Although my career in journalism only lasted five years, counting only years I made my living at it, I value much of the work I did as having a more than immediate value. I saved some of it–well, hell, I was only getting paid $7.50 an hour, I had to get some kind of emotional reward just to keep going. Below are some examples of my journalism work that I find just as relevant today as they were when I wrote them. Others may be found elsewhere on this blog under the tag “journalism.”
“Stones from the River” a precious find
Stones from the River, Ursula Hegi, paperback edition, published by Scribner, 1994. Available at Orange Cat Goes to Market in Garberville
by Jentri Anders
In these days of publishing trends, of formula novels written by best-selling authors with an eye to the movie and television royalties, a truly good novel is a precious find. For those who still value literature and are interested in an example of the real thing, let me tell you about this great book I just read.
“Stones from the River” will probably not be made into a movie, thank the goddess, though with the right director, it could be more powerful than “Schindler’s List.” Technically, it is a historical novel, but not so very long ago and not so very far away. Be ready for cold shivers of déjà vu.
We are in a small city in Germany, between the two world wars. The author does not give us the population of Bergdorf, near Dusseldorf and Dresden, but maybe it is about the size of Fortuna – or even Garberville.
Everyone knows everyone else and, though they follow social rules that seem rigid to us modern folks, the author skillfully makes the point that conformity, hypocrisy and a shallow form of tolerance can live side by side, as long as they all remain within the boundaries of the known and predictable.
The town has its code, it’s own rendition of deutscheordnung – German order. Those who depart from it, genetically or socially, will know lonliness, but they will be “our own eccentrics.” Bergdorf thus has in its populace people who are insane, crippled, sadistic, mentally defective and pregnant without husbands, even if it does not always include those people socially. The town also has its Jews, the respected and the eccentric, and before Hitler, they are only slightly distinguishable from the good German Catholics.
Trudi Montag is born deeply German, of the Aryan type that will be increasingly lauded as she becomes a young woman. She is blond and blue eyed, born of German parents, with a war hero for a father. Though her coloring and parentage will stand her in good stead, there is nothing she can do about the fact that she is a genetic dwarf – ein Zwerg. The social structure of the town has a place for her, but her intellect, insight and courage are far too large to fit into it.
The book could have worked well if it were only Trudi’s story, and, at first, the reader comes to expect that it is the story of Trudi’s life. Trudi’s mother dies. Trudi’s few friends, including her Jewish friend, Eva, ultimately betray her when friendship with a dwarf becomes unwieldy. Trudi meets another Zwerg, a beautiful one who becomes her role model.
Then comes Hitler… so many novels have told that story, from the standpoint of the Jews, the Americans, the French, the Nazis, but none from such a unique vantage point within non-Nazi German culture, none with such delicacy and none with such inclusiveness.
But, most of all, the book benefits from the author’s utter refusal to hurry the pace and the uncompromising subtlety with which she links Trudi’s experience of the small town to the rise of fascism. The pace itself conveys how insidious, how inexorable, how seductive it must have been.
Bit by bit, through Trudi’s shrewd and somewhat prophetic eyes, we begin to see how it happened, what caused it, what was wrong with the premise. Hitler himself is only drawn with reflections, but we come to know the brownshirts well. We see the social threads begin to unravel. Not only Jews, but intelligent and artistic women, communists and homosexuals are increasingly at risk, as well as anyone who questions.
The town reacts, and often in surprising ways. Characters who were mean become heroes, heroes become cowards and former cowards find the underground. Some of the most patriotic and intolerant citizens fight the Nazis just because the Nazis are rude to their mothers.
Hegi, a literature professor who spent the first 18 years of her life in Germany, bursts our American war-based stereotypes of Germans in a slow explosion that reminds us just how close our own culture is to German culture, good and bad.
One closes the book looking at one’s own hometown through Trudi’s eyes, hearing the German in English words, remembering that America entered World War II over the objections of its own Nazis, and praying that, in our own culture, there will be more Trudis than Adolphs at the first book burning.
