A recent survey showed that the majority of Americans in forty-nine states (with Vermont being the exception) would fail—not even get a D—answering U.S. citizenship test questions. Another reason to support immigration: The naturalized immigrant knows more than the native-born citizen. Is it surprising to you that the most solid red states scored lowest?


Why does the Academy Awards have separate male and female acting categories? Isn’t good acting good acting no matter the gender of the performer?  Should the Academy also give gender-based awards for directing and writing?


“He knew the story because he had heard it said that really there are only two kinds: one in which a hero goes on a journey, the other in which a stranger comes to town.” Kevin Powers, A Shout in the Ruins.


The open satchel carried by the middle-aged man was filled. I spied a top hat and a Miss Piggy wig with luxurious hair. I wondered. . . .


The appraiser on the Antiques Roadshow stated that the item came from “circa about” 1906.  Surely, she should have known better.


I was on a park bench. Off to my left a man was ranting. Police were around the apparently mentally ill person dealing with him patiently. On the next park bench to my right were people who panhandled in the park and seemed to know the ranter. One of the them looked at the police, saw a blonde woman, and said, “Look at her. She doesn’t look like a cop. Why did she become a cop? She should have been, uh, uh, uh, a chemist, or something.”


I was sitting with David, a 68-year-old with a childlike mind, who had been convicted of a double homicide in Florida. The jury had determined that he should be executed. We sat next to each other waiting for a post-trial hearing to start. I had played only a minor role in the case, but he smiled and seemed pleased to see me. He started joking with me, as he had done during the trial, and wanted to make sure my tie was of high quality. I asked how he was being treated, and he said fine, except that right after the verdict he was put in isolation and had to wear a straitjacket for a few days. During the subsequent court hearing, he got upset, and I had to calm him down. When the hearing concluded, and he was about to be led out of the courtroom, I told him that at the end of the week I was going back to New York indicating that I would not see him again. He said, “Have a safe trip.” Then after a beat he smiled and said, “I wish I were going with you.”


“She did not recall how they had agreed that one can be anything but dead, that the two words together created an antimony.” Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky.

The Tax Season

A news story a few months back suggested that some of our President’s fortune was amassed by cheating on taxes. Another story suggested that although Jared Kushner has an income significantly higher than mine (ha ha), he has not paid any federal income tax in a while and that his failure to do so may have been legal. The stories made few waves. If you even noticed them, you may have quickly forgotten them. Stories about the rich cheating on taxes or avoiding them are commonplace. Every so often, we learn of someone prosecuted for cheating on taxes, but a common reaction is that person simply got too greedy, and we don’t give it much thought.

On the other hand, legal tax dodging is expected. People are chumps if they don’t seek to pay the least amount of taxes legally required, right? And if they push the envelope too far, and the IRS determined that they underpaid, we don’t normally think of them as bad guys. We expect people to walk on that tax-no-tax line. (Of course, with the big cuts to the IRS over the last decade, the chances of being caught for underpayment is increasingly unlikely.) We certainly don’t want our “public servants” to be chumps, and therefore we don’t criticize them for seeking to avoid taxes. It would probably count against candidates for public office if we saw their tax returns and they “stupidly” paid too much to the government.

But when I hear about the tax dodgers, I think of the famous passage from John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address: “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

I have mixed feelings about this oft-praised statement. It just isn’t right, or at least it is misleading. It suggests a dangerous false dichotomy, and it comes close to presenting a totalitarian sentiment that the overriding responsibility of citizens is to serve the state.

Our country does not exist simply to be supported by its populace, or at least our government does not. Our government was formed not for the citizens to serve it but for it to aid its citizens in leading productive, happy, prosperous, and safe lives. Kennedy was wrong to suggest that you were doing something wrong if you asked what the country was doing for you. It was almost as if JFK forgot the Preamble to the Constitution, which states that the United States was being formed to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty. . . .” The government is there to serve the people.

There is nothing wrong in asking what your country does for you, but it should be asked with open eyes. Many, because they don’t use food stamps or grow federally subsidized crops, think that the government does nothing for them. Presumably they don’t work in a defense industry, don’t have government assisted flood insurance, don’t get social security or medicare, don’t have federal student loans, don’t work for the federal government, don’t drive on the interstate highway system, and don’t bank at an FDIC institution. And, of course, neither do they benefit from our national defense.

