Germany, history, lessons learned, politicians, politics

Twenty years after 9/11, basic decency is disappearing…

A couple of years ago, I wrote my 9/11 story and posted it on this blog. Almost everybody who was alive on 9/11/01 has a 9/11 story. I guess the only ones who don’t are those who were somehow unconscious that day. Or maybe people who live in remote places they have never left, where the world’s news can’t reach them.

Suffice to say, those of us who live in the modern world, where there’s television and Internet, have a 9/11 story. Or, at the very least, they’ve heard other people’s memories of that day, if they weren’t around at that time. Like… I wasn’t here for John F. Kennedy’s assassination, but I’ve read and heard plenty of stories of that day. I think 9/11 was much bigger than Kennedy’s assassination. 9/11 permanently changed the world.

I remember 9/11 very well. It was the week after Bill and I, then just “friends”, had a magical Labor Day weekend. No one in our families knew we were dating. So, when Bill went to work at the Pentagon on 9/11, no one knew that he had a special friend who would worry all day, wondering if he had survived. After 9/11, we decided that we needed to make our relationship official. A few months later, we were engaged. We married in 2002.

I remember what it was like for Bill in the days that followed September 11, 2001. At that time, people had come together in solidarity. There were people who offered their support to any and all emergency workers. Police officers, nurses, doctors, military service members, firefighters, were all being heralded as heroes. I remember how people would stop Bill when he was in uniform and thank him for his service.

I read a story this morning about a couple who happened to be on a flight from England bound for Houston, Texas that got diverted to Gander, a small town in Newfoundland, Canada. They fell in love while they were stranded in Canada. Aside from falling in love, the couple, along with all of the other 7000 people who were suddenly diverted to Gander because of terrorism, enjoyed the most extraordinary hospitality from the locals in Gander.

Americans were Americans, before they were Democrats or Republicans. People came together to help each other through a crisis. It wasn’t just Americans, either. I wasn’t in Germany at that time, but this morning, I read an article about what it was like in Stuttgart on 9/11. Germans and Americans stood side by side in solidarity as people made sense of what happened.

Above is a post that reminded me about how Germans and Americans came together after 9/11. That photo brought tears to my eyes yesterday, partly because I was moved, and partly because it probably wouldn’t happen in 2021.

Twenty years later, it seems like most of the goodwill and civility that was so prevalent after 9/11 is gone. Now, on 9/11/21, we have people laughing at teenagers who share personal stories about losing family members to COVID-19. Grady Knox, a high school student in Tennessee, bravely tried to explain why he thinks mask mandates are a good thing to have in his school. People told him to shut up. It could not have been easy for Grady to stand up and talk about losing his grandmother. Public speaking is not easy for a lot of people. But for him to stand up and speak and then have his neighbors laugh at him and tell him to shut up… well, that’s just shameful. And it makes me think that those people are not good people. They have learned nothing, and have no empathy for others.

What the hell is WRONG with people?

Today, we have governors who are more interested in money and power than they are in saving human lives (except for the unborn, of course). Joe Biden– recently reviled for the way the U.S. military FINALLY left Afghanistan after twenty long years– delivered a tough speech, expressing how disappointed he is in the complete lack of concern Republican leaders have for their constituents. Biden has been threatened with lawsuits, as he signs legislation mandating that people in certain workplaces get vaccinated against COVID-19. Biden is not looking so wimpy now, as he tells the governors to “have at it” in their plans to sue him.

President Joe Biden on Thursday issued two executive orders mandating vaccines for federal workers and contractors and announced new requirements for large employers and health care providers that he said would affect around 100 million workers, more than two-thirds of the U.S. workforce.

From MSNBC: https://www.msnbc.com/rachel-maddow-show/why-republicans-hope-derail-biden-s-bold-new-vaccine-policy-n1278900?cid=sm_fb_maddow&fbclid=IwAR07wYh1NCrCl2lTB2R_sMkiCVLML7tycCXzr-Srn8oyNeQuZhq0JtZjvOY

I read one comment from a Republican who said if Donald Trump had ever tried to enforce vaccinations, people would be “horrified” and calling for Trump’s head on a platter. However, I think it’s highly unlikely that Trump would have ever done what Joe Biden is doing. Trump does not care about anyone but himself, and he would not have done something that would alienate his conservative base the way the vaccine and mask mandates would have. There is a huge difference between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Joe Biden has basic decency and respect for others. Donald Trump, simply put, does not.

Donald Trump’s encouragement to get the vaccine was lukewarm… he got boos and laughter. I think he’s created monsters.
Southerners who are getting sick aren’t thinking of anyone but themselves… until they get sick and realize just how fucking horrible COVID is.

