A Bridge Across the Kwai

By Richard Salzberg © 2013  

BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, THEA recent viewing of David Lean’s “Bridge on the River Kwai” recalled a conversation in 2002 with a small, pleasant-faced man known to all as Woody. It occurred at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia, in the sparest of its meeting rooms, a large, bright space with chairs and folding tables that could easily be moved to convert the area into dressing rooms for those who rent the museum for weddings. The conversation became a short piece published in Port Folio Weekly that year for Memorial Day entitled “Of Patriots and Quiet Men.”      

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An engaging old fellow named Woody may have served you a drink once. As a bartender at the Norfolk Yacht and Country Club for 30 years, if he did serve you a drink it was a good one, and he probably told you a joke in his quick, quiet Southern-accented voice with an experienced twinkle in his eye. Woody is good at his job because he likes it. What he likes best: “Meeting people and swapping sea stories.”

The last part is a little joke because, although he would never say so, Woody can swap better sea stories than anyone he has ever served. As a teenager just out of high school in Chattanooga, Stanley Woody joined the Navy in 1940. Asked why, the answer is simple: “Employment.” When Woody’s aunt did not quite understand, an older sister had to sign for him.  His 22-year Navy career began in Norfolk.

“I got off the train at the old station at the end of East Main, near where HarborPark is now.” The bright lights and neon-lit action of the old Navy town impressed the youngster as “a good place for liberty;” but Stanley was headed for 12 weeks of Basic Training. The first thing an old Chief told the raw recruit from Tennessee was easy enough: “Forget your first name.”

During the next five years Woody saw a lot of history, and he was a part of everything he saw. His very first ship was the USS Houston [ http://ow.ly/iCH57 ]. The heavy cruiser was the flagship of the fabled Asiatic Fleet, and the favorite pre-war ship of FDR. And – with Woody onboard as the youngest member of her 1100-man crew – she was soon to become known as “the Ghost of the Java Sea.” The young sailor got to see a bit of the exotic old world before full-scale war broke out in the Pacific, as the still sharply etched chain tattoo on his right wrist attests. (“I got that inShanghai in 1941. I woke up the next morning, and it felt like my whole arm was on fire.”)   (more…)




Eleanor Agnes Lee: A Sweet Quiet Sadness

By Richard Salzberg © 2013

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In visions of the dark night

I have dreamed of joy departed –

But a waking dream of life and light

Hath left me broken-hearted.

                                     From “A Dream” by E.A. Poe (1829)

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 While pursuing research for the play “True Honor, True Glory” (see www.highbridgepublications.com), the character of Agnes Lee quickly became rather revelational. A recent visit to the Lee Chapel & Museum at Washington and Lee University (www.leechapel.wlu.edu) impelled a re-acquaintance, with magical items in its remarkable exhibition spaces making Agnes’ story and that of her family all the more compelling. Accompanying the poignancy and accomplishments of her life, a number of ongoing considerations emerged, including broad definitions of “courage” (and to what degree suffering might contribute to that), and just what it means to be remembered.     

Eleanor Agnes Lee 6-07-13Eleanor Agnes Lee (1841–1873) was the third of four daughters and the fifth of seven children of Mary Anna Custis and Robert E. Lee, born at the family’s estate at Arlington. Despite direct descendancy from George Washington (her maternal grandfather was the president’s adopted son and the builder of Arlington) and the aristocratic Lees of Virginia and England, in today’s parlance Agnes would be considered an “army brat.” Most of her life was spent in Virginia, including her years at the Virginia Female Institute in Staunton, now the Stuart Hall School. The most notable exception was the time the family spent in New York, when her father served as Superintendent of West Point, from 1852 to 1855. Those antebellum years through 1858 were evocatively recounted in “Growing Up in the 1850s: The Journal of Agnes Lee, a colorful reminiscence published only in 1984, with the years at West Point recalled with particular fondness.

The years growing up at Arlington seem idyllic. The four Lee girls (Mary, Annie, Agnes, and Mildred) had their gardens, their tutors and books, their array of dogs and cats and chickens, and the dolls with whom to share porcelain tea parties; while the boys (Custis, Fitz, and Rob) also had whatever they needed, along with the natural world of their hundreds of acres overlooking the Potomac River. And there was also always a steady flow of visitors and playmates, cousins from their large extended family, and a host of friends.  

