Tom McLaughlin

A former history teacher, Tom is a columnist who lives in Lovell, Maine. His column is published in Maine and New Hampshire newspapers and on numerous web sites. Email: tommclaughlin@fairpoint.net

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Animal Lover

I love animals, especially on the grill. Lately, I prefer domestic animals all cleaned, cut up and wrapped at the supermarket meat counter. Some guys like wild animals better, but for me they’re too much bother now that I’m an aging baby boomer. I’m a decent shot with a rifle or shotgun but it’s a lot of work to hunt them down, shoot them, disembowel them, drag them to the truck, butcher them, wrap them up and freeze them. I’m getting too old for all that.

There are other kinds of animal lovers who consider them equal to humans, but I’m not in that category. Growing up, I did get friendly with some dogs though. We had a German shepherd named Trixie which, if an older boy tried to push me around, would show her teeth and growl menacingly. I had to like that dog. She got old and died and my parents got a mongrel named Tootsie. He had a brave heart too, but lacked the strength to back it up. Consequently, he got thrashed in clashes with other dogs. Still, he never backed off and I had to admire that. As they say, it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog.

Two years ago we buried a wonderful mongrel named Molly after seventeen years. She was gentle and smart and knew her place. She got expensive near the end of her life, but she was worth it. Her replacement is a large, unintelligent Yellow Lab/Irish Setter cross. Neither breed is known for smarts and Hannah is no exception. She’s huge and high-maintenance - a black hole of need, constantly seeking to be patted and stroked. And, she eats a lot. I may get a hernia carrying in huge bags of dogfood from the car. It doesn’t take long for Hannah to gobble it all down and what comes out the other end is of commensurate size. When she drinks water from her bowl in the kitchen, she slobbers about a quart all over the floor. You know how it feels to step in water right after putting on fresh pair of socks? Not a pleasant sensation. In winter, her hairs are all over the fleeces I wear and the back of my wife’s car is covered with them. When I ride in the passenger seat, Hannah is right by my left ear breathing and drooling. She’s not allowed in my car or in the cab of my truck either. She barks whenever a stranger approaches so she does serve as a kind of organic security system, but if I had my ’druthers I’d replace her with an electronic one. I tolerate Hannah only because my wife likes her.

Other kinds of animal lovers consider them superior to humans and I’m certainly not in that category. These are your rabid animal lovers. They would rather humans were extinct so we could turn the planet over completely to animals. When alligators ate three women in Florida last month, rabid animal lovers blamed humans for encroaching on the alligators’ habitat. It was the women’s own fault the alligators ate them.

Speaking of predators, a big black bear has been hanging around my neighborhood lately. I went out my door at 6:45 one morning and he was sniffing around my grandson’s swing set. He looked at me and sauntered down the hill into the woods like he owned the place. My wife has a counseling practice here and she told me some clients noticed the bear again outside her office. One said the bear was “brazen,” not afraid of people at all. Then I read about a black bear attacking a young family after climbing over a fence in Tennessee. The bear killed a six-year-old girl, mauled her mother and critically wounded her two-year-old brother after picking him up by the head and holding him aloft. Rabid animal lovers claim such attacks result from increased human encroaching on bear habitat, but Forest Service biologist Laura Lewis said in USA Today: “People don't want to think it is a natural behavior on the part of the bear [to eat people], but I really think it is.” I’m with you Laura. It’s natural for alligators to eat people too.

Why is this so hard for animal lovers to accept? Do they think all animals are vegetarians like they are? It should be obvious that bears love humans too - as tasty morsels. My six-year-old grandson plays on that swing set and the next time the bear comes around may be his last. He’s encroaching on my habitat now. Rock musician and hunter Ted Nugent wrote a book recently called “Kill It And Grill It,” with a recipe for “Bar-B-Que Black Bear.” I’m going to Amazon now and order it. Maybe I could learn to love bears. I’ve never tasted one on the grill before.