Basic training: Five hours with Brian Willson
by Jentri Anders
On September 1, 1987, peace activist S. Brian Willson was hit by a munitions train at the Concord Naval Weapons Station at Port Chicago, California. He and others were demonstrating their opposition to American aid to the Contras in Nicaragua. It was not the first time that Willson, a Vietnam veteran, had risked his life to prevent another Vietnam in central America. He was one of four veterans who fasted on the steps of the White House to build support in the U.S. against the right wing rebels. Had there not been a sudden upsurge of activism in the peace movement, he would no doubt have fasted to death, following the tactics of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Brian lost both legs below the knee.
Since then, Garberville Post 6354 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and Post 1494 of the American Legion raised over $800 to purchase a chainsaw to run an Alaskan mill in the village of El Cedro, Nicaragua, where Contras have destroyed the homes of villagers. As it turned out, the chainsaw and mill were donated and the money raised went for related tools, spare parts and accessories.
.On Martin Luther King’s birthday, January 15, Willson came to Garberville to accept these items and a letter from the community in order to take them to the Veterans Peace Action team for delivery to El Cedro. As vice-president of the Women’s Auxiliary to VFW Post 6354, I accompanied John Adkins, VFW member, to the Bay Area to pick up Brian and bring him to Garberville.
We waited in a small living room lined with bookshelves. The shelf near me was full of medical and midwifery books surely belonging to Holly Rauen, who is a midwife. If I looked to the right, I saw a wall full of political posters, one of which, the beautiful portrait advertising the movie, The Hopi Prophecy, Is on one of my own walls. If I looked to the left, I saw shelves full of videocassettes with hand-lettered labels. Brian told me later that he had been sent videos of the train attack from all over the country.
There was a chorus of voices from down the hall.
“Are you sure you don’t want your pain pills?”
“No, I don’t need them.”
“Do you have everything?”
A large man wearing a wildly flowered tie and red baseball cap with his ordinary suit jacket, towered over the band of concerned women as he emerged from the hall and looked into the living room where John and I sat.
It was only a second of real-time, but long enough. Brian doesn’t glance at you, note your presence, file it away under “what is she good for,” and then continue with his business. He really looks at you and that kind of a look is hard to come by. It might be that what caught his eye about me, and maybe John too, was that I had a grin on my face the size of California, so pleased was I to meet him. I hadn’t realized this until I saw that grin reflected on Brian’s face.
The transfer of care for Brian from his family to us was almost ceremonial. As she handed me his sweater and made me promise to see that he didn’t lose it, Holly’s voice said, “Because he can’t carry anything, he needs his hands for his canes, you know.” But, her eyes said, “I’m counting on you to take care of him.” I learned later that I was looking at a woman of unbelievable courage. I knew at the moment that I was looking at several people who loved Brian dearly. I carried the sweater as carefully as I have carried my babies.
You can’t be in Brian’s presence without feeling his incredible vitality. He tells you he was an all-American-type boy in high school, athletic, patriotic, etc., and you have no trouble believing that. In spite of the half-inch deep, 2 or 3-inch long scar on his forehead, an artifact of the train attack, he is a handsome man—hazel eyes, graying hair and beard which I suspect must have been red or reddish before the gray, and an open-faced look that I somehow associate with freckles, although I’m not sure now if he actually has freckles or not. He would look, at any rate, all-American, in the stereotypical sense, with or without freckles, with or without the baseball cap.
He walks on his two prosthetic lower legs with what looks like complete confidence, only setting down his canes about every four five steps. At 1:30 the next morning, after a day which exhausted me just following him around, he handed his canes to the nearest person and walked jauntily across the large room at the Vet’s Hall, demonstrating his recovery, then turned around and walked back without hesitation or the hint of a wobble. This is a man who came through a situation four months ago which would have laid low most people for years, or a lifetime. How did you do it, we all wanted to know. “I just visualize my feet,” said Brian, with a shrug.
When I had learned that I was going to spend a 5-hour drive with him, I resolved not to even mention what had happened to him on September 1. Most particularly, I decided, I would not ask him why he didn’t get off the tracks. I needn’t have been so tactful. Brian brings it up and talks about it easily. He didn’t get off the tracks because he could not believe the train would not stop.
