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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Old Democratic Women Rock!

I’m not going to write much about our historic election because I’m tired of thinking about it and suspect that you are, too. Of course I’ll have more to say later, but for now mainly this: I never want to hear another negative word about Nancy Pelosi. At age 77, she is well-acquainted with the country’s 435 House districts. She targeted carefully and recruited a lot of strong women, liberal veterans, and racial minorities – and won the US House by a large margin. Many victories across the nation set precedents, with more women in Congress than ever before and more minorities, including firsts for Native Americans. Voters also chose to get rid of some of the worst bad guys, including vote-suppressor-in-chief, Kansas’ Kris Kobach and Vladimir Putin’s best pal in Congress, California’s Dana Rohrbacher.

Here in Florida, we added two Democratic women to our congressional delegation: Donna Shalala, the retired president of the University of Miami and the head of the US Department of Health and Human Services under President Clinton, as well as newcomer Debbie Mucarsel-Powell. When I wrote about the new candidates last spring, I gave her the least chance, but she upset incumbent Carlos Curbelo for the House district that runs southwest of Miami. I’m especially happy because this native of Ecuador has demonstrated her values with a long career in non-profits. You wouldn’t necessarily know it because of the negative nabobs in the local media, but Democrats now hold 13 of Florida’s 27 House seats. That’s a major turnaround from a few years ago. Thank you, Donald Trump.

World War and Family, Part 1

I wrote recently about the 1918 midterm elections and with that, mentioned the centennial of the World War I armistice, but I want to add more. The media did a fairly good job of covering it, especially the Times story about a recently disclosed soldier’s diary. The article is titled “From 1918, Uncle Sam Speaks,” and if you didn’t read it, it’s worth finding online. It is about a great-uncle named Sam who was part of the war’s “Lost Battalion.” These soldiers not only suffered tremendous casualties from German guns and gas, but they also nearly starved and froze to the death because of their officers’ incompetence. The diary does an especially good job of explicating the reality of class distinctions in the military of that time.

Turner Classic Movies also did its usual excellent job of recognizing national anniversaries: among the movies set in WWI that it replayed were Sergeant York and Dr. Zhivago. My favorite novel of that era, in case you are looking for reading material, is Willa Cather’s One of Our Own, which unfortunately never was made into a movie. She published it in 1922, which was too soon for a worthy Hollywood production, and by the time that good movies could be made of good novels, everyone wanted to forget about that unfortunate war.

But I’ve been thinking a lot about WWI – which was called “The Great War” until WWII – because my family has been running an e-mail thread on it. This began with our youngest sister (in Arkansas) inquiring if those of us who are older remembered how our father responded to Armistice Day. We older ones (who live in Minnesota, Georgia, and here) agreed that Dad told us many times he was overjoyed when the armistice was signed on November 11, 1918 – because he had been born on November 11, 1898. He was to be drafted at age 20 and had received his notice in the mail. He was due to report at Fort Snelling, Minnesota, on November 14, but because of the armistice, he never went. Nor did his brother nor any of their cousins. They were the second-generation of immigrants from Norway, and they wanted to be farmers, not soldiers.

That was even truer of my mother’s family, which came from several places in northern Germany. Indeed, family lore has it that three young men of the Otto-Otte-Ott clan changed their names so that the Kaiser couldn’t trace them for forced military service. Blessed be these draft dodgers! They came from an area on the Baltic Sea that sometimes was Germany and sometimes was Poland, and they understood that farming was more important than fighting.

The Ottos were my maternal grandmother’s family, and my grandfather’s name was Schultz. His parents immigrated from Schleswig-Holstein, a German-speaking kingdom near Denmark. Both his mother and father died before my grandfather was grown, and his truly evil stepmother put him out to make his own living at age eleven. By the time of World War I, he was beginning to prosper as a farmer – although my mother, the oldest, had to drop out of school to help him harvest corn when the snow came too early. They considered themselves to be good Americans, although they did belong to a Lutheran church where the pastor spoke only German. And when the war began, Grandpa felt constrained to buy more Liberty Bonds than he really could afford lest anyone think that because his name was Schultz, he sympathized with Germany. What is it that makes so many people think that immigrants, then and now, would want to be loyal to the land they chose to leave?

