THE PIETÁ AND BELGIAN WAFFLES

By Arthur H. Gunther III
ahgunther@hotmail.com

Fifty years ago, visiting the 1964-65 World’s Fair in New York City was like riding a train on what was supposed to be a vacation, but troubling, intruding bad news from home interrupted the anticipated gaiety you had when you boarded, and you could not concentrate fully — there was a buzz in your head. When you got off, you didn’t know where the next stop would be. You did realize, though, that you could not go home again.
The stirring of lost illusion that began with the John Kennedy assassination less than a year before was the bad news, and the bubbling over of long-contained emotion — from anger to euphoria and all the in-between that would become the 1960s civil rights movement, the Beatles, Vietnam and government distrust — would be the many stops ahead. In the years and decades after the fair, not all trains pulled into all stations, and not everyone got off at every stop.
It is odd that the previous New York City World’s Fair, the 1939-40 event also set in Flushing Meadows, Queens, was equally an uneasy citizen layover, that uncertain moment before the second war to end all wars. Then, as at the 1964-65 fair, the day’s job seemed to be distraction. In 1939, “Building the World of Tomorrow” theme would prove severely understated. In 1964, “Peace Through Understanding” became an illusive dream.
Yet there was fun and joy at both fairs, the first an escape from the lingering Great Depression and a chance for people and nations to mix, albeit in tentative fashion. The second fair included recognition that there had been post-war achievement even on the shaky ground of the Cold War. The bright, cheery pastel colors of the 1950s were still popular, American cars were bigger than ever, more suburban homes were being built, and the latest recession was over. In 1939, and in 1964, we all could have a bit of fun, for a time.
A highlight of the 1964-65 World’s Fair was the The Pietá, Michelangelo’s Renaissance sculpture that was installed on loan from the Vatican at its World’s Fair Pavilion.  Though commissioned for French Cardinal Jean de Bilheres, the famous work long ago had been moved to St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.  This art, which depicts the body of Jesus on the lap of his mother Mary after the Crucifixion, was visited by 27 million at the fair, including Pope Paul VI.
The sculpture, so beautifully telling of a mother’s lost and earthly mourning, offered fair-goers, Christian, Catholic or not, a story of pain, of suffering but also of hope. (Just look at the way Mary holds her son.) As such it may have been the perfect “exhibit” at a world’s fair caught between the ever-greater expectancy of the 1950s and the institutional foundation shaking of the 1960s.
The 1964 fair brought us full-blown consumerism. Such fairs are 90 percent that by nature, of course, but the last Flushing Meadows event was particularly gaudy. Larger-style waffles, called “Belgian,” were a smash hit at $1 each, not the 10 cents you paid at Joe’s Diner for the ordinary but still tasty variety. A 20-ounce soda was also $1, not the 5-cent, eight-ounce vanilla cream Pop Roth’s store mixed at fountain service. 
     Prices would rise and rise after the 1964-65 fair, even at Joe’s Diner and Pop Roth’s, and the inflation as well as an emphasis on things bigger continue today. So does the entire story of consumerism, though a shrinking U.S. middle class will  change that. The Pietá is back in the Vatican, visited by millions yearly, its message even more relevant in a world where the “tomorrow” of the 1939 event happened but not as planned and where  1964’s “Peace Through Understanding” remains the slippery, illusive dream it has always been.

  The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at ahgunther@hotmail.com. This essay may be reproduced.

A MEMORY, PACKED AWAY

By Arthur H.Gunther III
ahgunther@yahoo.com

Older folks like me have become our grandpas and grandmas in complaining that the “good, old days” are long gone, that things were always better back when. Well,  of course they were not, at least not always. Advances in medicine, social understanding and tolerance, vehicle safety and quality of life have progressed as has an awful lot more. Yet, since advancement is usually two steps forward and one back, and because we don’t always go back to fix what’s wrong in the new, yes, some things were better back when.
For example, ice cream. Eons ago, I had a bit of someone’s homemade vanilla with real June strawberries, the wild sort that grew in many backyards in my Rockland County, N.Y., area, and that was the best I ever enjoyed. Second to that was the hand-packed variety from old-fashioned ice cream parlors and stores with fountain service, such as the Wooden Indian in Nyack, N.Y., where the Traversons would take their time to scoop from large buckets into cardboard, delicatessen-type containers . They packed the ice cream so tight that the sides would bulge, and then mounded off the product so high you could not close the top and waxed paper had to be slapped on so you could bring it home.
Once home, it took a strong hand or the heat of August to get the packed ice cream out of the package. What a treat. What taste. Compare that to today’s air-injected commercial products that never seem to freeze in the kitchen ice box.
In my elementary school, the 25 cent school lunch (soup 5 cents extra) could be topped off by the occasional, maybe twice-a-month 10-cent treat, a paper cone filled with ice cream from a New Jersey firm. It was labeled “Country Club Ice Cream” and was exceptionally creamy. The paper cone was perfect since you could squeeze the last bit out of it. It, too, came mounded with a paper top. Vanilla was best. Most of the girls bought chocolate,  as they do today.
In the early 1960s, someone with limited thinking power decided to substitute some  ice cream varieties with ice milk, which, while it offered less fat, was also just what it said it was: ice. Not worth the effort.
Today, you can spend a small fortune, perhaps a year’s worth of the 10-cent Country Club treats, on one single cone, triple-decker though it may be and perhaps tasty enough because there still is good ice cream on the planet.
But few places will pack ice cream,  and almost no one, I bet, can pack it the way Ed Traverson did. And it would not have a mound on it.