Our government helps us in so many ways that we seldom think about it. Try a thought experiment: However successful you are, imagine that you have the same intelligence and skills but had been born and raised in Cambodia. How successful, how prosperous, how happy, how safe would you be compared to now? Doesn’t the United States and its government give you a lot?

President Kennedy really should have said that it was all right to ask what the country does for you, but only if you accept honest answers to the question. With the blessings we get from living in the United States in mind, then we should ask what we can do for our country. If we get much from the country–and we do–we should give back to the country.

How does one give back to the country? Too often all we think about is military service, but there are many different means of governmental and non-governmental public service. And we also give to our country when we obey the law and when we pay our taxes. So why our cynical attitudes about taxes? If you volunteer for the military, you are patriot. If you volunteer extra taxes, you are weird. If you evade the military when there is conscription, you are considered unpatriotic. An art dealer, Mary Boone, was recently sentenced to 30 months for evading taxes of more than $3 million between 2009 and 2011.  (In case you are wondering, tax evasion prosecutions are rare and seldom severely punished. In 2017, 584 tax evaders were sentenced to prison with an average prison term of 17 months, according to a recent report in Axios.) Many in the art world and beyond gave support to her. Would she have received this support if they had seen her crime as an act to intentionally harm the United States, one that showed that she was deemed unpatriotic, one that made her akin to an Army deserter? A person who evades taxes, however, while having made a misstep, is not labeled unpatriotic. Military deserters may provoke the cry that they should lose their citizenship but not the tax evader.

And the tax avoider we actually applaud.

So. What can you do for your country?

The Con Man

I was walking in Manhattan miles from my home. A black man approached me and in the friendliest fashion said hello. I nodded, thought “panhandler” even though he was not shabbily dressed, and continued on. He turned to walk with me and said with companionable incredulity, “You don’t remember me?” I perhaps took my first real look at him, pondered, and said no. “We met at your place.” I studied him again and hesitated. “My sister works for you, and we met when I came over to see her one day.” He almost sounded hurt. Perhaps I should have walked away at this point. I knew it was a con. A woman did work for us, but her siblings were sisters. I, however, was not hurrying anywhere and was intrigued. “Oh,” I said.

He then continued, “We met when you were coming home from work, I think.” I don’t remember my precise replies, but anything specific I said he would weave into his patter–not immediately, but after a sentence or two. For example, if I had said that I usually got to Brooklyn about six, he would find a way to mention Brooklyn as my home as if he had always known that. Only when the talk lasted long enough to seem as if we were reunited long-lost buddies did the pitch come. This was a familiar one about car trouble. His car suddenly stopped working, and he needed some money for a tow or a new battery. Only rarely do I give money to panhandlers, but I did give him something. I often stop to watch street performers and drop a bill or two into their cap when I especially like them, and I thought this guy qualified as a very good street performer of sorts.

Few street performers I have seen play on race, but a troupe I have watched several times on the Central Park Mall does. They are six or so young black men who do tumbling and acrobatic passes to the background of music with a heavy beat coming from boom boxes. They ask a few of the audience members for their hometowns. The majority are tourists, and what could be a better New York experience than to be in Central Park watching this group perform?  You don’t see that back in Ada, Ohio. They have a patter that is as honed as a vaudeville act, and it plays up race and touches on racial fears. As one starts his run for a tumbling pass, another says, “That is as fast as you will see a black man run not being chased by a cop.” “If we weren’t here getting donations from you, we would be breaking into your homes.”

The guy who approached me on the street, however, used race in a more subtle way. His astonishment at not being recognized was a play on white guilt. Don’t many of us secretly worry that we fall into that group that think so many black men do look alike? And not wanting to be rude to a black man then tends to make us stop and at least briefly hear what he has to say.

I wondered how often he had to approach people like me for his sister line to succeed. Does one of every five, ten, or twenty white men walking in a Manhattan neighborhood have a black woman working for him at home? Surely in five or ten minutes he could encounter some such person. And, of course, the odds would be good that the nanny or cleaner has a brother. In any event, probably few of the white men know much about the lives of the women that work in their home. I was different from many because I worked at home for about half the time and chatted with people who cleaned or helped take care of the daughter.

