A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Saturday, November 6, 2010

It Ain't Necessarily So

(Above: Oakland's newest council member, Libby Schaaf)

What will the historians of the future say when they write about the Great Shellacking of 2010?
Conservatives will say it was a voter revolt against big government and big spending.
Liberals will say it was an outbreak of mass hysteria stoked by cynical politicians who knew how to manipulate people's fears and prejudices.
And those in the middle will say, "It was the economy, stupid."
All three will have a kernel of truth. But it's equally true that the Democrats still might have pulled it out, despite everything, if John O'Connor hadn't been diagnosed with Alzheimer's 25 years ago.
By 2005 his condition had deteriorated to the point where his wife Sandra decided she had to give up her job to take care of him.
Her job was Associate Justice of the Supreme Court; and that seat was filled by Sam Alito, who turned out to be the critical fifth vote in Citizens United case, which opened the floodgates of corporate money and decisively tipped the playing field in favor of the Republicans.
As the old proverb puts it, "For want of a nail, the horseshoe was lost; for want of the horseshoe, the rider was lost; for want of the rider, the battle was lost - all for the want of a nail."
One of the biggest mistakes we make about history is to assume everything was inevitable. It wasn't.
What if St. Paul hadn't survived that shipwreck off the Maltese coast? Would Christianity still have become the world's dominant religion?
What if Robert E. Lee's Special Order No. 191, describing his plans and troop dispositions in detail, hadn't accidentally fallen into the hands of Union soldiers before the battle of Antietam? Would the North still have won the Civil War?
History is full of such what-might-have-beens. The moral, which we keep ignoring all the time, is that nothing is predetermined.
Yes, large overarching historical trends are important. But so are the choices that individuals make. Our actions do make a difference.
To paraphrase Shakespeare: The power is not in our stars, it's in ourselves - for better or worse.
And to paraphrase Scoop Nisker: if you don't like history, go out and make some of your own.
Meanwhile, I was glad to see that Libby Schaaf won the race for Oakland City Council from District 4.
She has a resume as long as your arm, including working as a top aide for once-and-future Governor Jerry Brown. But I remember her as that adorable little girl who was Raggedy Ann at Children's Fairyland in 1976.
The Raggedy Andy was her BFF Leslie Zimmerman, who, years later, was the maid of honor at her wedding. (They were seriously tempted to wear their big red yarn wigs at the ceremony, but they finally decided against it.)
Libby has always given Fairyland the credit for launching her political career.
"It taught me how to speak in front of large groups and to be responsible for the commitments I make," she told me. "But most of all, it taught me to be kind."
Congratulations Libby. Here's hoping you and your generation take over and kick us old folks out of power as soon as possible. I know you'll do a better job than we did.
You could hardly do worse.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Best Boss Ever

(Above: Admiral Clark in his dress uniform.)

A good boss is worth his/her weight in gold.
And the best boss I've ever heard of was Admiral J.J. Clark, who commanded Task Force 58 in the South Pacific during World War II. His flagship was the aircraft carrier USS Hornet, which is now a floating museum docked at Alameda Point.
He was the ideal leader, a guy you would follow anywhere, and he was a second father to every man on the ship.
He didn't stand on ceremony. Everyone down to the lowliest sailor called him by his nickname, "Jocko." And they adored him.
"There was nothing we wouldn't do for the Old Man," said Frank MacDonald of Oakland, "because there was nothing he wouldn't do for us."
There are so many classic Jocko stories, I hardly know where to begin. Like the time a young sailor swung open a door that Jocko was standing behind and knocked the admiral flat on his kiester. A lieutenant commander grabbed the kid and started screaming at him.
"The next thing I saw was a gigantic hand as it reached over and placed itself on the shoulder of the still shouting lieutenant commander," the sailor recalled. "In a loud voice, I heard Admiral Clark say, 'Go back to your work station and leave this boy alone! I was just standing in the wrong place!'"
Or the time another young sailor fell asleep while on watch - a hanging offense in wartime - only to be awakened by a gentle tugging on his arm. Standing over him was Jocko, murmuring, "Boy, boy, boy. You know you're not supposed to sleep on watch."
The kid spent the next few days in abject terror, expecting to be arrested at any moment. But nothing happened. Jocko hadn't even put him on report.
But my favorite Jocko story is the time a typhoon caved in the Hornet's bow, making it impossible to launch planes the normal way, off the front. Jocko simply turned the shop around and sailed backwards at full speed, launching the planes from the rear.
"The guys on the other ships must have thought the Old Man had finally lost his marbles," said MacDonald.
Jocko was unique in so many ways. He overcame prejudice to become the first Native American to graduate from Annapolis. And, since many of his battles were fought at night, he slept on a cot on the bridge so he could spring into action at a moment's notice.
It was a common sight to see him directing the battle wearing his polka-dot pajamas and fuzzy slippers - but with his admiral's hat firmly clamped on his head.
Next Friday would have been Jocko's 117th birthday. He died in 1971 and was buried with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery.
But his real monument is the Hornet itself. Stepping onto the ship is like stepping back into history. So many things - the radar room, where they tracked incoming enemy planes; the ready room, where the pilots got their final briefings before battle; the mess hall; the living quarters - are in perfect working order. This isn't an amusement park ride. This is the real deal.
If you're looking for a good way to observe Veterans Day next week, I can't think of a better place to do it.