Vaccine, Anyone?

 We have begun discussions about the first distributions of a Covid-19 vaccine. Apparently, the vaccine will be distributed to the states in proportion to their populations. The states will determine how they will administer any vaccine within their borders, but the CDC has issued non-mandatory guidelines about the distribution stating that the first priorities ought to be healthcare workers, those in nursing homes and similar institutions, essential workers, and other at-risk populations such as the elderly.

We are still in the early stages of considering these guidelines, but so far they have evoked little controversy. It’s hard to believe that won’t change. For example, isn’t there always contention about immigrants these days? Someone is going to hit the outrage button and say that some state’s priorities will give the vaccine to an early tranche that includes illegal immigrants and surely that should not happen. Someone is going to say that vaccines should be given to states only in proportion of their legal population.

Sooner or later someone will also question other distribution priorities. Some might say that epidemiologists should establish vaccination priorities for the fastest and widest establishment of herd immunity. A certain sort of economist will say that the vaccinations must be done “rationally.” It seems “rational” to give the vaccine early on to the elderly, a group of which I am a member, since we aged are apparently among the most at-risk for dying from Covid-19. However, someone like me might expect to live ten years more if I don’t get the disease. Giving me the vaccine could be said to save ten life-years discounted by the likelihood that I would get the disease and recover without being vaccinated. Giving the vaccine to a forty-year-old could save 45 life-years discounted by those same factors. After these calculations, it might be more “rational” to inoculate the younger person first. On yet a further hand, another sort of economists might contend that early vaccinations should go to those who contribute most to the economy or who will help re-open the economy or society most quickly, but I am sure that such economists will disagree with each other and how to calculate these matters.

What is beyond dispute, however, is that somebody must make such decisions. We might argue about the criteria and what expertise and level of government should be called upon, but there seems little doubt that government, be it federal or state, will be the decisionmaker. And so far it seems accepted as proper that government is buying doses and is planning for their distribution..

The world was different with the mass inoculations of the polio vaccine sixty-five years ago. President Eisenhower and his Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare contended that the free distribution of polio vaccine was socialized medicine and that even government involvement in the distribution of the medicine was socialism.

“Socialism” has been thrown at all sorts of policies again recently; will the epithet be evoked by the vaccinations? The national rhetoric often proclaims that freedom requires a free market. Where are those now, or are these free marketeers, who when they get together wear caps with Milton Friedman ears on them and vow never to sing We All Live in a Yellow Submarine, just biden’ their time until they say that vaccines should go to whoever can pay the most for them? The free market should control, goddamnit!

Surely they see that this vaccine is setting us on a dangerous path to socialistic hell. I count on them to protect me from it.

74 Million Votes

We should be celebrating the fact that 154 million people voted in the presidential election. This is far more than in any other election—136.7 million voted in 2016—and the percentage of eligible voters who voted in November was reported to be the largest in a century. We should be thrilled that so many people got involved and demonstrated civic engagement. We should be rejoicing because these numbers indicate our democracy is strong. 

Do you feel that joy? Yeah, me neither. Instead, there have been probably more discussions of the weakness of our democracy than celebrations of the just-demonstrated strengths of our system. Much of this reaction has been fueled by the cries of voter fraud and resultant suits and pressures led by the president. It is astonishing how many people believe such claims based on “proof” that wouldn’t make it into a Marvel comic book. 

Even if the fraud conspiracies are baseless and laughable, they harm us. Democracy requires not just a good election, but a trust that elections have been honest and fair. That trust is being undermined. Indeed, undermining that trust seems to be the goal of many. But let’s hold off on the funeral bunting for democracy. It is natural when a side loses to look for causes other than its own merits for the loss—the referees, bad weather, sickness, or injury. (This is generally true, but not for Bears, Jets, and Mets fans. They know it is always the team’s fault.) Of course, it is different and more dangerous this time because it is the president seeking to undermine our elections. Still let’s not yet assume that Trump and the Trumpistas have the power to shift in a few years what has survived for centuries. Let’s wait a bit. There is a danger to our democracy, yes, but perhaps it will dissipate after January 20 if Trump leaves office peacefully. (Or perhaps we are not supposed to say that conditional clause out loud.) 