The guy, however, was skillful beyond getting me to stop and listen a bit. Besides the line about his sister, he said nothing that could seem wrong and send up flags. Instead he was adept in getting me to say things that he could use to make it seem as if he already knew me. He was good at his craft.

After I gave him some money, I wanted to stop him and tell him I knew it was a con and ask him how he had developed his line, how often it worked, and how much he made. But, just like insisting on finding out how a magician does his tricks, it would have destroyed the moment.

What Me, Prejudiced?

Let me give some facts. Then you can form your image.

The couple are in their sixties. They are retired. By dress and bearing, they are above middle class, but it is hard to tell how far above. He is a long-time representative in the South Dakota state legislature. He may even have been Speaker of the House. They do not come from whatever passes for a metropolis out there, but from Spearfish, which, the woman maintains, has a population of 12,000. This town is in the western part of state, near Wyoming. She was in education. Asked if she had been a school teacher, she was quick to say, “And principal.”

From these facts, what assumptions would you make about them? I had a friend who was raised in a Dakota, but for the life of me, I don’t remember whether it was North or South. Is there really a difference? I do remember him telling me that some Dakota relative of his raised turkeys. When he was about the size of the birds, nasty creatures he assured me, they scared him mightily, and he would sprint through the yard to get to the safety of the farmhouse. This couple I met, however, was definitely from the South Dakota and did not raise turkeys.

The images, or shall we say the prejudices, I might have formed from this information, however, was shattered by additional factors. I was in my local bar having a beer and potato fritters when this couple sat next to me at the bar. I was quite confident from their look that they were not from the neighborhood, but they seemed perfectly relaxed as they ordered a beer, a glass of wine, and a pretzel. The bartender said something, and they replied, “South Dakota,” and that brought me into the conversation.

When asked what they were doing in a neighborhood bar in not the trendiest part of Brooklyn, they gave a multi-part answer. Most of their retired friends from South Dakota were Arizona snowbirds; this couple wanted something different. The couple had moved to a garden apartment in an Upper Westside townhouse and now sought to do something in New York every day. They were in my area to go to the Irondale, a non-traditional theater carved out of a reclaimed Sunday School auditorium connected to a historic church. They were going to see the Nutcracker Rouge, which is described as a “Baroque Burlesque Confection.” I know little about it except that it is considered to be quite raunchy. I don’t know about you, but my stereotypes of a small-town South Dakota lawyer/politician and principal did not include retirement to Manhattan much less attendance at a nearly naked Nutcracker in an obscure performance space in Brooklyn. I try to think of myself as open, but sometimes when I am surprised by somebody, I realize how much baggage I unconsciously carry in making quick assumptions about others.

And what would be your images when you hear of Spearfish, South Dakota? I certainly was not surprised that some later, quick research disclosed that it was over 90% white, but I was surprised by its climate. I jumped to the conclusion that it would be bitterly cold for the winter; in fact, the high temperatures average near forty degrees in January and February. Spearfish, however, is known more for some unusual weather. On the morning of January 22, 1943, the temperature was minus four Fahrenheit. A Chinook wind blew and within two minutes, the temperature jumped to 45 Fahrenheit. That two-minute temperature swing is the world record. Hey, what world records does your town hold? The woman told me that the temperature continued to rise into the fifties that morning. Then the warm wind dissipated and the temperatures dropped to below zero in the next half hour. This plunge, a bit more gradual but greater than the earlier rise, was still so rapid that windows cracked.

The South Dakota couple, Jim and Katie I think were their names, was interesting, charming, and amusing. Right after they left, I felt as if I had make a mistake with them. I should have gotten their contact information so that I could have invited them to dinner. And perhaps see if I would find other prejudices of mine I was not aware of.


Do you say, “Thirty days has September” or “Thirty days hath September”?


She wore a pin that said, “A hard man is good to find.”


Do Christian, gluten-free people feel any conflict when they pray, “Give us this day our daily bread”?


