Inspired from the Past

July 24, 2010

Both my work and my avocation frequently bring me into contact with historical materials.

Recently, I’ve had the opportunity to work with some items from a woman writer who lived in the early part of the twentieth century. It has been fascinating to me to read her letters and her actual writings, to see her working process – scribbles, scratches, and all – and to recognize a fellow female writer across time.

I don’t know much about her. [name witheld for both personal and professional reasons]  She’s no major novelist or playwright or poet that I can tell. But that makes her the more admirable, to me.

I’ve read her rejection letters. “Not for us at this time.”  “Does not meet our needs.” “Our readers would have been interested last year, but now it is passe.”  And then the rejection letter with a dash of encouragement tossed in: “Oh, but do send us something again. Perhaps something with a little more plot?”  That made me laugh out loud – but I can only imagine how sad and frustrating it must have been for the author.

She clearly continued to write. That spunk to continue to write, despite the rejections, I find inspiring. It is obvious it was her passion. I think I would have liked to have known her. She seems like she may have been a suffragist. She was a career woman – in a time when most women did not have careers. It seems like she must have traveled, too.

It has been fun looking at her writings and correspondence, because even though she is long gone and probably unremembered (she had no family), I feel it is a privilege to learn more about her, and be inspired by her work and her persistance and tenacity – even if she never did make it big.

That tells me writing is ALWAYS worth it!

© writingreading, 2010

Civil War time lapse map

January 31, 2010

A super cool map of the American Civil War. A “time-lapse” rendering of the major battlelines and territory held by both sides throughout the war.

The Civil War in Four Minutes

Famous Women You’ve Never Heard Of #5 – Jackie Cochran

January 17, 2010

Oh sure, we’ve all heard of Amelia Earhart  – and even before the recent movie, many people would at least recognize her name as a famous aviatrix.

But a contemporary of hers was in many ways even more famous. In the late 1930s, she broke record after record. And not just in women’s categories. In 1938, for instance, she won the Bendix cross-country race, even beating out the men, becoming the first woman pilot to do so. After World War II, she kept flying, and became the first female to break the sound barrier in 1953.

Although impressive, these accomplishments are not Cochran’s most important. She – almost single-handedly – helped bring about the establishment of the WASPs (Women Airforce Service Pilots) during World War II.  Initially resistant to the idea, Cochran persuaded Gen. Hap Arnold and Eleanor and Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt to make her idea a reality.

More than 1,000 women served in the WASPs, mostly as ferry pilots. These pilots flew all sorts of airplanes – bombers, fighters, trainers – all over the country, from one base to another. They made a valuable contribution to the war effort, freeing up men to be sent overseas for more hazardous duty, and demonstrating that women could be just as effective pilots as the men. They were not officially part of the Army Air Corps, and therefore did not receive military benefits like their male counterparts. Even if they died in the line of WASP duty – the government would not pay for their body to be returned home or buried. That would have to be a family expense. They were still “civilians” after all.

Finally, in 1977, the WASPs recieved the recognition they deserved, at last being accorded formal status as military veterans. And in 2009, they were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, a very high honor.

Read more about Jackie Cochran and the WASPs, or watch a short film on YouTube about their service. You can also learn more about Cochran by getting the documentary by American Experience, called Fly Girls.

© writingreading, 2010

Debt of Gratitude to our Veterans

November 11, 2009

Veteran’s Day is always a bittersweet kind of day for me. Veterans of our armed forces have a very very special place in my heart. I’m not really an emotional person but shaking a veteran’s hand can reduce me to tears in an instant, before I can even blurt out an awkward, “Thank you.”

They do what I know I cannot do. They have given up their very lives – not just those whose bodies are left overseas – but even those who return – for me and my countrymen and -women.  There’s so much about what they do and endure that I know I am entirely too much of a wimp for. Start with the physical training. Ugh! Yes, I’m old and decrepit these days, but even when more youthful – I know I would not have been able to endure the 20 mile pack marches or the hundreds of pushups. Most of all, I know I would not do well with someone screaming orders at me. I could not obey without talking back or without question. A good soldier I would not make.

I am grateful that my work and my outside of work interests often bring me in contact with veterans. I have learned and continue to learn so much from them. They make so many of our noble pie-in-the-sky American ideals real. Loyalty, honor and camaraderie are something special, manifest in very real ways in these men and women’s lives. I am always humbled when I get to work with them. I very often feel that “I’m not worthy” to even keep company with them – they are superhuman, in my book.

But I also know from my experiences in working with them that there are those who struggle. Some in obvious ways, others in more subtle ways. I often hear about how skills that served them well overseas in a combat zone (like hypervigilance and quick reactions, for example) make life really difficult for them when they come home. I see it and hear it many times.