There is, however, another more subtle danger to democracy coming out of the election. Perhaps you have some friends like I do who should have been ecstatic as the result of the election, or at least happy, or at least relieved. Their guy had won the election, or if Joe Biden was not really their guy, Donald Trump, their real concern, had lost. But they can’t surrender to the good feeling. They keep asking, “How did Trump get 74 million votes?” They say that they can’t grasp how so many people could vote against their own and the country’s interest. How can democracy survive, they feel, if so many people vote so wrong?  

This attitude, too, is a danger to democracy. If I view your vote as so wrong as to be irrational, I am in an important sense dismissing its legitimacy. Instead, I should concede that it is hubris for me to “know” how you should vote. Instead, it should be clear to me that some people assess what is in their and the national interest differently from how I would. Of course, since these people did not win, I can dismiss them and claim that they are incomprehensible without seeking to understand them. In that case, I, too, like the president, am acting as an autocrat that will subvert democracy. 

But my friends asking about those 74 million votes may feel a deeper dismay than is warranted. Trump did get eleven million more votes than he did in 2016, but, of course, Biden got fourteen million more votes than Clinton did four years ago. Trump also got a higher percentage of the vote this time around, but it wasn’t much more. He got 47.2% of the total vote in 2020 and 46.1% in 2016. Biden, however, got the majority with 51.1% while Clinton got only a 48.2% share four years ago.  

We can say that both Trump and the Democrats did better. The third parties, however, did worse. In 2016 they got 5.7% of the total vote; this year only 1.7%. Thus, that third-party share dropped 4%. Trump’s share increased by 1.1% while the Democrat’s proportion increased 2.9%. Almost three out of four of those third-party votes went to Biden. Trump did not make much of a foray into new territory. 

My friends, however, believe that Trump has worked a dramatic change in the country. Perhaps. But consider 2012. Obama got 51.2% of the vote, and Romney received 47.2%. Those are precisely the same percentages obtained by Biden and Trump. Perhaps what we are seeing is not a Trump-driven radical transformation of the country, but the powerful, enduring effects of partisanship. Looked at this way, Trump is just the most recent – and most toxic — manifestation of that divide, not something truly new.

Snippets

It irks me when I hear a college football announcer state that a player is a “true freshman.” There are only “freshman” and players who are not really freshman called a “redshirt freshman.” If announcers are going to use the redundancy, they should then tell me when a linebacker is a true sophomore or junior, but they don’t.

Too many football officials announce the penalty by saying, “Prior to the snap, false start.”

Golf announcers often admiringly say that a competitor has just hit a wonderful “golf shot.” It is a golf tournament. What else did they expect—a wrist, slap, or pistol shot?

A radical thought experiment: Football has tried to reduce the number of head injuries, but there are still many. What would happen if players did not wear helmets? Would the athletes lead with their head if it were not encased in hard plastic? Might head injuries decrease?

The headline said: “Voter Fraud: The Crime That Must Not Be Mentioned.” I have no idea where this person has been. I have heard voter fraud mentioned countless times. Voter fraud, however, is apparently the crime that can be repeatedly asserted without proof.

The president’s national daily intelligence briefing is now being shared with the President-elect. Do the briefers now feel different knowing that their product might be read and understood?

“History books begin and end, but the events they describe do not.” R.G. Collingwood.

Does it count as decluttering if you break something and throw away the fragments?

The announcer said that the player had had an emergency appendectomy. How often does someone have a scheduled appendectomy?

Few people know the proper usage: I befuddled you, but I am fuddled.

Charles Dickens said, “If there were no bad people there would be no good lawyers.” But we have seen yet again that just because a bad person has a lawyer that does not mean that the lawyer is a good one. Yes, I am talking about Rudy Giuliani.

