The greatest man from the Greatest Generation

Eugene Eisenhauer, 1924-2016

Eugene Eisenhauer, 1924-2016

On paper, Eugene Walter Eisenhauer was listed among the Greatest Generation. His country spent decades deciding whether he belonged on that list, and when recognition finally came he mostly ignored it.

Other things mattered more by then: his six grown children and their offspring, and thoughts of retirement. The southern Illinois economy central to his life was poor and getting poorer, and the lumber yard he owned was whittling down his peace of mind.

But in 1988, the federal government agreed that the risks Eugene and thousands of others took during World War II in service with the U.S. Merchant Marine qualified him for wartime veterans benefits. He submitted the qualifying documents behind a wave of nagging from his family.

I asked my father-in-law to tell me about his wartime life, about how he crisscrossed two oceans aboard creaking cargo ships to help supply the Allied war effort. Usually, he demurred. The few stories he relinquished oozed forth slowly, like tar dripping from a hot metal bucket. Each drip landed hard.

Like the one about a convoy crossing fast and alone across the North Atlantic late in the war. The Navy was too busy fighting elsewhere. So, the convoy’s only protection against enemy submarines was speed. But subs found them – as they often did – and Eugene watched from the center of the convoy as ships on the fringe erupted into brief towers of orange flame, then vanished into the inky black water.

Or the one about Eugene crawling hand over hand the length of the ship, a metal cable tied to his waist, so he could reach his watch station at the bow during a ship-tossing storm.

Or the one about an argument he overheard between his ship’s captain and a petulant Dutch harbor master who demanded that the vessel, loaded with highly volatile fuel oil, ignore safety protocols and weave through a line of floating mines to reach port.

It is difficult for us to understand now, at a time we equate self-promotion with personal and public validation, why anyone would keep stories like these to themselves. That ignorance spans a wide gap in our understanding of the timing and purpose of true patriotism.

In the 1940s, the threat of a dark future pushed in on America. In cities, towns, and farms everywhere, young men felt compelled to push back. They considered enlistment a necessity, not an option. But the Army and Navy were reluctant to take a man too scrawny to wear their smallest uniform size. In the Merchant Marine, however, Eugene’s slight build was a bonus inside the cramped cargo ships that raced to avoid the enemy.

During his service, Eugene passed through the Panama Canal half a dozen times and sometimes saw the coasts of Europe and Asia on the same trip. He rode in convoys and on ships traveling alone, and he watched the wake of torpedoes pass his ship to hit others. Until then, he never knew the world beyond a few farms surrounding his tiny hometown of Vergennes, Illinois.

When he returned, he settled in nearby Du Quoin, shelved his service medals and sharpened the same sense of purpose that had shaped his patriotism. He raised his six children on the hard fruit of driving milk trucks at dawn along winding country roads, and he hammered together homes from scratch as a construction worker. He also patched neighbors’ broken roofs during summer storms, cinched leaky pipes, and restored light to darkened homes – often at a moment’s notice and without pay – out of compassion, not out of obligation.

Eventually, Eugene partnered with other builders to open a lumber yard, then took it over as the partners trickled out. Along with more homes, he built friendships, respect, and a community-wide appreciation as solid as his service to the country.

All of those enviable qualities were reflected in the long line of mourners who streamed through Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Du Quoin to say farewell at his funeral. He was 92, and though he outlived many friends, and his wife by 18 years, the grieving included the sons and daughters and grandsons and granddaughters of those friends. In small, profound ways stretching across decades, their lives were enriched by this quiet hero of the war who returned to provide a much more heroic and lasting measure of service to his community.

To the federal government, Eugene Walter Eisenhauer symbolized the Greatest Generation. But to the people who revered him, that praise was far too small to describe his true influence.

We’ve had presidents like Trump – twice

 

angry-trump

Events shape U.S. presidencies. Presidential character defines them. History portrays America at its strongest under presidents who took great political and personal risk by putting the nation’s interests ahead of their own and at its weakest under presidents who allowed animus and prejudice into their decision-making.