The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at ahgunther@yahoo.com This essay may be reproduced.

‘ALL QUIET, STILL …’

By Arthur H. Gunther III
ahgunther@yahoo.com

Why does war often begin with a parade and end with one? At the first, youthful excitement, naivete, innocence, natural inclination and lack of experience and judgment as to horror fuel the adrenalin of patriotism as the quick steps of those who would save the world or avenge a wrong rush to enlistment. On the return march, the wounded, the hardened, the ones now in the know, step forward arm in arm with with the ghosts of the fallen, accepting the gratitude of a citizenry that can never grasp the horror of conflict. In each parade, organized first by fever and then on return by politicians, there is the constant cadence of background music for “All Quiet on the Western Front,” the 1930 American film based on a book the previous year by Erich Maria Remarque, a German veteran of the First World War.
The novel, the film, describe the extreme mental and physical stress of the battleground and how civilian life is never the same for many, if not most veterans. The book and movie may be about an older war, the frightening technology of which is far surpassed today, but a young, as they now say “warrior,” mind was then as now a heartbeat from the mother’s womb and embrace. It is easily and perhaps irreparably damaged.  Read or see “All Quiet …” and you know today’s story for post-Iraq and Afghanistan U.S. vets.
The genuine reaction to the Sept. 11, 2001, events brought a surge of young people who enlisted for the cause in a parade of honest patriotism for conflicts now recognized as both debatable and mismanaged, war that has put us into debt when we need investment for a shrinking middle class, infrastructure and quality of life. And for veterans’ care, too.
Now, a parade, the inevitable returning one, is proposed in New York City as the Afghanistan moment winds down, at least America’s part in it. Who can deny these vets their  march down Gotham’s Canyon of Heroes? Who would not feel pride and a moment of gratefulness for the men and women who went off so willingly and quickly?
But when the parade is over, as it also inevitably is, when our veterans are home alone with their nightmares, thinking of lost comrades; when so many are unable to get or hold a job; when a major national newspaper reports that one U.S. veteran commits suicide almost every hour; when brain-damaged or emotionally disturbed warriors barely exist  with seizures and drugs as long waits for woefully underfunded and bureaucracy-laden care never seem to end; when we forget our veterans except to give them a parade, how “quiet”  are we the American people?

The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at ahgungther@yahoo.com This essay may be reproduced.

DECLARE WAR AGAINST SPECIAL INTERESTS

By Arthur H. Gunther III
ahgunther@hotmail.com

We the people must declare war. Our nation has been attacked, this time not by overseas terrorists but by special interests who buy our officials and who cunningly direct growing populist rage against big government and its spending, playing on the fear foaming out of the stirred pot of a prolonged economic crisis.
Taxes are up, people’s confidence waning. The rich are richer, and no cash is trickling down. Manufacturing, once the bedrock of our economy, is silent, its machines now spinning in China. The American middle class, created by the Industrial Age, Progressivism, immigration, two world wars, suburbia and manifest destiny, is disappearing. A third world-like underclass is forming, one that permanently will be out of work.
At stake is much more than loss of buying power, a stalled economy and the threat of entrenched recession. No democracy long sustains without a healthy middle class and the hopes therein. (Recall the fall of Rome?) Those parts of cities not gentrified by the uber-wealthy and the ever-costlier suburbs will decay, and crime and social problems will increase. Education will not progress in such limited optimism and weak investment. Children’s dreams will be lost as we regress, choking our nation’s future.
Today, greed is the name of the game, aided and abetted by ever-more powerful special-interest groups, through 501C (4) political action committees and, now, two Supreme Court decisions that essentially allow big money to shout over opponents, especially the hoarse whisper of the ordinary citizen. Big money rules elections, rules what was once a serving Congress. All this is an attack on America.
Special interests – some of polarized political bent but most commerce-driven (banks, other financial houses,  military suppliers, etc.) – also influence our state legislatures, our executive branches, too.
Special interests, hiding behind a warped sense of 
“free speech,” use money to polarize politics, their paid-for words delivered in quick sound bites and e-bits meant to inflame, not inform, playing off slogans, playing off fear, based not a whit on facts. The downsizing and less-profitable media devotes too little in investigative reporting and explanatory writing to properly structure the debate and thus forge the choices that a democracy must make. Instead, we have sloganeering, innuendo, deliberate distorting of facts, pushed rumors – all to forge a simplistic agenda, such as “take government back” or “change,” behind which the real operation – greed – can operate. It’s now the bottom line, and profit is king.
We the people must declare war against the special interests that are greed’s lobbyists. No more fat wallets for any candidate or office holder. Instead, every campaign must be fully funded by the people. No other money allowed, period, set by law throughout the land. Special interests would still have voices, but they would be heard via public hearings, a true free speech tradition.  No one running for office or serving the people or retired from government would be allowed to take one penny from any special interest.
If we do this, even if it requires a constitutional amendment,  the national focus could turn to a new “Marshall Plan” for economic recovery, this time not for Europe but for America. An industrial/scientific age would begin that creates innovative work (jobs), and so another frontier that can guarantee a vibrant middle class, and with it, the wealth of the upper, yes,  and also the sustenance and dreams of the lower. But most of all it would ensure the future hopes of this nation by rebuilding the vital middle class.
Declare war, people. Tell your president, tell your Congress.

     The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at ahgunther@hotmail.com This essay may be reproduced.