First Sentences

“There are few views that can draw noses to airplane windows like those of the Great Lakes.” Dan Egan, The Death and Life of the Great Lakes.

“By the third night the death count was rising so high and so quickly that many of the divisional homicide teams were pulled off the front lines of riot control and put into emergency rotations in South Central.” Michael Connelly, The Black Box.

“In the haunted summer of 2016, an unaccustomed heat wave struck the Siberian tundra on the edge of what the ancients once called the End of the Land.”  Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.

“The man in dark blue slacks and a forest green sportshirt waited impatiently in the line.” Patricia Highsmith, The Blunderers.

“He had been waiting for the morning, dreading it, aware it couldn’t be stopped.” Karen Abbott, The Ghosts of Eden Park: The Bootleg King, the Women Who Pursued Him, and the Murder That Shocked Jazz-Age America.

“When he was small, he was often mistaken for a girl.” Denise Giardina, Saints and Villains.

“Fiction writers as a species tend to be oglers.” David Foster Wallace, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments.

“I’ve always considered myself to be, basically, a lucky person.” Tana French, The Witch Elm.

“I’ll begin with my own beginnings.” Daniel Okrent, The Guarded Gate: Bigotry, Eugenics, and the Law That Kept Two Generations of Jews, Italians, and Other European Immigrants Out of America.

“Midway between Old Oba-Nnewi Road and New Oba-Nnewi Road, in that general area bound by the village church and the primary school, and Mmiri John Road drops off only to begin again, stood our house in Ojoto.” Chinelo Okparanta, Under the Udala Trees.

“From high up, fifteen thousand feet above, where the aerial photographs are taken, 4121 Wilson Avenue, the address I know best, is minuscule point, a scab of green.” Sarah M. Broom, The Yellow House.

“Iron rails the rusty brown of old blood cut across a cracked paved road that leads into the Lowcountry.” Patricia Cornwell, Red Mist.

“Throughout the night of Friday, September 7, 1900, Isaac Monroe Cline found himself waking to a persistent sense of something gone wrong.” Erik Larson, Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History.

This Lost Friday After Thanksgiving

Holiday traditions will change this year. In a sense, that is not new for the spouse and me because our traditions have evolved through the years.

I don’t even remember what the spouse and I did for Thanksgiving when we came to New York (gasp) almost three generations ago. We didn’t spend it with our families; they were a thousand miles away in different directions. Perhaps we went to restaurants, but I don’t think so because we couldn’t really afford them. I do remember that on one very early Thanksgiving morning (like 2 a.m.; we were much younger then), the spouse and I went to watch the balloons being inflated at the staging ground for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. It was like a small neighborhood block party with friendly chatter as we all watched Snoopy and Superman come to “life.” Over a few years, though, the crowds for the event became bigger and bigger. It was more orchestrated, and some of the ritual’s middle-of-the-night charm dissipated. We stopped going years ago.

          When the NBP was a toddler, we started going to the actual parade. I can remember inching a stroller on the streets near Times Square towards Seventh Avenue. We could hear the music but often not see the bands or the vehicles because of the crowds. However, the balloons moving stories above allowed all of us, including the tyke, to experience the parade. In a few years, the NBP and I went a bit further north for our watching leaving the spouse cooking at home. We learned which subway exit to use for optimum viewing. We never left early enough to get into the front row, but we could see more of the parade even though I often held the NBP for long stretches for even better viewing, and my arms had grown several inches by the time we took the trip back home.

One year we had a New Yorker’s dream come true: We were invited to an apartment on Central Park West to watch the parade from balloon level. It was a new experience to have an unobstructed view and to be out of the street-level chill, but we found it antiseptic to be watching through windows. The crowd and its reactions and comments were lost, and in a few years, we had stopped going, never to return.

