Monday, April 30, 2012

Pete's Pantheon: Bill Mauldin, Tangling With Patton, Quaffing Root Beer With Snoopy

Nobody drew rubble better than Bill Mauldin. He saw plenty of it as he roamed the front in Europe during WWII. As the cartoonist for Stars and Stripes, Mauldin also showed a flair for rendering wrinkled, raggedy uniforms, worn by sardonic, exhausted soldiers. Soldiers that persevered, in spite of all that they endured. Men personified by his two characters Willie and Joe.

Mauldin's cartoons were skillfully composed and boldly rendered. He worked with a heavy line necessitated by the vagaries of newspaper reproduction in the midst of a war.  His well-honed captions could have stood on their own as trenchant one-liners. "I feel like a fugitive from the law of averages" says one beleagured dogface to a second as bullets fly overhead in the dark. "Beautiful view. Is there one for the enlisted men?" inquires one clueless officer  of another, admiring the Sun over a mountain pass

This work was beloved by the men who marched in the rain, slept in the fields and dug the fox holes where the killing happened. It also brought home the urgency of the war to those who saw his widely distributed cartoons back in the States. Mauldin's point of view, shaped by his depression-era childhood in rural New Mexico, was with the struggling underdog. As a nobody from nowhere, he had no reverence for the entitled establishment.

His devotion to showing life at the front in as he saw it, battered and stained, didn't sit well with General George Patton. Patton vowed to "Throw his ass in prison" for "dissent" Eventually the cartoonist was summoned to the general's imposing HQ where in a meeting with Patton and his  white bull terrier (Ironically named "Willie"), Mauldin defended his work, giving no ground. Fortunately General Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander in the European Theater of the war was in his camp.

With Ike's backing Mauldin remained at large, driving his prized jeep out to where the soldiers were in harm's way, and creating work that carried the deeply comforting message that someone understood and cared. He continued in spite of getting wounded by a mortar.

As the war in Europe wound down, the skinny kid from New Mexico was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in cartooning at the age of 23. He returned to the U.S. a celebrated and popular hero. It would have been easy for him to coast comfortably. But that wasn't Bill.

He came home to a troubled country where veterans were having difficulty finding their feet, where KKK night riders terrorized minorities, where paranoia would raise the demagogue Senator Joe McCarthy. None of this set well with the man whose motto was "If it's big, hit it". Soon his scathing cartoons were getting censored by his syndicate.

Mauldin left cartooning, trying his hand at writing and even acting in "The Red Badge of Courage". After this self-exile from his true home, he returned to cartooning, first in St. Louis, then at the Sun-Times in Chicago. This turned out to be one of the great second acts in American life as he produced brave and powerful work celebrated with a second Pulitzer. All of which must have been sweet, but what could have been better than his fellow WWII veteran  Charles Schulz marking every Veteran's Day by having Snoopy head over to "quaff a few root beers with Bill Mauldin."

His fellow veterans never forgot him. As he was stricken with Alzheimer's disease, they and their families sent countless letters to him to tell how much his work meant in those dark and uncertain hours when it fell to them to put on their boots, pick up their rifles, and put everything on the line.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Pete's Pantheon: Primo Levi, Enduring Witness

Primo Levi should have been an obscure chemist, leading a quiet and useful life formulating paint in his hometown of Turin in Northern Italy. This was not to be. As a Jewish man in Mussolini's Italy, he was caught up in the brutal history of the time. A brutality he unconsciously prepared for with rigorous climbing trips in the mountains near Turin. In those mountains he learned lessons in endurance he would rely on later as prisoner number 174517 in Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp.

Part of what drew him to chemistry was a need for truth in an era of big lies. Water was made of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom no matter what Il Duce said. Science did not bow to bullies. As civilization began to crumble around him, H2o remained H2o.

Levi joined the anti-fascist Italian Resistance, and was soon caught. When he was arrested, he identified himself as Jewish and was eventually sent to the concentration camp.