Agnes was deeply religious, and confirmed in the Episcopal Church in 1857. Whether or not impelled by that, she would today be considered a social activist. Despite laws prohibiting it, “. . . she helped to instruct the Arlington slaves by conducting a Sunday evening school for them, and by instructing individual children before and after breakfast.” Although contemporary standards are ever too easily applied to societies of past centuries, that effort and commitment for its time and place was as radical as it was commendable. It also says much about the character and values of the Lee family.    (more…)




Beryl Rasofsky: 1909 – 1967

By Richard Salzberg © 2013

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“I did a search, like you said, on Barney Ross,” he was saying. “What a story. Really unbelievable stuff. The images that came up were amazing – those classic boxing photos. Man. . . you know, he really was a good-looking guy.”

“Yeah, a good-looking Jewish boy. And tough as nails. . .”

“A real hero. There was just one thing.”

 “What’s that?”

“More than half of the pictures that came up were of Sylvester Stallone, or some scary-looking Stallone action figure.”

“Oh, yeah. The ones that looks like Satan on steroids in camo togs and a beret.”

“Well, I don’t care how long ago it was. . . like you said, the real Barney Ross needs to be a household name.”

“He was a household name.”

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Barney After Fight 3-20-13How many “definites” are there in the life of a great man – or how many absolutes are there in anyone’s life? Despite endless variables and interpretations, key quantifiables can be separated from the lore of any of us. For those who are renowned, when the definites are melded with the lore – then that becomes the legend. Too frequently in our time, however, without benefit of such venerable oral traditions as those of the Basque, the Celts, or the Druse, one generation’s icon and inspiration can become like dust for the generations which follow.

All of the above applies to the great Barney Ross.

No matter how condensed, not a word on the subject of Barney Ross could be written today without referencing Douglas Century’s commendable “Barney Ross” (New York: Nextbook/Schocken: 2006).

To try and summarize such a remarkable life which defines some of the most dramatic chapters of the 20th century is a challenge. Born poor – incredibly poor –in New York’s Lower East Side in 1909, Dov-Ber Rasofsky, later Beryl Rasofsky, was the third of six children of Hebrew teacher Itchik Rasofsky and his wife Sarah, new immigrants who had only narrowly escaped the Russian pogroms of the early 1900s. Looking for better opportunities in the west, in 1911 Itchik moved his young family to Chicago before Beryl was two years old, where they settled in the Maxwell Street ghetto. Remembering that the word “ghetto” originated meaning a place specifically for Jews, Maxwell Street is described by Louis Wirth in D. Century’s book as being “full of color, action, shouts, odors, and dirt. . . resembl[ing] a medieval European fair more than the market of a great city today.” Here the Talmudic scholar ran a grocery store “so ramshackle that it had no name;” and so small that no more than three customers could “stand at one time amid the bags of flour and canned goods and pickle barrels.” (more…)




December 7: Bataan, Corregidor, and Bill Wells

By Richard Salzberg © 2012

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Defenders-of-Bataan 3-18-13December 7, 1941, that “Day of Infamy,” marks the anniversary of the Japanese surprise attack at Pearl Harbor. Less well-remembered are the coordinated attacks at the same time on other American military installations in the Pacific, including Wake Island, Guam – and the Philippines. The article below originally appeared in Port Folio Weekly magazine in  2000. It remains not only a tribute to one man with his heart such a part of the history of the last century, but also to all of the men, and women – the beloved nurses who were the “Angels of Bataan” and the brave Filipinas – who were left to their fates in the Philippines. Long ago perhaps, but they must never be forgotten.     

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Bill Wells by Richard Salzberg

You want to talk heroes, let’s talk about the guys from Bataan.   –  Mike Royko, Journalist

The three strangers found themselves sitting together at a small party following the christening of a new baby, the daughter of shared young acquaintances.