For tennis and some other televised sports, the graphics indicate the home country of a competitor with a flag. This is of little use to me since I don’t know the difference between Spain’s flag and Portugal’s, Chile’s and Argentina’s, Bulgaria’s and Belarus’s. And come on, how many of you know the colors of Liechtenstein’s standard? If only I could find Sheldon Cooper’s podcasts of “Fun with Flags.”


If Trump listed his hobbies, would he include tanning?


The Super Bowl was in Atlanta. I was reminded of one of the characters in Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier, who said, “If I had a brother in jail and one in Georgia, I’d try to bust the one out of Georgia first.”


Conservatives used to say that a conservative was made when a liberal got mugged. Now we might say that conservatives become liberal when they learn that a conservative has been arrested. Although standard law enforcement techniques have long employed early morning raids with a large show of force, I never heard conservatives complain about such tactics when used on unsuspecting black defendants. Fox News hosts and panelists now lash out at such “unnecessary” tactics. Perhaps this new sensitivity will lead the conservatives to giving money to the ACLU and maybe their outrage will continue when the police make similar arrests in the future of people who have not appeared on Fox News. But I doubt it.


“No man is exempt from saying silly things; the mischief is to say them deliberately.” Michel Eyquem de Montaigne.


I could see a half-block away a well-dressed, attractive, thirtyish woman standing next to an expensive, parked SUV. She was waving a piece of paper. As I got closer, I could see that it was the tell-tale orange of a parking ticket. She was talking to a man. I could tell that he had written the ticket. As I strode closer, I expected to hear her agitated tones saying something like, “I was just a minute late.” Instead, I saw him nod and her smile. She moved to stand beside him. With her right hand, she held the ticket between them. With her left, she took a selfie.

Hillbilly Chicago (concluded)

After Jean, in her pretty blouse, went to the country and western bar where her boyfriend Ron tended bar, my own life became more complicated. I was in law school after all. I spent less time with Jean and Ron. Jean, Ron, and I chatted some and occasionally had a barbecue. Everything seemed fine, perhaps too fine, and then Jean started showing. She was pregnant.

The soon-to-be-spouse found out that Jean, although at least three months pregnant, had not seen a doctor or had any other prenatal care, and Jean was doing nothing to get such care. She did not have a regular doctor and she had no health insurance. The s-t-b-s started making phone calls and eventually found a Catholic charity offering free prenatal care and birth assistance. The s-t-b-s took Jean to the charity, where they spent a good part of a day waiting, but Jean was eventually examined and told everything was proceeding just fine.

I was in my last year of law school and, realizing that few legal positions appealed to me, was trying to figure out what I was going to do after graduation, an issue that seemed to be even more important because I was going to be married at about the same time. Wrapped up again in my own life, I did not spend much time with Ron or Jean as she got bigger. As her due date approached, however, I became concerned. She was not going to a hospital for the birth. Instead, when her labor began, she was instructed to call the Catholic charity, and someone would be sent to her house to assist. “But what if they don’t come, and I am there?” became my frequent thought, especially since the s-t-b-s was not in Chicago then.

The labor began as Jean was on her hand and knees washing the kitchen floor. I called the charity and waited anxiously. Someone came within a half hour. Again, I waited anxiously. Within a few hours a baby girl was born, and the midwife was gone, promising to check back the next day. Ron was still part of Jean’s life, but he, for reasons I don’t remember, was not there. Jean was on her own. That did not seem to faze her. A few hours after the birth she was up and about. When Ron did appear, he looked thrilled. This was perhaps not exactly the ideal family unit, but one could almost see a cozy domestic situation in the making.

Some months passed, and the now-spouse and I were about to move on. We were going to New York City to start our new life. The spouse had a Dodge Dart, which we were keeping, and I no longer needed the old Ford I had been driving. (My car, which I had gotten from a friend, had one of the most important features for Chicago:  It always started in the frigid winters, although I often had to manipulate the manual choke for the car to spring into life. Ron was then carless, and I sold him mine for $50. He paid me half of the agreed price and promised that he would send me the rest. He probably was sincere when he said it, but I was not surprised that the money never came.

