Why Did I Write a Story About Stamford?

Why Did I Write a Story About Stamford?

Writing a story that takes place in my hometown of Stamford, CT, was a labor-of-love. Here’s why.

Several decades ago, I boarded a New Haven Railroad train at the Stamford Railroad Station and headed to a new life. Though born and raised in Stamford, I believed that I would never return. The train would carry me to a US Army induction center, courtesy of our local draft board, so it was possible that I would end my life early, fighting in Vietnam.

ClicktoAmazonHaving just graduated from college, believing I knew everything I needed to know, I dismissed all thoughts of an early end as a fallen soldier. I believed, however, that I was leaving the small world of my hometown and entering a much bigger, grander world.

Amazingly my optimistic beliefs turned out to be right. The Army chose me to attend the Defense Department journalism school, launching me to serve as a military reporter-editor in Hawaii for the next two years. After I had become a civilian again, I was lucky enough to have assignments throughout the US as well as European and Asian countries.

As forecasted, I had left Stamford forever, only returning for an occasional family visit. But what I hadn’t expected was that STAMFORD NEVER LEFT ME. My hometown years became a kind of mental measuring stick, against which I would compare everything new such as people, work, and play.

Raising a family with two kids of the cell phone and social media generation, Stamford memories became more vivid. Despite the apparent advantages of today’s video games, hi-def TV, and endless entertainment, I realized that Stamford had offered a much richer childhood. And my education in Stamford schools had prepared me better than the most highly rated schools that my kids attended.

Discovering the Facebook group, “If You’re Really from Stamford You’d Know,” I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the pictures and posts from many people I remembered. The group page has made many memories even brighter.

Nevertheless, there are some things a social media group can’t express. For example, it can’t recreate the lives of Stamford kids from my generation. Random comments and pictures can’t explain the way we talked to each other. It can’t recreate the dating rituals or teen romances. It can’t explain how we dealt with a host of adolescent challenges.

For these elements of Stamford life, I needed to write a book. “It Happened in Stamford” was the easiest book I have ever written. It required minimal research since much of it came from real-life memories. I even had a ready-made plot, based on a series of things that I knew.

I began with a copy of the SHS Yearbook for my graduating year. From there I had a cast of characters that I knew. Some had been close friends, while others were classmates or the SHS kids that everyone seemed to know about. They were a diverse group, including a variety of ethnic, religious, and racial groups of both genders.

From there, the story almost wrote itself. Once published, the book began to sell well. But the best part was receiving messages from people I hadn’t seen in a veritable lifetime. We had all experienced unpredictable lives that had brought us to dozens of places we had never known. Yet a little bit of our hearts will always remain in Stamford.

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Update: It Happened in Stamford

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Having finished more than half of this book, I’m thoroughly enjoying  writing it. Dredging up people and events I hadn’t thought of in decades has been an entertaining ride. Though the people I remember will have different names in this story, bringing them back to life as kids or teenagers in Stamford is a fascinating mental process.  All in all, imagining a story that fits my Stamford past has been great fun. I hope to publish the finished product by December 1.

 

What Should the President Call our Enemies?

What Should the President Call our Enemies?

The provocative “Radical Islamists” discussion has reached a boiling point. It is a debate that should be a non-partisan conversation but has instead become a political food fight.

Sensitive to criticism, President Obama angrily denounced Republican charges that he’s afraid to use the term “Radical Islamist” to describe attackers in tragedies like the Orlando killings at Pulse Nightclub. He scolded, “ We can’t get ISIL unless we call them ‘radical Islamists?’ What exactly would using this label accomplish? It’s just a political talking point.”

Republicans vigorously responded that the President can’t win a war if he can’t name and define the enemy.

barackobamaThis question should not be a one-sided rant, except to say that neither side is right and that neither side truly understands the importance of precise wording. Unfortunately, most politicians achieved their positions as lawyers and orators, without understanding how to execute strategies with large, complex organizations. If these leaders had consulted an expert in organizational science, they would know the importance of clear, precise words at the top level.

The President’s wording must serve as the precursor to developing goals, strategies, and tactical execution. Naming hs enemy in clear terms will ultimately become a compass that directs his subordinates. For example, the phrase “War on Islam” would be inappropriate because it would suggest deploying assets, against Mecca and Medina, instead of the armies of ISIS, the Taliban, Al-Queda, or Boko Haran. Obviously, that’s an extreme example, but it illustrates how much wording matters. It ultimately filters down to every level of execution, such as recruitment, methods, training, equipment, and organizations. It applies equally to the management of military branches, the FBI, NSA, CIA, and Homeland Security.

The Republican insistence on “radical Islam,” radical Islamists,” etc. isn’t helpful either. From 2001 to 2008, the Bush Administration chose the term “Global War on Terror.” The war has morphed to include new objectives so the old name would be obsolete today. Moreover, It was only helpful during those years because it clearly established that we are at war. But how do we mount a war against ‘terror’ a word that only indicates personal fears?

FullFinalThe President must acknowledge that we are fighting an asymmetrical war. It has different kinds of attacks of varying sizes and character in a variety of locations. In the US, we are fighting a war of detect-prevent-and-arrest, similar to a widespread crime wave. It is a war, however, with all attacks interconnected by an ideology that compels killing civilians according to an interpretation of a religious doctrine. Separate organizations embrace that doctrine but execute in different ways, in different geographies, with different attack methods.

Most politicians agree that we are at war, though there has been no declaration of war requested by the President, nor has Congress formally supported a war declaration.
Nevertheless, we must use the word ‘war’ in our description.

If we identify our enemy simply as ‘ISIS,’ we will narrow the focus to eliminate other organizations we must confront. Though the controlling ideology is present in part of the Quran (known to scholars as the Sword Verse) we are not at war with all followers of the Quran. We are only at war with those segments that have declared war on America, or our allies in Europe and the Middle East. We might consider the following terms, based on their definitions:

Fundamentalist: A religious movement characterized by a strict belief in the literal interpretation of religious texts.

Islamist: A supporter or advocate of Islamic fundamentalism.

Jihad: A holy war undertaken as a sacred duty by Muslims.

Jihadism: An Islamic fundamentalist movement that favors the pursuit of jihads to defend the Islamic faith.

Militant: Vigorously active and aggressive, especially in support of a cause.

Based on these choices, the President could refer to our conflict as, “A War on Militant Jihadism.” This choice sharpens the target and includes all of our enemies without offending the peaceful followers of Islam.

There may be better names, but we should eliminate “fundamentalist,” because it could ambiguously apply to other religions We can also eliminate “Islamist” since a person might be philosophically an Islamist, though not involved in fighting or killing.

Regardless of the exact name chosen, it must be understandable by the organizations that execute it, and accepted across the full political spectrum.

Happy Birthday Harriet

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Today, June 2, is the birthday of my late sister Harriet Vachss Harris.

I dedicated my second novel, The Terrorist Who Wasn’t, to her. However my earlier book, The Victory That Wasn’t, was our real collaboration. As the book’s editor, Harriet performed all of the tasks that are so important in bringing a final product to publication. And more. Much, much more.

CoverImage-forPromo112115The Victory That Wasn’t is an alternate history based on real events in the Vietnam War years. It’s also a story with a central character based on my Army days in Hawaii and a few years beyond them. As my older sister, Harriet had known me for my entire life. We had always been in touch, but, of course, there are some things we seldom tell our sisters.

Our editor-author dialog was often about more than the book itself. We exchanged long emails every day and reminisced about the news stories of that time. Because my Army job as a journalist provided information that had never been published, I was able to tell her about things that happened in Vietnam, and Hawaii, that fascinated her.

And, of course, she quizzed me about the personal stuff. She recognized some of the characters, even though I had altered them from their real world personas. “I know who Jennifer was,” she might say. “But who was Katy?” “And what does that character’s name mean. I can tell that it’s a code for something.”

