Thursday, November 8, 2018

A reflection on veterans

OPINION // OPEN FORUM  San Francisco Chronicle & The Oregonian 2018
A reflection on veterans
By Charles E. Kraus 

Every once in a Veterans Day, I write a piece about the years I spent in the military and how they’ve affected my life beyond the time I was required to salute anything that moved. Not many of my high school and college friends found their way into uniform. I’ve always been happy that I did.

I’m not saying I am “proud” or “honored” to have served or that I was particularly civic minded. Mine was the Vietnam War era. I was restless. Conflicted. Also curious. The official record describes my four-year hitch in the U.S. Navy as “sea duty,” but that was only because being attached to a construction battalion in a war zone, wearing fatigues and toting an M-16 rifle counted as sea duty even though it took place on solid ground.

Hopefully, I did some good for our country. But to be quite honest, the America I thought I was defending didn’t look like the one we are living in today. Though there were huge demonstrations throughout the Vietnam era, everyone assumed they took place within a context, within a system of laws and procedures. The system can no longer be taken for granted.

Back then (and right now), America was experiencing civic turmoil. In the 1960s, the kids were messed up. Today, I’d give that distinction to the adults. Is this the place I risked my life to defend?
There are common threads to serving: You have to leave home and move into the military world. It’s kind of fraternal. A bunch of strangers required to train together, people from an assortment of backgrounds, ethnicities, sections of the country, with a variety of regional accents and preferences, suddenly turned into a unit that performs in a singular fashion. Inductees leave their comfort zones, stow prejudices and act with equanimity, informing every thought with a context that asks if what they are about to do is good for the cohort. Initially, it’s a game. Reluctant acquiescence, then a going through the motions.

Eventually, an authentic bonding occurs within ranks. Though I’m sure familiarity can breed contempt, it can also breed respect and acceptance.

When you eat, sleep and work together, encountering an assortment of unique individuals, you discover that the winners and losers cannot be determined by stereotype. As it turns out, the people you learn to depend upon come from ghettos, from upscale white parts of town, from a variety of religious and secular backgrounds. They have all kinds of accents, ridiculous (by your own standards) assumptions and belief systems, strange codes of honor, even different ways to broach a subject or walk down the street.

You march together. You work in a proscribed manner. You wear the same outfits, and though a smidgen of attitude can be expressed in the tilt of a hat, by and large, you and those with whom you serve begin to mirror one another.

While serving, you become a veteran of more than potential danger, more than the often rude awakening brought on by separation from home, from challenges to your assumed wisdom and preconceptions. You become a veteran of an expanded, more inclusive, perspective.

Vets are many things. Perhaps a little more macho than the rest of the population. Perhaps more inclined to see the world through a government-issued point of view. Beyond that, most are apt to judge people by the individual talents, skills and deportment they bring to the scene.

Charles E. Kraus received a Bronze Star for his service in Vietnam and will remember all veterans on Sunday, Veterans Day. He lives and writes in Seattle.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Even the Frail Survive
By Charles E. Kraus   

Mitch McConnell is 76.  Elizabeth Warren is 69.  Chuck Grassley is 85.  Bernie is 77.  Nancy is 78.  Ruth is 85.  The President and I are technically the same age, at least chronologically.  I am 72 and can therefore write about old age from more than a theoretical perspective.

Many of us have weathered the years quite well.  But without exception,  endurance, memory degradation, health concerns, and general cognitive decline, are increasingly part of our balancing acts. Like cars, refrigerators, and ten-year-old computers, age takes a toll on function.  All of us are dealing with built-in obsolescence. 

“Where did I put my glasses?” may be the most uttered phrase of the post-fifty cohort.

We of the senior generation try to hold on to our skills and abilities. Eventually, we begin supplementing physical deficits with stronger trifocals, hearing aids, canes, walkers, pacemakers and other assorted medical devices.  Who among us does not own a blood pressure monitor? 

It is more difficult to compensate for failing cognitive agility.