          For years while the NBP was growing up, we had a tradition for the dinner. Friends we had known for years and their children would come for Thanksgiving; we would go to their home for Christmas. Guests or family members who were staying with them or with us would come along, and the numbers varied to a dozen or more for our then-preferred high-heat, unbrined turkey, but this tradition fell to the wayside some time ago.

          For years, the spouse included graduate students and technicians from her lab. They were primarily from foreign lands and had not celebrated Thanksgiving before. Some years the students from mainland China, Taiwan, Bangladesh, and various regions of India brought their favorite dishes while we made traditional holiday food. The amount and variety of food was overwhelming and made for an unusual and intriguing Thanksgiving dinner. But the retired spouse no longer has graduate students, and this practice, too, has disappeared.

          The best of our traditions, however, has lasted now for more than two decades. It will have a hiatus this year, but it will return. It has given me explorations of cities with the educations that follow. It has given me great food. It has given me laughter and thoughtful conversations. It has given me family and friendship. It has given me more people to love.

          My nephew, raised in the same town where I grew up, went from college in Minnesota to Pittsburgh, and then to doing God’s work as a public school teacher in Philadelphia. He started coming to our house for Thanksgiving joining the others we had invited to dinner. The nephew, after a few years in Philly, met the person who became his partner and later his husband. The husband’s family is from southern New Jersey, and soon we had the tradition of dinner one year at our house and the next year in Philadelphia. Various guests always filled out the party. . Both the nephew and his husband (who went to culinary school before ending up as a manager in a architectural firm) are good cooks, and the nephew’s corn dish and the husband’s pies—he is an excellent baker—became essential components of our dinners.

          But more than food accompanied our tradition. They or we would arrive on Thanksgiving in mid-afternoon, hang out, have dinner, hang out, and go to bed. On Friday, however, we would explore New York or Philadelphia. Over the years in Philadelphia we have gone to the Barnes Museum, seen the husband’s office, walked around City Center, seen an exhibit on Pompei and Vesuvius at the Franklin Institute, visited Philadelphia City Hall, gone to the Philadelphia Art Museum, shopped at the Reading Market, toured the Eastern State Penitentiary, and seen the Liberty Bell and museum. After Thanksgiving in Brooklyn, we have gone to the New York Public Library, the National Museum of the American Indian, shopped at Christmas kiosks at Bowling Green and Bryant Park, seen the Phoenix sculpture at St. John the Divine, gone to the Hispanic Society’s Museum, strolled through the Brooklyn Museum, viewed a Warhol Exhibit at the Whitney Museum, seen the remarkable New York landscape at the Queens Museum, visited the Museum of the Chinese in America, toured the Eldridge Street Synagogue and the Tenement Museum followed by lunch at Katz’s deli, explored Sunset Park’s Chinatown, had a guided tour through Manhattan’s Masonic Temple, viewed the wreckage of the World Trade Tower after 9/11, and more. We would find some place for lunch on our exploration and, of course, eat Thanksgiving leftovers for dinner. The hanging out, the travels, and my respect for the nephew and husband, as well as for the spouse and NBP, have triggered wide-ranging conversations about politics, history, culture, families, sexuality, the future, and the past. I knew little about Philadelphia before these Fridays, and the New York Fridays have brought me to places I had never been or not been enough. The day after Thanksgiving has become an important part of our tradition.

          But not this year. Covid-19 has robbed us of our tradition. I am grieving.

Our Lunch with André – Secrets Revealed

I plan to make something new for Thanksgiving—an onion tart. This is partly because I like onions and tarts made from them, but also because the recipe I plan to use brought back warm memories of an encounter with a famous man.

As a young couple, the spouse and I wanted to explore more foods. At a time well before baba ghanoush, hummus, pita bread, and lamb kebabs were staples in restaurants and grocery stores, we discovered that Mideast restaurants and bakeries were in abundance on the street behind our apartment. They were inexpensive and allowed us to bring in our wine, and we enjoyably explored.

