Category Archives: The Husband

A Few Book Reviews by The Husband (25/99)

I’m not the only one who writes book reviews in this house.  All of The Husband’s reading is history-related nonfiction and presidential biographies, and he’s been churning out quite a few longform-style reviews on his blog.

Since I’m at a work event this evening and he’s holding down the homefront, it’s more than apropos for his words to take over the blog tonight, too.

Here are some of his recent reviews:

Five Presidents

Five Presidents: My Extraordinary Journey with Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford by Clint HIll 

The First Congress

The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government by Fergus M. Bordewich

Prisoners of Hope

Prisoners of Hope: Lyndon B. Johnson, The Great Society, and the Limits of Liberalism by Randall Woods 

This is post #25 of 99 in my 99 Days of Summer Blogging project (We’re a quarter of the way there!)

99 Days of Summer Blogging

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This Is the Father’s Day We Almost Didn’t Have

at the beach, 2011. the husband with the kids in the ocean. an intentionally blurry photo, taken by me.

This is the Father’s Day that we almost didn’t have.

Had things gone dramatically different on Thanksgiving — as they very nearly did —  this Father’s Day would have been the latest hurdle in a sad series of firsts.

It would have been the beginning of a lifetime of fatherless Father’s Days — which are the only kind I’ve known for the past 32 years.

Perhaps that’s the reason I’m having trouble writing the obligatory Facebook sentiment wishing The Husband a Happy Father’s Day. The emotions are too familiar, too close to the surface. It’s impossible to articulate in the face of the losses that did happen this year and challenges we continue to struggle with this new normal and our ever-present pasts.  They don’t make Hallmark cards for this kind of Father’s Day, which can be my lazy excuse (this year) for not buying one.

Instead, I look for the perfect photo, the best quote and I come up empty-handed until I find these words that I wrote for Father’s Day 2011. Words that still ring true five years later. More than ever, actually, if that’s possible. And it is, because while this was written in the midst of much uncertainly and change, it was also written before.

Before losing everything we’d worked two decades for.

Before The Cancer.

Before Thanksgiving.

Before going places on this parenting journey one never imagines when you first hold that newborn.

Before everything changed.

Before we knew now what we didn’t know then.

Here, then, an abbreviated version of “Father’s Day 2011: The Here and The Now”:

“I didn’t think I needed to write a Father’s Day post to The Husband. I really didn’t plan on it, to be honest. But then, you know, post after glowing post started showing up in my Google Reader – tributes to all the wonderful dads out there, guys who are the type of dads that The Husband is. Friends and family members are writing Hallmark card worthy status updates on Facebook whereas I’m … sitting here thinking, I’m really such a shit for not doing one of my own.

Because it’s not like The Husband doesn’t know how I feel, for God’s sakes. Obviously, he knows that I think he is a great Dad and a wonderful husband, yada yada yada, so it doesn’t really matter.

But see, here’s the thing: it kinda sorta does.

For reasons I don’t really want to go into on the blog and Facebook, it matters especially so this year. After being together for literally half your life, you fall into these sorts of silent, oh,he/she-knows-how-I-feel patterns, despite the irony of the minister at your wedding deliberately changing up your vows and scrapping the to have’s and to holds with phrases like “you’ll remember the big things like your anniversary, but it’s the little day to day things like saying, you matter to me that is the hard stuff.”

You take for granted that things like the laundry will always be done every Sunday of your life, like it has been in mine for 23 years. (Yes. Twenty-three YEARS my husband has been doing my laundry. Top that, girlfriends.)

You take for granted things like being able to count on your husband to run out to Walgreens for a gallon of milk, or take the boy for a haircut, or to pick up the kids when you’re running late, or to remember the sunscreen and apply it better than you, or to take them to the park when you’ve got a migraine kicking your ass for the third day in a row.

And these are just the little things. We’re not even going to get into the big deal, lifelong, no-cure-or-end-in-sight things.

Like parenting a child with autism, for example.

Like being a hands-on, 24/7 dad when you’re living with chronic pain for more than a decade.

You take these big and little things for granted until they’re not there anymore – or, in our case, not there as much. 

One of my faults is that I tend to focus on anything but the here and the now.

I procrastinate. (Hence, the no Father’s Day card or gift.)

I fixate a bit too much on the past.  I don’t always live in the moment.