Our lives then diverged. I never saw Jean again, and we made no pretense that somehow we would keep up. On occasion I wonder what happened to her, but she held so many surprises for me—Sherlock Holmes and slashed furniture, home birth and barbecues—that I know that my imagination can’t really envision the life she went on to lead. And shortly before I left that house and neighborhood, she gave me another big surprise. Somehow I found out that she was only twenty-one. My mind whirled, and I tried to hide my surprise. I would have thought at least a decade older, but I realized that if she did not have those bad teeth, she might have looked twenty-one. I tried to calculate how old she must have been when she had had her first child, but since I was never sure which one(s)were hers and I kept forgetting the age of the children, I could not be sure. Maybe fourteen. Maybe sixteen or seventeen. But she was just twenty-one when we parted, and she had introduced me to a lot of life.

Hillbilly Chicago (continued)


Jean, who had never been to the bar where her boyfriend Ron worked as a bartender, kept trying to find out what she could about it from the not-yet-spouse and me. Mostly our reply was, “It’s nice.” She would find a way to ask again. And then she began to seem suspicious. “When does the bar close?” “How long do you think it takes to clean up when it closes?” “Do a lot of girls hang out at the bar?” “How do the girls look?” Finally she broke down and told the not-yet-spouse that she was worried that she was losing Ron to someone at the bar. The n-y-s replied that we had not seen anything like that, but continued, “Why don’t you go out and surprise him? He would love that.” Jean replied that she could not compete because she did not have anything nice to wear and, of course, she could not go because she had to take care of the kids. The n-y-s had a solution: She would take Jean shopping, and I could take care of the kids for at least part of the night of the surprise visit.

The not-yet-spouse took her to a discount store that sold everything from percolators to screwdrivers to clothing, kind of a precursor to a dollar store. Jean, however, did not have money to buy any new clothes, but seeing that Jean kept eyeing a particular blouse, the n-y-s bought it for her. It was white and satiny and frilly, and it cost under five bucks. (Ok, it’s a long time ago, but you get the point.)

The night came. Jean had no way to get to the bar, but the not-yet-spouse was going to go with her and drive her thee. And then Jean appeared, and I saw her for the first time in her new blouse. The n-y-s and I enthusiastically complimented her. It did look good on her, but more important, Jean liked the way she looked. She was shyly smiling, but also exuded a confidence I had not before seen in her.

They left in the early evening, and I was with the kids. On my front, everything started out just fine. I got my charges some sort of dinner, and the little girl got tucked in. But the deal was that I was to be on call for only the first part of the night, and that a relative of Jean’s–a sister or maybe it was a cousin–was to relieve me at some point. The time for my relief passed. And then more time. The older boy and I continued to play the ice hockey game. More time passed. Normally I might not have cared much, but this was occurring during the final exam period at the end of my second year of law school. I had an exam the next morning at some ungodly early hour, and I was planning to spend an hour or so reviewing notes before going to bed. More time, and still no relief. I did not know what to do, and I finally said to the boy, “I am sure they will be home soon, but I have to go.” A look of panic came over him, and he bolted out the door into the late spring night screaming, “I can’t do it anymore.” I felt sorry for him because of the responsibilities that had been put on him, but I now had little kids asleep in the house, a boy running through the Chicago night, and an exam looming. I quickly ran around the block but did not find him. I went back to the house. He was not there, but the kids dreamed on. I found the telephone number of a non-relief relative. She tried to pretend that she knew who I was as I explained the situation. Within fifteen minutes she came over. I spent an hour, maybe two, looking for the boy, but with my test but a few hours away, I finally gave up. (I don’t remember where he went to hide, but he was eventually found. Physically he was fine. And, of course, this is the main reason I did not become a Supreme Court clerk.)

I was sleeping fitfully when the not-yet-spouse returned somewhat before dawn. She reported that the excursion to the bar had been a huge success. Ron was surprised by Jean’s appearance, and he was delighted. He proudly showed her off to everyone in sight. He was beaming. Jean was beaming. Jean was so happy that she insisted on staying until the bar closed when she came back with the n-y-s. I was still worried about the footloose boy, but pleased about Jean and Ron. And then I went off to my exam.

(Concluded February 11)

Hillbilly Chicago (continued)


I thought of all the kids in Jean’s place as hers. They weren’t, but she treated them equally even if they were not all her biological children. I never got the relationships straight. There were three, or four, or maybe sometimes five.