We soon learned that affordable neighborhood “ethnic” restaurants dotted Brooklyn and the rest of New York City, and we searched out Polish, Chinese, Mexican, Peruvian, German, Uzbek, Ethiopian, and both red sauce and Northern Italian restaurants. (Alas, I found no Lithuanian places.) But our penury prevented us from going to dinner at the City’s culinary nirvanas because those restaurants just put too much of a dent in our budget from fellowships and starting wages.

Then, however, we learned that many of these exclusive restaurants, while still expensive, were often much less stratospheric for a weekday lunch and often had a bargain fixed price lunch, which of course was labeled prix fixe. We began once or twice a year to treat ourselves to what we saw as a mini-mini-vacation. We would free up an afternoon and meet at La Caravelle, La Grenouille, the Coach House, or Le Cygne, dine luxuriously and then spend the rest of the afternoon at nearby art galleries whose staff did not seem to mind that we were only gawker/browsers. We knew that we are not experiencing the full evening dining experience but were still able to sample the food and ambiance of the best of New York in a way we could sort of afford.

Finally, we went to what many had told us was the pinnacle of New York City restaurants, Lutèce. At a time with few celebrity chefs, André Soltner, the chef-owner, was famous because his restaurant was repeatedly named the best in the country. Situated in an eastside townhouse, the dining room was elegant. And so were the patrons. The spouse and I were nicely dressed, but the women and the men all seemed to be regulars in designer dresses and bespoke suits. Even so, the staff, while incredibly professional, made us feel comfortable and welcome, something not always true at other expensive restaurants.

I don’t remember what I had to eat; I think that I would remember if I had the signature Alsatian onion tart. We both recall vividly, however, that the spouse had salmon. She kept exclaiming quietly to me throughout that main course that it was the best salmon, the best fish, perhaps the best dish she had ever had. We were lingering after we finished our meal, hoping to extend for a few moments more the experience. The dining room had mostly cleared. The door to what we assumed was the kitchen swung open, and a thin man wearing a toque and assurance entered the dining room. We watched as the legendary André Soltner stopped at a few tables to exchange greetings and pleasantries with those remaining few who must have been regulars. And then he mystified us by coming over to our table and said to the spouse, “I heard you liked the salmon.” The spouse was taken aback, but then realized that a waiter must have told Soltner about her pleasure and enthusiasm. After the briefest of pauses, the spouse replied, “Yes, yes. I loved it.” He continued in his Alsatian accent, “Would you like to know how I make it?” He sat down and went on to explain his preparation in detail but so clearly that the spouse learned it and prepared it many times for dinners afterwards, always impressing our guests.

André Soltner’s graciousness was all the more surprising when it had to be clear that we were unlikely to be frequent diners at Lutèce and, indeed, might never eat there again. (In fact the restaurant closed before we were able to go again.) And we were surprised by another thing. Soltner stressed that the secret of the dish, what pushed it into the extraordinary, was that the salmon was cooked in bacon fat.

This experience came back to me when I recently saw printed in The New York Times Soltner’s onion tart recipe adapted by Gabrielle Hamilton, who is both a gifted cook and a gifted writer. She was the chef at the extraordinary restaurant Prune. She is the author of Blood, Bones, & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, a book about much, much more than just cooking, catering, and restaurants. (Both AJ and AJ’s Dad highly recommend it.) In this book, she records that her sister cooked an omelet with Soltner. He did not showily crack open the eggs with one hand. “With two hands, he split the egg open and deposited its contents into a bowl. With each thumb, he reached into each half of the shell and scraped out the remaining albumen that tends to cling to the membrane until he had thoroughly cleaned out the egg. He said, ‘When I was growing up, this is how my mother got thirteen eggs out of the dozen.’”

I read Hamilton’s take on Soltner’s onion tart classic, and memories of our lunch flooded back. Her instructions told me that while baking the dough, I should slowly caramelize the yellow onions over a medium-low heat in a wide pan in…yes, bacon fat.

