Let’s Remember Them All

Seattle Draftee, World War I

Let’s remember them all, today. All the soldiers, all those who have supported the soldiers. All the people of all backgrounds and ethnicities who have fought and died to keep us free.

Most people know that Crispus Attucks, who led the charge at the Boston Massacre was of African and Native American heritage. Black patriots were also prominent at the battle of Bunker Hill. Black Minutemen Lemuel Haynes, Peter Salem and Pomp Blackman were among the African Americans who fought at Lexington and Concord. Black soldiers fought, in fact, in virtually every important battle of the war. Many were free men. Others were slaves who fought so that their white owners could stay at home with their families.

Sephardic Jew Aaron Lopez owned more than one hundred ships at the beginning of the American Revolution and gave them all to the service of America. He was one of thousands of Hispanics–and Jews–who helped win the Revolutionary War. Spain fought on the side of the colonists, and the Spanish governor of Louisiana, Bernardo de Galvez, formed an army of Creoles, Native Americans and African Americans and defeated British troops at Baton Rouge, Natchez, Mobile, and Pensacola. Galveston, Texas, was named in his honor.

About 7,000 prisoners of war died on English prison ships in New York Harbor after being captured. Out of the 7,000, about 4,000 were Spanish soldiers fighting for American independence. The American Revolution was financed in part by funds collected from people living in the present states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California–then a part of Mexico. An important percentage of financial support originated in New Spain, now called Mexico.

Other contributions to the Revolution by the ancestors of current Hispanic Americans, African American, Jewish Americans, and others are too numerous to mention.

.In every U. S. war, from the War of 1812 to Desert Storm, thousands and tens of thousands of people from different cultures and with different languages have fought. In World War II, for example, besides the 1,154,720 Black Americans and the almost half a million Hispanic men and women who served in the armed services, there were the 18,000 Nisei–second- generation Japanese Americans–who fought in the all-Japanese 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the 100th Infantry Battalion during World War II. After almost two years of fighting, the 100th/442nd emerged from the war the most highly decorated unit in U.S. military history. These Japanese American soldiers earned more than 18,000 individual citations and eight Presidential Unit Citations. Known also as the “`Purple Heart Battalion,”‘ with more than 700 men killed and 9,500 Purple Hearts, they suffered the highest casualty rate in U.S. Army history. And they did all this while their friends and families were interned in camps for no reason other than their country of origin. Japanese American babies were even taken out of orphanages to be shipped off to Manzanar. And most of these men got their draft notices while they, themselves, were behind barbed wire in internment camps, having lost their homes, businesses, and jobs.

They weren’t the only “multicultural” heroes in the war. More than 550,000 Jewish American men and women served in the Armed Forces of the United States during World War II. About 11,000 were killed and more than 40,000 were wounded. Among the thousands of Arab Americans who served were Major General Fred Safay, who fought alongside General George Patton, and Brigadier General Elias Stevens, who served on General Eisenhower’s staff. Abe Jamail was the most decorated WWII hero to come out of Houston, Texas.

There are, of course, the women, from Molly Pitcher in the American Revolution to the nurses in the brutal, bloody Civil War to the 13,000 nurses who served in World War I–and countless black women who were not allowed to serve–and even 300 Signal Corps women who were denied recognition as veterans. In World War II, 350,000 women served in the military, including the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, who did not get fully recognized until 2010. And black women fought to serve, but were limited by quotas. The WAACS refused to allow black women to form more than ten percent of their ranks.

And by the way, atheists and agnostics have fought for this country, too. In fact, the “Great Agnostic” himself, Robert G. Ingersoll, raised and commanded the Eleventh Regiment of the Illinois Volunteer Cavalry, which served at the battle of Shiloh in the Civil War. And it is estimated that about 12 percent of the U.S. population is nonreligious–atheist, agnostic or secular humanist. There’s no reason to believe that percentage is any lower for soldiers.

There are also devout Christians, ministers, who fought in the South Pacific and then came back to stand tall in supporting the Supreme Court ruling against prayer in school because they believed in religious freedom. I know. My father was one of them.

