Thursday, May 5, 2016

Summers of Fear

As I’ve said before, I don’t have or plan to ever have television in my house. What I do have is a nice flat screen TV with a dvd/vcr player AND a subscription to Amazon Prime with a Fire Stick which allows viewing on said flat screen. AP has tons of great movies, TV series, and documentaries. I’ll never run out of something to watch--and can guarantee myself decent and educational viewing.
I was one of the last batch of “war babies”, and one of my earliest memories is how a sunny summer could turn suddenly dark at the word “polio”. If you’re too young to remember those days--and even if you’re not--I recommend “A Paralyzing Fear”.

But if you don’t have access to the documentary, here’s a little history/background on the scourge which affected generations of children in the United States and still continues to plague many countries around the world.
Polio is a virus carried by human waste. From the intestines it travels to the nervous system where it attacks the cells which send messages to the muscles. By 1951, three types of the disease had been pinpointed.
The first great polio epidemic occurred in 1916 (to be followed by the devastating post-World War I influenza pandemic). Though the disease waned for a few years, it recurred in 1921--which is when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt contracted it.
1931 was another epidemic year. By now there was the iron lung to breathe for those whose lung muscles were affected. Research focused on prevention rather than a cure, but the first vaccine had disastrous results. Many who received it died or became paralyzed.
In 1933 there were 5000 new cases; 10,000+ in 1943; 25,000 in 1946; 27,000 in 1948; 33,000 in 1950; and 59,000 in 1952.
During World War II, polio became a “third front” when the disease surfaced among otherwise healthy American troops serving in the Middle East. Heretofore affecting mostly children, the virus found new meat on which to feed.
Two doctors, Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, disagreed on the best kind of vaccine. Salk used the killed virus, while Sabin used live. But by 1955 Salk’s vaccine (given by injection) began to be used around the nation. I remember my mother dropping me off at the doctor’s office to get my “shot”. I was a believer and rolled up my sleeve without question. Eventually Sabin’s vaccine given by mouth became the standard.
Though there were scattered epidemics in 1958-59, polio has now been eradicated in the United States.
If you are within ten or twelve years of my age, you remember “The Mother’s March on Polio”. On one night of the year, for a single hour, mothers went house to house if the porch light was on and collected money to benefit polio victims. Old-time entertainer Eddie Cantor coined the term “March of Dimes”. I remember tagging along on these expeditions and playing with other children while our mothers totaled the night’s take and prepared to turn it in.
I also remember summers when we were exiled to our own backyards for fear of contracting the disease: no movies, no public swimming pool, and only selected contact with other children. "Don't sit around in a wet bathing suit!" my mother warned regularly. Of course, that wasn't going to give me polio, but apparently FDR sat around in his the day before he became ill. Years later, when I went away to college, I remember the girls navigating the campus with braces, crutches, and wheelchairs because the vaccine had come too late. Simply put, I was lucky to escape until it was ready for use.
The documentary makes use of interviews with now-adult polio victims, discusses FDR’s battle and Warm Springs, Georgia; how he convinced his former law partner Basil O’Connor to take over the push for funds for treatment and rehabilitation; and how the country finally came together fight not only a global war but the disease that threatened a generation.

Related Links

The last naturally-occurring case of polio in the United States occurred in 1979. 

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Legacy of Leadership

Everyone, I suppose, has his own definition of leadership in this highly-charged electoral year. And, no, I’m not touching politics in today’s blog or tomorrow’s or ever. But after watching several documentaries recently (courtesy of Amazon Prime), the subject of leadership has stayed in my mind.

I’m thinking in particular of Dick Winters:  Hang Tough”. 

He never set out to be a leader. He joined the Army fresh out of college, even before the United States entered World War II. After basic training, he was selected for Officer Training School and then decided to join the paratroopers. Assigned to the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment (Company E, 2nd Battalion), he learned new skills. By now some of you may recognize ‘Easy Company’ of “Band of Brothers”.

When the company commander was killed on D-Day, Dick Winters took over, and his natural leadership abilities came into play. He had no agenda except doing what was necessary to win the war and getting as many of his men as possible home at the end of it. The “power” which often accompanies the position of command didn’t figure in. Liked and respected by his men, he forged ahead doing what had to be done. As one of his men said later, “I would follow you into hell.”

He continued his military career after the war but eventually went into business. It’s noted in his obit that he lectured on leadership several times to cadets at West Point. He died in 2011 from complications of Parkinsons at the age of 92. He did not live to see the unveiling of the memorial erected in honor of all leaders in Normandy. 

So what made him a leader? Not throwing his weight around. Not bullying or threats. He didn’t lead from behind. No braying or braggadocio. No slick moves to achieve notoriety or get his own way.  He just did what he had to do in the circumstances in which he found himself--and so, I believe, did the majority of those men and boys of my father’s generation who left it all--often gave all--for what we so easily dismiss and dishonor today.

Are there more like Dick Winters today? I fervently hope so.