(I’m working on that.)

And when you live with one foot in the future and one foot in the past, you’re not grounded in the present and you miss saying what needs to be said.

Which, for this Father’s Day for The Husband, goes something like this:

You’re an even better father than I ever imagined you would be, in circumstances that we never imagined would be.

Even though it doesn’t always seem like it, you’re needed more than you know. 

And you’re loved more than you can possibly imagine.

Happy Father’s Day.

  99 Days of Summer BloggingThis is post #21 of 99 in my 99 Days of Summer Blogging project. 
 
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like flashy sparkles in the water or stars in the sky

Storybook Ball (2)

“It’s not easy being green.
It seems you blend in with so many other ordinary things.
And people tend to pass you over ’cause you’re not standing out
Like flashy sparkles in the water or stars in the sky.” 
“Bein’ Green” – written by Joe Raposo, sung by Kermit the Frog

I hate television.

I really do.

And right now I hate it even more than usual because ABC cancelled “The Muppets” after only one season.

The MUPPETS, people.

Who the hell cancels The Muppets?! I mean, you really must have one dark, shriveled, corroded soul to pull the plug on Kermit the Frog.

According to Variety, along with “disappointing ratings” in the 18-49 year old market, critics said the series was “not family-friendly enough and out of step with the history of the characters, created by the late Jim Henson.”

That, my dear Kermie, is pure bullshit.

Having watched every episode of the newest incarnation of “The Muppets,” this show more than did the late Jim Henson proud. The irony isn’t lost on me, either, that this news comes on the heels of today’s anniversary of 26 years since Jim Henson’s sudden and heartbreaking death. What a way to remember and honor the legacy of this creative genius.

As for not being family-friendly enough, the new “Muppets” had plenty of innocent laughs for the younger set combined with an abundance of in-jokes for those of us who remember with nostalgia days when iconic performers like Carol Burnett, Milton Berle, Lena Horne and many, many more were sidekicks to floppy, colorful, zany characters.

And really, since when is “not family friendly enough” a barometer for keeping a show on the air? Have you seen what crap supposedly passes for family-friendly TV these days? If we’re going to make that a criteria, then all we’d be left watching is a blank screen.

Maybe “The Muppets” were doomed in this entertainment culture.  As The Husband wrote in this post (“Remembering Sammy and Kermit: When Entertainment Was the True Reality Television”) which I published here six years ago,

“They were part of an era when ‘entertainment’ meant more than watching some fat bastard try to lose weight, some chick with enormous boobs and not-so-enormous talent try to win a karaoke contest, or some incredibly dysfunctional psychopaths try to raise eight children on television in an attempt to become famous. 

It meant real talent. Real magic.”

Real talent, indeed.  Those Muppets had it.

And we’re not likely to see their real magic ever again.

photo by me, taken at the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia, Pa, May 2009 

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The Answer’s at the (Almost) End

Hospital bracelet

A few months ago, The Husband launched a blog called The Answer’s at the End, a mix of in-depth, analytical longform-style book reviews (his focus is presidential biographies and history) along with occasional commentary on sports, current events, and music. (Indeed, the title of his blog comes from George Harrison’s song of the same name from his 1975 album “Extra Texture.”)

If you’re friends with me or The Husband on Facebook, you know the story: as we were finishing up Thanksgiving dinner, The Husband got up from the table and walked into our bathroom. I don’t know how long he was in there — my guess is under five minutes — when I went to check on him.

I found him collapsed on the floor, barely conscious, sweating, and unable to speak.  His breathing was extremely labored. I screamed for someone to call 911, and the dispatcher instructed me to start giving chest compressions because there was a moment when I felt him starting to slip away. The paramedics came, started working on him right there on the floor of our bedroom, and took him away in an ambulance.

I’ll write more about this (all signs point to this being a vasovagal syncope) but for now, I’ll let The Husband take over. As George says, life is one long enigma my friend. So read on, read on, the answer’s at the end.

Weeks ago I’d planned on a post for November 29th remembering George Harrison, on the 14th anniversary of his death. Then I almost got to meet him a lot earlier than I was planning on; so, that’s kind of changed the post a bit.