This is a very brief and sketchy statement that I’m trying to get out for Memorial Day. I’ll try to fill it in a little by next Memorial Day. Thanks for reading.


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Thanks for reading!

Dear readers, I posted yesterday asking people to give me a reaction to a short story I was thinking of entering in a competition. It was actually a short play of mine that had been produced quite successfully about a hundred years ago (in the 1980s), and I tried my hand at adapting it as a story. Twenty of you read it or at least started to read it, and no one commented. I’m taking that as an indication that I didn’t pull it off, and that helps me a lot. Thank you. I’m very grateful that I have a way to get valuable input, even when it’s silence.

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I Could Use Your Help . . .

Dear readers, I’ve decided to submit a short story to some contests. I really need some reactions. If you have the time and inclination to read and offer some criticism, I’d be grateful. Here’s the link: Kindness.

By the way, Ellyn, this will be familiar to you and Sandy.

P. S. I almost have two more chapters of Just Another Writer ready. Thank you for your patience.

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The Booklady’s Kids

As some of you know, I’m the Booklady in my neighborhood. When we first moved here, I started giving away books to the kids who live here. It’s an easy thing to do and very rewarding. I go to thrift shops and buy books, children’s and young adult, usually for around twenty cents each. That means I can get fifty books for about ten dollars. I keep a couple of boxes of books just inside my front door and, when a kid comes up on the porch to get one, I haul them out and let her choose one book.
The one-book-a-day rule is important in this whole business. I want the kids to value the books, even though they’re free. So at first some of them put a lot of manipulative energy into trying to get more than one book. I’ve even had kids try to hide an extra book under a T-shirt. They also insist the second book is for their brother. I tell them their brother can come get his own book. (I make occasional exceptions for “baby” brothers and sisters, but they only get baby books.)

One little guy from next door, about four years old, tries to stonewall me. He comes over for a book and takes it home. Then he comes over again, just a little while later, and claims he hasn’t been there that day and didn’t get a book. You can’t shake him. One time, after I kept explaining that I knew he’d already got a book, he looked at me fiercely and said, “I need a book!”

Well, I could certainly sympathize with that sentiment, but I didn’t cave. I’ve had ten years experience in not caving, and it’s a good strategy. Now kids bring new kids to the porch and explain the rules to them. Other Booklady rules are simply what I grew up with. No grabbing, hitting, cursing, or tattling. And no skates on the porch. (I don’t want to be responsible for any broken limbs.)

Over the years, some of the kids have become friends. One of the dearest was Julian. When he first started coming by he was probably seven or eight. He and his friend Giovanni came to get books for a good while. Then I made the mistake one day of giving them each a marble. They started asking for marbles every time they came. I had to make myself forget about the fact that I had a large jar of marbles and could easily have made them happy. The Booklady is about books, not marbles.

After a while, Julian started coming by to talk. When I opened the door and asked whether he wanted a book, he’d say, “No.”

I’d say, “Do you want to sit on the step?”

He’d shrug, and we’d sit down. Then we’d talk. I learned that Julian had six sisters. His mother had kicked out his father, apparently after he threw her down the stairs. Julian yearned for him. I suspect Julian was a shoplifter, and I know he was a con artist; he told me that school was really easy. All you had to do was pretend you were dumb and they’d put you in a class where you didn’t have to do anything.

When Mac Austin and I were working on America’s Children, one of our print documentaries, I gave the book kids disposable cameras and asked them to take pictures of each other. Two of the pictures actually made it into the book. They were both taken by Carolina, who showed a real talent for composition. She was kidnapped and impregnated when she was fifteen, and I never saw her after that, so I don’t know how things worked out for her.

I have a lot of other stories about the kids, but I won’t go into all of them here.  All of you who are teachers have those stories, too. I just wanted to tell you a little bit about being the Booklady, in case some of you want to give it a try in your neighborhood.