Finishing a book with so many historical details was a lot of work, mixed with a lot of laughs, and possibly a few gasps from Harriet. All in all, a great experience.

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Remembering My Fellow Vietnam-Era Vets

Every Memorial Day brings my mind back to the Vietnam era and memories of the hundreds of young soldiers I knew.

I was the luckiest man in the Army, with opportunities to meet and talk with so many different kinds of troops. As an Army journalist in Hawaii, where thousands of soldiers received training before deploying to the war, I met young guys from everywhere in the US, and from a few other countries.

CoverImage-forPromo112115Contrary to the common belief that most draftees were poorly educated southerners or disadvantaged young men from urban ghettos, many were educated people from mainstream America. Though politicians in Washington created a foolish program to draft some mentally disadvantaged people, ordinary draftees were often smarter than the political leaders who had sent them.

I met soldiers in several different environments. Many were returning from Vietnam, while others were undergoing training before deploying. I met many enlisted men at the lowest ranks, as well as prominent generals. I even had the honor of interviewing Admiral John S. McCain Jr., father of Senator McCain of Arizona. I later realized that the future senator, then a Navy captain, may have been in a Viet Cong prison camp when I met his father.

Some vets I encountered in my first few days after training, were already casualties of war. Serving as a parade-ground announcer during outdoor medal presentations, I would read a written citation before each honored soldier received a medal. With hundreds of soldiers in military formation, I would hear my voice echoing back at me over windy fields, as a senior officer presented each Purple Heart, Bronze or Silver Star. Many medals were posthumous, with families of each fallen soldier present to receive the medal. The sights of tearful parents, girlfriends, wives, and kids left me with indelible memories of the hardest job I ever had.

In visits to Tripler Army Medical Center, I met men who survived casualties, often with grave injuries that would trouble them for life. These brave men offered upbeat conversations as they told their stories, though I often wondered how they would survive in civilian life.

As the Eleventh Infantry Brigade deployed to Vietnam, I said goodbye to dozens of friends. Some would come home and resume life in the real world. Others would never return. Still others would come back physically, yet be forever unable to live a normal life.

All of this happened many years ago. Most of the names have faded over time. The faces remain, however. I wrote a novel based on those days, entitled “The Victory That Wasn’t.” It’s my version of how a few minor background events might have changed the entire story of America in Vietnam. Reviewers have said, “if only it had happened that way…”

Processing out of the Army with hundreds of others on our last day in the military at Oakland Army Base, I listened to final instructions, informing us that anti-war protesters might meet us with violence. I had prepared for that situation and wore civilian clothes as I walked out of the building. I wore sneakers and carried an ordinary suitcase. I had even invested in a civilian haircut before leaving Honolulu.

I was a civilian again, but my Army experience had changed me. I still knew that I had been the luckiest man in the Army. And I had shared a connection with my fellow Vietnam-era vets that exists to this day.

What We Learned from the Hiroshima Atom Bomb

NukeExplosionWith President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima, Japan, the seventy-one-year controversy has risen again: Was America justified in using a horrific weapon on a civilian population? Or did we let the proverbial genie out of the bottle to initiate an era of potential nuclear destruction?

Americans are usually a compassionate people. News stories reminding us of thousands of innocents in 1945 dying the most brutal deaths sicken many of us. We personalize the thought of suffering Japanese civilians.

The other side of the proverbial coin indicates that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were entirely necessary. President Truman later wrote that ending the war saved hundreds of thousands of American and Japanese lives.

The hypothetical question then becomes: Were the bombs the only strategies to compel a Japanese surrender? A brilliantly researched book, “The Fall of Japan,” by William Craig, Fall-of-Japanoffers eye-opening information about Japan, following the Nagasaki bomb, three days after Hiroshima. Craig’s research is factual, compiled from sources like historical Japanese records, interviews with Hiroshima survivors, and personal letters. The author offers no opinion, hypothetical assumptions, or answers to the historical debate.

