponders the card. “Can’t figure it. She’s a pretty hippy gal. Maybe she thinks I want her to lose weight.”

“Why would she think that?”

“Oh, I’ve commented on it,” he says. A fat girl survivor of years of badgering from thin parents, I decide I’d rather not get into this.

“Who’s your girlfriend here, the one your neighbors were razzing you about?” I ask.

“Blanche? She’s a class above the rest in this place. Likes to have a good time. Likes to dance.”

I have never thought of Carroll as particularly handsome. But in his set he is the belle of the ball. Last night at the local resort dance he never lacked a partner. Women approached me and asked, “Is that your father? He sure is cute.” I haven’t seen such flirting since my generation of lesbians all discovered each other.

We look out on the slough, where fishers glide by in rowboats toward the Colorado River. Fish aren’t biting tonight. The local colony of ducks flap wings and chase each other in a frenzy of mating. I wonder why my father and I so often seem to find ourselves in the company of mating animals. I hope he senses my discomfort and doesn’t call attention to this ritual.

“The ducks are sure sexy tonight,” he says. “ ‘Let’s chase each other ‘round the room tonight.’ Ever heard that song? They played it at my sister Jesse’s fiftieth wedding anniversary.”

“It doesn’t look like much fun to me,” I say, watching a drake hold a hen under the water.

“Probably is for him,”  he says.

“So what about sex?” I plunge in. “Do these women you’re dating like sex?”

He’s pleased I asked this question, pleased to have a chance to talk about it, I think. “Hell, yes, sure they do. Irma can take it or leave it though. She can be cold but I don’t care about that. I was never one to demand sex. I never in my life said ‘I’m not getting any here, so I’m going somewhere else.’ ”

I’ve finished my drink and want another, but am afraid to break this train of thought. “What about Eleanor?” I ask.

“Now Eleanor is a different story. She’s quite a bit younger than me—fifties I guess. you know those middle-aged women, they’re sexy.”

“Yes I do,” I say, feeling middle-aged. “So you just returned from a tryst.”

“Well, you know my cousin Buford died. I had to go up. But the funny thing about Eleanor, she doesn’t want anyone to know. She’s real involved in the church, and she’s afraid someone will find out about us. I kind of get a kick out of it. She kicks me out by five o’clock so they won’t see me there in the morning. But she is something in bed. I tell her ‘if your church friends only knew what goes on in this house…’”

I have developed a sudden interest in a broken thumbnail and am picking at it intently.

“Eleanor thinks I’m really sexy,” Carroll says. “But I’m really not. You know, she expects too much of me. They all think I’m sexy. I can’t figure out why.” I rip the thumbnail off and it begins to bleed.

“So what about Eleanor? Are you getting serious?” I ask, sticking the thumb in my mouth to stop the bleeding.

“Naw. I know she’d like to get married, but I’m not gonna do it. Don’t you worry. I don’t intend to get married again.”

“What makes you think I’d worry? You’re an independent person. You can make your own decisions.” But, of course, I’d hate it if he got married to some woman other than my mother.

I hug myself. The sun has gone down and the evening is suddenly cool.

“Well, what do you say we get cookin’?” Carroll raises his furry black eyebrows at me, gets up and moves into the trailer.

The prospect does not excite me. His bachelor diet of sausage, Spam and fried potatoes gives me heartburn. “Let’s try something different tonight,” I say, opening the refrigerator, which contains little more than ingredients for various alcoholic concoctions. I pull out the biggest thing in there, a heavy rectangular package. “What’s this?”

“Government cheese,” he says. They give it away to senior citizens every two weeks at the surplus store. I want you to take that with you when you go.

“No thanks. I could never eat all this. I live alone, remember?”

“No, I want you to take that.” He is using his sergeant voice. “I can get plenty more where that came from.”

“No, really, I don’t like processed cheese. I would never eat it.”

“You take that,” he insists. “Give it to your friends.”

“Look, I appreciate the offer,” I say. “Maybe we can cook something with it tonight. Does your oven work?”

He finds some matches and kneels down in front of the little propane stove while I start turning knobs on and off looking for the one that controls the oven. “I never did figure out how to use this thing,” he says.

I am watching as he works at lighting it when the air around his head explodes with a whoosh. He is knocked backwards and ends up sitting on the floor against a counter.

“Dad, Dad,” I yell. “Are you okay?” I get down in front of him and his eyes finally focus on me. I can see his thick eyebrows and lashes have been singed. He rubs the melted nubs of hair on his arm. I discover I am crying.

“Knocked the piss out of me, but I’m okay.” He looks puzzled.

“I’m kind of upset,” I blurt out. “I’m afraid Don might have AIDS. I can’t stand to lose him, too.”

Carroll’s face betrays no anger, only resignation. “He’s always gone for men, hasn’t he?”

“Yes,” I say, and more to atone for indiscretion than anything else, I add, “and I love women.”

“I don’t understand it,” he says, “but I’m glad you’ve been quiet about it.”

I give him a hand up, then wipe my eyes quickly on my shirt sleeve. He smoothes the ruff of hair around his bald head and tucks in his shirt. I decide to cook something on top of the stove.

“Hey, I want you to see something, he says. “Look at my gold nugget.” He pulls what looks like a huge nugget from his pocket. It is attached to a gold chain.

I’m immediately skeptical. One of his favorite pastimes is making up stories about found objects or people he sees in passing, or family history. Years pass and fiction melds with truth. “Where did you get this?” I laugh.

“Well, now, some people might think this is strange,” he says, eyeing me as he places it in my hand. “You know your mother had a lot of dental work done over the years and she had her teeth pulled the week before she died. This is made from her gold teeth. I want you to take it.”