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Thursday, May 25, 2006

Missing Stub

Lovell’s Board of Selectmen didn’t need to meet twice a week but Stub insisted, so we did. His real name was Gordon Eastman, but nobody called him that. “Stub,” I learned later, was short for stubborn, and he was that. Mostly, the attribute worked in his favor but not always. People knew Stub as a kind and generous man, but you didn’t want to get him riled. Stub died last week at 89 and I’m feeling the loss.

I was the first “flatlander” selectman and I thought I’d have an impact on the way things were done. Looking back on it now though, I’d have to say that with Stub on the board and others like Dave Fox, the way things were done had much more influence on me than I ever had on it. I’d recently moved from Massachusetts and was still a liberal Democrat in the Boston-Irish-Catholic tradition. Stub was a Yankee Republican. We disagreed on much but he was patient with me. When people ask what caused me to become so conservative, I say there were many factors, but one of them was Stub Eastman.

Tuesday nights from 7:00 to 9:00 and Saturday mornings from 9:00 to noon, the selectmen had open-door meetings. Anyone might walk in and many did, usually Stub’s friends. In early spring, it was often Nucky Wilson, the public works commissioner, carrying a bowl of fresh smelts - fried in corn meal and still warm. When I asked where he got them, he’d wink and say, “Just enjoy ’em.” Some of Lovell’s best brooks were officially closed to smelting by the game warden and he was always on the lookout for violators. Nucky’s smelts were delicious. Later, longtime summer people like George Olive or George Stone (also conservative Republicans) would drop by and chew the fat. At selectmen’s meetings, we spent a lot of time just talking while Stub and his friends were having more of an influence on me than I realized at the time.

For centuries, small towns in Maine and Massachusetts have been governed by “Selectmen, Assessors, and Overseers of the Poor.” They comprise the executive body of a town with voters at town meeting serving as the legislature. Stub was chairman, or what some towns call “First Selectman.” Though paid a meager salary, he was in the town office every morning and kept things running well enough that Lovell didn’t need a town manager. When I was first elected back in the early 1980s sometime, Stub wanted me to be General Assistance administrator because I was the new guy.

The experience significantly modified my liberal view of the poor as hapless victims. Of the many applicants for general assistance during my tenure, two out of three had dubious claims. In a small town of 800-1000 people, we got to know each other. If people moved in and lied on their applications, we usually found out about it before long. In my first year, most of the chronic transients knew more about Maine’s General Assistance law than I did. I had to learn fast or be taken advantage of. The really needy often got more help from us than they requested, but deadbeats were so closely scrutinized that they either got a job or left town.

Stub was a selectman in the 1940s and took a long view on poverty: “We have the poor and the poor have us,” he’d say. Having pondered that often over the years, I take it two ways. First, the poor will always be among us no matter how much society tries to eliminate poverty, and we will always be obligated to them. They have us by the short hairs, so to speak. If they have no heat or food because they’ve squandered their resources on alcohol or other frivolous things, and they’ve faked disabilities, we have to help them whether we want to or not. In another sense, we’ll always have the poor to challenge us in our very humanity -and we’ll have to answer to God someday about how we deal with them.

Stub grew up on a farm with no electricity until he was an adult. That meant his lifestyle had been little different from someone growing up in the 19th century. As a young man, he logged with hand tools and horses. By the time I knew him, he’d seen more change in his lifetime than most, and he’d accumulated wisdom that few others have the opportunity to gather. We were from very different backgrounds. I’d lost my father shortly before moving to Lovell and Stub had lost his only son at nineteen back in 1959. I won’t get all mushy here, but we each had a hole and there was a kind of symbiosis. We met twice a week for eight years and got to know each other well. I can say without reservation that Stub was a man I admired and thoroughly respected. I shall miss him. Lovell is diminished by his passing.

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Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Generation Fallow

On Mothers’ Day, three generations of mothers gathered at my house and I noticed something: my extended family is shrinking. My mother gave birth to eight children. My wife bore half that many - four. My oldest daughter has one child and my second-oldest is pregnant. Neither is talking about having any more. Birth rates are declining in my family and we’re not unique. Our children’s generation isn’t generating much. Many have only one or two or none at all. For a society just to maintain itself, each woman must bear 2.1 children. For it to expand, the birth rate must exceed that. American society as we’ve known it is static or declining.