The Competitive Mind

The NBP is a terrific tennis player — or I really should say a terrific tennis ball striker. AJ played the game as a kid and even won tournaments but never enjoyed that winning or losing thing. Not surprisingly, the NBP did not like losing, but winning brought other bad feelings. The opponent was sure to feel bad, and AJ never liked making other people feel bad. Beating someone made the NBP feel even worse than winning. While AJ still hits tennis balls, there is no more tennis competition.

Seeing these reactions made me think about the differences in individual and team sports. A tennis player must deal with the stark winner/loser dichotomy of this one-on-one sport. I win; you lose. You win; I lose. I win and made you a loser. You win and made me a loser.

As a kid I primarily played team sports, and winning and losing are easier in team sports because the winner/loser dichotomy is a shared experience. I did not win; my team did. I did not lose; the team did. The lonely feeling that accompanies tennis is less in a team sport.

At some time in my undistinguished athletic career (it was hammered home time and again that there were many athletes better than I) my focus shifted. I took what I thought was a reasonable assessment of my abilities and realized that if winning were my goal, I would have to give up activities that I enjoyed and were an important part of my life. Instead I began playing against myself. Did I play well by a reasonable assessment of my own skills? If I had, even though I lost, I was satisfied. But winning was still often a part of this playing against myself.

In my early days in Brooklyn — before I blew out my knee — I played a lot of schoolyard basketball. The usual game was the first to eleven or fifteen of three-on-three, half court basketball. The convention was that if there were other people waiting to play, that group played the winners, and a team could continue to play as long as they continued to win. In the playgrounds I went to I was usually competitive, but every so often someone would arrive who was truly an outstanding player, and there was no way I was going to win. I accepted that and could only admire that other person’s skill. That did not make me feel bad or disappointed. But something else did bother me. Except when one of those stars appeared, I felt that I was one of the better players and expected to win often. I noticed, however, that while I was often on the winning side for two games, the third game was  frequently lost. Having “held” the court twice, there was a letdown. I regarded this loss of focus and intensity as a personal failing. I started keeping a mental record of the games during a week. It was only a satisfying stretch if I won 70% or more. No one else knew I was keeping this tally. I was playing basketball with others, but I was playing this other game against me alone.

 Tennis produced something similar for me. I took up the game at forty-five. Without childhood instruction and training, I knew that I had limited ability that was unlikely to improve much. At one point, however, I thought I was losing too often to players who had comparable skills, and such losing bothered me. I almost thought of it as a moral failing. Losing to better players was acceptable, but not this. My skills weren’t going to improve much, but still I ought to, and felt I could, play better. I studied the game a bit and realized that there were strategies and tactics and shots that were within my ability, and although my strokes and serves were not stronger, I won more often. This, too, was really a game against myself, and it was satisfying when I played as well as my too-limited ability allowed. The downside was that I was frustrated when I failed to play up to my own “standard.”

Such self competition came out most during my running days. I did win basketball games and tennis matches, but I was never going to finish first in any of the 10K races I entered. Instead, I would set a goal near the boundary of my ability for the race. I did not measure myself against the other competitors, but against that goal. Some days, but not every time, I would “win” and feel satisfied, but I won or lost against myself.   

I did win one race in my running days although I did not finish first. It was on a trip to the hometown. The race started at the Sheboygan “Y,” ran along the lakefront, up the hill at North Point, continued on Third Street, turned around, and retraced the route, finishing back at the YMCA.  The gimmick was that no one could run with a watch and there were no clocks on the course. Before the race all entrants had to write down their projected finish times. I sensed that many of the competitors were reluctant to enter what they really hoped to run, but at this point in my running, I was attuned to what my body could do. I did what I did in other races and recorded a time that was a goal for that 10K. I finished within a few seconds of my estimate. I was the closest by far, and a week or two after the race, I received in the mail a pair of running shorts with the Sheboygan “Y” logo. (I no longer have them; They either shrunk or for some other reason got too small[MJ1] .)

