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: tomthemick@gmail.com

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Past Is Always With Us

The old man sat alone on a bench with a cane propped against one leg. We rode past on bicycles and he said something I didn’t understand. I stopped and pedaled back to tell him I didn’t hear him right.

“He’s afraid of losing you. He keeps looking over his shoulder,” the old man explained as he looked toward my six-year-old grandson, Alex, who’d been pedaling furiously in front of me. The old man’s battered cap visor shaded intelligent eyes surrounded by wrinkles. “Pearl Harbor 1941” was sewn in gold thread above the worn visor.

“You were at Pearl Harbor?” I asked.
Alex at his great-grandfather's funeral last December
 Arlington National Cemetery


“Yes,” he answered.

“You must be in your nineties now.”

“Ninety-four.”

Turning to Alex, I asked, “Do you know what happened at Pearl Harbor?”

He shrugged, so I explained that the largest war in history began for the United States when the Japanese attacked the US Navy there back in 1941, ten years before I was born. “This man was there when it happened.”

Suddenly shy, Alex only stared at the old man with wide eyes. The old man’s eyes silently conveyed that he understood how Alex was feeling and seemed grateful for our attention during our short interaction.
Tankers offload at dusk in South Portland Maine

The bicycle trail we’d been riding on was laid out along the Portland Pipeline right-of-way that stretched from where we stood straddling our bikes all the way to Montreal, Canada. There was a huge, ocean-going tanker tied up about three hundred yards from where we were talking as it offloaded crude oil from some other part of the world. Behind us were huge, cylindrical tanks that stored the oil until it could be pumped northwest to refineries in Montreal.
It occurred to me that the pipeline had been completed in1941, just before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Yet it was Canadian involvement in World War II - which pre-dated US involvement - that caused the pipeline to be built. War had broken out in Europe when England and her empire, along with France and its empire declared war on Germany in 1939 following the German invasion of Poland. German submarines had been attacking Canadian shipping in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Canada needed a more secure method of delivering crude oil to Montreal refineries.
We said good-bye to the old man and pedaled the short distance to the waterfront where there was a  full-size model of a “Liberty Ship” bow a few yards from the bow of that big tanker. We turned our bikes into an outdoor display in which there were photographs of what is now “Bug Light Park” as it looked during World War II. The War Department had seized and torn down a residential neighborhood and constructed enormous shipyards on the site to build hundreds of Liberty Ships. These hastily-built, cargo vessels kept the enormous Allied war effort in Europe and North Africa supplied. Tens of thousands of men and women from all over New England worked there. Each woman was a “Rosie the Riveter” in the parlance of the day. They built the ships that would keep their fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons equipped with whatever they needed to fight the Nazi war machine.
We looked at the old photos and I explained as much as I could for as long as I had Alex’s attention. Six-year-old boys, and especially Alex, like to keep moving on sunny, September afternoons, so we soon continued our pedaling along the waterfront toward a huge cruise ship tied up to the International terminal across the harbor in Portland. It dwarfed everything around it.
Portland Pipeline Pier at sunrise last month

As we pedaled back toward our South Portland house through what had been sprawling shipyards, I recalled reading the thousands of interviews I assigned my students to do over the decades I taught history. I’d send students out each year to interview someone over seventy years old. Most interviewed grandmothers and great-grandmothers, many of whom were women who had worked at the South Portland shipyard. On that windy Saturday afternoon though, huge kites flew over large expanses of green grass overlooking Casco Bay on what had been an enormous industrial site. I imagined being there seventy years before. Our bikes glided over old railroad tracks, barely poking up through asphalt here and there, remains of what had been.
Moonset over Portland from Bug Light Park last week

History teachers know the past is always with us, especially retired ones like me. Driving back toward our Lovell house in the western Maine mountains, my wife and I pass by other sections of the Portland Pipeline’s 236-mile route to Montreal. Images of men digging it went through my mind along with images of women whose lives were being transformed by their experiences doing what had been exclusively men’s work in the huge shipyard where the pipeline began. Most of them were underground now, like the pipeline, like the old man would be fairly soon, like all of us will be sooner or later.