My apartment was one bedroom; hers had two. The wood-frame building did not have central heating, only a space heater in each apartment, and there was no basement, just an uninsulated crawl space. The winters were cold. The floors were freezing. I was accustomed to walking barefoot even in winters wherever I had lived. Not in this place. My heater kept the room that contained it–a combined kitchen, dining room, living room (also my study)–warm, but the areas behind the heater, the bathroom and the bedroom with a mattress on the floor, seemed to hover at just above the freezing point in January and February.

Her place was crowded, what with a crib set up in the living room, and several beds in each bedroom, but it always seemed comfortable and clean, much cleaner than my place. I started becoming friendly with the oldest boy who was perhaps eight or nine. I’d ask about his sports and hobby interests and about school. He went to public school not too far away, and he indicated that it was fine, except he said too many blacks were coming into the school, although he did not say “blacks.” I could see that he often had responsibilities around the home, mostly looking after the younger kids. After we became friendly and I was coming back after classes and wanting a break before studying, he would bring out a game for us to play on his kitchen table. His choice soon became ice hockey with the slots and handles to move the figures up and down the “rink.” These could be twisted so that miniature Bobby Hulls and Stan Mikitas could pass or shoot the puck. He would invariably get it out because he could beat the pants off me. If I scored one goal, I was thrilled. He would have ten or more.

Then Ron entered Jean’s life. I never learned any of his back story or how they met, but he was friendly and good with the kids and was comfortable with me. He often seemed as if he was surprised to have become an adult. I have never seen someone so excited about doing a back yard barbecue (where I was the only guest). He was like a kid waiting for Christmas. Before it happened, he would talk about what he was going to cook and how he was going to cook it. Hot dogs and hamburgers have never generated such enthusiasm. And then there was the question of what chips to buy and should there be watermelon.

Ron always seemed to be in some new job. Each appeared to be the first step in a possible career, but in a week or two, he would move on. The most memorable “career path” started in the funeral home around the corner. He was hired as a sort of apprentice, and after his first day he found me to babble on enthusiastically about every facet of the place. But after a day, he looked green. Apparently he had now been introduced to embalming and preparing bodies for viewings. Within a week or two he was looking for different work.

Ron may not have been good at keeping jobs, but he was good at finding them. In short order, he was tending bar at a place on the southwest outskirts of Chicago. He again was enthusiastic. He would go on and on about how great the place was. The staff was wonderful. The customers were friendly and distinguished. And there was music. Chicago may be known for its blues, but this was a country and western place. I was not aware that Ron listened to country and western, or any other music, but he would list names and assure me that these were stars.

This time the job and the enthusiasm continued. Every time I saw him, Ron talked excitedly about the bar and his job. He would list important people who were there. (I never knew who they were, but he was certain of their fame.) Then he kept insisting that my girlfriend (the not-yet-spouse) and I come to the bar. After many entreaties, we went.

It was a nice place. An ample bar with tables ringing a good-sized dance floor and a stage at that far end. It was clean; it was modern. The patrons were largely under forty and nicely dressed, although the fashions were different from the ones I saw around the University of Chicago. Still, it was not my cup of tea. Too loud, too smoky, too crowded. But Ron was thrilled to see us there. He introduced us to the other bartender, to every waitress, to patrons, to performers. “Meet my friends” was said over and over, and each time Ron looked thrilled that the others could see his friends. Neither we or the ones he had us meet were introduced in a way that might have led to a conversation, and in any event, the noise was too much for any kind of chit chat. Ron seemed relaxed and in his element, something I think did not happen frequently for him. I could understand his excitement about the place, but after what we thought was a decent interval and after telling Ron again and again how great the place was, we left.

(continued February 8)

Hillbilly Chicago

I never labeled Jean a “hillbilly,” but I suppose she was.

I had moved from Hyde Park, site of the University of Chicago, to a working-class Chicago neighborhood. The wood frame building contained four apartments, two on the ground floor and two on the floor above. I lived in the apartment fronting the sidewalk. Jean lived on the ground floor behind me.