When I watch our wise elders on television, I find myself impressed with the physical appearance of many.  But I have certain suspicions about what I’m witnessing.  These doubts come from personal experience.  As a young man, I tried to look older, more mature.  As a senior, I attempt to look and act as youthful as credulity permits.  As they say, I don’t let the old man in.  I do reasonably well with this deception, however, deep down I must acknowledge my charade.  I’m putting my best foot forward, but that’s the foot with the gout.

I’m wondering if aging politicians are doing what I am doing — portraying a nimble mind.  It is true that this duplicitous exercise can have a positive effect.  My thinking, which is not as facile as it once was, improves during my impersonation of peak performance.  This magic works for about twenty minutes.  Thirty if I’m trying extra hard to impress those who may have reason to believe I’m no longer capable of driving, living independently, monitoring my own health, or making wise life decisions. 

I’m not an ageist.  As far as I’m concerned, Tony Bennett can keep performing until he’s a hundred and ten.  But it is one thing to stick to your repertoire and routines, to function where the patterns and places are ingrained — in our minds, in our muscle memory, in our souls.  Comfortably ensconced, we base our reactions on the storehouse of knowledge that we’ve developed over time. 

It is quite another to deal with wide ranging, ever developing prospects, facts, crises, details, issues, pressures and then some, that are hurled non-stop at those who direct high-end government.

If Tony misses a note, his fans will forgive him.  If government leadership fails to appreciate cyber security issues, the future may not be so forgiving.

Mandatory retirement age?  Probably not.  But, solid, well educated, mature, openminded, selfless, humble, worldly, caring, responsible young adults, please apply here.  Before long, you’ll be taking the field.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Trump's supporters still faithful. Until they're not.

Trump's supporters still faithful.  Until they're not.

Published in The Oregonian and in Oreglinonline

President Donald Trump sits at his desk Monday, Aug. 27, 2018. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

By Charles E. Kraus
To date, President Trump's people could still passively observe him pull out a gun and shoot someone strolling down New York's 5th Avenue.  And, Trump's detractors could still passively observe him pull out a gun and shoot himself on 5th Avenue.  In neither case would the partisans contact the authorities.
Word on the street is that Don has shaken the tree, and that those admirers who remain on the branches are with him until the blight.  Call me Ishmael, or call me late for dinner. Either way, I'm not inclined to agree with the prevailing sentiment.  
I'm thinking the following:
They loved Nixon.  Until they didn't.  
They were devoted to Dr. Cosby.  Until they weren't.
They were impressed by Charlie Rose.  Until they weren't.
McCarthy was allowed to foment distrust and suspicion.  He peddled fake revelations that were believed by millions.  Until they weren't.  
During the Vietnam era, most people were either passively or actively in favor of America's massive, deadly, expensive, ever-expanding, ever-failing efforts to involve the country in a quagmire of a war that had illusive goals, and that was based on home-grown propaganda and a  military industrial for profit complex.  

Those opposed were called radicals.  They were ignorant kids.  They were well-meaning, or duped softies.  Intellectuals who didn't know about the real world.  They were Commie sympathizers, and stooges programed by lefty facility and religious extremists.  My command suggested that when we returned from our tour, we refrain from wearing our uniforms while on leave so as to avoid getting spit upon.   
And then, late in the game, after death and destruction, agent orange, the My Lai Massacre, after Kent State, and Robert McNamara's endlessly duplicitous sightings of light at the end of the tunnel, the tide of public opinion changed.  The war became unpopular.  How unpopular? Unpopular enough for people to vote for Nixon, the guy who had the secret plan to end it.  His secret plan turned out to be to lose it, but at least -- and at last -- we were out.   
Strangely, over time, I met fewer and fewer individuals who had ever, in any way shape or form, been in favor of the war.  And equally amazing, it turned out that no one, not a soul, admitted to having voted for Nixon.  
People are in favor of things.  They sign on to, invest their status in, pledge and advocate opinions and theories, and what passes for facts.  Sometimes what is being supported is just a fad.  A brand.  The latest dance, diet, destination.   

