Warlords and Whistleblowers, civil service and cynicism
Why do we have warlords or whistleblowers, and fewer civil servants in between the extremes? The topic begs for discussion, and I have some personal thoughts of my own to share.
My father was a combat veteran of World War II, my mother a suburban pioneer with a lifetime of hurt behind her -- or thinking so when I came along in 1953. Growing up on white bread and thousands of bloody war stories, my oral history was punctuated by fantastic tales of survival in the 'hardest times there were.' The Great Depression and World War II were as steady a stream in our home as tea, coffee and old friends. I was raised under the shadow of remarkable events.
I was never sure if I was supposed to be grateful for growing up in cold war peace, and shopping ample aisles of grocery stores, or to feel guilty that I was. So I did both.
My public education included 'duck and cover' exercises in school. People who love peace, having lots of enemies -- a tired line, revived today -- was literally drilled into me as a child.
"How is that supposed to keep us alive if the A-bomb hits?" I would ask my teacher, after we pulled our terrified bodies from under our desks. Furthermore, how do you study after a near death experience? They wouldn't tell us it wasn't the real deal, until we knew that for ourselves. We were still alive.
I never understood why we had to practice dying, and told my parents so at dinner one night in the early 1960's. In worried, exchanged glances, they revealed I was likely right about the dying part.
As head of the house, my father narrated the civil right's movement interspersed with his own struggles in the Pacific, lots of profanity, and about the same time we were diving under our desks at school. We subscribed to National Geographic, Reader's Digest and I was a good reader. Through these 'esteemed publications,' I learned that children of the world were dying, mostly because of communism. In the United States, children's sufferings were caused by poverty.
I knew that my dad worked for the government, and we moved a lot because of that. My father was a ranting skeptic of the government he worked for. He was convinced that 'the system' couldn't work for the common guy, but eventually settled into a bigger mortgage, carried more debt, and I could tell my mom was proud of being part of the middle class. She'd be quick to remind us we could fall out of it, too. "Now finish the food on your plate," never minding the fact I was already a chubby kid.
The fact that the US wasn't loved by the world was mostly the World's Fault, but then my Dad would gripe about our leaders. I became the true skeptic's daughter. And nobody liked arguing with my dad; he ranted on about 'politics' in that duplicitous way throughout my childhood and beyond.
Mostly, my father was miserable at work. And that misery, now that he is dead and gone, stands out very large to me.
He'd often be privy to trouble. During the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba by clandestine groups, my father was working long hours. We had our Miami home stocked with Sterno, extra food, survival gear; and given lessons on staying alive in the mattress-lined hallway if our parents die first; before the neighbors found out about the threat of missile attack.
My dad was likely confused about his government for good reason. He was a poor, hard rock miner's kid in Butte, Montana with an allergy to copper water one day, off to the South Pacific to kill Japanese Imperialists for 'God and Country' the next. After more than three years of combat, at war's end he was sent immediately to China to suppress Chinese Communists.
When he finally got home, with a likely case of PTSD, he met and married my mother, then was off to the US Border Patrol Academy. Most of his lifetime of service was dedicated to military, international, domestic and border policing -- and lower middle class.
I was conceived in Brownsville, Texas, born in Sacramento, California and over 40 years old before I could wrap my mind around the possibility that most of what I learned about our country wasn't even true. Had I been killing people on notions based on lies, I don't know if I could have ever wrapped my mind around it -- much less my heart. I like to think that I understand my father's lack of it, now that I'm fifty.
I was ending my first year of Junior High School, embracing puberty and village life in upstate New York when it seemed things in our country, the world, and our family would explode. My brother, Gary Patrick Callahan, graduated from Champlain High School, and doing what most sons of US World War II Veterans did - signed up for military service.
We drove to Parris Island, South Carolina to see him graduate from boot camp, late summer of '66. My parents were cold toward each other, and fought some. My mom blamed my father for it, but not in those words; there were other words, though. It was a miserable trip. I knew my brother was going off to fight a war, and soon. The war was being fought for 'damned armchair warriors' my dad said, under his breath, through clenched teeth. My mother sat stiff on the bench-seat of the VW camper we were heading south in. Where did 'God and Country' vanish? I dared not ask.
During USMC graduation ceremonies, that didn't include any real time with my brother, this weird mix of white, brown, and black, bald boys; marching bands, roaring guns, and cursing drill instructors caused my parents to sway from bitterness and resentment, to tears of patriotism. This remains front and center on my experience list.