Today, I think of the men and women who served our country with honor and distinction, who got good educations through the military by becoming electricians, mechanics, radio operators, or learning many other skilled trades.  But who this evening are spending a cold winter night on the street, under a bypass, on a grate, or on a doorstep or in an alleyway. Some people say homeless – especially homeless veterans – are to blame for their condition. But I say – look what they did for our country – and that means, what they did for me, personally, by volunteering to serve. So what have we done – as a country, or me, personally, for them? Have I helped them in any way by saying Thank you, by giving them a cup of coffee, by referring them to places that can help them by providing food or shelter – maybe even a job? Everyone’s having difficulty finding work these days – why blame the victim?

Why do so many of our returning veterans find life so difficult once they return home that they believe suicide to be their only solution? What can we – as individuals, but perhaps more importantly, as a nation – do to help them? Why must they wait months to receive appropriate counseling and aid at VA hospitals – the very institution that is supposed to help them?

Thankfully, there are organizations out there to help. And not just aid to those veterans who find themselves homeless, but all veterans who need assistance – especially in areas no warrior wants to admit to needing help in – mental health. I saw a sign once that said, “It takes the strength/courage  of a warrior to know when to admit that you need help.”

Here’s some places that I know are helping others:

Ed Tick, author of  War and the Soul, leads healing journeys and seminars. Much of his work has focused on Vietnam veterans, but has now been expanded for the current generation of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Numerous cities have programs called Stand Downs, where homeless or near-homeless veterans can receive aid and comfort in a warm friendly place with their fellow veterans. It is a tragedy that nearly 200,000 veterans are on the street – and that there are so many out there that there is an organization called the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. It’s great that such an organization exists to provide aid and support – but wouldn’t it be wonderful if it no longer had to exist?

Finally, there is an online project called which is designed to be a website for veterans and family members who are struggling to cope with the upheaval and adjustment of coming back to the United States after having been overseas. Some of the areas of tension might be unnoticeable at first – like the spouse who has remained at home and who has taken on the responsibilities normally shared by both parents of the children, and has difficulty adjusting back to having the soldier-spouse back in the household. Other areas might be more obvious – quick violent rages or quietness merging into deep depression. NotAlone is designed to help both the soldier and the family member who remained at home. They do this by providing an online forum where people can listen to interviews with others who have gone through the same experiences. It is a way for people to understand that they are NotAlone in their suffering, in their bewilderment, in their uncertainty – and even their pain. It helps people understand that there is hope and healing out there, and lets visitors to their website learn more about how others coped with and got through, and got help, in similar situations.

To all of our veterans, THANK YOU with deep gratitude for all that you do, have done, and will do. There is no way we can ever repay your sacrifice. Our nation and we as individuals owe you so very very much.

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© writingreading, 2009

Famous Women You’ve Never Heard Of #4 – Melba Pattillo Beals

September 25, 2009

If you know about the Little Rock Nine and the events of 1957, then you already may know this famous woman. But I imagine that most Americans would not recognize the name of Melba Pattillo Beals.

In 1957,  Melba Pattillo was just fifteen, and she was one of nine young African-American students to integrate Little Rock High in Arkansas. Her story is told in her memoir, Warriors Don’t Cry.

At the end of the school year before, she raised her hand when her teacher at her all-black school asked if any students were interested in attending all-white Central High. Melba did not tell her mother, so it came as a shock when she was selected to attend Central High the next year.

The courage and cruelty that Melba writes about in her memoir is moving and personal. She was threatened with hanging, rape and violence, and people hurled words at her that no child – no person – should have to endure. Such hatred. People threw rocks through her windows at home, and her grandmother sat watch more than once with a shotgun poised for defense.

The Arkansas National Guard closed the doors of Central to the Nine, keeping them out, until Pres. Eisenhower ordered in federal troops of the 101st Airborne Division to enforce the desegragation orders. The situation was so tense and violent that each black student had their own soldier who guarded them against extreme violence, but who could not interfere when the students were called vile names and otherwise tormented. Thumbtacks were placed in seats, people walked on the back of Melba’s heels until they bled, she was tripped, and every day, every hour, was a battle.

Her story would be impressive and inspiring, regardless, but to realize how terribly young all of the Nine were – and to know that they changed the world – is awe-inspiring. Ms. Beals’s story is one that could give any teenager inspiration, strength and comfort, and one that can educate any adult about the price paid by those brave young students all throughout the country who desegragated schools in the 1950s.