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Now and Then

Things remain fairly quiet in the neighborhood, although there was some encroachment on the garden. Or, more accurately, the park. Because that’s what our lot came to be. You may remember, if you’ve been following our story, that a huge branch had fallen from the mulberry some time before we started Green on McLean. On our second workday, some of the neighborhood men used their chainsaws to cut it into “stumps” that we grouped under the magnolia for people to sit on. Soon, dog owners took to sitting on the stumps while their dogs ran around the grass. Mothers sat and talked with each other while their kids played tag. Then, at one of our garden parties, the father of a couple of young teenagers hung a tire swing from a high branch of the mulberry, and the neighborhood kids started to use it. We also had a few older guys who sat on the stumps in the early morning and drank their beer. They filled watering jugs and helped keep the lot cleaned up. The garden is a source of great pride and it gives the kids something to do, but the “park” has become equally important.

We were warned from the beginning that the gangs would co-opt the seats, but it didn’t happen, not for a long time. We learned that our particular gang leader, the older guy who was clearly in charge of the youngbloods, had been keeping them out of the garden. Then that leader disappeared, along with most of the gangbangers. It seemed to happen suddenly but was actually the last stage of a long, hard struggle.

However, there were a few of the younger guys who showed up on the corner from time to time. After awhile it became clear that they were on duty, probably to redirect potential customers to another selling point. It was two of these younger guys that the kids and I had to throw out. (Bits of the Neighborhood and Pieces of My Life) It was other guys like these who started sitting on the stumps under the magnolia when it was hot or when they got tired of standing on the corner. (The only other place to sit is the fire hydrant, and it’s not exactly comfortable.) Someone even put gang signs on the stumps with a Sharpie.

After three of the kids reported guys smoking dope while the kids were watering the garden, we decided the stumps had to go. Beth, one of our garden supporters, asked for a stay of execution and proposed scattering the stumps around the lot, more out in the open and not together. That seems to be working.

If you’re wondering why we have to throw out guys for smoking dope–especially when we let the older guys drink their beer in the garden in the morning–I’ve decided to put in another remembrance of things past. This is a bit of a journal I kept just a couple of years ago.

June 17th   I hate waking up to something that might, or might not, be gunshots. Especially in the early hours of the morning. Michael was sure they were, and I had to admit that they didn’t sound like firecrackers, so we called 911. They always ask how many shots. I wonder why. It makes sense that they ask how many people when we report that the gang guys are arguing or drinking or smoking dope in the street. The police have to know what they’re walking into. But when we call about shots, why is the first question “how many?”

About five minutes later, there was another volley. This time it was pretty clear that they were shots. We called 911 again.

June 18th   It was a night. The gang guys were “loud-talking” until the early hours. Mac says that’s what it’s called these days. It’s a fairly descriptive term. They don’t actually shout, but somehow they make their voices heard all over the neighborhood. And, of course, they use the f-word as though it were “the” or “and.” I don’t actually mind the obscenity. There’s no connection between their use of that word and anything resembling sex. I mind the anger and violence behind it.

Anyway, it was a long night. I was awake for way too much of it. I called 911 a few times and then did a lot of deep breathing. I thought about my book. I even worked out a new approach to the introduction. I fell asleep sometime before the sun rose.

 June 19   Michael had to leave for work at the crack of dawn. I slept too late and then called the doc and left a message asking him to call the pharmacy and okay my Paxil refill. The morning was cool and grey, and I decided to cook the pot roast I had thawing in the refrigerator. It’s some special grass-fed beef Michael got from one of his horticultural friends. I put it in the oven about 1:00 and an hour later the day had turned warm and muggy.

Michael left Mac and me the car today when he went downtown, so we abandoned the spelling program around 4 o’clock and went shopping. Mac picked up cat food at PetSmart while I bought half a yard of fabric that I may eventually make into a scarf. Then we went to the thrift shop. Michael met us there because it’s only two blocks from his El stop, and we drove home to eat pot roast. My shrink called on the way home to ask how I was doing before he okayed my Paxil refill. I was strongly tempted to refer him to Buddha [one of the gang leaders], but I just said I was getting better.

Mac and Michael dropped me at Armitage Produce because I needed some carrots. All I had at home were those expensive little baby carrots, and you don’t put them in a pot roast. On the way from Armitage Produce to our house, I passed a cluster of gang guys at the Quicker Liquor corner. They pretended they didn’t see me.