He went into the camp as a chemist, survived through intelligence, luck, and courage, and emerged as a writer.  Before Auschwitz he had no need or desire to be a storyteller. As a survivor, his deep need to tell his tale was equaled by his eloquence. He told it again and again, finally writing it down in the slim but overwhelming book "Survival in Auschwitz".

He wrote of his experience with elegance and scientific clarity. The depravity of the camps, and the loss of his own humanity are described unsparingly. In subsequent writing his long odyssey home, and his post-war dealings with Germans are recounted with a restraint that is his gift to the reader. Primo Levi stands between you and the abyss. In his urgent need to make sure humanity doesn't forget and return, he gathered strength, relived his passage through Hell, and wrote it all down as a witness.

Having found his voice, and growing acclaim, as a writer, Levi nevertheless continued to work as a chemist in a Turin paint factory. For many years he produced poetry, short stories, memoirs and newspaper articles marked by elegance, clarity and grace notes of humor. Near the end of his life, he finally dedicated himself full-time to writing.

His death in 1987 was ruled a suicide. He was found at the bottom of the stairwell in the home in which he had spent most of his life. His fellow death camp survivor Elie Weisel said at the time "Primo Levi died at Auschwitz forty years later". But there is evidence that the fall was an accident. No suicide note? From a passionate writer? And would this thoughtful and restrained man make a messy and melodramatic plunge down a stairwell his last act? Also, consider: As a chemist he certainly knew tidier, and more certain ways to end his life.  Add in the fact that he was taking medication that made him dizzy and prone to falls, and one begins to doubt that a man who endured and escaped his would-be murderers would surrender to them forty years later.      

Friday, April 13, 2012

Banjo Pig!

What is a banjo pig? If I were you, I'd click here right away and find out!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Pete's Pantheon: Dame Evelyn Glennie, Breaking the Sound Barrier

The woman leans intently over the marimba, She lays down a complex tattoo with her mallets, sending out a warm and complex envelope of sound that fills the auditorium. Her audience listens eagerly as the music rings in the air. It is music the musician feels, but cannot hear. Evelyn Glennie, the world's only touring classical solo percussionist, has been deaf since the age of twelve.

This does not stop her from playing the piano, the marimba and drums of all descriptions. Sound is just the way our ears interpret vibration. Hold a tuning fork to your jaw and the pitch will come alive, transmitting through your bone with an immediacy that is felt as much as heard. Glennie performs barefoot to better absorb the vibrations into her body. Here is where she has the advantage. While the rest of us listen with our ears, Glennie listens with her entire body.

The question of who is the better listener suddenly becomes less evident. Music is in her bones.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Pete's Pantheon: Merlin Tuttle, Finding the Way to Unseen Beauty

How many people could, let alone would, answer the following ad? Wanted: Bat Scientist/Conservation Advocate. The successful candidate must be willing to travel to all hemispheres, hack through primeval tropical forests, swim piranha-infested waters, wriggle down dark narrow caves filled with scorpions and deadly gasses, and dangle from a precipice to elude a tiger. Additional qualifications: will become a self-taught world-class animal photographer. This position also requires public speaking. All for the sake of the despised and maligned species, the bat.

Looks like we got only one application. Fortunately that applicant turned out to be Dr. Merlin Tuttle. Tuttle adopted bats as his cause when others thought of them as too plain creepy to save. He knew bats play a vital role in the ecosystem, eating mosquitoes, crickets, scorpions and other insects by the millions. They pollinate many species of tropical jungle plants and are a crucial component of critical habitat. So they don't make honey, big deal. They compensate for that in high-value guano alone.

So how to get around that creepy-Dracula-tangled-in-my-hair-and-gave-me-rabies problem? Tuttle hit on the solution of rehabilitating the species image literally, through imagery. He taught himself to be a first-rate animal photographer, rebranding bats from flying rat to flying puppies, the farmer's friend, and the dearest little winged creature this side of Tweety Bird. Then he went out and sold it the world over, making personal appearances showing his slides and bringing along his pet bat Zuni to be stroked and adored. He also founded Bat Conservation International to amplify and sustain the message.

Bats remain threatened the world over by disease and human stupidity. But their chances have been improved through the imagination and daring of Merlin Tuttle.