But the book includes word-for-word conversations between Japanese officials, military leaders, prominent civilians and family members. For example, Craig references anecdotes, about Japanese leaders discussing suicide with their wives, with some couples committing suicide together. In one case, a man contemplated suicide, then changed his mind, causing his wife to berate him publically for his cowardice and dishonor.

Japanese officials, even the Emperor— worshiped as a god by the entire Japanese population—could not sign a surrender. The very idea of surrender was so abhorrent that many military units revolted, vowing to fight on to death.

Craig’s picture of the Japanese population in 1945 reveals an entire country—millions of people—trapped mentally in hatred against America that is comparable to today’s Islamic jihadism. Though Craig makes no such comparison, it’s easy to conclude that the Japanese people of 1945 would have followed their fanatical leaders, with bloodshed that would have dwarfed the number of deaths caused by the atom bombs.

FullFinalIn America today, many of us have friends, neighbors, co-workers, and family members who are Japanese-Americans. We genuinely like these people and often love them. Many Japanese Americans rank at the top of their fields, from the business world, medicine, the sciences, the arts, and professional sports. When we hear a discussion of the people who died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we may associate them with the Japanese American faces we know today. We identify the 1945 fanatics with our Japanese American friends and ask ourselves why so many had to die. Sadly, millions of innocent people have died in wars since biblical times. We cannot, however, honestly compare the isolated culture of the 1940s with the today’s free-thinking Japanese people.

When zealous leaders can indoctrinate an entire country with a faith-based belief in hatred of an enemy, nothing but a horrifying future can compel surrender.

One lesson that we need to learn from this story is that wars are not chess games, where every move follows logically. Logical thinkers would have expected Japan to sue for peace after its military became decimated. But we learned after-the-fact that the expectation of a logical move was a fantasy. Japan’s fanatical leaders would have fought on for years.

When leaders today make pronouncements about what we should do with an enemy like ISIS, they are playing chess as some Americans did in1945. When political sound bytes become strategies, we are fooling ourselves. Our only realistic protection is to prepare for every possible move by the enemy—logical or unpredictable—and hope we haven’t missed any. If our leaders continue to reduce our military capability and rationalize that we’re only playing chess, they leave us vulnerable to destruction.

To build and maintain the most powerful, capable military in the world is the path to continued peace. Reducing our military in a misguided plan to provide more money for politically popular, “social justice,” is sadly a recipe for war.

Funny Cross-Gender Bathroom Stories

JPRestRoomsLaws about bathrooms have suddenly become headline stories. Though media and politicians often manufacture issues, no one expected a nationwide debate about bathroom protocol.

People on social media have secured hardline positions, but few of the thousands of tweets and posts reflect any real world knowledge on cross-gender bathroom use. As a public service, therefore, I offer four true stories related to this subject.

The Newark Airport Dilemma

Several years ago, painters at Newark Airport refurbished a passenger boarding area but were careless in replacing directional signs leading to the
FullFinalrestrooms. The final signs before reaching either restroom door were confusing. If a man or woman passenger wasn’t paying attention to the sign directly on the door, he or she might enter the wrong door, causing momentary embarrassment. As regular passengers of that flight gate, my colleagues and I had all noticed the confusing signage, laughed about it, and avoided any erroneous entrances.

A new member of our group, a young woman, was unaware of the potential bathroom sign confusion. Experiencing a state of urgency before a long flight, she mistakenly dashed into the men’s room. Though the lady realized immediately that she was in the wrong room, there was no one else there, and she decided to use one of the stalls. Exiting the stall and washing her hands, she saw a middle-aged male executive entering the restroom. As soon as he saw her, he turned red, backed away, raised his hands in surrender, and croaked, “I’m sorry! Please forgive me. I just made a mistake.” Our young teammate looked him straight in the eye, feigned anger and disgust, shook a finger at him and said, “Don’t you ever let it happen again!” Leaving the room and laughing to herself, she immediately joined us onboard and told us the story.