As I wrote on Facebook yesterday, I collapsed on Thanksgiving Night with an as-yet unknown-and-may-never-be-known misfiring of the brain that left me unable to talk and came very near to stopping my breathing forever. My wife kept me breathing long enough for the paramedics to take over. I spent a few days in the hospital and I’m now home doing a lot of resting.

As it was happening, I remember thinking that this is what it is like to die. I could hear much of what was going on but was powerless, unable to communicate. I felt as though there was a struggle going on. On the one hand was the desire for the inability to breathe and the discomfort to stop at any cost. On the other hand was my wife pulling me back and refusing to let me rest just now. The bond between my wife and I – because of all we’ve been through these last 25 years together – has always been strong. She doesn’t want to hear it, but I know that she’s the reason I hung on. I knew she wouldn’t let me go and that I owed it to her and our children to stay. More importantly, that I wanted to stay. That I fought to stay.

Having said all of that, it didn’t hit me until a few hours after I was in my hospital room that I could have died. This seems self-evident, but my mind was so addled that it didn’t hit home until I saw the date written on the white-board across from my bed. It had the nurse’s name, the emergency numbers, and ‘November 26, 2015’. Looking at that I suddenly thought, “This could’ve been the day that I died” – borrowing heavily from Don McLean.  Later, looking at my hospital ID tag, I saw my date of birth, followed by my date of admission. I realized those dates could’ve been the beginning of my epitaph.

At one time or another in our lives we all wonder what that date will be for us – that ‘death’ date on the epitaph. Seeing it there in print was a bit more than I could handle so I immediately stared at something else [you do a lot of staring at things in the hospital].

The list of things I’m grateful for today that I took completely for granted is too long to even start. Yesterday was a typical day in Pittsburgh – rain, rain, cold, rain – but it sure as hell looked like a beautiful day to me. I know that won’t last and that’s ok, too. I shouldn’t spend the rest of my life flittering around marveling at how great everything always is. That ain’t me [surprise, surprise].

That being said, I sure as hell am going to try to approach things differently. I’m still in the afterglow of having my life saved. And I’m sure I need to pay more attention to my health and that there may be some follow up things I need to do medically.  I’ll face that as it comes. I hope, though, that I can really keep the promise that I’ve made to try to look at things differently.

Before I sign off [just for today, folks], a note about George Harrison as originally intended: I learned about George’s death while in Wichita, Kansas, in a hotel while watching Live with Regis and Kelly. That’s right: I learned about George’s death from Regis Philbin [“well, well, well, Kelly  – guess who’s dead?!?”]. We were in Wichita with our one-week-old twins in the NICU. It was surreal. A Beatle-death would normally have been an Earth-shattering, world-stopping event. With my infants in a hospital 1,000 miles from home, not knowing what would happen or how long we’d be there, etc., however, George’s death registered with a tremendous sadness but I had more pressing obligations.

Still, sad it was. A year later, George’s widow, Olivia, and his friend Jeff Lynne released George’s last album, Brainwashed.  When doctors told George he had only a few months to live in the fall 2001, he went into his recording studio to record as many songs [he had a backlog of dozens of unrecorded songs] as he could. The recordings were raw and as time went on, George’s voice became weaker. After his death, Jeff Lynne and George’s son, Dhani, went into the studio to listen to George’s recordings. They recorded back-up vocals, added backing tracks, and fine-tuned it. When it was released, of course I bought it right away. Listening to it the first time, my son – 1 at the time – joined me and crawled over to the stereo. He pulled himself up to a standing position, obviously listening to the music. I watched this in amazement. I don’t know how long it lasted but it was long enough to leave that impression on me.

I don’t know what was going on while my son was listening to that album. I really felt, though, that he somehow knew that this man singing was someone special. Maybe in the cosmos there’s some kind of connection between them – one coming into the Earthly world, the other leaving one week later. Maybe it’s nothing. But I’ve always taken comfort in thinking that George’s spirit helped us get from Wichita back home and has been with the world ever since.

Thank you, George. I’m just not yet ready to meet you just yet.

 

 

 

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Yogi

 

Yogi Berra Plaque - Old Timers Day 2010

My husband has graciously allowed me to share with you this guest post he wrote, in remembrance of Yogi Berra. Photo taken by The Husband at Old Timers’ Day, Yankee Stadium, July 2010. Yogi wasn’t at that event because of a fall he suffered. 

