Thursday, May 31, 2007

Valor worth commemorating

Published 5.31.2007 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

"Why write about something that happened 12 years ago?"

So went part of a reader's e-mail critique of one of my prior columns. To some, there is little value today in citing dates, events or people from a mere decade ago, let alone 14 decades ago.

At this year's Memorial Day service in Delafield, about 100 observers begged to differ. The event was the Cushing Park Memorial Day service, with a speech delivered by Rick Gross, who along with a half-dozen or so other members of the Cushing Historical Association addressed a crowd to commemorate the military service of four brothers during the American Civil War.

Three of the Cushing brothers were born in southeastern Wisconsin (two in Delafield, one in Milwaukee), and a fourth was born in Columbus, Ohio. On a resplendent spring day at Cushing Park, Gross and his colleagues wore period costumes to portray the kind of Union soldiers they were honoring, to speak of sacrifices made long ago and to fire four thundering cannon blasts to commemorate the Cushings' military service.

Ron Aronis, who portrayed the Union battery commander, has been participating in re-enactments since 1965. I asked him why he felt it was important to re-create and memorialize the military service of those gone for so very long.

Aronis replied, "If we don't remember, we tend to repeat history, which isn't always the best; you need to know what your country's been through. Have we always loved each other? Have we always hated each other?"

Gross, who is a design engineer by trade and who mentioned that he had a bit part in the 1993 movie "Gettysburg," had a simpler answer: He gives his time for these events because he enjoys "preserving the memory" of the fallen.

On Memorial Day this year, the fallen included Milton, Howard and Alonzo Cushing. William Cushing, like his three brothers, fought valiantly for the Union but, unlike them, did not die in battle. (He died of illness while serving in the Navy.)

Those interested in learning more about the Cushing brothers or to support the Cushing Historical Association, which is a Wisconsin non-profit corporation, can e-mail James Benware at Cushing_recruiter@yahoo.com or phone (262) 306-1279. A related Web site of interest ( http://www.suvcw-wi.org/) is sponsored by the Sons of the Civil War and has a link to Wisconsin's Civil War heritage.

Last year, a Delafield resident complained to the city about the cannon blasts fired at the park. Apparently, the sounds of the charges were frightening the resident's dogs. The blasts, to be sure, are something to hear. The charges I witnessed stripped leaves off of a nearby tree and echoed throughout the park and beyond.

According to one member of the historical association, the permit to fire the blasts this year - a total of six discharged over about 30 minutes, two to begin the service and one for each of the four Cushing brothers - had to be defended before city representatives in order to continue the tradition.

Remembering events and sacrifices made so many years ago strikes me as a worthwhile endeavor, even if it means that I need to comfort my pets for a while or take them on a well-timed walk elsewhere in town.

But that's what makes our land so great; we can disagree on that point without fear of retribution. Unfortunately, such freedoms have never come without the ultimate price being paid by others, many of whom are long forgotten. Here's hoping our memories of war dead linger throughout the ages. Let freedom ring, and may the cannon of Cushing Park never be silenced.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Celebrities' political preening

Published: May 4, 2007 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

If the entertainment elite could remove the words "decorum" or "credentials" from Webster's Dictionary, many of them would assuredly do so.

Consider Sheryl Crow's April 21 performance during the White House Correspondents Association Dinner in Washington. Crow decided to accost presidential adviser Karl Rove and, in the process, impress Lord knows who, about her passion for the topic of global warming.

Recounting this is not an indictment of anyone concerned about global warming. Rather, the issue is public behavior (or, more precisely, public misbehavior) by entertainers with dubious qualifications but plenty of pluck and A-list invitations to do their public preening.

To be honest, I do have a double standard. That is, I'd have less of a problem with the Crow-Rove ordeal if, instead of a musician, a renowned climatologist from Yale had cornered Rove and a heated debate ensued. At least such an altercation, while still socially awkward, would have taken place between people with depth and a useful angle. Crow? Precisely whom does she represent? All she wanted to do was have some fun, I thought.

I guess our Midwestern sensibilities come through differently at local entertainment outlets. I have attended many plays at the Sunset Playhouse and the Marcus Center over the years, and not once did an actor stop a performance, turn up the lights and pass the hat to save spotted owls. Maybe they know we didn't come to hear the political cause du jour.

The correspondents dinner has been a painful penance for every administration. And the casualties are chosen in a non-partisan manner.

I'm not referring to good-natured ribbing but rather the type of thing spewed by now-disgraced radio jock Don Imus, who took the podium in 1996 and proceeded to caricature a sexual encounter between President Clinton and someone other than his wife, Hillary. All this done, of course, with the first couple seated next to Imus' lectern on national television.

No, a successful entertainment career doesn't mean you forfeit a right to public debate on serious issues. But it should mean that you make sense, that you espouse your views at a proper time and place and that you thoroughly understand what you are talking about. Bono, lead singer of the rock band U2, courts lawmakers for debt relief to impoverished nations, but he does so without making silly public displays or mindless pleas. Moreover, he has impressed government officials with a command of complicated issues. In short, he gets it. If you want to be taken seriously on world affairs, you need more than a Grammy and a choice table at the Washington Hilton.

Three years before the Imus debacle, we witnessed Richard Gere at the Academy Awards lapsing into a dreamy metaphysical trance to "send a message" to the people of Tibet, Deng Xiaoping and perhaps someone at a Dairy Queen in Vermont. We never heard what his message was, but afterward, 38 states wanted to revoke Gere's driving privileges.

Want another recent example? I never understood why Rosie O'Donnell occupies the airwaves, but after the Supreme Court upheld the federal partial-birth abortion ban, she decried on "The View" the lack of a "separation of church and state in America" because five Supreme Court justices happen to be Catholic.

With rigorous analytical thinking like that, who needs to stay in school? Not O'Donnell, who dropped out of college with a 1.62 grade-point average.

With O'Donnell vacating "The View," the state of political discourse in America just improved.