When I ask today’s young people why they want so few children I hear a lot of different answers, but the two most common responses go something like: “I can’t afford them; children are too expensive these days,” or “I don’t want to bring them into this crazy world; it’s too scary.”

I’m not sure what to make of answers like that when I think about the so-called “Greatest Generation.” Commenting on his lifetime, my 84-year-old father-in-law said, “The happiest times in my life were when we were eating onion sandwiches.” Asked what he meant by that, he explained that his family was very poor while he was growing up and all they could afford to eat sometimes were onions and bread, but those times were his best, he claims. He and his wife raised seven children after living through the Depression and World War II. Compared to all that, what has today’s generation faced? Nothing nearly so daunting, yet they fear the future. Their standard of living is much higher, but they can’t afford children? Are they in despair? Are they selfish?

My wife claims she was happiest when the kids were little and we ate soup. We struggled every month to pay the bills then and she stretched the food budget by making a lot of soup. We had four kids and, on my teacher salary, we were officially below the federal poverty line. We’re not poor anymore but I can’t say we’re necessarily happier.

Why did hard times and war make people optimistic enough to usher in the baby boom, but relative peace and prosperity have made young people today fearful and fallow? Have they had it too easy? Some blame the decline of traditional family and marriage, or single parents, birth control, abortion or homosexuality for declining birth rates.

Some of this came into focus recently when bronze statues depicting a traditional family of four at a baseball game were offered to the city of Portland, Maine as a gift from the AA baseball team’s owner. The city council referred the matter to their Public Art Committee which voted 6-1 to reject them. The committee, according to the “Portland Press Herald,” felt that: “...the statues fail to reflect Portland's growing diversity, both in its people and its artwork. Portland has significant minority, single-parent and gay-parent households, and committee members have said they want fewer statues of white people.”

White people? The statues were bronze. However, nonwhite immigrant populations, both legal and illegal, have much higher birthrates here and elsewhere in the country even though they tend to be much poorer than the native-born who claim they can’t afford children. If poorer immigrants are confident enough to bear children, perhaps their progeny are more deserving of America’s future more than the more sparse descendants of the native-born.

The same thing is happening in Europe, but even more so. To quote from a recent article in “USA Today”: “Not a single Western European country has a fertility rate sufficient to replace the current population, which demographers say requires 2.1 children per family. Germany, Russia, Spain, Poland and Italy all have rates of about 1.3 children, according to the U.N. The Czech Republic's is less than 1.2, and even Roman Catholic Ireland is at 1.9 children. (The U.S. rate, which has remained stable, is slightly more than 2 children per woman.)”

Concurrent with this is the abandonment of Christianity on that continent. Are the two trends related? Perhaps. The great European cathedrals, built with the labor and sacrifice or much poorer people are almost empty on Sundays as prosperous Europeans of today have abandoned them.

Here in the U.S. assaults on religion in the public square and on the traditional family continue. Both, however, are holding out, and many are pushing back. A lot of Americans still attend church on Sundays. They still have enough hope to bring children into this world. In spite of 45 million abortions since Roe vs. Wade, America’s birth rate hovers at replacement level.

Where do we go from here? It’s either grow in hope or shrink in despair.

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Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Stranger Than Fiction

If students lose interest in my lessons, I’ll catch the brightest ones surreptitiously reading fantasy novels about good and evil and wizards under their desks. Last week they learned that what’s happening in Iran is fully as fantastic as anything in their novels. On the blackboard, I wrote “Twelfth Imam”; “Ahmadinejad” and “well.” Then I told them to take out their laptops (which are equipped with wireless internet), google those terms, and find connections.