Yogi Berra died last night.  When you call someone a true American ‘hero’, it should mean something.  With Yogi, it most certainly did.  He was not only one of the greatest ballplayers to ever live, not only one of the most astute observers of the human condition, but also was a war hero before his 20th birthday.  Indeed, two years before he hit his first home run, Berra distinguished himself on a field of battle that saw countless other pre-20-year olds lose their lives.  All that Berra achieved after D-Day would never have happened, obviously, had he perished that day.  Had he died at Normandy, though, he’d be no less an American hero today – even without ten World Series rings, three MVP awards, 71 World Series hits or any of the other long list of on-field accomplishments.

Yogi grew up in a section of St. Louis known as ‘The Hill’.  His best friend and confidant growing up was Joe Garagiola, who would also go on to a career in baseball as a player and announcer.  Berra had another nickname before ‘Yogi’.  “We called him ‘Lawdie’,” Garagiola remembered in a documentary on Yogi’s life for the YES Network’s Yankeeography Series. “He was called ‘Lawdie’ because his mother [an Italian immigrant] couldn’t say ‘Lawrence or ‘Larry”.”

His more famous nickname came about one day on the baseball ‘fields’ on The Hill. While playing in American Legion baseball with his friends, Berra sat on the field with his arms and legs crossed waiting to bat. “He looks like one of them ‘yogis'” said one of his friends – and thus ‘Yogi’ Berra was born.

In 1941, Yogi and Joe Garagiola responded to a newspaper ad and attended a tryout for the St. Louis Cardinals.  Branch Rickey ran the tryout and – after observing both young men – offered Garagiola a $500 contract to play for the Cardinals.  Garagiola wasn’t the player Rickey wanted, however. Rickey knew that he would be leaving the Cardinals to take over the presidency of the Brooklyn Dodgers.  And Rickey wanted Yogi Berra for the Dodgers, not the Cardinals.  So, Rickey offered Berra a contract but no bonus, guessing [correctly] that Berra wouldn’t sign without a bonus.  Sure enough, Rickey left the Cardinals for the Dodgers and contacted Berra with a $500 offer.  Rickey was too late. In the interim, the New York Yankees had scouted Berra, offered him the $500, and Yogi Berra was neither a Cardinal nor a Dodger – but a Yankee.

Baseball would have to wait, though. At the age of 18, Berra enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1943. Shortly after completing basic training, Berra volunteered for a mission that would change the world. Berra served on a rocket boat at the Battle of Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944.  The job that Berra had volunteered for put him on a 6-man, 36-foot LCSS Boat [Landing Craft Support, Small; Berra later would say the letters really stood for ‘Landing Craft Suicide Squad’].  Berra and the others were part of the initial wave to land on the beach, and their mission was to fire rockets at German gun targets to protect Allied troops attempting to storm the beach.  Of the six men in Berra’s craft, three were killed.

Berra was one of 35 baseball Hall of Famers to serve in World War II. Of his ordeal, Berra would later say, “It was like Fourth of July to see all those planes and ships on Normandy, my gosh. You couldn’t see anything,” Berra said in 2010. “I stood up on the deck of our boat, looked up and my officer tells me, ‘You better get your head down here before it gets blown off.’ I said, ‘I like it up here.’ He said, ‘You better get down here [or] you won’t have it. You won’t look at anything.’ Being a kid, ‘What the heck,’ I said. ‘Nothing can kill me.’ I found out later on.”

Having somehow survived D-Day, Berra returned to the Yankees’ minor league system after the war and was called up to the big club at the end of the 1946 season, hitting a home run in his very first at bat. The Yankees went to the World Series in his first full season, 1947.  Berra had a strong offensive series but was miserable defensively behind the plate. In the series versus the Brooklyn Dodgers, Berra hit the first pinch-hit home run in World Series history.  But Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers ran roughshod over him, at one point stealing five bases in one game.  Although the Yankees won the series four games to three, Berra was embarrassed by his inability to shine behind the plate the way he had in front of it.

That changed in 1949 when Casey Stengel became manager of the Yankees.  Stengel saw Berra as a star – with tremendous potential as a catcher.  He tapped Yankee Hall of Fame catcher Bill Dickey to come to spring training to work with Berra exclusively on his defense.  By the time Dickey was finished tutoring Berra, the latter was a defensive stalwart behind the plate.   Indeed, as Mel Ott would say, “[Berra] stopped everything behind the plate and hit everything in front of it.” Even during his final days as a catcher [he would play the outfield for the last four seasons of his career] Berra compiled a remarkable streak of 148 straight games – 950 chances – without an error from 1957-1959.