Today, we have governors who are gleefully signing legislation that pits neighbors against each other, and puts bounties on the heads of women who seek abortions. Meanwhile, Greg Abbott is fine with people walking around, spreading COVID-19 as they tote their guns openly and run their mouths about their freedoms. Freedom means nothing if you’re dead… but try to explain that to some of these folks. They insist that COVID-19 is not a risk for them or or their families… or anyone else. Somehow, they’ve managed to ignore the news stories and documentaries about people who have had COVID-19. They’ve even managed to ignore Howard Stern, who has berated the willfully ignorant.

I can’t wait to vote for whomever runs against this man.
I empathize with his frustration.

This antipathy especially happens on the Internet. Even on the most benign of posts, there’s a chance someone will lash out with nastiness or unnecessary snark. Yesterday, I was answering a question on Toytown Germany from an American who is trying to get her US Moderna shots recognized by a local pharmacist, so she can enjoy a more normal life. I expressed empathy for her situation, commenting that it would be nice if we had a more global solution that would make it easier for people from all countries to get their shots recognized. It’s in everyone’s best interests to encourage the vaccines and reward people for doing the right thing. You’d think that would be a pretty innocuous comment, right? I certainly didn’t think it would go south.

Sure enough, some guy from up north responded snarkily, by sharing a picture of the yellow World Health Organization booklet, and writing that is the global standard that works fine. Yes, it’s true, that yellow booklet is used around the world. But, for some reason, the CDC isn’t using it, so that comment isn’t helpful. There are a lot of Americans who live in Germany. Some of them got shots when they went to the USA, where they were easier to get. Then they came back to Germany and, if they live in an area where there aren’t a lot of Americans, are not able to get their vaccines made official in Germany. This is a problem. I was trying to help someone solve the problem for themselves. For my efforts, I got a shitty comment from some smartass who thought that was the right time to act like a jerk.

I could have ignored it entirely. Or I could have responded with a snarky comment of my own. Instead, I agreed that the yellow booklet is useful around the world, but it’s not helpful to Americans in Germany right now. Americans aren’t issued the yellow booklets, even though that would make things easier. Being rude to me doesn’t change that fact. And then I added that I was trying to be nice, and being snarky and negative isn’t helpful to the community. Those kinds of crappy responses just discourage people from posting, which defeats the purpose of having an online community… or any community, really. Why try to help someone if you’re going to be mocked for your efforts?

I realize that even as I preach about this, I’m as guilty as anyone is. I do try not to respond to people with rudeness. Sometimes, I will admit, I fail. Because, like so many other people, I’m fed up. I’m tired of people who can’t simply cooperate and have basic respect for other people. But still, I think being kind is the better way to go, most of the time. I truly do believe that being understanding and decent is, overall, better than being angry, mean, malicious, and rude. There really is enough of that in the world today.

I think it’s sad that we haven’t learned much from 9/11. On September 11, 2001, people around the world came together in solidarity. On September 11, 2021, a lot of people are acting like selfish jerks. It’s depressing… although, I guess if I look for it, I can find some positive things about today. Like, for instance, the fact that Bill was not killed on 9/11, and despite everything, we’re still together and basically healthy and happy with each other’s company. But it’s hard to ignore all of the divisiveness and evil that is being perpetuated right now.

When things were good…
Twenty years later, when things had really gone to shit.

I do hope that people will find a way to come together. Right now, I’m reminded of the opening of the film, Lean on Me… as we see how things can change for the worse in 20 years. Maybe a new version of Mr. Clark is in order to straighten us all out… Maybe Joe Biden is turning into him now. One can always hope, right?

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good news, history, lessons learned

My Peace Corps friend, Loretta…

Earlier this month, I took part in a Zoom meeting memorial my group of Armenia Returned Peace Corps Volunteers held for our former colleague, Matt Jensen, who was struck and killed by a speeding black Rolls Royce in Brooklyn, New York. During that meeting, I learned that another member of my group, Loretta Land, also died this year. She passed in January, having reached the age of 86 years.

I had recently been in touch with Loretta via Facebook, but she hadn’t been posting in awhile. I was afraid she might have stopped following me, as a lot of people tend to do when they don’t like my raunchy humor or outspoken posts about Trump. But, as it turned out, Loretta had simply moved on from this world. It wasn’t a total surprise, given her age, but I was a bit sad about the news.

I knew that Loretta had published a book about our time in Armenia. I decided to download it, and I’m now about halfway through it. It’s a pretty quick read, and if I’m honest, not the best edited or accurately fact-checked book I’ve ever read. And yet, I’m enjoying reading her book so much!