She was attractive. She had striking black hair and a pretty face and a nice figure. Her lovely appearance, however, was marred by her teeth, which clearly had been neglected. Some were missing. She did not work but was raising what seemed to be at least three children, sometimes more. I never quite understood her biological relationship to all the kids. I think two were hers, including a three-year-old girl who was pretty and a delight. I got the impression that others were children of relatives who were dropped off for extended stays. She apparently had kin in Chicago who had these children, but I never saw any of the adults. Neither did I understand her family history. She had been born in Kentucky, but I did not know when or why she had moved to Chicago. She never mentioned her parents. I believe she told me that she was raised Catholic, which did not fit in with my assumptions of hill folk, but she wore a religious medal around her neck. How she paid the rent and bought groceries was not clear. When I moved in, there was no man in the house, although I got the impression that one had just moved out.

We chatted some as we came and went from the building, but I was surprised when she banged on my door one afternoon. She was hysterical, and it took a while for me to understand her. I learned that she had just come home, and found her door bolted from the inside. She was understandably scared of who was inside, and she indicated that she believed that it was the former boyfriend whom she had kicked out. “He must have kept a key,” is all she could say while crying.

I called the police, and a young officer responded quickly. I explained the situation to him, and he, too, looked scared. (All this gave me a greater respect for the work of the police. He had no idea what was on the other side of the locked door, and he was going to have deal with the situation. The possibilities included a crazy man with a gun or knife.) The Chicago police, at least then, were in single-officer squad cars. He called for backup but thought that he needed to act promptly. I don’t remember how he got into the apartment. And I don’t know what I was thinking when I followed him, although it was at a distance. Jean had just bought one of those living room sets from the kind of furniture store that advertises on late-night television. She was proud of the suite, but now she found her new couch and chair had been slashed again and again. Something like acid had been poured on her coffee table, and the laminate, meant to look like wood grain, had dissolved. But there was no intruder. A window was open in the bedroom. It was only a slight drop to the ground, and he must have fled that way.

Perhaps this gave us some sort of bond, for Jean and I started talking more. I was in law school, and she seemed very interested in that. More and more, she looked at the books I had. In what seemed like an act of courage for her, she asked if she could borrow one. I tried to hide my surprise; if I had thought about it, I would have bet that she had not finished high school. We talked about what she might like to read. I am not sure what she said, but I finally handed her the collected Sherlock Holmes novels and stories. Then, to my further surprise, she returned the book within the week, saying that she had loved it. She looked over at my bookshelves, and she did not have to ask. We went over and found something else for her, and I became a lending library. She, in return, having noticed that I cooked regularly, gave me a cookbook, written by a White House chef for President Kennedy. Why she had such a book remained a mystery. I still use it.

I then started spending more time with her kids.

(continued February 6)


The Personal Legacy of WWII

(Guest post from spouse.)

My namesake was James Miller Herren, Jr. – make that Lt. Col. James Miller Herren, Jr. The beloved baby son of my grandmother and the darling baby brother of my mother, “Mill” was a champion horseman, flying ace, the all ‘round perfect baby-faced charmer of the family…whose P-51 Mustang fell out of the sky over Celle, Germany, on October 30, 1944. He was 28. 

Cleaning out the basement yesterday, we came upon a treasure trove of letters, medals (including two Air Medals and the Distinguished Flying Cross) and military “jewelry” that were from or about Mill. Through this stash, we have learned or confirmed some of his military history.  

While we don’t know exactly when Mill enlisted, by the fall of 1942 he was training pilots in Panama. He writes regularly over the next year that he is very, very busy (and often exhausted) training young men fresh out of high school to be fighter pilots. “They can think up more ways to wreck an airplane,” he writes, commenting more than once on their youth. At the time he himself is only 26 but a Captain in the Army Air Force. By August of 1943, he is a Major preparing his pilots for combat in Europe. 

His letters are hand-written on air mail parchment. They are sent from the 24th Fighter Squadron in Panama through an APO address in New Orleans to his parents in Ashland, Alabama. The ink may have been blue or black, but age has turned it sepia. They start “My dears,” or “My pets,” and always send love and sweetness…and often money. They conclude “Devotedly” or “Love to all.” He begs for letters from home. “I’m really gonna quit you,” he writes, “if you don’t sit right down and talk to me a while.” He buys a car; an old girlfriend marries someone else (he’s okay with it); he flies some buddies to Costa Rica for a little R&R; he meets the president of Guatemala at a reception. He works and works and works. He sounds content and extremely proud of his squadron. 