Today, however, sun is shining. Let’s see what the day brings.

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Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Can't Go On Like This

Something’s in the air - a foreboding. People sense it, and when I ask them to describe it they bite their lips, look away and look back to say something like, “I don’t know. It just can’t keep going on like this. Something’s going to break.” Some think another financial meltdown is coming, but a bigger one, much bigger. Others think it will manifest as a breakdown of law and order. No one I’ve talked to thinks their lives or their children’s lives are going to improve in the foreseeable future. They think about just holding on. They see decline all around them and are bracing for more. They expect the slide to accelerate.
Former Senator John Morse

Two things occurring last week seemed reflective of this:

1. A couple of state senators were recalled in Colorado after they voted for gun control. The most surprising thing was that these were two very blue Democrat senate districts that went for Obama by a wide margin. It was a blue-collar revolt organized by a couple of plumbers who were outspent by progressive Democrats six to one!

2. Nationwide, senators and congressmen on both sides of the aisle were bombarded by constituents telling them to stay out of Syria. Here in Maine, left-wing Congresswoman Chellie Pingree said her calls were running 98% against. Those are astounding numbers! President Obama was shocked to realize that if the vote he asked for went ahead, he would have the rug pulled out from under him in front of the whole world.

Chellie Pingree
Are these the same voters who reelected Obama and the Democrats with 52% of the vote just ten months ago? Maybe they’re people who stayed home last November because they didn’t like any of the choices on the ballot, Democrat or Republican. Maybe they’re people only now getting fired up because they know what they don’t want - a government they don’t trust trying to take their guns, and a president they don’t trust trying to act tough.

Something is afoot and political pundits are flabbergasted. These are grass-roots uprisings and they portend a possible sea-change. Ordinary citizens are saying “Stop!” to government. The Colorado plumbers and other ordinary citizens told government not to mess with people’s guns. The rest of America told government not to use military action in Syria if it’s only to save a vain, incompetent commander-in-chief from embarrassment, especially one who has no plan for what to do afterward.

Are people losing faith in government? Unions are worried about losing the forty-hour work week and their subsidized health insurance under Obamacare. Citizens are learning that their doctors will be asking them for details about their sex lives - and it won’t necessarily be the doctors they’ve always gone to either. Obama’s assurances that “you can keep you doctor” under Obamacare are going by the wayside. So are the guarantees that “you can keep your policy,” as colleges, businesses, and other organizations think about dropping health care coverage for employees. Meanwhile, senators and congressmen who gave us Obamacare are exempting themselves from it. They don’t want to go into health-care exchanges into which they’re forcing the rest of America.
The number of working age Americans out of the workforce is approaching 100 million. That’s not reflected in unemployment statistics, which are really far worse that those being reported. There are more people collecting government assistance than there are taxpayers in many places, including my state of Maine. The United States was born in 1776 and came to be the most powerful, most prosperous nation in history by the end of World War II in 1945. Now, in 2013, the United States is the most indebted nation in history. We owe $17 trillion on the books already and that doesn’t count promises government made for Social Security and Medicare which could amount to $100 trillion more unless they’re cut back.
“Rags to rags in three generations.” Ever heard the saying? The context is usually family, but it can apply to a nation. The first generation makes money and goes from rags to riches. The second generation holds it. The third squanders it and goes back to rags. In a country that prizes the “pursuit of happiness” by preserving equal opportunity, rags to riches stories are common. They happen in totalitarian countries too, but the process is usually criminal or violent, or both. Here, people can pull themselves up legitimately by starting businesses which together build an economy that pulls others up with it. We can, that is, unless government regulates business to death or confiscates income through excessive taxation. Government can preserve equal opportunity, but cannot produce equal results.
Half the country seems content to sit back and let government do more and more for them, while the other half realizes, as economist Herb Stein did, that “if something cannot go on forever, it will stop.”