In prior weeks we discussed Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s statements claiming “Israel should be wiped off the map,” that the “Holocaust never happened,” and that Israel could be relocated to Alaska or eastern Europe somewhere. They were amazed that a leader of a country could possibly deny the Holocaust. “Hasn’t he seen the pictures?” they asked. I responded by shrugging my shoulders and sticking out my lower lip. “That’s ridiculous. Is he crazy?” they asked. Again, I shrugged. I knew what they would find in their search and it only took a few minutes before one raised his hand and said, “Ahmadinejad believes the Twelfth Imam will come out of a well at the end of the world.”

“The Twelfth Imam is also called the Mahdi,” said another, after struggling with the pronunciation a bit. “His name is Mohammed Ibn Hassad, and he’s a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed.”

“Anything else?” I asked.

“He went into occlusion in the 9th century” said still another student, after struggling to pronounce occlusion. “He went into a cave. Allah kept him alive and now he’s down in the well, waiting to come out.”

“He’s been waiting for over a thousand years?” I asked.

“That’s what it says.”

“It says here that Jesus will be with him when he comes out,” said another. “The Twelfth Imam will come out of the well when there’s chaos on earth. The ‘Twelvers,’ are people who believe the Twelfth Imam is coming. Twelvers think they can bring him out by making the chaos. Ahmadinejad is a ‘Twelver’ and so are some others in his government.”

“The Madhi will calm everything down after the chaos,” said a girl. “He’ll bring a thousand years of justice and peace.”

“Okay,” I said. “Supposing Ahmadinejad wanted to create enough chaos to bring the Mahdi out of the well, what might he do?”

“He could shoot a nuclear missile at Israel,” said the student.

“Israel has nuclear missiles too,” I said. “Several of them. If Iran and Israel exchanged missiles, would that bring chaos?”

“Gosh, I think so,” he said. Others nodded solemnly. Some bit their lips as they considered the implications.

One girl was waving her hand enthusiastically and looking at her screen. I called her name and she said, “Ahmadinejad talked about the 12th imam in a speech to the UN last November. I have some of it right here. Should I read it?”

“How long is it?”

“Two paragraphs.” I nodded and she started reading:

“ ‘Dear Friends and Colleagues,
‘From the beginning of time, humanity has longed for the day when justice, peace, equality and compassion envelop the world. All of us can contribute to the establishment of such a world. When that day comes, the ultimate promise of all Divine religions will be fulfilled with the emergence of a perfect human being who is heir to all prophets and pious men. He will lead the world to justice and absolute peace.

‘O mighty Lord, I pray to you to hasten the emergence of your last repository, the promised one, that perfect and pure human being, the one that will fill this world with justice and peace.’ ”

“Thank you,” I said. “Ahmadinejad didn’t mention the Twelfth Imam by name though. You think that’s who he was referring to?”

“It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it?” said the girl.

“Assuming you’re right,” I said, “Can the United States reason with someone who thinks the way Ahmadinejad does?”

She shook her head. “No way. He’s crazy.”

“What if the United Nations started a trade embargo?” I suggested. “Might that prevent him from building a nuclear weapon and shooting it at Israel?”

“I doubt it,” said a boy. Others shook their heads.

“What should we do then?”

“Nothing,” said the boy. “Let Iran and Israel wipe each other out.”

I pulled down a wall map of Asia, took my pointer and said, “Iran is here. Right next to it is Afghanistan, here, where we have troops. On the other side of Iran is Iraq, here, where we also have troops, and Iraq is right between Israel and Iran. A lot of the world’s oil goes through the Strait of Hormuz, right here next to Iran. If nuclear missiles start hitting, it will be difficult for all that oil to get through. There would be severe shortages all around the world.”

“Maybe we should send someone in there and shoot him,” said a boy.

“Maybe the Mahdi will come out of the well and fill the world with justice and peace,” I said.

“Yeah, right.”

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Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Consequences

Back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, my father liked sitting in his chair watching episodes of “World At War” and “Victory At Sea.” I’d sit with him through the black-and-white, 30-minute programs and occasionally, he’d point at the TV and say, “I was there,” or “That’s the kind of ship I served on.” I’d see a gray warship with its bow plowing through large waves. Sometimes he’d point and say, “Your Uncle Bobby was there with General Patton,” or “Your Uncle Joe flew on a plane like that.” He didn’t display much affect as we watched and we sat through a lot of those programs. I was proud that my father had been involved in dramatic battles like D-Day, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa but I couldn’t brag about it to my friends because all their fathers were in the big war too.