Sometimes it is a popular leader who appears to be a god, until he is given a second look, and turns out to be a fanatic. The trick is to conduct the reevaluation before the damage is irreversible.  
Trump on 5th Avenue. That, in and of itself, may turn out to be a crime.  
Charles E. Kraus lives and writes in Seattle.

Monday, August 20, 2018

I Ain't Marching Any More or Less — Trumps' Parade 9/18/18
By Charles E. Kraus

Been shining my jungle boots and ironing my old uniform all summer in preparation for President Trump's Veterans Day parade.   I haven't actually worn therm for forty-eight years.  But they seem as pristine as the day I left the service.

Evidently, I can put them back in the closet.  It appears the event is canceled. Upon reflection, I think this may be a wise decision. 

I'm reasonable certain most members of of our active military would also prefer to sit this one out.  The President may have helmed a parade or two, positioned in an open convertible, waving at the masses.  The people who preceded him up and down the route, in the heat, in the cold, had a different focus.  You think it's fun to spend hours marching down the street?  Marching requires concentration, awareness, stamina and the ability to postpone a bathroom call that would make such a difference in your life.

The only genuine parade-like marching I've ever done was when graduating from bootcamp.  That took place at the Great Lake Naval Training Center, in a gigantic drill hall.   Hundreds of us newly minted sailors, theoretically in lockstep, strode the field at a fast clip. We pivoted left again and again as we reached each corner until we'd used up the four sides of the arena.

The bleachers were filled with families and friends who had come to our 'graduation.'  For many, it would be the only gradation in their lives.  It was a big deal -- pomp and circumstance at the enlisted person's level.  Bands played, people cheered, the place seemed to be bursting with pride.

Each of the numerous Companies assembled on the field was comprised of 75 men.  We were volunteers, ordinary average regular folks who'd been subjected to eleven weeks of intense harassment, intimidation, training and some drill instruction.  Finally, we were being released into the "real" Navy.

When it came to marching, we could approximate reasonable formations, advance row by row without bumping into the people in front of us, reverse course on a dime and more or less appear to be marching.  But a tentative aspect hug over such promenading.  Even after hours and hours of drilling, a novice's uncertainty lingered in our hearts.

As each company approached the bleachers, its Recruit Petty Officer In Charge (RPOC) prepared to order a pivot.  At his command, all 75 men, hopefully in unison -- were to swing left on the balls of their feet, creating a united right angle adjustment to the direction in which they had been were heading.  The choreography required your right foot to be extended as you went into this turn.

The proceedings were synchronized.  No one, no row, no section, no company, could stop, or even hesitate,  without effecting those behind.  In back of your unit was the next, and the next, all moving forward.  It felt as if we were being pursued and needed to keep stepping ahead or be run over.  There was no pause button.

The fear of not making the turn in a timely fashion, of creating what could be a thousand man pileup, became more and more intense.  We were reaching the last possible opportunity to avoid the bleachers..  The pivot only happened when the RPOC gave the command.  "To the left, hut!"  Was he going to time it correctly?  Would the “hut” come a fraction of a second too late to keep us from trampling the spectators?

I experienced the gut sensation you get a split second before an imminent car crash.  Of being out of control.  The wall was getting closer and closer.  There was nothing we could do to avoid a smash up.  But then, "To the left, hut!" was sounded inches from catastrophe.

We pivoted and marched on.  If you think we were frightened, you should have seen the looks on the faces of the guests seated directly in front of us.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The Inquirer

By Charles E. Kraus
Published in the 7/9/18 edition(s) of the Philadelphia Inquirer and it's related papers

My wife and I were a bit surprised when we received a thank-you note from Mister Rogers. I’d attempted to get him a copy of the book we’d written about children’s parties. It had been passed from one children’s entertainer to another until it reached a musical event where Fred Rogers was giving a keynote.

Six months went by and I’d assumed Mr. McFeely’s speedy delivery service had mistaken our book for junk mail and tossed it.  Rogers apologized for the delay, explaining that he was a little behind in his correspondence.  Our book was being added to his permanent collection.  I was elated! His thank-you was going into the permanent keepsake file in our office.