The Yankees would go on to win five straight World Series from 1949-1953. Berra was voted the American League Most Valuable Player in 1951. He would win it two more times – in 1954 and 1955. By the time he was done, he’d won ten World Series and been in four others.  At a time when the Yankees fielded Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, it was Berra who led the Yankees in RBIs for seven consecutive seasons [1949-1955]. Perhaps one of the most amazing statistics, however, is that in 7,555 at-bats, he struck out only 414 times.  For many of today’s major leaguers, that’s only two years’ worth of strikeouts.

Perhaps Berra was best described by his lifelong friend, Garagiola.  “If I had to use one word to describe him,” Garagiola said of Berra, “it would be ‘underestimated’. His entire life, everybody – except those of us who knew him – underestimated him.”

No one underestimates Yogi Berra now.  We may just underestimate how much we’re going to miss him.

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Book Review: Reagan: The Life, by H.W. Brands (a guest post by The Husband)

ReaganThe Husband has started writing a bit again (thank you God) and is allowing me to share his book reviews with you. 

Without further ado, I give you The Husband’s words about Reagan: The Life, by H.W. Brands. 

As a history aficionado, there is something special about reading about a period of time in history during which you first learned of the events by opening the newspaper – that is, about a time in history that you lived through.  This is not possible, for instance, when reading about Lincoln and the various tragedies he dealt with during the Civil War. For those of my increasingly-advancing age, however, it is possible when reading a biography of President Ronald Reagan. The most recent such effort is from H.W. Brands, chair of the history department at the University of Texas at Austin.

The book is 737 pages, so bring a snack. Brands does a wonderful job of translating the enigmatic Reagan into a flesh and blood human being with strengths and flaws.  This is no easy task.  People tend to view Reagan either as a deity or, well, as the opposite of a deity. Brands makes ample use of Reagan’s own diaries, which are an invaluable resource to historians.  Unfortunately, because of the onset of Alzheimer’s, they also proved a resource for Reagan himself in recalling things that were slowly disappearing from his accessible memory.

Perhaps the central theme or thesis of Brands is a bit Freudian: because of his alcoholic father, Reagan spent his entire life conveying an eternal optimism [to counter the reality of what he came home to as a boy when his father had been drinking] that made him irresistible to tens of millions of Americans. Unfortunately, Brands argues, that eternal optimism led to a resistance on his part to dealing with unpleasant realities [think Iran-Contra] that nearly ended his presidency.  Indeed, it was only because enough people refused to believe that Reagan was lying about knowing that money from arms sales to Iran had been diverted to the Contras in Nicaragua that Reagan wasn’t impeached.

The first 238 pages of Brands’ tome deal with Reagan’s life prior to his 1980 run for the White House. It’s a good primer on how ‘Reagan became Reagan’. One area of particular note is the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the effect FDR had on Reagan. Those not familiar with the 40th president are often shocked to learn the reverence with which Reagan held FDR. It’s important to remember, though, that for the first half of his long life, Ronald Reagan was a Democrat. And, like all Americans living through it, the Great Depression left indelible impressions on Reagan. And how FDR tackled the Depression meant a great deal to Reagan – even if he came to believe that government was the problem, not the answer.

This seemingly contradictory hero-worship of FDR is just one of the many conundrums faced by students of Reagan. While he praised FDR for his leadership and his compassion, when Lyndon Johnson sought to extend the New Deal 30 years later – just as Reagan was preparing to run for Governor of California – Reagan castigated LBJ and the Great Society. The famous line Reagan used when someone asked him why he left the Democratic party was, “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party – the Democratic Party left me.”