As is frequent at such extended affairs, the conversation drifted towards the generalities of generational experience, with one old fellow reminiscing in an animated fashion about London during the early days of the war. A reporter then for Life Magazine, he recalled the Blitz and all the stress and fast living that always seems to accompany a war against a civilian population. His account was lively and interesting, and he recollected it with some fondness. Apartments, like good food and decent liquor were certainly more difficult to come by, he said, and it was all quite dangerous, of course, but “all in all, it had not been such a bad time to get through,” for a young man such as he was then.

Clearly of the same World War II generation, the other older man was taller and quite thin, quietly polite in his plain dark suit. He listened respectfully enough, offering an occasional, well-timed nod. At a lull in the London reminiscences, the third man, younger than the other two by about half, sought to be inclusive with a not very creative variation of the once basic, now generally forgotten question: “So, what did you do during the war?”   

After a moment the thin man cleared his throat, then said simply: “I was in thePhilippines.” The younger man was familiar enough with that chapter of history to understand some of what that particular response might mean.

Pausing before he asked in an effort to appear discreet, but impelled by a fierce curiosity, he asked respectfully, “Bataan and Corregidor?”

“Yes,” the older man answered. “I was in the Navy.”

That was Bill Wells.    (more…)




Wars in the East

By Richard Salzberg © 2012

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“All you have to do is think of the names,” he was saying.

“What names – ?”

“The names of places in the East that might sound strange the first time you hear them, then you sort of just take them for granted. Then you might think about them a minute, and you realize they make no sense at all. Rivers, too.” He nodded as if there was one nearby. “I mean, what does ‘Mississippi’ mean?”

“All Indian names. . . how about, like. . . Ohio?”

“Sure. Even Kentucky. Indian names. In the East. States, cities, and small towns, everywhere. Think about it. . .”

“Is that some of your. . . ‘toponymy’ – is that how you say it?”

“Yeah, I guess that’s what it is.”

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When he was shot and killed in front of his young sons in 1786 by an Indian in hiding as he cleared land for his new farm in far western Virginia (now Kentucky), Abraham Lincoln – Revolutionary War veteran, pioneer, and grandfather and namesake of the future president – became a tragic part of the historical circumstances known as the Colonial Wars. His death and its context provide important material for consideration.

French & Indian Warrior 6-15-13No one is certain yet which ancient peoples were displaced in North America by the Native Americans first encountered by Europeans in the New World, although it is likely that their tribal mix was as myriad as that of their usurpers. But there is no doubt that from their very earliest encounters, the relationship between the Indians (used here simply as an easier term) and Europeans – and subsequently, colonial “Americans” – was characterized by mistrust, violence, and war.  

In his Editor’s Preface for Howard H. Peckham’s “The Colonial Wars 1689-1762” (1964), referring to lands east of the Mississippi, as are we, Daniel J. Boorstin writes that America’s colonial wars “. . . are among the most dramatic and least understood in our history. . . From a European capital the backwoods battles might have seemed only episodes in a continuing, far-flung struggle for empire. But the American remained at the scene of battle. Long after the bands of European soldiers had dissolved or returned across the Atlantic, he reaped a deadly harvest.”

What needs to be remembered is that the term “American” should include all who lived here. The Indian Wars which claimed the life of the elder Abraham Lincoln and countless thousands of others could be described as a series of internecine conflicts, characterized by a cross-cultural familiarity and a level of ferocity on both sides which even today is hard to imagine. These centuries-long wars were also responsible for a very early and popular genre of American literature now generally forgotten – first-hand accounts of their experiences by former captives of the Indians.

In the book “Scalps and Tomahawks: Narratives of Indian Captivity” (1961), editor Frederick Drimmer states: “When serious trouble erupted between the white man and the Indian, its cause could usually be summed up in a single word: land. The number of settlers was always increasing and they kept pressing westward, hungry for more and better land. Frequently the Indian’s best hunting grounds were taken from him by treaties that he signed but did not understand, or frontiersmen moved in on territory without his consent.”

Less considered are any periods and examples of relatively peaceful interaction and practical respect between neighboring communities. However, once set, the fires of greed and revenge spurred ravages now only dimly remembered, if at all.