I have to admit that I have taken some perverse pleasure in “beating” others in running. Through the years I have met people who considered themselves runners. For inexplicable reasons they seem to think that I will be interested in their races and their times, even without my having mentioned that I was a runner, too. Almost always I have taken silent satisfaction that my times were better, usually much better. A few, but only a few, of the obnoxious prattlers ask if I ran and even fewer ask me about my times. When I do announce a much faster time than theirs, which is usually the case, I feel an unexpressed pleasure and a bit of gloating which I hope I keep off my face.

Now the NBP no longer plays tennis against others, but I am sure that when AJ hits the ball against the backboard, there is not only exercise, but also competition against themself. I can relate to and cheer for that. I hope it gives the satisfaction that I have frequently found in competing against myself.


 [MJ1]Where was I?! I don’t remember this at all!

Our Nail-Biter

The presidential race was a nail-biter. Or at least it was if one followed it hour-by-hour or even day-by-day as so many did. But now when it is clear that one candidate got 5.5 million more votes than the other and is entitled to more than seventy more electoral votes than the other, it does not seem particularly close. A “landslide” some might say. The “people” have spoken decisively, but, as we have commented often in this forum, the people as a whole do not elect the president. Instead, we elect the chief executive by states, and as we are aware from recent history, a person can become president even when receiving fewer total votes than an opponent. For at least part of the time over the last two weeks, it seemed that the minority candidate (irony intended) would become president again. I was curious about how the “people” would react to having a president that the voters had rejected by even a greater margin than last time but was relieved that I did not find out. But it also made me wonder how others react when a similar thing happens in their country, for example, Great Britain.

Of course, the UK has a governmental structure different from ours. My knowledge of their parliamentary system is admittedly incomplete (I have only watched the first season of The Crown), but it is my understanding that the candidates for Prime Minister do not appear on the ballot, as the U.S. presidential candidates do. Instead, the electorate in each district votes for a member of the House of Commons, and the leader of the political party that gets the most members elected to the House becomes the Prime Minister. There may be no nationwide tally for the Prime Minister’s race as there is in America, but even so, something similar to what can and does happen here must occur there—the election of a chief executive whose opponent won the nationwide vote. If, for example, the Tories win a 51% majority in the bare majority of districts, their leader becomes Prime Minister even if the opponent got 60% of the votes in all the other districts and, thus, got more votes than the Tory throughout the country. It is not exaclty like our troublesome electoral college, but is similar to our recent elections where the candidate getting fewer countrywide votes has become president. How have the British reacted to this?

My Personal Story for Veterans’ Day

(Guest Post from the Spouse)

My namesake was James Miller Herren, Jr. – make that Lt. Col. James Miller Herren, Jr. The beloved baby son of my grandmother and the darling baby brother of my mother, “Mill” was a champion horseman, flying ace, the all ‘round perfect baby-faced charmer of the family…whose P-51 Mustang fell out of the sky over Celle, Germany, on October 30, 1944. He was 28. 

Cleaning out the basement recently, we came upon a treasure trove of letters, medals (including two Air Medals and the Distinguished Flying Cross) and military “jewelry” that were from or about Mill. Through this stash, we have learned or confirmed some of his military history.  

While we don’t know exactly when Mill enlisted, by the fall of 1942 he was training pilots in Panama. He writes regularly over the next year that he is very, very busy (and often exhausted) training young men fresh out of high school to be fighter pilots. “They can think up more ways to wreck an airplane,” he writes, commenting more than once on their youth. At the time he himself is only 26 but a Captain in the Army Air Force. By August of 1943, he is a Major preparing his pilots for combat in Europe. 

His letters are hand-written on air mail parchment. They are sent from the 24th Fighter Squadron in Panama through an APO address in New Orleans to his parents in Ashland, Alabama. The ink may have been blue or black, but age has turned it sepia. They start “My dears,” or “My pets,” and always send love and sweetness…and often money. They conclude “Devotedly” or “Love to all.” He begs for letters from home. “I’m really gonna quit you,” he writes, “if you don’t sit right down and talk to me a while.” He buys a car; an old girlfriend marries someone else (he’s okay with it); he flies some buddies to Costa Rica for a little R&R; he meets the president of Guatemala at a reception. He works and works and works. He sounds content and extremely proud of his squadron. 