Author Studs Terkel called it “The Good War,” and wrote a book by that title. No war can really be good. Terkel called it that because everybody was behind it, soldiers and civilians alike. If there was dissent, it was silent. America had been attacked and the country was united. Everyone realized that we could lose if we were not. We were fighting against Germany, Japan and Italy. There was no doubt that those countries, very different from one another, would nonetheless cooperate in the effort to defeat us. We were their biggest obstacle to world domination.

“The Good War” came out in 1984 and the contrast with Vietnam was obvious. At first, America was united against communist North Vietnam, but we all know how that changed. Comments from North Vietnamese leaders afterward acknowledge how much opposition to the war in the United States helped their effort and contributed to our ultimate defeat. Over 58,000 Americans died and over a million Vietnamese. Another million Vietnamese boat people fled the country after our defeat. Cambodian communists, called the Khmer Rouge, killed another two million people after taking over that unfortunate country. North and South Vietnam were reunified under communism, but now they’re realizing it doesn’t work. That’s difficult to admit now though, after all the misery they went through to get it.

Americans who opposed the Vietnam War wear their opposition as a badge of honor and they’re correct when they brag about how they forced the United States to withdraw from Vietnam. They don’t like to acknowledge however, that their efforts also led to the misery of the Cambodian Killing Fields and the Vietnamese Boat People but they own part of all that too. They don’t like to hear Vietnam Vets talk about how they felt when they heard about people back home pulling the rug out from under them while they were fighting and dying in the jungles. Americans have freedom of speech and the press and we exercise them often, but we must take responsibility for what we say, what we write, and what we broadcast. All that dissent affected our effort in Vietnam and it affects today’s war against radical Islam.

Today’s activists try to deflect that, claiming they oppose the war but support our troops. Come again? How is that possible? When senators, congressmen, and journalists claim the American war in Iraq is based on lies, they’re also saying our soldiers are dying over there for nothing. Empty statements like, “but we support the troops” only add insult to injury. They may salve the consciences of the dissenters, but our soldiers are not comforted. Ask them. They’ll tell you. Several of my former students who served there have told me they wish reporters and broadcasters wouldn’t focus constantly on the negatives, that we’re doing great things over there but all that’s being reported is gloom and doom and quagmire.

It sounds just like Vietnam after 1968. American soldiers were disheartened then, and they’re disheartened now. Likewise, our enemies were encouraged then and they’re encouraged now. Television networks choose not to show footage of Americans jumping from the World Trade Center, of Zarqawi cutting off the heads of American hostages, of terrorists dragging the bodies of American soldiers through the streets, or of Palestinians cheering the September 11th attacks. No. Footage like would remind the American public of what we’re fighting against so let’s keep that film in the can. Instead, we’ll show footage of endless car bombs and pools of blood in the streets. We’ll call terrorists “insurgents” and claim that, even though Saddam Hussein used nerve gas against the Kurds and the Iranians, he had no weapons of mass destruction. Even though he harbored terrorists like Abu Abbas, Abu Nidal, and Al Qaida training camps, he had nothing to do with Osama Bin Laden.

Yes, there are consequences for the drumbeat of negativism about our efforts in the Middle East. If we lose in Iraq, and the wacko Iranian President Ahmadinejad gets a nuke and makes good on his threats to “wipe Israel off the map,” will antiwar activists continue to claim there’s no connection between any of these Islamic terrorists?

Get this: They all hate Israel; they all hate the United States; they all hate Europe, and they have special contempt for western liberals. They want to make the world Muslim. If they win, there will be no women’s rights or gay rights or anything resembling civil rights at all. Those will be the consequences for your smug anti-war activism, and you better realize it before it’s too late for all of us.

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