I only made one 911 call tonight.

 June 20   It was a green tarp night. The tarp went up over the yard across the alley at about 4 in the afternoon. Before long, the sound system had cranked up, and the oompah loompah music was blaring so loud it was hard to talk over it. Michael and I stayed outside as long as we could because the evening was pleasant and the garden was beautiful. Then we went inside and ate leftover pot roast while we did his show prep. Before I went upstairs, I found a window fan and took it up. With that in the bedroom window, and earplugs in my ears, the noise was pretty much bearable. I fell asleep.

 June 22 It was very quiet last night. At any rate, nothing got through the fan and the earplugs. This morning, Mac and I went to the diner on Western to have breakfast and work. I feel a lot better when I’m out of the neighborhood, even in the morning, when nothing’s going on anyway. From the diner, we went downtown.

Down at the County Archives, I looked through criminal records for our genealogical client. While I was staring at the microfiche reader, I struck up a conversation with a guy waiting for a divorce record for his buddy in Arizona. Or really, I think he struck up a conversation with me. He was waiting for the clerk to find his papers and he was bored. He was also mad because he was a cop and he’d been dissed by a CTA employee.

We ended up talking about the Imperial Gangstas because that’s what I do these days. I talk about the gang. I think about them, worry about them, hate them, and talk about them. The guy told me not to give up. He also said he was a scene of the crime officer and, when there wasn’t a scene of the crime for him to go to, he drove around the North Side. Sometimes he just parked and provided a “police presence.” He said he’d come to our neighborhood tonight. I felt like crying with gratitude. I also worried that there wouldn’t be any gang activity and he’d think I was a nut.

Olga called while Mac and I were coming out of the archives, and our phone connection was terrible, but I finally got the message. Olga had gone on the Chicago Police Department website to look for another number for the District. When she saw a place to click to see Chicago’s Most Wanted, she clicked. She recognized the first face that came up. She says it’s one of the new guys[older gang members who had just got out of prison] that are hanging out at 3516. She recognized him immediately. He’s wanted for murder.

Mac and I went across the street to get some tea and see if we could connect to the net. We did. Thank God for free WiFi. I went to the CPD site and found the Most Wanted. I didn’t recognize anybody. Of course, it hadn’t occurred to me to ask Olga for a name.

I’d feel hopeful, thinking maybe Olga’s imagination was burgeoning under the stress, but the fact is that I haven’t been making eye contact lately. Osama Bin Laden could be hanging out on the porch and I doubt that I would recognize him.

So, I came home and made myself a cold dinner and went out onto the front porch. Michael had a softball game and a Godot rehearsal. I accessed the CPD site and pulled up Chicago’s Most Wanted. Then I did some research on my book. When anyone showed up at 3516 or 3519, I went back and looked at the Most Wanted list. I felt ridiculous.

This evening there were only the younger guys.

. . . . . . .

That’s as far as I got on the journal. I realized that writing about the gang every day was starting to make me obsess. Now, you probably think I was obsessing already, but this was a whole new level. I didn’t need to be bringing my focus onto the gang once a day when they were always there, filling up the background of my life.

So I stopped writing the journal and just made notes from time to time. Most of it is way too clear in my memory anyway. Indelibly etched, to coin a phrase.

Anyway, I called Officer Torres at the 14th and told her about Mr. Most Wanted, Fernando X. She put me on hold while she called a detective, and I talked to him. He gave me his cell and told me to call him if there was any other information. Within a few days there was.

Obed Garcia told his wife that she was right. X was visiting 3516. As a father. The four beautiful children next door were his, and while he was in hiding, wanted for murder, he came by to see them. Obed got the information from one of the guys hanging out there. I passed it on to the detective.

And then, for a long time, nothing happened. That is, no progress was made. Plenty happened. I continued to watch drug deals going down in front of our house, standing two or three feet behind the beveled glass in our Victorian-era wooden door, under the crystal chandelier I had restrung with bright green and dark amber beads. Michael and I continued to wake up at 3:00 AM under the quilt my mother made and the bedspread my grandmother crocheted and grope for the phone to call 911.