As for Reagan the president, Brands makes a strong argument for something I’ve believed for some time: Ronald Reagan was not an empty-headed performer repeating well-scripted lines. Certainly by the end of his presidency there were moments when that is exactly what he had become. But that was because of illness. Although Nancy Reagan cites a fall in 1989 as the beginning of Reagan’s Alzheimer’s, I’ve always believed that – in the last two years of his Presidency – Reagan was in the early stages of the disease. That, when he told various investigators, “I just don’t remember” something pertaining to Iran-Contra, that he really didn’t.  He was still aware enough, though, to know that he could have checked his diaries to find some of those answers – and Reagan never mentioned the diaries until after he’d left office. For his first six years in office, however, Reagan was a heavily engaged chief executive.  Certainly not the micro-manager his predecessor had been [indeed, Brands argues that had Reagan been more like President Jimmy Carter, Iran-Contra would have never happened]; but someone who was leading his Administration’s policies, not merely mouthing the words.

Because I don’t want to write a 700-page book review, here are a few snippets from some of the seminal events of the Reagan presidency and how Brands treats them:

1) Assassination Attempt -Here, Brands drops the ball. He does not delve into enough detail regarding the seriousness of Reagan’s injuries – namely, how close to death Reagan truly came. The fact is, a delay of even five minutes in getting Reagan to the emergency room would have meant the presidency of George H.W. Bush would’ve begun nearly eight years earlier than it did. Brands does do a fine job of detailing Nancy Reagan’s trauma and the long-term effects Reagan’s brush with death had on her and how she worried about her husband. It also introduced astrologer Joan Quigley into the nation’s life. From the assassination attempt to the end of his life, Nancy Reagan relied heavily on Quigley – to a level that not even President Reagan knew – in influencing Reagan’s calendar of events.  This stemmed from Quigley’s claim to Nancy Reagan that – had she been consulted – she could have told Reagan not to travel on March 30, 1981.

2) Air Traffic Controllers – One of the reasons why the air traffic controllers were fired is they didn’t believe Reagan when – on August 3, 1981 – he told the press clearly that he would fire any controller who did not return to his/her job by August 5th. Most of the members of PATCO [Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization] thought Reagan was posturing. This was a fatal error. One of Reagan’s heroes – in addition to FDR – was Calvin Coolidge. As governor of Massachusetts in 1919, Coolidge had won national acclaim for firing striking police in Boston.  Indeed, it was that action that was the largest contributor to Coolidge being named to the Republican ticket with Warren Harding one year later. Like Coolidge, Reagan did not believe the controllers had a right to strike. For Reagan – as for Coolidge 60 years earlier – there was a clear distinction between the public and private sectors when it came to strikes. Those in the latter group had a right to strike. Those in the public sector did not.

3) Gorbachev – Perhaps the two most influential men in the second half of the 20th century were Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. Brands does an excellent job in providing a blow-by-blow account of the to two biggest summits between the two men – Geneva in 1985 and Reykjavik in 1986. While the latter was initially viewed as a colossal failure, it actually paved the way to the eventual arms treaty signed by the two men in 1987. Ultimately, the one issue the two men could not get past was Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative [SDI], skewered by critics as ‘Star Wars’. Although Gorbachev came to Reykjavik with virtually every concession requested by Reagan at Geneva, Reagan would not abandon the testing of SDI, while Gorbachev insisted that any testing remain ‘in the laboratory’ for at least ten years.  Of course, we now know that SDI was never developed [President Bill Clinton killed it in 1993] but at the time Reagan held onto the concept of being able to shoot down incoming missiles. Although many derided Reagan at the time for the fantastic concept, Reagan argued that he wasn’t interested in SDI to prevent a Soviet attack: he was worried about a ‘lone mad-man’ with a nuclear device. Although seemingly paranoid in 1986, in the aftermath of 9/11, one can see Reagan as being more prescient than paranoid.

4) Iran-Contra – Nothing defined Reagan’s second term – not even the treaty with the Soviet Union – as much Iran-Contra did.  Brands concludes that Reagan knew well that we were trading arms for hostages; but was completely blindsided by the subsequent diversion of proceeds from those sales to the Contras in Nicaragua.  At the heart of the matter, according to Brands, was Reagan’s humanity. According to numerous sources – including his own diary – a daily question Reagan asked his staff was “Any word on the hostages?” Every day. It consumed him. He had berated and belittled Carter for being unable to deliver the hostages held in Iran and here he was completely helpless to free [at one time] six Americans held in Lebanon by Hezbollah. In Reagan’s mind, he constructed a framework whereby he was not really trading arms for hostages. Rather, he was making a gesture to Iran [arms, despite the fact that doing so was a violation of U.S. law] with two goals in mind: a) to begin to thaw the ice between the two countries with the long-term goal of working with Ayatollah Khomeini’s successors on reestablishing relations; and, more importantly, b) so that Iran would use its influence with Hezbollah to get them to release the U.S. hostages. Brands argues that Reagan is to blame in that his free delegation of authority bred an Oliver North and John Poindexter.  Reagan also made it clear to both men that he wanted the Contras helped, to keep them together “in body and spirit” despite the Boland Amendment which prohibited aiding them. With a lack of oversight and unmistakable instructions from Reagan that he wanted “everything possible” done to help the Contras, it is little surprise that North and Poindexter made the decision to divert the Iran funds without telling Reagan.