World War and Family, Part 2

My older sister married an Army man in 1953, and that eventually changed everything with my family’s attitude on the military – that and the GI Bill. Hubby’s family already understood that, as after his father finished service with the Navy in the South Pacific during World War II, they moved out of the hills of Arkansas to a college town where he and three children earned degrees. Just as the Homestead Act made prosperity possible for my Norwegian and German families, the GI Bill changed the future for Hubby’s English family, some of whom had been in America since 1641. Hubby’s mom was married with three kids during WWII, and with the allotments that the Navy sent every month, she bought the first non-homemade dress she ever had.

Hubby’s dad was the youngest of seven, and two of his brothers were sufficiently older that they were drafted for World War I. There was no GI Bill then, nor even any Veterans Administration, and they never got over their wartime experience. Instead, they drank, even in a religiously fundamentalist community and during the legal Prohibition of the 1920s. One eventually died of his alcoholism; the other shot himself. We remember them, too, on Armistice Day.

Today they could go to a Veterans Hospital and be treated. Today they would have veterans’ benefits unavailable then, and it was indeed those benefits that I think most changed attitudes. Especially after the Vietnam War ended the draft, the military professionalized itself. Instead of treating enlisted men like cannon fodder, the military recruited and trained soldiers and sailors who showed genuine ability – and invested enough in them that they knew they were valued.

Again, this national pattern showed itself in my family. My parents, whose generation never enlisted, now have a bunch of veterans, most of them volunteers who have served all over the world. They include two sons and two sons-in-law; five grandsons and four grandsons-in-law; and one great-grandson. Yes, I notice the lack of daughters. It’s a sign of the times, and I expect women never will catch up because despite three generations of enlisting, no one is in the military right now. After service in Iraq, our last one left for the higher pay and greater flexibility of a defense contractor job with the Army, but not in the Army. Other family members have done the same, and that is the way it will continue to go. No draft, no forced marches, no peeling potatoes. Instead smart guys and gals at computer screens.

Poppies, Cookies, and Flanders Fields

In the e-mail exchange, I said that the strongest connection to World War I that I felt in my youth was selling paper poppies on November 11, then still called Armistice Day, not Veterans Day. My Girl Scout troop mother ran the show, and I suppose the money went to what we then called “old soldier’s homes.” The troop met at the Legion Hut, which belonged to the American Legion that originated with WWI. It probably was some guy’s nostalgia for his youth in France that caused the signs on the restrooms there to be in French, something that was confusing to a young me. “Femme” seemed slightly profane.

I also said in the family e-mails that I thought it was a bit sad that Girl Scouts now sell cookies instead of poppies – and was delighted when a nephew in Minnesota responded that he expected to buy a poppy when he went grocery shopping the next day, and a brother in Arkansas said that he and wife had worn their poppies to church. I’ve lived in Florida for 46 years and never have seen anyone sell poppies for November 11. What is with us, a state full of veterans?

So forgive me if I’m wrong, but I guess I must deduce that some readers won’t understand reference to poppies and WWI. The reason is the tremendous postwar popularity of a poem titled “In Flanders Fields.” Like the restroom signs in French, no one thought of explaining to a child what “Flanders Fields” meant, but many of us nonetheless memorized at least parts of the poem. Flanders is the northern portion of Belgium, and most of the horrific war was fought in this neutral nation. Flemish people traditionally were Dutch-speaking Protestants, while Belgians were French-speaking Catholics. And there are the Walloons, too, so Belgium is a perfect example of the heaps of history that we have to overcome. Canadians have done their share, and it was a Canadian physician, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, who wrote the poem. He died in January 1918, before the war ended. His first verses:

In Flanders Field the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row

That mark our place, and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly,

Scarce heard above the guns below.

We are the dead; short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders Fields.


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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