We learned how to get the 911 dispatcher to pay attention and get the squad cars there. We had long since stopped using words like “kids,” “guys,” and “people.” We said “gang member.” “Gang members on the corner of St. Louis and McLean.” “Gang members hanging out on the porch of 3516 W. McLean.” “Gang members in the street, 3500 block of McLean.” Now we also stressed escalating arguments and potential violence. “No, I can’t see whether they have weapons, but it’s starting to sound pretty scary.”

And that was true. It was scary. But less than two months later came the event that would begin the change in our neighborhood. It started with a CAPS meeting held on our corner. Two squad cars, three police officers, thirty neighbors and friends, and State Representative Luis Arroyo met and talked. I’ll go into more detail about how that happened and what followed in the next blog.

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Rumbling Through the Neighborhood

I think I’ve mentioned that I go to a yoga class above a pawn shop. It’s taught in a big dance studio room at the Rumble Arts Center on North Avenue, in the Humboldt Park area of Chicago. Michael and I officially live in Logan Square, but we’re actually on the wrong side of the tracks, metaphorically speaking, and fit better demographically with our neighbors to the south.

I found the yoga class when I was looking for a drawing class. Google served up Rumble Arts, whose schedule included Filipino-Indonesian martial arts, African drum and dance, “Drink and Draw” (BYOB), and yoga. I remembered liking yoga when I was a kid, and finding exercise that I can stand to do is challenging. Also, I already think I can draw when I’m drinking, so I dropped the idea of an art class and decided to take up yoga. I persuaded my friend Mac to go with me.

We headed down one late winter Saturday for a one o’clock class. North Avenue at that point is anything but spiffy, with a currency exchange looking across the street at a boarded up building, a fast food place next to a liquor store and across from a huge vacant lot, several nail salons, two heating and air conditioning places and Aaron’s Windy City Jewelry and Loan–”Where You Always Get More Money.” The gutters are decorated with smashed Dunkin Donuts coffee cups, pint liquor bottles and various other urban detritus. When we got to the corner, a woman in her sixties or seventies stood next to a cart holding an oxygen tank and, as she raised a cigarette to her mouth, its smoke swirled around the plastic tubes leading from the tank to her nose.

The Rumble Arts door was right next to the pawn shop door. Entering, we saw a kids’ martial arts class on the first floor and a set of stairs leading up. At the top of the stairs, doors led to two large rooms, the art studio and the dance studio. The dance studio, where our class would be, featured not only most of a wall of mirrors but a grand mosaic of Ganesh, who seems to be the center’s household idol. On the facing wall were examples of the art works created in various classes.

The yoga class room

Mac and I fell in love with the place, the class and our yoga instructor, Eric, almost immediately. We were also enthralled by the director of Rumble Arts, who was a vision that I will not be able to describe adequately, so I’ll just say masses of blond dreadlocks and red, knee-high, laced boots with high platform soles, and leave you to fill in the rest with your wildest imagination.

One day when we got to the class a little early, a young Hispanic man who teaches music theory there told us about the pawn shop connection. He explained that the pawn shop downstairs—Aaron’s Windy City Jewelry and Loan–was the main source of support for the center. Of course, after yoga that day we paid a visit to Aaron’s.

We were buzzed in the first door, and one of the employees opened the second door. In one direction there was a large room full of jewelry cases. In the room where we were standing there were bicycles, tools and electronics. Behind the counter were two men, who turned out to be father and son.

When Mac asked about one of the televisions, the older of the men—Aaron, we presumed—started telling us stories. “Remember when Motorola changed its television brand to Quasar? They had to get rid of a whole bunch of them. You know, with the wrong name on them. So I bought 5,000 of these TVs, marketed them myself. I called them Leonardo daVincis. Changed the “Motorola” on the sets to “Leonardo daVinci.” This story was one of many.

We learned later that the vision in dreads, the Rumble Arts director, is Aaron’s daughter, and the pawn shop donates a portion of its profits to the center. I would say “only in Chicago,” but I don’t want to sound xenophobic or provincial. So I’ll just say, “not surprisingly in Chicago.”