In truth, I’ve kept more than his kind note. As a life-long children’s performer, I hold his methods of communicating with children in my heart. His approach to interacting with young people went beyond “entertaining” them. He mirrored curiosity, kindness, thoughtfulness and wonder, respecting, accepting and celebrating the vulnerabilities and limitations felt by all children. He helped them to develop attitudes that would allow neighborhood visitors to flourish as the years passed.

In the 1960s, television programming aimed at the younger set consisted of live shows hosted by ex-vaudevillians, comedians and radio broadcasters who had ventured into TV and meandered to the kid show niche.  Most were just passing through this career phase on their way to more sophisticated adult programming. A few found the genre attractive and decided to specialize in the children’s entertainment field.

Captain Kangaroo, Shari Lewis, Miss Frances, and Buffalo Bob Smith reigned among the most successful.  The Captain, Bob Keeshan, had begun his TV career as an NBC page, graduating to a stint as Clarabell the Clown, then transitioning into a Captain’s costume. He was congenial, warm, and ever so befuddled by the other characters on his show.

Shari was a charming, aggressive, talented ventriloquist who communicated especially well with her adorable puppets. Miss Frances, the agreeable hostess of Ding Dong School, projected a friendly, if bland, nursery-school teacher persona. Technically innovative, her program kept cameras unusually low, giving home viewers a sense of watching from a child’s perspective. Buffalo Bob, a veteran broadcaster, starred on The Howdy Doody Show. He was highly involved with marionettes, props, and juvenile situations, part of a cast of outlandish characters who chased one another around the set and got squirted from a seltzer bottle.

Mister Rogers brought something else to the screen. He didn’t do gags, pratfalls or anything that smacked of show business. He was an explainer, not a costumed character, just a man, being himself.  A person who enjoyed sharing his enthusiasms. These were contagious because they were genuine. That’s the message that I got from him, that I’ve made the center of my programs for kids.  Respect yourself and your audience.  Be caring and be authentic.

What a wonderful way to approach life.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

DETAILS FROM LIFE and from the internet
By Charles Kraus

As we age, we continue to learn about ourselves.  Part of this involves assessing outcomes.  You get the law degree or didn't you?  You find the life partner?  Enjoy becoming a parent?  Make those career moves?  Did you see the world like you planned, or sit things out in Bakersfield?  Are you pleased with yourself, over time, or disappointed?

There is another kind of self-knowledge   I've been getting it on the internet, finding details about my past, updates regarding old friends and associates, filling in gaps. Collecting information about the neighborhoods where I grew up, and the schools I attended.  I've come across uploaded photographs and home movies of events in my life taken by strangers, or by people who knew me more than I knew them.  Every once in a while I seem to be reading my obituary, but it turns out there are lots of guys with my name, and some of them have passed away.

I'm accumulating personal-historical data.  Checking memories against hard facts.   I have had this vague image of Pennsylvania Station, the old Penn station, and the old Madison Square Garden, two locations my family frequented when I was a boy.  Magnificent structural blurs. 
A quick search and there they are in virtual detail. I was right, Penn Station was a doozy.

PS 79 still exists, though they've given it a new name and turned it into some sort of middle school.  I attended kindergarten there in 1950s.  Google Maps just took me to the attached house I lived in on Walton Avenue that we occupied back then.  The stone lions are gone from the stoops.  And though I doubt the current owners realize it, that narrow set of steps, leading down to the basement door, is where the coal truck anchored its shut before releasing our delivery.  Rosie Wagner's place is next door.  We raised a lot of cats.  Her family had birds.  And a giant box turtle that ever so slowly explored  the back yard.  For all I know, he's still out there; they live a long time, don't they?  Google's roving tour, a moveable street view, takes me across Walton.  I'm looking at Beth Rose's front door.  Then, at the apartment house above.  Kids could do all of their trick or treating without leaving that building.