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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Sea Glass

We both walk slowly along, eyes on the ground. My wife looks for sea glass at low tide, bending over frequently to pick up a piece and pocket it. I do too because she likes to. She picks up all she finds, filling her pocket and whatever container she brought with her to overflowing. I’m more selective. Down the beach another woman does the same thing, just the three of us on a cool, sunny, September afternoon.

Sea glass and older, ceramic fragments are ubiquitous on old city beaches near our South Portland neighborhood. We found a small beach recently on what had been working waterfront. Rather than smooth sand, small stones dominated, interspersed with large ones sticking up here and there. Scattered about were remnants of piers long abandoned. People didn’t sunbathe there. Few swam either. Some would come to let their dogs run and swim. Others like ourselves came to see what presented itself after the tide.
Houses a block or two back are old too, modest and built close together. A few still have lobster traps stacked around and not many are neglected anymore. Buyers fix them up now, especially along the harbor edge - people who like to look at the water rather than work in it. There’s a Coast Guard Station, a restaurant, clusters of condominiums, single-family homes here and there, and a yacht club slowly taking over an old boatyard.
It occurred to me that ugliness could, over time, turn to beauty. Sea glass is like that. When I asked the other woman on the beach to show me her collection, she said, “Every piece has a story.” I imagined people in the long ago smashing empty liquor bottles in anger, or out of carelessness, laziness, drunkenness or some combination, and I could almost hear the tinkling. They left dangerous shards to cut whatever person or animal might pass by before waves and sand and time dulled sharp edges. I imagined the waterfront as it used to be with small shipyards building wooden vessels. The decrepit remains of some still stood nearby with old ways disappearing into the water over which new boats used to slip in until they too rotted away. In my mind’s eye I saw fishing boats under sail and men returning with their catch, or without one, empty. I saw sad, broken men leaving their broken bottles behind and staggering home to scatter emotional debris over spouses and children.
Alcoholism is like that, leaving emotional and spiritual detritus - often for generations. It, too, manifests in many colors, sizes and shapes and can cut deeply, drawing blood. Wounds fester, or they can heal, dulling pain, leaving scars - even turning beautiful sometimes, like the glass, like the pieces my wife and I collect.


In a church meeting room up the street people wounded by alcoholism in loved ones gathered and talked the following morning. I was one. Some were in pain. Others had also been wounded, but after many waves of grief their pain was sanded down and had lost sharpness. They had become like vintage pieces of glass diffusing light in their subtle, pleasingly-serene manner. Newcomers living with active alcoholics, in whom pain was acute, marveled at the serenity they sensed in the old-timers. They saw that others had felt distress like theirs and transcended it. Drawing hope, they bathed in their reflected light to soothe their wounds and find healing.
My ancestors were all Irish immigrants among whom alcoholism was too common. Great-grandfather John Fitzgerald was one. He came over to St. John, New Brunswick in the late 1800s and, like many other Irish-off-the-boat, he walked down to Boston, stopping here and there to work. He sang and played a piano and he was a charmer, they say. I never knew him as he died of the drink in his early forties. Did he stay for a time along Portland harbor and contribute to the sea glass to be found there? I don’t know, but he married Kate Carney and started a family near the docks in Boston. My grandmother, Mary Fitzgerald, was his first-born in 1894. Then, unbeknownst to them, he started another family in New York City - going back and forth between the two for as long as he could before his charm wore off. Mary Fitzgerald Haggerty lived with us a while when I was a boy and I sensed her pain. Only now do I understand what some of its likely causes were.

These things I pondered as we walked slowly along, eyes on the ground.

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Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Too Much Power in Washington

At a dinner party last week a friend said, “I’m going to say one word and I’d like you to answer in one word.”

“Okay.”

“Snowden.”