An Engineer’s Shocking Decision

George, one of our company’s favorite clients, was a thirty-something engineer from a large Connecticut tech company. Before the start of a large conference at our campus, we saw George arrive at the lecture hall from a distant entrance and noted that he seemed to be wearing an earring. Though some men at that time wore earrings outside of work, they rarely wore them in a business environment. A few gay men were exceptions.They sometimes wore a single earring on the right ear, symbolically identifying themselves as gay. I was busy greeting new arrivals and asked a woman staff member to welcome George, to note whether he wore an earring, and if so, which side it adorned.

A few minutes later, our staff member, returned at a quick pace, and breathlessly told me, “It’s not a simple earring, it’s a set of two, one on each ear. And they’re not the usual gold buttons; they’re hand-painted daisies!” Our friend, George, would henceforth be called, Georgia, and was undergoing injection treatments to become a woman.

Georgia’s transformation set his entire company atwitter. Another tech guy at his company told me about the attitudes that had developed around Georgia. Some people—mostly women—voiced a laissez-faire viewpoint. Some loved the ongoing story as a staple of prurient speculation. Others had attitudes somewhere between condemnation, and “torches-and-pitchforks.”

But, of course, the big question was, “Which bathroom will she use.” The HR staff led an effort to determine new bathroom rules for the company. They generated a confidential questionnaire for all women employees, to determine their feelings about Georgia using their restrooms. More than 60 percent of the women could accept Georgia as a restroom user, apparently led by one woman, whose associates all wrote, “I don’t care what she does, as long as she does it sitting!”

My Adventure in a Roman Restroom

Entering a hotel restroom in Rome, I was surprised to see a rotund, older woman standing there, apparently ready to clean. She said nothing and made no move to leave. I stood near the urinals, unsure of how to proceed. Should I wait for her departure? Realizing that I was hesitant, the woman reached in front of me with a cleaning brush, tapped one of the urinals, and said something in Italian. Though I know very few Italian words, I was pretty sure that she had said something that would translate to “pee here.” I performed as instructed. She watched me, with scant interest. I completed my assigned task, washed my hands and departed. I remember chuckling, and saying to myself, “When in Rome…” To the best of my knowledge, the woman wasn’t a transgender person. It’s difficult to imagine her as a man, selecting special women’s clothing to participate in our thirty-second mini-drama. I don’t believe that I experienced any harm. Nor can I imagine any law that would have improved the experience.

A Young Woman’s Complaint About Transgender Bathrooms

When my daughter was a student at the University of California-Santa Cruz, I would visit and take her out for lunch. On one occasion she chose the restaurant, a student hangout in downtown Santa Cruz. A few miles from the University, Santa Cruz is a small city with a 1960s feel, largely populated by aging hippies and cannabis-loving street characters. My daughter’s chosen lunch venue mirrored that vibe.

Before we entered the restaurant, she warned me about its restroom policy. Instead of the conventional pairs of women’s and men’s rooms, management offered a series of small “People’s Rooms.” I was therefore not surprised an hour later when I found myself in line behind a young woman. As we waited for an available bathroom, I noted a framed printed statement on the wall, explaining management’s bathroom policy and philosophy.

Using more words than necessary, the restaurant owners wanted customers to know that the bathrooms were “like your bathroom, at home. There’s no need to put signs on the doors.” I didn’t pay much attention to this issue, until the young woman ahead of me, probably high on something, turned around and said, “I hate using these friggin bathrooms.” I asked why, expecting some remark related to feminism or personal privacy. But her surprising response was, “Stupid guys keep leaving the seats up!”

A Final Thought

None of these stories is directly relevant to the government lawsuits about bathroom usage. But as a group, they help to emphasize the ridiculousness of this national debate.

A question for both sides: How would law enforcement people know that someone is transgender? Do they have to carry a special card? Hmm…perhaps we need to design a tasteful transgender pin. A lovely piece of jewelry might satisfy both sides of the great bathroom debate and elevate America in the eyes of the rest of the world.