I said to him, “Brian, if you had asked me, I would have told you but the train would run right over you the moment it was expedient.”
He gave me one of those open freckle-faced smiles and said, “Well, you’ve been at it longer than I have.” It was the gentlest of challenges and my only reply could be to meet the challenge with an expression both chagrined and exasperated. We both knew that the first thing he did when he was able, was go right back to Concord and sit on the tracks again. I was so aware of the hard shell of cynicism I grew in the 60s to keep me sane for the duration. I could feel his love and energy dissolving that shell every time he looked at me.
He tells you he you didn’t move, then he tells you about Holly. Holly had been a teenybopper flower child. They met in Nicaragua. Brian doesn’t remember September very well but he has seen all the video tapes, which put together cover 45 minutes almost without interruption. He says that Holly ran beside the train and, as soon as he popped out from under it, before the train even stopped rolling, she was stanching the blood with her skirt and yelling instructions to everyone around. A former military medic on the scene and Holly saved Brian’s life, not the Navy paramedics standing nearby. They did not make a move and refused to help even when Holly, soaked with Brian’s blood, begged them. A local firefighter unit administered oxygen, but the Navy paramedics only watched. A county ambulance arrived 40 minutes after the fact. Brian says this all came out at the congressional hearing, much to the astonishment of the congresspersons.
Brian tells you all this matter-of-factly. There wasn’t much difference between that story, in tone, and the conversation we had about being almost the same age, both being former Baptists who attended Baptist colleges and just how conservative those facts might have made us. I told him I had come to terms with my Christian background. He said his had made him so conservative that he once gave a speech advocating the position that we should nuke Hanoi. Yet, a more Christ-like person would be hard to find. I’ve met only a handful in my life, and only two in the last 10 years. The other one meditates most of the time.
Meditating is not what Brian does. His mission is people and it is clear that he draws his energy from those around him, focuses it, magnfies it and broadcasts it back out. It is as if he has accepted that he belongs to people and has as little reservation about that as is humanly possible. He and John and I talked nonstop for five hours, Then he may have gotten in an hour or two of rest. Following that, he was live on KMUD-FM, our local public radio station, with Rick Thornegate. He talked with Thorngate for an hour, and spoke for at least another hour to the rapt crowd packing the Vet’s Hall. Then, when any other speaker would have retired to his private motel room, he sat down and talked to all comers until way past midnight, looking more energetic at the end than at the beginning of what was, to me at least, an exhausting day.
As I sat down, at one point, in the circle of people listening to him tell a story, he glanced over at me and, without missing a beat, said, “You’ve already heard this story,” and then continued with it. To me, that showed that he doesn’t just spout words, he Is actually there with you, watching your reaction and communicating with a you that is real to him.
Throughout my time with Brian, I kept looking for the catch. (Old skeptics never die, they just fossillize.) Where is the bitterness, the anger, the frustration? He’s got a great story for that question. Brian knows the psychology of grief; he counseled Vietnam veterans at one time. He says that he once traveled through Nicaragua with Holly, visiting all the Nicaraguans maimed by the Contras with guns and landmines we sent for that purpose. He grieved for every one; he cried for every one. He said, “At some point, my legs and their legs became the same,” so that when he lost his legs under the train, he had already grieved for them.
No untouchable holier-than-thou, Brian leaves it open whether he will sometime have the depression all the psychologists tell him he must experience in order to heal. Brian leaves a lot open. All he claims is that he’s waging peace now and he’ll wage peace whatever happens to him. And he’s not asking you to do anything he did, only to wage peace however you can.
My favorite memory of Brian’s visit is the circle of children who surrounded him at one point, all quiet smiles, listening and talking to him and finally, one by one, hugging him before they went away. I thought, this is a man you want to touch. I had poked him playfully once or twice on the arm during the ride, but because I’m an adult, I was very concerned not to bug him or to presume on someone trying to cope, as he told me, with sudden fame. The kids, being kids, had no such hangups and did it for me, for all of us. I can only hope Brian takes those hugs with him down to Nicaragua and passes them out to the Nicaraguan children, along with the chainsaw and our letter.