Abraham Lincoln recognized the moral and civil imperatives in ending slavery despite his own longstanding consent for it. Gerald Ford restored public trust in the presidency, but cost himself re-election, by denying the country his predecessor’s impeachment. Ronald Reagan’s easygoing comportment reassured an anxious, fearful public following an assassination attempt just weeks after his inauguration.

At the opposite end, presidents such as James Buchanan and Franklin Pierce are ridiculed for prolonging slavery, and Woodrow Wilson for defeating his own goal of world peace by yielding to cynicism, arrogance, and vindictiveness.

Character – the sum of individual honesty, courage, and integrity; the aggregate of traits that shape a persona and reputation – frames our responses to other people and contours our world view. It seeds our thinking, cultivates our emotions, and informs our beliefs. It is innate but can change if we are open to that change.

One hopes the man leading in the race to become America’s 45th president possesses that openness in some measure equal to the petulance he has displayed since starting his campaign to occupy the White House. History shows that petulance weakens and undermines presidencies, and none of the 44 people who served before Donald Trump have matched his propensity for, and willingness to display, infantile, foolish behavior.

We have come close to seeing it in two presidents: Andrew Jackson, and Richard Nixon, and their character crises left lasting scars on the country.

Jackson catapulted into public view by defeating the British in the War of 1812 at the Battle of New Orleans then hiring biographers to exaggerate his life story. But his reputation for outrageousness preceded the war: part of his wealth came from selling land promised to Native Americans for resettlement; another part from volume sales of slaves. In politics, Jackson preferred threats and violence to compromise and hired people to victimize and even beat his opponents. He relished identifying with rabble instead of the refined society that produced the six presidents before him.

As president, Jackson juggled cabinet secretaries on a whim, preferred patronage hires that wound up planting corruption deep into his administration, and purged federal office holders by devising false charges against them. His poor upbringing, rough demeanor, and populist views endeared him to the lower classes like no previous president, but his distrust of business and banks dragged the country toward an economic panic in 1837 that was America’s worst until the Great Depression.

Nixon also rose from meager beginnings, yet unlike Jackson lacked the will to tamp down any stigma attached to them. His father’s mantra of victimization, spurred by an early exit from schooling and an argumentative disposition, trickled down to the son, who thereafter in law school and politics envisioned more enemies than opportunities. Nixon reserved special scorn for Jews, blacks, immigrants, Ivy Leaguers, and the media, but his wider animus encompassed anyone on the opposite side of his perspective.

“One day we will get them – we’ll get them on the ground where we want them. And we’ll stick our heels in, step on them hard and twist … crush them, show them no mercy,” he told one of his White House advisors.

This put Nixon on a collision course with the national interest. He strived to shield the presidency from the public not for policy reasons but to cloud judgment on the extra-legal and illegal activities unfolding within – activities spilled first by Watergate and later the Oval Office recording system Nixon installed initially to help with his memoirs. The recordings underscored Watergate and subsequent efforts to hush or pay off conspirators and sped Nixon toward resignation in August 1974.

In 1977, during a televised interview, journalist David Frost asked Nixon whether he had obstructed justice while in office. He answered that “when the president does it that means that it is not illegal,” somehow forgetting that when presidents begin their service they swear an oath not to individual fealty but to protect the U.S. Constitution, America’s supreme body of law.

We walk daily amid the debris Jackson’s and Nixon’s character flaws left behind. Jackson legitimized the confrontational presidency. He bent the constitutionally higher power of Congress to his will at the expense of the public’s trust and the presidency’s integrity. Nixon pulled the nation into an unprecedented constitutional dilemma and emerged defiant, unrepentant, and confident that the title “president” equated with “Caesar.”