I had to think for several seconds. “Ambivalence,” was my response.


Edward J. Snowden shocked me with revelations of the extent to which government spies on us. It upset me and forced me to readjust my understanding of the threat to our Constitution government surveillance has become.

The Constitution limits government; that’s its primary purpose. Our Founding Fathers considered government a necessary evil to be constrained as a threat to liberty. As originally ratified, our Constitution says government may have only these powers and no others. Two years later, the Bill of Rights was added to spell out constraints more specifically.

Snowden showed me that’s all at risk now. The Fourth Amendment is violated when government collects all our phone calls and all our emails. We’re assured government won’t read them unless we’re communicating with a foreign terrorist.
Do I believe that? No. Do you? The Obama Administration uses the IRS to harass conservatives. Can we trust it not to read our emails or listen to our calls? Who would doubt it will continue to spy on - and leak information about - its political adversaries?

So now what? The federal government knows more about us than I ever would have believed and I’m a fairly well-informed person. I was relatively confident of my ability to sniff out paranoid conspiracy theories about secret cabals like the Trilateral Commission, or Bilderberg, or the Illuminati controlling the world. However, other things I’ve learned this year are worrying me more than they did when I first heard about them - all because of Edward J. Snowden.
What things? Department of Homeland Security buying 2700 mine-resistant, armor-protected vehicles and 1.6 billion rounds of ammunition for one. Inserting an “indefinite detention” proviso in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) allowing government to suspend our right to due process is another. Then there’s defining people reverent of individual liberty as terrorists, and that definition would include this writer. All this had the support of Republican congressional leaders as well. Where then, are the constitutional checks and balances designed by our Founding Fathers?
When Obama ignored the War Powers Act, thereby violating Congress’s constitutional authority to declare war in his attack on Libya, he was assisting rebels linked to al Qaeda. After they killed Ghaddafi, those rebels killed our Ambassador and three other Americans in Benghazi. Though President Obama promised repeatedly to get to the bottom of what happened, all his efforts have been to cover it up. Republicans in Congress with the power to subpoena witnesses, have so far let him get away with all this. Are they complicit? Tacitly so, at least.
 There are reports here and here and here and elsewhere that Obama’s CIA was shipping weapons such as Gaddafi’s shoulder-fired, surface-to-air missiles to Syrian rebels from Benghazi at the time of the attack. There are reports by his own former justice minister that Gaddafi also had sarin nerve gas. There reports that sarin gas was used - not by Basher Assad - but by al Qaeda-affiliated rebels in Syria last May to kill innocent civilians. In June, Syrian rebels were caught with sarin over the border in Turkey.

President Obama and then-Secretary of State Clinton both lied repeatedly about what caused the Benghazi attack. They claimed to be repeating the best intelligence available at the time, but no intelligence about an obscure movie ever existed. Both knew that.

Having squandered credibility, President Obama painted himself into a corner in Syria with his “red line.” American and world opinion has forced him to defer to congress for constitutional authorization. American citizens now must wade through misinformation and fashion at least a tentative understanding with which to lobby our congressmen and senators as they debate a military strike. I recommend: "When our enemies are killing each other, don't interfere."

Four-plus years of Obama foreign policy shows me that our president is both incompetent and deceitful. Snowden’s revelations show me that neither Democrats nor Republicans have lived up to the oath they took to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States” when they were sworn in. All, however, are reflections of the citizens who elected them. Us. Again, I must quote Pogo, who said: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
We’re bad enough, but there are greater enemies out there. Edward J. Snowden has shown us what we need to see, but he has also betrayed his country - our country - to those greater enemies who wish to destroy us. What’s nagging at me now is columnist Mark Steyn’s often-repeated question: “[Have we become] too stupid to survive?”

The Tenth Amendment states: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people,” but Congress and the White House act as if it didn’t exist. It needs to be taken out of mothballs and applied vigorously. The federal government must be scaled back drastically.

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