I always really admired Loretta, who was in her early 60s when she joined the Peace Corps. Loretta was about my dad’s age, and I think that had my dad not been married to my mom, he would have liked being in the Peace Corps himself. He was very excited when I told him I wanted to be a Peace Corps Volunteer, as my eldest sister, Betsy, had in Morocco during the mid 1980s.

For some reason, Loretta always made me think of my dad… the best parts of him, anyway. Dad and I had kind of a rocky relationship, but he had a very altruistic, adventurous, adrenaline seeking side of him that was fun. Loretta was like that too, as I’m discovering as I read her book, Yes, You Can! Have a Second Life After 60.

I remember when we arrived for staging in Washington, DC, Loretta was interviewed by a reporter for the Associated Press. A newspaper article later surfaced about Loretta’s decision to join the Peace Corps at her age. She was the oldest one in our group, but the subsequent groups I encountered also had older people serving.

Loretta served as a business volunteer, and lived on the outskirts of Yerevan, not too far from the very last metro stop heading east. I never visited Loretta, even though I also lived in Yerevan. Yerevan, in the 1990s, was like a really big village, but it’s also pretty vast, with over three million people living there. Her work was in a village about fifteen kilometers away from Yerevan called Zovk, while mine was at a Yerevan city school that, at least when I was there, served kids of all ages. Now, I believe my former school is what’s called a “basic school”, that doesn’t serve the youngest or oldest children. My students were all among the youngest and eldest at the school.

It’s been so much fun to read Loretta’s memories of our time in Armenia. There are some things in her book that I never knew about– a lot of it is about her specific work in Zovk, as well as Yerevan proper. She’s written some things that were common experiences that I don’t remember, like when our training group was asked to write letters to ourselves about what we thought our last day in Armenia would be like. I don’t remember doing that, but I’m sure we must have… because I remember the training director and his wife, and it’s exactly the kind of exercise they would have had us do. Unfortunately, someone lost the letters we turned in, although Loretta said she’d kept hers, but then decided to throw it away instead of reading it. She wrote that she was sorry she’d done that.

She’s also spilled some tea about some things that I knew nothing about… like, for instance, that a couple of Volunteers traded their kerosene for a car and a driver (which they were not supposed to do). She doesn’t mention their names, but she does mention the area where they lived… and I have a feeling I know who they are. But at least they got something truly valuable for the kerosene. I remember one lady who lived with a host family came home to find that the family had traded her kerosene for 200 kilos of potatoes!

I got a kick of reading her mentions of people we knew from our group, or people in the very small and close-knit American diaspora that existed in Armenia in the 1990s. So far, she hasn’t mentioned me. I don’t expect she will, despite my unforgettable charm. 😉 But I have seen some names of our colleagues, as well as Peace Corps staff and other Americans in the community during that time. I had forgotten just how challenging and difficult life in Armenia could be back in the 90s. Reading Loretta’s account makes me proud that I managed to survive that tough existence, even if I wasn’t as amazing and effective as a Peace Corps Volunteer as she was.

Loretta’s book is reminding me of the traditions and customs in Armenia, as well as the very warm and hospitable nature of its people. I got pretty bitter and depressed during my time there, and I think I lost sight of what an amazing opportunity it was to get to experience life in what had been the Soviet Union, just after the Soviet Union ceased to exist. When I think about it, it just blows me away that I joined the Peace Corps. It was not something I had really aspired to do until I felt the itch to do something drastic to change my life. My life didn’t change in the way that I thought it would, but it did change. If not for my time in Armenia, I’m not sure I’d be living in Germany, for instance.

I find myself oddly gratified, too, to read that, like me, Loretta experienced depression while she was in the Peace Corps. I remember, back in those days, feeling like such a loser. I felt like I couldn’t accomplish anything. By the end of my second year, I had actually done some good things, but they felt insignificant. It wasn’t until later that I realized I’d been suffering from depression, which is a medical problem. It wasn’t until many years after I had been treated for the medical problem that I realized that, in fact, I had done some things that made a lasting and good impression. One of my former students now works for Peace Corps/Armenia. I had nothing to do with him landing that job, but I do realize that at least his experiences with me didn’t turn him off of Americans. 😉 And yes, he still remembered me many years later, and now we’re friends on Facebook.

I expect to be finished reading Loretta’s book very soon, and then I will write a proper review, which I will post on this blog, and probably the travel blog, too. But for now, I just want to post that I’m glad I bought the book and am now reading it. I wish I had read it when Loretta was still alive and I could talk to her about it. She was an amazing lady and I am so honored that I got to meet her. Honestly, I met so many incredible people thanks to my experiences as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Armenia. It truly changed my life in so many wonderful ways… even if it didn’t always seem like it at the time.