What will be the wreckage from Trump? Historians and ethicists point to his constant self-promotion and outsized egotism as symptomatic of deeper psychological trouble. They grapple with how Trump’s biases and Twitter tirades will translate into effective policy considering he has to work with Congress and the American people, not in competition with them, to produce measurable results. They see a man who blusters like Jackson, rages like Nixon, and who has instilled anxiety even among supporters over the country’s course these next four years.

History informs our experiences. Character informs our judgment. We can still see the long, injurious shadows cast by our seventh and 37th presidents. Trump’s behavior alludes to the worst qualities of both.

Tossing away another family’s memories

Trash CanLeaving Las Vegas for the final time, I tossed two large boxes of family memories into a motel’s trash bin.

The double-ply cardboard boxes had “U-Haul” stamped on the side and several thick, black words in my late mother’s handwriting. A single red line ran through each after the boxes’ previous purposes were served. Except for the last one: “T’s and P’s Things.”

They were boxes intended for protecting books or dishes, not memories. But for the four days they were mine, I guessed that is what they contained judging by a third item leaning against the boxes when I discovered them.

It was an oil painting of my step-grandfather.

In it, his necktie and eyeglasses recalled an era on the fringe of my memory. The eyes were piercing, more so than in life, and focused on a spot above and behind the viewer’s right shoulder. His own shoulders were forward as if he were leaning in to hear a whisper.

Appropriate, considering his profession. When people came to him, they carried crushing weight in their minds or in their hearts. His medical background informed how to remove the burden and stitch close the holes that had allowed them in. His practice served leaders and followers, criminals and saints, vibrant personalities one wished to either know or avoid. Whole hospitals sought his counsel. Learned men outside medicine valued his insight.

He was imbued with intractable urgency. He finished high school at 15, college at 18, and medical school at 20. By age 22, a medical center had formed around my grandfather’s practice, and he was venerated by colleagues and contemporaries three times older.

But when he reached their age, his prodigious gift trailed a loose ribbon that wrapped around a liquor bottle. As it dragged, it tripped one family – T’s and P’s – and nearly another, all the while his reputation remained sterling. The impatient visionary and civic wunderkind conceded the high ground at home. His heirs, however, remained amicable until another ribbon, my step-grandfather’s wealth, frayed as they tugged on it.

I was enjoined from much of the drama until the responsibility for those boxes and the portrait passed from my late mother to me. They were the last, lonely inventory of a rented storage space I discovered through a store of keys in her bank safe. The boxes were hard against a dusty corner of the space as far from concern as possible.

My calls and emails to T and P elicited no responses. A review of my late mother’s emails as I closed her accounts showed first, second, and third attempts before mine did no better. The disagreements over money had closed the connection. At that moment, T and P, whom I once called uncle and aunt out of familial courtesy, were as alive to me as my mother.

“We don’t have trash cans or dumpsters here,” the storage center manager said. “You want the deposit back on the room, we require it empty.”

The road into McCarran International Airport’s departures terminal furnishes visitors with last-chance stops for cheap memories: dollar gift shops, grab-and-go grocers, postal and package-shipping services, filling stations for topping off rental car gas tanks, and a brace of rental car drop-off lots for tourists too tardy to reach the main return center. Sprinkled between these enterprises are low-budget inns and motels that do their best business by the hour. I grew up in this town watching streets like this one rise and fall. It was suitable that I was leaving Las Vegas for the last time on one of them – a boulevard of dented and deferred dreams.

I had reached the next-to-last rental car drop-off lot before finding a trash bin close to the curb.

As I turned off and parked, the boxes’ contents clanked and clicked. As I removed the boxes from the trunk and pitched them toward the bin, those contents popped and cracked. A flash of regret followed them in. But I had done a favor for T and P: delivered their things to where they must have thought they belonged.

The portrait landed atop the boxes with a splintering crack. My step-grandfather’s empty eyes were gazing toward the airport.

Colin Powell: Digital transformation success requires leadership

2008 photo of Colin Powell

Colin Powell in 2008. (Photo by Rob Reed / Creative Commons)

Digital transformations rely on much more than technology and investment to succeed; they require buy-in from everyone involved, from the board room on down. Ensuring that buy-in requires strong leadership.