The national character of the settlers, the newest “Americans,” was just emerging, while that of the Indians had been evolving for many centuries and was characterized by venerated traditions and a complexity borne of the sheer number of the tribes and their long histories. If the Indian nations were to be removed from their own lands, it would not be without resistance.

•  In 1755, James Smith was an 18-year old road builder for the army of General Edward Braddock, the ill-fated commander-in-chief of all British forces in North America. Captured by Indians allied with the French in the wilderness near what today is Bedford, Pennsylvania, Smith was very fortunate to be spared and actually adopted into the Caughnawagas, a tribe related to the Mohawks. In his “An Account of the Remarkable Occurrences in the Life and Travels of Col. James Smith” (1799), he wrote: “. . . I never knew them to make any distinction between me and themselves in any respect whatsoever. If they had plenty of clothing, I had plenty; if we were scarce of provisions, we all shared one fate.” Although exceptional, his treatment was not entirely unique; but for every such account there are hundreds which reflect the terrors of the day.

Smith’s adventures and observations during five years of captivity, spent mostly in the area that became Ohio, are fascinating and telling, as when he recalled an exchange with one of his adoptive brothers during a hunt. . .   

         I remember that Tecaughretanego, when something displeased him, said, “God damn it!”

         “Do you know what you have said?” I asked him once.

         “I do” – and he mentioned one of their degrading expressions which he supposed to have the same meaning.

         “That doesn’t bear the least resemblance to it – what you said was calling upon the Great Spirit to punish the object you were displeased with.”

He stood for some time amazed. “If this be the meaning of these words, what sort of people are the whites? When the traders were among us these words seemed intermixed with all their discourse. You must be mistaken. If you are not, the traders applied these words not only wickedly, but oftentimes very foolishly. I remember a trader accidently broke his gun lock and called out aloud, ‘God damn it!’ Surely the gun lock was not an object worthy of punishment by Owaneeyo, the Great Spirit.”  

•  Daniel Boone’s birthday is considered to be on October 22 by most (although many consider it to be on November 2). Being long-lived (1734–1820) and a household name even in his own time did not spare the legendary pioneer and explorer the defining tragedy of the period. Although respected by colonials and Indians alike, Boone could not spare his children from the danger of the times. The ambush and death of his 16-year old son James in a 1773 massacre is as strong an account as can be found in any history. 

Murdered horribly with five others near what is now Stickleyville, Virginia, James Boone had been sent ahead of the main party of a group led by his father which had followed him up from the Yadkin Valley in North Carolina in his first attempt to settle the vast western expanse known as Kentucky, “the garden of the West.” There had been no sign of hostile Indians, but in the early morning of October 10, the young men were attacked by a war party of Delaware, Shawnee and Cherokee Indians. Based on vivid description by the only survivor, by early December “the attack was reported in newspapers as far away as Baltimore and Philadelphia.”

Perhaps most horrific in the account was reported in the Middlesboro Times News (Kentucky) on February 21, 1951: “Among the band was an Indian, called Big Jim, who had often visited the Boone home in North Carolina. Young James pleaded with him to show mercy, reminding him of the friendship his father had shown him. But all to no avail.”  

Whether or not he was in this party that turned back, as some have said, or the second one which successfully made its way to the new territory 18 months later. . . “There is little doubt that it was on account of his association with the famous Daniel Boone that (the elder) Abraham Lincoln went to Kentucky. The families had for a century been closely allied. There were frequent intermarriages.” – John Nicolay (1832–1901), Secretary and biographer of President Abraham Lincoln.

Although the buffalo and great elk hunted by James Smith and Daniel Boone are long gone, old myths of the South – both colonial and Indian – frequently refer to the relationship between special souls and the deer of the forest. Around the Alleghenies, the Appalachians, and the Blue Ridge Mountains, “those western lands east of the Mississippi,” large numbers of deer still roam, still ranging free and unfettered.

When glimpsed at a distance, especially under moonlight, or a wide fiery sky above the mountains at sunset, there is something somehow reassuring in the sight of these creatures; perhaps because they connect us to a part of all that occurred with the early Americans in those parts.

         – Finis  –