Brands’ work is strong. Although obviously very lengthy, it is an easy read and provides non-history aficionados with enough of an historical background to make those who were not alive appreciate and understand the times in which Reagan lived and led. In many ways Reagan will always remain an enigma.  The book only casually covers two of his deepest mysteries: his complicated relationship with his children from two marriages; and the fact that even those whom he considered his closest friends claim to have never really gotten close to him.

Brands’ work does bring Reagan closer to us. And what we find reminds us of why we liked him in the first place.

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Going Backstage to Meet Our American Cousin

I select all of my husband’s reading material.

He’s perfectly capable of choosing a book by himself, of course. It’s just that I happen to work at a library. And after being together for 25 years, I’ve gotten incredibly good at knowing what his preferences are … um … between the covers.

In the bookish sense, that is.

Ahem.

Backstage at the Lincoln AssassinationOne of the books that I brought home recently for the husband’s consideration was Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination: The Untold Story of the Actors and Stagehands at Ford’s Theatre, by Thomas A. Bogar.  Which prompted my beloved to ask me – in the course of his reading and during what passes for two-plus-decades old marital conversation fodder these days  – about some ancestors who are buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery, a well-known Philadelphia resting place steeped in history.

“Your Hess relatives are there,” I answered, mentally dusting off some genealogical research I’d conducted years ago.

“Huh. Well. You won’t believe this and I’m not 100% sure, but I think two of them might have been at Ford’s Theatre the night Lincoln was shot.”

“Please don’t tell me we’re related to John Wilkes Booth, for God’s sake,” I said. “We have enough problems.”

Now, everyone knows all about the main characters who had a starring role in the first-ever presidential assassination, which occurred exactly 150 years ago. We know about the President and Mary Todd Lincoln and the infamous John Wilkes Booth. We’ve heard of Ford’s Theatre, and some of us might even know that the play being performed that fateful night was Our American Cousin. 

But there haven’t been many accolades for the people who were actually onstage and those assisting with the production itself.

Until now.

In Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination, theater historian and author Thomas A. Bogar tells his reader about the 46 actors, managers and stagehands who found themselves in the spotlight during one of history’s defining moments.

And among them? Courtland V. Hess, a 25-year-old singer and actor from Philadelphia who was not feeling well on that ill-fated evening and who was scheduled to play the role of Lieutenant Vernon in Our American Cousin.  Also at the play was William Heiss, who was at the performance to see his brother Courtland (who had, apparently, thought it prudent to drop the pesky family “i” on his quest for fame and glory). William Heiss was somewhat of a Big Deal with the telegraph service; it seems that he was involved with the decision to shut down the commercial telegraphs immediately following Lincoln being shot.

(My husband, who earned a masters degree in American history, is physically cringing that I am writing this post from his memory and without double-checking the actual source for myself. I get that, but, well … Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination is, as of this writing, currently checked out of the library. To keep a modicum of nerdy peace in the family, my husband is making me promise you – and especially Mr. Bogar – that I’ll go back and make sure I know what the hell I’m talking about.)

Regardless, this intriguing tidbit of information – along with my putzing around on the Internet and my previous findings while climbing our family tree – is more than enough to pique my curiosity about our family’s potential connection to the Lincoln assassination.

There is the small matter of the differing last names. If all of our relatives spelled their name as Hess while this side of the family originally went by Heiss and if Courtland remained a bachelor … then there’s probably not much to go on.  But it’s definitely worth looking into, especially since our library has quite an extensive genealogical collection focusing on Pennsylvania history.

It’ll be interesting to see if these folks really are our American cousins.

 

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