The past used to remain speculative, we either left it full of holes or filled in the empty spaces with guess work that, over time, began to masquerade as facts.

Obviously, I'm not the only one trying to reconnect with my roots.  Perhaps you've received an email from someone from your past, asking if you're the person who lived around the corner back when.  You write back, adding a few more details to her record and pick up a few for your own.

During the 15 months I spent on the USS Fulton, the ancient sub-tender was generally tied up in New London, Ct.  I left the Navy in 1970.  Little did I know that two years later the ship would make it's way to the Mediterranean, and eventually to La Maddalena, Italy.  Until finding this itinerary on Wikipedia, I'd believed the Fulton was so obsolete that needed to stay close to shore.  Just one more piece of my past that benefited from reevaluation.

In the early 1960s, for part of my high school education, I was sent to Kingsley Hall, way up in North Egremont, Massachusetts.  Recently,  I was wondering about its fate.   My fingertip research told me the school closed long ago.  If I understand correctly, one of it's buildings is now a police station.  Makes sense to me.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Kids and Colors - and eye contact
By Charles E. Kraus

I work with children -- all colors and ethnicities.  Homeless kids to future heirs and heiresses.  Thriving children, dying children.  My audiences have taught me to place human awareness above racial awareness.

I've been welcomed into palatial estates, cookie cutter houses, crowded apartments, community rooms, cordoned off birthday party sections at McDonalds, rented church basements -- if you can hold a party there, I've probably played the site.  Nothing I am about to tell you is theoretical.

Long before injustice and the arbitrary twists of fate and circumstance influence who we become, we arrive with a set of values and abilities.  Some kids are  more verbal, have more developed senses of curiosity.  Other's don't reveal these skills and behaviors.  Until you spark their interest.

I show up.  The children notice.  If its Redmond, Washington or Beverly Hills, and the kids see a different magician or clown at every party, they approach with questions and requests for particular tricks or routines.  If I'm in South Central LA, or a white guy walking into a packed apartment filled with Black guests, maybe the room goes quiet.  Maybe the kids don't approach.  They watch.   Perhaps I'm the only white guy who has ever been in the place.

Before my shows, I visit the audience, talk with kids and parents.  There is a simple way to put people at ease.  Works at shows and would probably be helpful at StarBucks.  You make eye contact. Warm eye contact.  Welcoming eye contact.  Human-to-human.  You think the message you are trying to communicate while you are doing this.  Human-to-human is very equalizing.

My eyes tell kids I'm happy to see them, that I'm not judgmental, that I'm not rating their clothes, surroundings or skill levels.  This is a genuine hello.  It's OK.  Alright.  I use words, too, of course, but I lead with eye contact.  It breaks down language and cultural barriers.  It's universal.

My eyes have a different message for parents.  I'm saying, Wow ... kids!  Aren't they something!  I'm acknowledging a well established, parent-to-parent observation.  This often leads to sharing a smile.  It says that deep down, children are important, precious, amazing, and challenging.  I'm also letting people know that my audience is a safe place for children.

Kids can be turned on to joy and wonder.   All kids, or just about all of them.   I don't have to demand quiet or request anyone's attention.  I walk through the crowd picking coins from behind ears and elbows.  I stop for a moment making a silver dollar disappear, or a silk scarf materialize.  Guess what?  Everyone is watching.  All kids know what the word Wow means.

A balloon gets caught on my finger, then on my nose.  Kids laugh.  They found it funny in Da Nang during the war, they find it funny in Palo Alto today, in recreation centers filled with gang members who have brought their younger siblings to see a show, in hospitals, and even, sometimes, in hospices.

Connecting the world eye-to-eye won't put an end to prejudice, but the technique might encourage a sense of community in ways that laws and dialogue have failed to achieve.

The look-in-the-eye message that I like best is one I exchange with teens and adults.  It's not about show business, it's about life.  Yep, I am saying to the person who is receiving my attention --  Life is crazy.  It's stupid and great and mysterious and look at us, caught up in the middle of the mystery.  In a crazy kind of way, we're in this together.