There is the suggestion from some earlier letters (undated, but probably around 1937 or 38 while he was a student at Auburn) that there had been a major disturbance in the family equilibrium…disturbing enough that my grandmother kept letters about it. “My dearest,” he writes to his mother. “It isn’t you that has failed us – if anything it’s I that has done the failing. I’ve realized for so long what was wrong at our house but I’ve rationalized to the point where I thought things would surely improve. If when realizing it I had done something maybe it would have helped, but it hurt me so much that I just couldn’t believe it was really happening.” He continues his profuse apologies and vows to leave school if his father remains set against him. “Mother darling,” he writes. “Words can’t express what you mean to me so please don’t give me up as a bad job.” We know my grandfather drank heavily and think he may have hurt Mill’s mother. This would have led to a major, unspecified confrontation. Subsequent letters arriving from Panama, however, do not address this incident and, in fact, send love, presents (a unique fountain pen) and offers of money to his father to help his struggling business ventures.  

Sometime around the late summer or early fall of 1943 Mill is promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and his unit is incorporated into the newly-formed VIII Air Force stationed in Los Angeles. He became the commander of one of three (the 434th) Fighter Squadrons in the 479th Fighter Group* of the VIII Air Force in the European theater sometime before February 1944. The 479th was moved from California to England in May of 1944, in time for the 434th to patrol the beachhead in the Normandy invasion on D-Day. “I wouldn’t take anything for being in on this deal,” writes Mill on June 8, 1944. “The scope of the thing is darn near too much to believe, even when you see it.” 

The most moving letter comes from Col. Hubert Zemke, who, as commander of the 479th, was Mill’s commanding officer on October 30, 1944. The letter is dated 31 July 1945 and arrives in Ashland from Missoula, Montana. “As you probably know,” types Col. Zemke in an almost typo-free letter, “the mission that Miller and I went down on was to be my very last. [They were escorting B-24 bombers in a mission to take out an oil refinery north of Hannover.] Since it was my last I wanted to lead the best squadron in the Group so I chose Miller’s squadron. This automatically placed Miller on the ground that day. Of course this didn’t please him too much as he had been having a tremendous amount of success and the day’s prospects looked quite good. Miller was always that way. Perhaps too overeager.” So he lets Mill command a section of the squadron. 

Taking flak over Hannover, they turned east, running into a “terrific thunder cloud, which none of us knew existed.” At a radioed suggestion from Mill, they turn around, only, says Zemke, to enter “into the roughest flying condition that I’ve ever encountered.” His plane bounced around, iced up and started spinning. Zemke pulls out of the spin only to realize that he is in a “terrific dive,” severe enough that his wings snapped off. Somehow he is thrown from the plane; somehow his parachute opens; he lands “with a thud into a swamp.” The local village is aroused. Zemke is “overtaken by about twenty hunters armed with every sort of weapon. Their reaction towards me was of curiosity. In no way did they harm me and they went as far as washing the blood off my face at a farmhouse I was taken to.” Later two Luftwaffe Officers came and took him to their station in Celle. “While enroute there one of the two officers told me another American officer had been found near the spot where I had been taken but he had lived only an hour or two….It was later found that this flyer was Miller.” What happened to Zemke between October 1944 and July 1945 is left unanswered in this letter, but he tells that story in a book he wrote in 1991 entitled Zemke’s Stalag: The Final Days of World War II. 

The horror was that my grandmother received word in October 1944 that Mill was missing but waited in anxious hope for another six months until having his death confirmed in March 1945. 26,000 members of the VIII Army Air Force were killed in World War II. Mill’s story was, tragically, not uncommon. 

Gene Miller Jonakait (née Knopf) was born May 15, 1946. She is honored to be known as “Mill.” 


*There were 22 Fighter Groups with varying numbers of Squadrons with the VII Army Air Force. Their numbering remains a puzzle to me.