No less an authority on leadership than Colin Powell insists as much. The former U.S. Secretary of State and chairman of the Joint Chiefs is on the record as a firm believer in digital transformation.

In today’s digital society, “if you do not get at the front of change, change will override you,” he said recently. “(The world) has gone from analog to digital, and we are in up to our ears.”

Powell’s acknowledges his motives in this regard are more personal now; he says he stays abreast of the latest tech to keep up with his grandchildren. For a large portion of his career, however, Powell lived at the nexus of both war and peace, first as an Army four-star general, then as the nation’s top diplomat.

In both roles, he led large numbers of people through times of significant transition. The Cold War ended on his watch, supplanted by a globalized economy driven by economics and the information revolution. Two monolithic institutions, the U.S military and the State Department, suddenly needed to change course, and Powell was in the driver’s seat.

He admits being intimidated at first by the size and scope of the disruption. Yet Powell believes that his years of Army training prepared him for the challenge of quelling it.

“When I became … a general, and I was running wars and large military operations, I was surrounded by hundreds of people who were experts in their fields: communicators, artillery men, you name it, and I drew on their expertise,” Powell said in 2009. “It was important to know what they think.

“After listening to all the experts, I was supposed to use that expertise to inform my instinct. … It is an educated, informed instinct that is daily shaped by my experts, but at the same time you’ve got to apply judgement to it. That’s where the human dimension comes in.”

The same strategy applies to digital transformation in the business world. Transformations are large engagements requiring risk and resources. A well-informed CEO will understand how to balance the two.

“You’ve got to have CEOs who not only apply their experience but are willing to take the risks that your data people and subordinates aren’t willing to take, because that’s not their job,” Powell said.

Good CEOs also train their staffs properly, recognize good performance, correct poor performance, allow staff autonomy, and remembers to treat everyone with respect and compassion, Powell says. Each of these elements factors into effective digital transformations along with the technology. Remaining mindful of all of them allows business leaders to stay ahead of the digital curve.

“You can’t just match change,” Powell said. “(Competitors) will be somewhere else by the time you match them, and you will still get left behind.”

My mother, my grandparents, and Pearl Harbor

Pearl Harbor lapel pinOn a bright Sunday morning 73 years ago, my mother looked out her parents’ kitchen window and saw black smoke rising in the distance.

Then she saw planes soar out of the smoke, and the whole world forever changed.

That morning, my mother watched the attack on Pearl Harbor from her home. She was a child, living across the harbor from the U.S. Navy yard. My grandparents’ house sat on a hill slope, their back yard overlooking the battleships moored in port a few miles away, and on this Sunday morning in December my mother and grandparents, awaiting friends who were coming to take them on a picnic, saw the smoke, heard loud bangs coming from the direction of the harbor, left their breakfast sitting unfinished on the kitchen table, and went outside for a better look.

They heard the planes before seeing them. A whining roar, as if from a million angry mosquitoes, echoed across the hillside, gaining in volume, until the planes appeared as black darts flung across the bright sky. My grandmother remarked how unusual it was to see military maneuvers on a Sunday. My grandfather noticed these planes were unlike any he had seen parked on the airfields.

The planes came closer at incredible speed, and there were more of them each passing moment. It occurred to my grandparents that they should move back closer to the house when one plane, so close now the Rising Sun emblem on its fuselage was clearly visible, wagged its wings on approach to the slope, rolled starboard and with the tip of one wing carried off my grandmother’s clothes line.

My mother recalled seeing the pilot’s face. She said through the decades that given enough artistic talent, she could have drawn it from memory.

Everybody ran back into the house to watch the black smoke and noise intensify across the harbor, and it was at about this point when they saw a bright flash followed by the swelling bubble of an intense shock wave envelop the harbor and race up the hillside to rattle the kitchen windows. The USS Arizona, already critically wounded, burst nearly in two as the ammunition magazine ignited.