Related Links

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Women with Wings

I have a plastic disc on my keychain which says, “I am a writer. I make up things.” Many writers have their own favorite era/topic, and one of mine is the World War II era. A bit of research sets the imagination spinning. The drama which unfolded at Avenger Field at Sweetwater, Texas, near my hometown in West Texas, spurred the idea for The Case of the Outrageous Octogenarian. It’s a WIP. Keep reading for a sneak peek--but first, read the facts: 

Early in WW II, aviators Nancy Love Harkness and Jacqueline Cochran both felt women could contribute to the total war effort through flying planes in the United States and freeing men to fly overseas. Two distinct organizations materialized:  the Women’s Flying Training Detachment and the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron which merged in 1943 as the Women’s Air Force Service Pilots in 1943. Though they fully expected to be militarized before the end of the war, they were deactivated on December 20, 1944. (This is a very simplified, bare-bones history--be sure to read more on one of the links below.)

Thirty-eight young women between the ages of 21 and 35, many with more flying hours than male combat pilots in the USAF, died in the line of duty. Many more lived to tell their stories. One in particular was Margaret “Maggie” Ray Ringenberg who died at the age of 87. Just months earlier, she had competed in the 2,312-mile women-only Air Race Classic. Flying from Bozeman, Montana, to Mansfield, Massachusetts, she and her co-pilot finished third. 

Read more about Maggie Ray and the WASPS in Yankee Doodle Gals:  Women Pilots of WW II and Maggie Ray: WW II Air Force Pilot, and watch “Wings for Maggie Ray” on Amazon (available for Prime).

Related Links

NOW here’s the first few paragraphs of The Case of the Outrageous Octogenarian:

Rosalie never thought she’d see her eightieth birthday. Her parents predicted she’d never see thirty when she left a boring office job to join the Women’s Airforce Service  Pilots in 1942. Why they’d had such a fit about the WASPS when they hadn’t minded paying for her flying lessons starting when she was seventeen, she never understood. But she’d ignored their prophesies of doom and signed up anyway, ending up at Avenger Field outside of Sweetwater, Texas.
She kept Eleanor Roosevelt’s words pinned to the wall above her bed in the barracks:
"This is not a time when women should be patient. We are in a war and we need to fight it with all our ability and every weapon possible. WOMEN PILOTS, in this particular case, are a weapon waiting to be used."  - Eleanor Roosevelt, 1942
Not only did she read them twice a day--when she got up and before lights out at night--but she believed them with all her heart. She liked everything about being an attractive woman and had no desire to be anything else, but she didn’t like to be told she couldn’t do what had heretofore been considered man’s work.
Well-known woman pilot Jackie Cochran hadn’t had to work too hard to recruit Rosalie, who’d never felt as free as she did in the air. “Don’t take any chances,” her mother pleaded before she left for training.
“Mother, life’s a chance,” she’d replied patiently.
“But this is. . .”
“I’m not going to war, you know. I’m making it possible for every available man to go do what I can’t--fight our enemies.”
“But. . .”
“I’m going to do my bit, and that’s that. I know you’ll worry, and I’m sorry, but I’m a grown woman and capable of making my own decisions.”
Rosalie enjoyed towing targets for gunners in training. Even a couple of near misses with live ammunition couldn’t dampen her enthusiasm. But her favorite job was ferrying new planes from factories to air force bases. Their sleek beauty, the new smell of leather and metal, the soaring quiet high above the busy, noisy world--all of it was balm to her restless soul.
The crushing disappointment when WASPS were disbanded at the end of 1944 instead of being militarized as expected stayed with her for years afterwards. However, she found a silver lining in her cloud of despair:  newly-minted 1st Lt. Robert Ward Gaynor.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The best part of what I do. . .

Like all women, I’ve worn many hats in my lifetime: daughter, wife, mother, empty-nester, now Mimi/Nanny. I guess I’ve had a lot of “bests” in my life, too: walking down the aisle, holding my newborns for the first time, having total freedom for the first time in my life. . .and then, there are days like yesterday.

I picked up the girls from school yesterday. The Small Person (age almost 9) and the Wee Bear Cub (age almost 6) are always full of news the second they get into the car--long before they shuck their backpacks and buckle up! Yesterday the SP informed me she was reading a book from her classroom library that had the ‘B’ and the ‘D’ words in it.

Needless to say, the situation called for further investigation, but it was true. The book (copyright 1974) did indeed use those forbidden words as well as detail how other children made fun of another little girl who was overweight.  

We discussed things, of course, and then she said, “I almost told my teacher my Mimi writes books and doesn’t use those words.” In retrospect, it’s probably better she didn’t, but my heart (like the Grinch) grew four sizes! Now, yes, I write adult books, and I’ve used the ‘D’ word a few times in context to define a particular character and/or his sudden reaction to a catastrophic event. Never, of course, have I used the word to profane God or simply as a casual byword. My books are for adults who can discern how/why a particular word is used.

But my point is this: my boys couldn’t learn from what I said, only what I did, and neither can these precious granddaughters. The time I returned the package of Oreos for which I hadn’t been charged made the point to my boys that one doesn’t take what one hasn’t paid for. More recently, I stopped reading a book (for a book club) which the SP could tell from the cover “wasn’t nice” helped her understand adults have to make good choices, too.

When I write, I always have in the back of my mind that my grandchildren may someday read those words. Staying the course--well, that’s the best part of what I do as a writer.

Thank you, Lord, for reminding me of that every time I sit down at the computer. 

Mimi provides GOOD books!