There is the suggestion from some earlier letters (undated, but probably around 1937 or 38 while he was a student at Auburn) that there had been a major disturbance in the family equilibrium…disturbing enough that my grandmother kept letters about it. “My dearest,” he writes to his mother. “It isn’t you that has failed us – if anything it’s I that has done the failing. I’ve realized for so long what was wrong at our house but I’ve rationalized to the point where I thought things would surely improve. If when realizing it I had done something maybe it would have helped, but it hurt me so much that I just couldn’t believe it was really happening.” He continues his profuse apologies and vows to leave school if his father remains set against him. “Mother darling,” he writes. “Words can’t express what you mean to me so please don’t give me up as a bad job.” We know my grandfather drank heavily and think he may have hurt Mill’s mother. This would have led to a major, unspecified confrontation. Subsequent letters arriving from Panama, however, do not address this incident and, in fact, send love, presents (a unique fountain pen), and offers of money to his father to help his struggling business ventures.  

Sometime around the late summer or early fall of 1943 Mill is promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and his unit is incorporated into the newly-formed VIII Air Force stationed in Los Angeles. He became the commander of one of three (the 434th) Fighter Squadrons in the 479th Fighter Group of the VIII Air Force in the European theater sometime before February 1944. The 479th was moved from California to England in May of 1944, in time for the 434th to patrol the beachhead in the Normandy invasion on D-Day. “I wouldn’t take anything for being in on this deal,” writes Mill on June 8, 1944. “The scope of the thing is darn near too much to believe, even when you see it.” 

The most moving letter comes from Col. Hubert Zemke, who, as commander of the 479th, was Mill’s commanding officer on October 30, 1944. The letter is dated 31 July 1945 and arrives in Ashland from Missoula, Montana. “As you probably know,” types Col. Zemke in an almost typo-free letter, “the mission that Miller and I went down on was to be my very last. [They were escorting B-24 bombers in a mission to take out an oil refinery north of Hannover.] Since it was my last I wanted to lead the best squadron in the Group so I chose Miller’s squadron. This automatically placed Miller on the ground that day. Of course this didn’t please him too much as he had been having a tremendous amount of success and the day’s prospects looked quite good. Miller was always that way. Perhaps too overeager.” So he lets Mill command a section of the squadron. 

Taking flak over Hannover, they turned east, running into a “terrific thunder cloud, which none of us knew existed.” At a radioed suggestion from Mill, they turn around, only, says Zemke, to enter “into the roughest flying condition that I’ve ever encountered.” His plane bounced around, iced up and started spinning. Zemke pulls out of the spin only to realize that he is in a “terrific dive,” severe enough that his wings snapped off. Somehow he is thrown from the plane; somehow his parachute opens; he lands “with a thud into a swamp.” The local village is aroused. Zemke is “overtaken by about twenty hunters armed with every sort of weapon. Their reaction towards me was of curiosity. In no way did they harm me and they went as far as washing the blood off my face at a farmhouse I was taken to.” Later two Luftwaffe Officers came and took him to their station in Celle. “While enroute there one of the two officers told me another American officer had been found near the spot where I had been taken but he had lived only an hour or two….It was later found that this flyer was Miller.” What happened to Zemke between October 1944 and July 1945 is left unanswered in this letter, but he tells that story in a book he wrote in 1991 entitled Zemke’s Stalag: The Final Days of World War II

The horror was that my grandmother received word in October 1944 that Mill was missing but waited in anxious hope for another six months until having his death confirmed in March 1945. 26,000 members of the VIII Army Air Force were killed in World War II. Mill’s story was, tragically, not uncommon. 

Gene Miller Jonakait (née Knopf) was born May 15, 1946. She is honored to be known as “Mill.”