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Bits of the Neighborhood and Pieces of My Life

I was standing in the darkening garden next to Jose from down the street as Michael projected our garden videos, one after another, for the three dozen or so neighbors who had come to the party. A few of the kids were still playing on the swing that Marco’s family hung from one of the branches of the mulberry tree, and their squeals interrupted the strains of Jean Goldkette & Orchestra’s 1927 recording of “I’m Looking over a Four-Leaf Clover” playing in the background of one of the videos. I looked over at Jose and said, “It’s really been quiet lately.” He nodded.

“Of course, they might come back,” I went on, not wanting to seem foolish to a man who has lived in the neighborhood longer than I have and has had to raise a son here.

He looked over at me and said, “How long have you lived here?”

“Eleven years.”

“It’s never been like this before. I’ve been here since 1996. It’s never been like this before.”

. . . . . . . . . .

Yesterday, I was taking the Fullerton bus back from a chiropractor’s appointment. Four Latino boys of fourteen or fifteen were sitting near me, laughing and joking with each other, passing chips back and forth, and generally having a good time. They weren’t loud, just happy. Beside one of them sat a middle-aged woman who looked a great deal like African American presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm. She was beaming at the boys for blocks and then miles. At Kedzie, she stood up to leave the bus. But first, she turned in the aisle to face the boys.

“I have been listening to you, and you have not used any vulgar language. Good job. Keep up the good work.” Still beaming, she got off at her stop.

One of the boys turned to another and said, “What did she mean?”

“She meant we weren’t cursing.”

“We’re too smart,” said the first boy, laughing. And it occurred to me that he was absolutely right. The understanding that cursing on the bus is not cool is a major survival tool.

. . . . . . . . . .

It was Tuesday afternoon a week ago, I think, when four of the garden kids, boys between the ages of five and ten, came to our door. They told me with considerable concern that some guys were smoking in the garden. I have to admit that this didn’t seem all that terrible to me, but the boys practically pulled me to the garden. When we got there, I saw two young gangbangers about fourteen years old, sitting on the stumps under our magnolia tree. They were both familiar to me, and I actually knew one of them from when he very occasionally came for books several years ago.

I began my explanation of why it was important to keep the garden a safe place, but Florian  broke in. He is a serious, sturdy boy of nine years whose father moved to South Dakota to get away from his own gang involvement. Florian spoke directly to the boy I knew a little.

“Our mom won’t let us come down here if anything bad happens here. And we’ve worked really hard on this garden. We need to be able to come here. Do you understand?”

Sean, Florian’s equally sturdy and serious seven year-old brother, spoke then. “Yeah, Alexander. We worked really hard.”

As he talked, Sean patted Alexander’s shoulder, comforting him as he told him that he had to get out of the garden. Then Florian, Sean and I went back to my house, where LeDaryl and Damian were waiting on the stoop. They all started talking and suddenly I heard the word marijuana.”

“They were smoking weed?” I asked. The boys looked at me as though I was a little slow, which I clearly was. Then they assured me that what the gangbangers had been smoking was not a tobacco product.

I lit out back to the garden and there they were, Alexander passing a Swisher Sweet to his fellow banger. (That’s how marijuana is smoked in our neighborhood. The guys use tweezers to pull out a good part of the tobacco and then put in the weed.)

“Get out of the garden,” I said. “Now. Get out of the garden. You heard what the boys said, and now you do this. Go on. Get out.”

They got up, moving slowly, as only two teenaged boys saving face could move, walked their bikes out of the garden and rode off. They haven’t been in there since, but Florian made me promise that, if they come back, I’ll call the cops. I’d rather put my hand in a bucket of hot lead, so I talked to Mabel and Juan. They’re both former gangbangers who continue to have friends in the gangs. Both of them assured me that they would take care of it. When I saw Alexander a couple of days later, he smiled and waved . . . from outside the garden. Let’s just hope.

Posted in children, gangs, gardens, Uncategorized | 3 Comments