USS Arizona explodes during attack on Pearl Harbor

The battleship USS Arizona explodes while berthed at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, during the Japanese attack on Dec. 7, 1941. (Photo courtesy U.S. Navy)

At that, the event became profoundly personal: What should we do? Where should we go? Neighbors were walking out into the streets crying, shouting, comforting each other, even as the planes continued to zip overhead. My grandfather, who had joined an all-volunteer civilian defense corps a year earlier as tensions heightened between Japan and the United States, expected he would be called to do … something. But no word came; the few phone lines around the island were jammed.

Hours later, a Jeep sped down the street. The military police officer behind the wheel was going around asking every able-bodied male, particularly those who had guns, to meet in the town center for further instructions. My grandfather expressed concern about leaving my grandmother and mother alone. The Jeep driver responded, “Look, we’re expecting an invasion by the Japanese. If you don’t get down to the beach now to try stopping them, we’re all screwed anyway.”

So, my grandfather packed his only gun, a small-caliber pistol, and boarded a truck en route to a long shallow beach a few miles past Honolulu where Japanese landing craft loaded with troops were expected to appear overnight. Dozens of civilians in several trucks made the trip with him, including one man who brought the only weapon at his disposal: a pitchfork.

Upon arrival, the men busied themselves initially by digging shallow trenches and building defensive positions behind rocks and trees. Then they waited, the only sounds coming from the surf, the only light from the moon. And waited.

And waited.

By daybreak, the threat of invasion had subsided, though the intensity wrought from the previous morning never did. My grandparents’ friends who were driving to meet them were found in their car a few blocks away. They had been strafed and killed en route.

Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Dec. 7, 1941

Front page of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 3rd Extra, Dec. 7, 1941. (Photo courtesy University of Hawaii at Manoa Library)

From that day until almost the war’s end, the Hawaiian islands, not yet among the United States, were under U.S. martial law. The rationing and blackouts common on the mainland during this period were many times more constraining in Hawaii because of difficulty protecting the islands’ supply line. And the happiest times of my mother’s childhood ended as the freedom she had to play with friends and roam was curtailed by stringent rules on civilian movement except for essential needs such as school, work and hospital visits.

The onset of war ended my grandfather’s job, servicing the pineapple harvesting equipment owned by Dole foods, as many industries on the islands shuttered during wartime. About a year later, my grandparents and mother left for California, riding a cargo ship under destroyer escort.

There was one humorous moment out of it all. When my grandfather returned from his beach patrol early on the morning after the attack, he went to put his gun away and noticed a box of bullets sitting open on the bedroom dresser. That’s when he remembered …

He had forgotten to load the gun.

(Editor’s note: This post initially appeared on the Posterous blogging platform, which shut down in 2013.)

My mother’s luck

Friday the 13th icon

My mother’s birthday fell on a Friday the 13th eleven times in her life. Other people cringed at that; she shrugged it off.

Luck, whether bad or good, she insisted, was a byproduct of preparation. So, she crossed paths with black cats, walked under ladders when convenient, swept broken mirrors into the trash without concern, and never hunted for oddities in a patch of clover.

Her dismissiveness regarding superstition impressed me, emboldened me. I, too, count to thirteen without pausing at twelve.

But I think luck found her anyway, and maybe sought her out. Little else would explain how Japanese fighter planes missed strafing her childhood home near Pearl Harbor, or how she thwarted a black colleague’s likely lynching in Alabama by recognizing the voices from under the white hoods of their assailants and shouting their names, or how a tornado late one night in St. Louis missed her house but flattened the one next door.

Or how my mother managed to carry one child to term after three miscarriages and two warnings from her doctor to not continue trying.

Most of us tend to measure our lives against the final tally of blessings bestowed upon us, whether they are considered gifts or rights. We rely on the certainty of an unsubstantiated, ulterior force at our spiritual helm steering us toward a future greater and richer than we may deserve.