On the way home, we toured the nation's capitol, Washington D.C. My dad and I checked out a floor of the Army Navy Medical Museum closed to the public. I saw a leg in a big glass jug -- a bad case of elephantiasis was cited -- incredible, it was as large as I was from head to toe. We viewed slides of Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors, and an exhausted explanation rushed out of my father as we left the building. The A-bomb had new meaning to me. My father, too, I sensed.
My mom was outside smoking Pall Mall cigarettes, my older sister on a bench, and little sister playing in the grass. Mom remarked it wasn't appropriate to let me see such horror. My dad winked at me. It was like that with my dad and me. When my mom wasn't 'game' for something, I would be; then my father and I would be in-on-something together. We were very close that way.
Later, we spied on grief, and watched a military funeral while walking the rows of white tombstones of the dead inside of Arlington National Cemetery.
Before my first year of High School was over, President John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr, Senator Robert Kennedy, Black Panther leader Fred Hampton had been gunned down, and my brother was home from the war.
We were living right along the San Diego, Tijuana borderland -- Chula Vista's first suburbs to be exact. Gary was 19 years old, a combat vet, trained and true killer. Life was entirely different. Protests began to fill the streets, my brother is not like I remember -- oddly reclusive, on edge, armed, wearing jungle boots and his Marine Corps cap everywhere he went. The principal at my high school ditched the dress code, we lifted our hems, added blue jeans, and T-shirts to our wardrobes, hair grew long and shaggy.
My parents were never the same either, and just before I was an official adult, Gary was settled into marriage and the Border Patrol, and my parents divorced. My father married a long-time Mexican mistress.
By the time I ventured into middle age, the 1980's were about over, and I'd missed my ride to the top. Twice divorced, raising two kids at the poverty level -- drugs suddenly were paramount concern. Or ought to be, our government mouthpieces warned. The men in the family added drugs to their war service.
Parents were terrified about kids, drugs and addiction - rightfully so. The war on drugs quickly justified itself, and the fury of drug availability that followed the crackdown was presented as proof it was a good and just war. Most of us bought it -- hook line and sinker - even before they formally declared it.
Prison expansion became a US prison industrial complex, due mostly to the ever-expanding wars on drugs. Doctors got into the act, with drug treatment, and began prescribing a wider variety of pharmaceutical drugs for the psyche, too.
A memorable moment of sudden, greater understanding about the hypocrisy of drug policy was my son entering into some 'girl talk' uninvited. Teachers were suggesting a drug 'therapy' that might help my friend's daughter learn more efficiently.
"Mom, Ritalin is just speed," my son complained angrily. "Don't encourage that. Why? So, she will act a certain way? Why does everyone have to be the same? Why can't she be herself?"
Out of the mouths of babes, and he stormed out of the house.
Meanwhile, my friend's daughter was put on variety of drugs, and we collectively fretted about our kids becoming addicts and prisoners.
My kids never did go to prison, but my brother did. A war-torn, middle aged decorated Vietnam Vet, and veteran of 19 years on the Border Patrol became a prisoner of the drug war. I find it unacceptable.
Like my father, my brother turned military experience to policing. But after retirement, he didn't die like my father did. He was indicted for a 'drug conspiracy,' and has served 14 years in prison. Short of miracles, or true sentencing reform, he will serve at least 10 more before he is eligible for release. There is no parole in the federal prison system.
To put it simply, when my brother went to prison, I still thought Christopher Columbus was a good-guy. I'd bought in easily to the idea that God gave this part of the Americas to 'Us.'
The first time I visited my brother in prison, however, I found it overfilled with nonviolent, men of color. Unexplored white supremacy unveiled with my discovery of historians, Howard Zinn, W.E.B. DuBois, and James Loewen. I read The People's History of the United States, the Biography of John Brown, and Lies My Teacher Told Me. The gap between democratic principles and how our government actually works revealed systemic abuse of the underclass. My father's skepticism lent way to cynicism. I determined to break the cycle, not knowing how to do it, exactly.
Letters between a sister and her imprisoned brother changed. Inane words about dissipated lives turned to include wishes for a changed world -- not just the end to one more war -- this time a drug war. Conversations included new people in our circle, and resulted in a birth of new ideas. Not long after that, ideas became action.
The November Coalition was founded in 1997 when some people, mostly those directly affected by drug war imprisonment, began to entertain the notion that we could lend to the efforts of growing numbers of people opposed to the war on drugs. Even though there were walls and razor wire separating us, we could work toward a better world by not being silent victims, presumptuous notions . . .