All of us are in her debt, and those of the rest of the Little Rock Nine: Thelma Mothershed, Minnijean Brown, Jefferson Thomas, Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls, Gloria Ray, Ernest Green, and  Elizabeth Eckford.

© writingreading, 2009

Remembering Haymarket

September 7, 2009

It is the end of the Labor Day weekend here in America, and many people (including myself) had the day off today. Unfortunately, like many 3-day weekend holidays – the origin and significance of the holiday itself has been lost. These days, it’s all about football, hot dogs, and getting away. That’s fine, all well and good. But I believe it is important to remember what price was paid so that we could have this holiday.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the Haymarket Riot.  May, 1886, Chicago. Workers marched in protest, advocating for an eight-hour workday. In the events that followed over the next few days, 2 workers were killed, seven policeman died, and seven labor leaders were sentenced to death, though only four were executed.

Haymarket is a complex story, and one that I am still struggling to grasp and understand, myself. But what is important to me to remember this Labor Day weekend is that people died so that I could have the things I take for granted today. I count all of the people who died in the Haymarket events to have paid the price for benefits that I enjoy today – so many of which I take for granted. Like the eight-hour workday. And a holiday off.

The battle for the eight-hour day did not end at Haymarket, and in fact, was entirely derailed because of the violence and controversy surrounding those events. It wouldn’t be until after World War II that the eight-hour day became law.


The Dramas of Haymarket from Chicago Historical Society – lengthy and detailed essays about the history and significance and lasting impact of Haymarket, and links to digitized materials.

Super short summary and links from Kent State.

Episode on the PBS program, History Detectives about Haymarket.

History of Labor Day from U.S. Dept. of Labor

© writingreading 2009

Famous Women You’ve Never Heard Of #3 – Ruth Brown

May 13, 2009

Librarians are demure, quiet, old ladies with buns, right? Well, not exactly.

Although Ruth Brown fits much of the stereotype – a little bit frumpy, a single woman, plain in appearance – she took a stand for Civil Rights in her library in Bartlesville, Oklahoma in 1950 that cost her her job. What she did took courage and conviction. Her story is told in the book, The Dismissal of Miss Ruth Brown: Civil Rights, Censorship, and the American Library by Louise Robbins.

Don’t let the “library” aspect of this one throw you. It is full of intrigue, community infighting, passionate defenders of the status quo, persons willing to take great risks in an attempt to awaken a new social consciousness and justice among their fellow townspeople, class warfare, Red Scares, fabrication of evidence, issues over power and gender, and more. It is, in fact, a bit of a thriller.

Brown had been a librarian for many years in Bartlesville, leading a somewhat true-to-stereotype existence. But as the horrors of the Holocaust during WWII were revealed, she and other like-minded individuals formed the “Committee on the Practice of Democracy” to fight discrimination.

Bartlesville was very much a segregated city in the late 1940s. African-Americans were allowed to use the library and did not have to use a separate facility, but their use and access of materials was under different rules and conditions than white customers, at least prior to World War II.

But when Brown walked into a diner on night in 1950 with two African-American friends who were teachers, she crossed the racial line. The campaign to label her a subversive communist – and thus, oust her from her position, was underway. The American Legion, the D.A.R., and corporate magnates from Phillips Petroleum mounted an overwhelming effort to have her dismissed. She was accused of distributing “subversive” literature, although the books in question were actually recommended by the national professional library association as proper to have in a library, in order to represent a diversity of viewpoints on various subjects. One was even written during WWII when the Russians were our allies, but now it was labeled “subversive.”

Ruth Brown knew when she walked into that diner that day that her act would be provocative, and that her membership in the Committee on the Practice of Democracy could get her fired. She did it anyway.

As a single woman, she did not have much to fall back on after a job loss, personally or financially. She ended up leaving town of her own volition. But her cause was taken to the courts, the national library association made important innovations in their practices and policies, and even Hollywood got into the act. A few years after the actual events, her story was thinly fictionalized and turned into a movie called Storm Center. Hollywood had been through the mill with the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the producers saw in her story a reflection of their own.

One of the things I enjoyed most about this book, besides Ruth Brown’s story, is that it unveils so many aspects of American society that we are still struggling with today, particularly in recent years. “Terrorism” is the “new Communism” – and actions are taken today by our government and individuals in the name of “fighting terrorists” that 50 years ago, were used to defend America against the threat of communism. Although the events described in the book happened 50 years ago, much of it is very relevant to today. The book deals with issues of racial equality and justice, women’s power (or lack thereof), censorship, class and economic issues, and more.

Learn more about this brave woman, and be inspired! You’ll never think of librarians as “boring” again.

© writingreading, 2009