My mother was not so sanguine on these accounts. She possessed faith and a spiritual awareness, yet her favorite phrases were, “God helps those who help themselves,” and, “God is a busy man, and there are people way worse off than you. Work hard to make your own miracles.”

With her, not even blessings were left to chance.

Indeed, she suffered disappointment. Her marriage and health began failing around the same time and for the same reasons: too much alcohol and too little commitment. The frames she bought to hold pictures of grandchildren eventually held other memories. The golden years she aspired to spend in travel went instead toward caring for her own parents, one of whom lived past 100 and the other nearly so.

“Good god, I hope I don’t live that long,” she told me after her own mother’s memorial service.

Soon after, her turn toward mortality began. A long Pacific cruise tested her frailty and put her in the hospital for months. After returning home from that, a few months later, she suffered a heart attack and several small strokes.

At hospice, during one of her few lucid moments, she turned to my uncle who was visiting on her final birthday and asked, “I’m not going to get better, am I?”

He said no.

She sighed and after a long pause said, “That’s fine, that’s fine.”

My mother’s birthday fell on Friday the 13th eleven times in her life. Today would have been the twelfth.

I imagine she’s somewhere shrugging it off.

Memorial Day is not my holiday; it’s theirs

Memorial Day

This weekend, amid the smells of barbecues and fresh flowers at gravesites, and the sounds of children playing and new flags snapping in the breeze, my thoughts have been with two men for whom Memorial Day holds other meaning: my father and father-in-law.

My dad was a Depression-era child who came of military age as tension mounted in Korea and would have missed war entirely had he gone to college instead of the Navy after high school. So when most of the young men he knew in school were just learning to shave, he was learning how to keep his clothes dry while bunking on the damp anchor-chain deck aboard an aircraft carrier plying the Pacific.

He chose the military because he had no money for college. And he opted for the Navy because a favorite uncle served in that branch. The same uncle had jumped off a sinking carrier into burning oil during the Battle of the Coral Sea in 1942, and my dad remembered seeing the scars across his arms and back from that and thought of him as a true hero.

My dad did nothing so risky during his service, but his contribution was no less important. He parlayed an interest in photography into a post with Naval intelligence, helping to map out battle plans. He served on two carriers during a duty spanning the end of the Korean conflict and the return to peacetime. Although he never picked up a gun, his work in the dark recesses of the carriers disseminating classified information was weapon enough. Even now, more than 60 years later, he refuses to discuss what he worked on down there.

My father-in-law, Gene, on the other hand took his life into his hands nearly each day he set out from port. A dozen years older than my dad, he was among what Tom Brokaw called “the Greatest Generation,” and his duty took place aboard the cramped, creaky decks of Liberty ships sailing to stock American troops and their allies. While with the Merchant Marine, Gene sailed both the Atlantic and Pacific, crossed back and forth through the Panama Canal and saw more of the world than an Illinois farm boy ever expected.

He does not speak of his service; I had to pry stories out of him. And what I heard amounted to fascinating and frightening tales. He recalled the days he crawled to his post, hand over hand, as storms crashed his ship and three-story waves loomed over the deck like granite cliffs, and the nights when he saw flashes of fire through the inky night as ships on the fringes of the convoy were torpedoed and sunk. More often, he rode the center of the convoy, on ships loaded with armaments. Gene said he had to force out of his mind thoughts of what might happen if a torpedo hit one of those.

And so while many Americans everywhere have enjoyed a three-day weekend and the unofficial start of summer, I content myself with the images and stories passed along from my father and father-in-law.

Instead of barbecue, I recall from my childhood the musty smells of yellowing yearbooks embossed with the carriers my father sailed on and filled with photos of 3,000 or so of his colleagues. Instead of enjoying the pageantry of parades, I prefer sifting the dusty snapshots of my father-in-law in his Merchant Marine uniform, so large it seemed to hang on his small frame.

They would prefer I go out and enjoy this holiday weekend. But it’s not really my weekend. It’s theirs.