Sunday, December 7, 2008

Ironies of history

The 67th anniversary of Pearl Harbor sees the appointment of retired General Eric Shinseki, first Japanese-American to achieve four-star rank in our military, to the Cabinet-level post of Secretary of Veterans' Affairs. It's a fitting benchmark of progress since the savage conflict of 60 years ago (and some in Japan, where denial of wartime atrocities stands in odd contrast to that country's progress in other areas, would do well to learn from it); born on the Hawaiian island of Kauai 11 months after the Japanese attack, Shinseki is a West Point graduate and decorated Vietnam veteran and was the 34th Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army.

Of course, Shinseki is best known for his warning to Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz that their plan to fight a cut-rate war in Iraq would not work, a warning that they derided at the time but that has been vindicated by subsequent events, as James Fallows reminds us today in The Atlantic. As someone known for his care in preparing estimates, Shinseki should provide a welcome change in the handling of veterans' affairs—particularly in advocating for their health care needs, strangely "misunderestimated" by the outgoing Administration.

On that Sunday morning in 1941, 17-year-old Joe Riley was working as a gas station attendant in Memphis when he heard the news of the Pearl Harbor attack on a customer's car radio. Riley, who later served in combat in Europe and then went on to teach literature at the University of Memphis, rushed inside and blurted out the news to his employer, who scoffed at him and told him to stop listening to Orson Welles. When young Riley was tending cars, there was a Japanese Garden in Memphis's historic Overton Park, though it was torn down by angry citizens the next day. Now, a Japanese "Garden of Tranquility" graces the Memphis Botanical Gardens and has for some years.

Across Park Avenue from the Botanical Gardens is one of my favorite Memphis sights, the Dixon Gallery and Gardens, set up under the will of the former owners of the 1938 Neo-Georgian mansion and 17-acre grounds as a setting in which to display their art to the public. Opening in 1976, the Dixon has built a fine permanent collection and hosted outstanding exhibits, including an exhibit of the work of Rodin in 1988 and art treasures of Chatsworth in 2003. A 2006 exhibit on the work of Margaret Bourke-White included a lecture on her collaboration with Erskine Caldwell, resulting in their 1937 book about sharecroppers, You Have Seen Their Faces.

While Bourke-White photographed sharecroppers in the South, Dorothea Lange documented the plight of victims of the Depression in the West, for the Farm Security Administration; her work includes the iconic photograph of Florence Owens Thompson, then a widow with small children, whose daughter, Katherine McIntosh, pictured in the photo as a small child and now 77, reflected on their plight in an interview last week with CNN. One of Lange's photos of Thompson is the first one in this collection of images of 65–75 years ago in the United States, assembled by a photography teacher at a community college in North Carolina and forwarded to me by my aunt this afternoon. These were made before I was born, but I have met people who looked like this; indeed, the photo of small children living in company housing in a Pennsylvania mining town remind me of what I know of my mother's family when my mother and her five sisters were children in West Virginia.

© Michael Huggins, 2008. All rights reserved.

No comments: