Monday, May 25, 2020

My Uncle Skip

I am sitting here this Memorial Day morning morning looking at the now fading WWII honorable discharge papers of my Uncle Eugene "Skip" De Young. He did not pay the ultimate price, but he did give up almost three years of his young life to service to his country.

The De Young family posing on the stops of their home in Watertown, WI  sometime in the mid 1930's.We have Skip and Harold in front, then Hazel and Frida, then John, Grandpa, and Grandma, then Gladys and Marge, and finally in the back my dad Chester.   

Skip enlisted in the US in the US Navy in November of 1942.
Skip in uniform with his mom and dad.before shipping out.
He was trained as a Storekeeper and shipped out to the South Pacific's Gilbert Islands to work primarily with Seabees who were building and/or re-building air fields on islands that were re-taken from the Japanese. Tarawa was one place he was assigned to and he was there so closely on the heels of the invasion that American planes were still bombing pockets of resistance. He recalled this as the toughest place he had ever been. After the war ended he spent several months in Occupied Japan setting up Storekeeper facilities at an American base in the city of Yokosuka on the island of Honshu.

Skip was mustered out on April 12, 1946 and returned to his old job at Abbott Labs in North Chicago, IL to continue work with data processing and the new computers that were just beginning to be invented. He remained there for the next forty six years. Shortly after returning to civilian life, Skip met the woman who was to become his wife in 1950. Marge De Young nee Huddleston was also an employee at Abbott's. and she worked there until her retirement as well.
Marge and Skip on their wedding day.

Skip and Marge had no children and only one of his seven brothers and sisters had managed to get a college degree. Yet his commitment to the importance of education led him to create two educational foundations in his estate that have since generously supported his niece's and nephew's grandchildren in their educations. In addition he left a lasting legacy to the American Cancer Society to help fight the disease that took his wife's life.
Skip on the day of Marge's funeral in 2002. He lived on another six years. 

As I contemplate this man's contributions to freedom, to education, and to the curing of disease, I somehow I find it more difficult to pay the same homage to the angry so called "freedom fighters" of this generation who feel that their sacred constitutional rights are being denied by being asked to wear a mask for twenty minutes in a Walmart.

Thanks again Skip for your service.

Skip's older brother Harold, Me (Jimmy De Young)at age two or three), and Skip taken around 1941 I believe at our old Milwaukee house on Medford Avenue

Your grateful nephew,
Jim De Young

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Book Review Bury Your Dead by Louise Penny

Bury Your Dead  Louise Penny’s fifth novel in the Inspector Gamache series  ought to be a duo with her fourth entry,  A Brutal Telling,  since it ties up several  hanging  chads left over from the last book. 
In this offering Inspector Gamache is still on leave after the disastrous shootout that left several Surete agents dead and left both him and his chief assistant, Jean Paul Beauvoir  hospitalized. Though both are now reasonably recovered physically, the mental wounds remain.   Gamache searches for solace in Quebec City with his old boss Emile, but quickly finds himself caught up in the murder of a publicity seeking archaeologist in the basement of a staid old library. 

While Gamache begins an informal search for the killer in wintry Quebec City, he assigns  Jean Paul to take a vacation in the good old village of Three Pines where the murder of the hermit from the last book has now left Gamache thinking that he may have arrested, tried, and convicted the wrong man as the killer. 

Penny now masterfully seques between the two searches. We see Olivier, the Bistro owner from the last book, exonerated and we see the killer in Quebec City caught and dealtt with.  At the end the world returns to what passes for normal in the mind of the ever anguished  Gamache. 

Along the way we also learn a great deal more about the deadly shootout that continues to haunt the Inspector and there is a nice bonus accruing in the amount of Quebec history that Penny has marshaled for us.  Stylistically she is once again a master descriptor of weather and nature.  Over and over the snow and cold outside is contrasted with the warmth of roaring fires on the inside.  Blizzards seem to descend just as the suspense rises and the solutions near. Good eats, tastily described and joyfully consumed,  also seem to add a pleasant gastronomic accompaniment to the narrative. 

I found Bury Your Dead, quite satisfying, but would note again that it does pay to read Penny's novels in order—particularly this one.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Book review Spy Mistress

Spy Mistress by William Stevenson  2007

I have had some interest in WWII intelligence operations ever since I confirmed that my Uncle John was a spy during that war. The confirmation came partially from a box of materials sent to me after his death and then from now unclassified government files of his employment records with the OSS. He probably only took an occasional cloak and dagger trip because his work was primarily analytic in his academic background area of far eastern anthropology and sociology.  Uncle John’s story has plenty of gaps and is still waiting to be told in detail. There is definitely a book in there somewhere.

This brings me to the book I have just finished titled Spy Mistress by William Stevenson. It is an outline of the actions and career of Vera Atkins, a Romanian Jew who became one of the leaders in England’s  WWII secret service. She grew up in Eastern Europe and changed her name when she settled in Britain in the 1930’s. And just like my Uncle John, there are gaps in her story right up to the present day.  

Atkins successfully hid her Jewish background and rose to power in the intelligence community in spite of being a woman in an almost completely male organization.  The book tells the story of how Atkins maneuvered her way into essentially running the anti-Nazi resistance in Europe during and after the war. It also covers her relationships with several men including General “Wild Bill” Donovan, the head of America’s newly formed OSS.  One of the many things I learned was just how strong the Appeasement movement and the  virulent anti-Semitism were in the pre-war era. Churchill was not in power yet and had major difficulty trying to convince both his own countrymen and allies of the danger of Hitler.  When Bismarck said that Hitler was just a mob leader, Churchill replied with some fascinating lines from Kipling that also seem compelling in today’s political climate.

“This is the sorrowful story
Told when the twilight fails
And the monkeys walk together
Holding their neighbor’s tails.”

At another point Churchill returned to Kipling to comment that “These appeasers feed the crocodile in the hope of being the last to get eaten.”  The early chapters are devoted to the lead up to the war and then it turns to the fight to formulate the  SOE (Special Operations Executive), which was charged with training, equipping, and organizing armed resistance in Nazi occupied countries.  Atkins began her career as a kind of an administrative assistant and slowly gravitated into leadership as her knowledge and skills became evident.  The old line military intelligence held little truck with sabotage and guerilla warfare, but Atkins and her associates supported the use of so called "closework" that followed the philosophy of the Greek physician Hippocrates  who said “A desperate disease requires a dangerous remedy”  

The SOE was heavily involved in the insertion of agents and the organization of resistance cells as well as developing unusual tools for transmitting messages and for bomb making and other devices for killing or maiming the enemy.  One project involved the insertion of explosives into piles of animal feces. If this sounds James Bondish, it might be well to note that Ian Flemming was an important figure in the SOE hierarchy.   

I must admit that I was not aware of how much pushback there was against guerilla war in occupied areas and how much anti-Semitism sentiment there was in the upper levels of the British government. Throughout the war, even after Churchill came to power and the USA entered the fray, the British authorities did not want to send Jews onto the continent even though they had the most experience in being vilified and murdered and had a real reason to engage in physical payback.

Atkins survived the war and lived on in relative obscurity for many years. Some of her story was not told until after her death.  I wish the book had a somewhat more vivid style and a more compelling narrative structure. Events are often tied to individuals in Europe whose names and background are unfamiliar at least to me. This can bog things down and tempt the reader to skip things rather than participating in a cohesive progression. My guess is that works like this end up being read by fiction writers who then build their own more engaging and suspenseful stories of heroic actions.
I give it a 3.  But I did learn some things. 

Wednesday, May 06, 2020

The Travel: and Quarantine Blues


We start with three shots of Paris taken over 60 years ago.  It was a Paris as seen by two young travelers on their first trip to Europe.

The uncharted waters of today are full of predictions for the new normal.  For instance, there have been a number of recent news items predicting that the world will not see a recovery of international tourism and travel for at least another year and maybe more.  I find myself worrying now, admittedly pessimistically, that the world of travel my wife and I have experienced and enjoyed over time may be a thing of the past.  

There are thousands of photos in my computer.  Some show family or local events, but most are like the three above and depict our travels. Those photos now seem a bit sad, not just because Notre Dame is no longer like that, but because the travel we have known for years has been truncated and replaced by empty airports and anchored ships.  It will now take courage, in addition to the  price of a ticket, for travelers to jump on a plane or ship in order to touch the outside world and its people.  The current situation creates an incredible loss--particularly for today's younger generations. 

It no longer seems ludicrous to ask if we have the courage to take a trip next month or even next year. Will we have to wear a mask every time we come closer than six feet to another human being?  How will "social distancing" affect traveling and the traveler?  Will viewing the Tower of London or the Pyramids be the same when you are standing alone rather than in the proximate company of other fellow travelers or locals. Will the serendipitous mealtime conversations fostered by close table quarters and or adventuresome food choices disappear? These are now all  questions to ponder.

While I realize that there are millions of folks who cannot afford or even conceive of traveling, I do grieve for the potential loss of experience that many now face. My wife and I still consider the three month trek through Europe that we took in the early sixties to be one of the critical events in our lives. Will it be available again in that carefree manner that only the young are capable of? Will   retirees who have saved carefully for years in order to have the ability to use their new deserved leisure for travel now be afraid to do what they had postponed? I certainly hope not. 

Travel opens the door of possibilities and widens horizons.  It can enable you to see the world beyond your own front door and your own community. To change the metaphor to one more current, travel can help cure the disease of parochialism that still impedes our lives and fosters our divisions in far too many ways. For that reason alone a vaccine cannot come too soon.