From Star Route Journal, 1988
Who’s driving the train? Opinion
By Jentri Anders
If we are to expect recurring déjà vu as a result of the harmonic convergence, I definitely got mine watching the news footage of recent events in Concord. Here we go with the trains, again. It was maybe a little special for me personally because trains figure prominently in my own neurosis. From conception to sometime in my toddlerhood, I am told, my family lived right beside the railroad tracks in Cleveland, Ohio. On the wrong side, I’m sure. My father was a steelworker, transplanted from the South to what the history books tell me was a sort of a cracker ghetto during World War II. Later on, at a certain point in my 20s, I experienced hallucinations, probably malnutrition induced, in which the sound of trains would swell and block out all other input. My heart would race and I would feel a horrible sense of overpowering, immediate danger.
When the Vietnam War reached the point of escalation wherein long unused train tracks in Berkeley were reinstated to transport troops to Vietnam and the protesters of the war decided to block those tracks, it took all the courage I could muster to simply go and stand with them.
The first day we stood beside the tracks with signs. The train went on by. The second day we decided to stand or sit on the tracks. I walked a few miles that day beside a Buddhist woman who told me she felt as one with the indigenous Buddhists of Vietnam. The immolation of priests protesting the war had greatly impressed her. She said she would sit on the tracks.
I asked her, “What if the train doesn’t stop?” She said, “I don’t want to live in a world where the train doesn’t stop.”
Which brings us to Brian Willson, who did not get off the tracks in Concord while protesting arms to Nicaragua, was hit by the train and lost both legs below the knee. Why was he on the tracks? Why didn’t he jump? Why didn’t the train stop? None of them are new questions. Just the same old questions a generation later. The woman I walked with sat on the tracks to stop the Vietnam war. Brian, who fought in that war, sat on the tracks to stop another just like it.
The train came bearing down on us that day, blowing its horn, and yes, picking up speed as it approached, shooting out a cloud of steam some 30 or 40 feet in front of it. When the steam hit me, I jumped. I was well prepared to jump. My companion was sitting crosslegged on the tracks and I saw her disappear into the cloud of steam.
During the eternity it took for the train to pass, I believed she was under it. My world came apart then and I understood that my little brushes with racism, intolerance, but mostly just plain greed, had only been glimpses of the whole picture. Now, I really felt just how big, powerful, mindless, blindly mechanical and inhuman, how inflexible and one-track, how overwhelming, are the forces that lead to war. And, I could not imagine what could possibly stop them.
As it turned out, my friend was snatched off the tracks at the last minute by plain clothes policemen. Brian Willson was not. Some people think he is a lunatic. Some, including myself, think he is that incredible modern rarity, a person willing to die for what is right. In the last analysis, it doesn’t matter if he’s a lunatic or a model of courage for modern times. What matters is what drives the train. You cannot be so irrational as to believe what happened to Brian was an accident. A rational person listening to the facts must assume that at some point, somewhere in the chain of command leading to the engineer, there was a decision made to run the train no matter what or who was on the tracks.
Who made that decision? Was it the engineer? Was it the Navy? Was it the president? Was it those who elected the president and whose philosophy he represents? Was it those who created the atmosphere in which the engineer knew he would not be brought to justice? Was it those who failed to convince the electorate to reject the current government? Was it those who, like some victims of the Third Reich, drew the line only when tyranny advanced into their own lives, their own jobs, their own community?
Whether Brian Willson is a man of courage or a fool who deserved what he got, what happened to him has reminded us what the priorities are for those who make war. I think Brian was on those tracks and didn’t move because he wanted us to know that nothing will stop the train but enough people with the courage to live peace.
September 21 1987 Star Route Journal
UPDATE: I learned only within the last few years that the woman on the tracks was the renowned Buddhist teacher, Pema Chodron. I am bemused by the fact that what she said to me about not wanting to live in a world where the train would not stop is so similar to what Brian said to me about not believing that the train would not stop. I almost think Brian also said he did not want to live in a world where the train would not stop, but it was a long time ago and memories are fallible. If he said that, I did not write it down. I have no explanation for those similarities except the adage about great minds work in similar ways.