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history, lessons learned, musings, politics

“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it…” George Santayana

Last night, as Bill and I were enjoying the cool evening sundown in our backyard, I suddenly remembered what I had wanted to write about yesterday. Lately, I’ve been noticing a lot of connections between people, events, and other things I’ve run into, like books, videos, and music. A few days ago, we had a memorial for a guy I knew in the Peace Corps. My former colleague and I served in Armenia, which has been in the news in recent years as the people there try to get the Armenian Genocide recognized by the international community. I am now living in Germany, where people have been trying to make amends for the Holocaust, which took place during World War II.

The other day, I was watching YouTube videos and happened to see one about The Holocaust. It was very well done and informative. I’ve read a lot of books about people who survived The Holocaust, and I’ve watched many videos about the experiences of people during that time. But, for some reason, this particular video made me think more about what happened than the others had. Or maybe this idea popped up because I have been talking to people I knew in Armenia, and Armenia is more on my mind than usual. It occurred to me that I’ve lived in Armenia, where people are descended from victims of genocide. And now I live in Germany, where I am surrounded by people whose ancestors had a part in committing genocide. It definitely offers a unique perspective. Or, at least I think it does.

Before I lived in Armenia, I had never heard of the Armenian Genocide. In fact, I barely knew anything about Armenia. The only reason I’d even heard of it was because my fourth grade teacher was of Armenian descent and told us a little bit about his heritage. At that time, Armenia was part of the Soviet Union, so as a nine year old, I never thought I would ever get to visit there, let alone live there. My teacher did not speak about the Genocide. He told us about how Armenians were Christians and that most people’s last names end in “ian”. He said Armenians were very proud of being Christians, hence the “ian” at the end of their names. Now I know that’s factually incorrect, but it sounded good to me when I was nine.

I also remember my Armenian fourth grade teacher played Jesus Christ: Superstar for us. I didn’t hear that music again until I moved to Armenia in 1995, where it was everywhere. People in Armenia LOVED Andrew Lloyd Webber’s famous musical. I even bought a bootleg cassette of the album and quickly became familiar with it. Andrew Lloyd Webber was very popular in the 80s and 90s, anyway, so I don’t know if Armenians always loved that show or it just became popular during their sudden independence in the 90s. Bill and I finally saw a production of it in Washington, DC in 2004.

I remember resisting this music when I was nine, but I ended up loving it when I was in Armenia.

The Armenian Genocide, which occurred from 1915-1917, resulted in the mass murder of over one million ethnic Armenians by Ottoman Turks. The murders were achieved through death marches into the Syrian desert and mass executions. Many Armenian women and children were forced to convert to Islam. When I was in Armenia, I worked in a school in Yerevan that was named after a famous Genocide victim and poet, Ruben Sevak. I see that it’s now an elementary school, but when I was teaching there, there were students of all ages, and I taught kids who ranged in age from 7 to 16 years old. During my first months at that school, Ruben Sevak’s daughter, Shamiram, who was then in her 80s and lived in France, came to Yerevan. She attended a party thrown for her at my school. I tried to keep up with all the toasts and got very, very drunk. That was probably the drunkest I’ve ever been in my life!

While searching for Ruben Sevak’s daughter’s name, I found this fascinating blog post about Sevak and his family. I learned that Ruben Sevak (Sevak translates to “black eyes”) was actually a pseudonym. His real name was Roupen Chilingirian, and he was born in a city called Silivri, located about 37 miles from the city now known as Istanbul, but then called Constantinople. His family was wealthy, and Ruben was well educated. He became a physician, having studied in exclusive schools, including medical school at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. He met his wife in Switzerland, Helene (Jannie) Apell. Big surprise– she was from a German military family! Their respective families objected to their romantic affair, but Ruben and “Jannie” finally got married in Lausanne, and later had a religious ceremony at the Armenian Church of Paris. The young couple had a son named Levon in 1912, and then their daughter, Shamiram, was born in 1914.

Ruben Sevak became politically active, joining the Armenian Revolutionary Federation. He was a prolific writer, and his works were published in literary journals and newspapers. He wrote a book of poetry in 1909. It was titled The Red Book, and the works within it recalled the Adana massacre— an event in which Armenian Christians were killed by Ottoman Muslims. He planned to write more poetry and political works in more books. He would never get the chance to fulfill that dream. Clearly, Sevak’s writings were threatening to the Ottoman Turks. He was one of the million people killed during the Armenian Genocide, having been conscripted in 1914 and serving as a military doctor in Turkey. In June 1915, Sevak was arrested, and though his wife and her parents tried valiantly to save his life, even involving the German government, their efforts would be in vain. Ruben Sevak was murdered on August 26, 1915.

If you’d like to know more about Ruben Sevak, I highly recommend following this link to the blog post I mentioned earlier. I wish I had known this story when I worked in the school named for Ruben Sevak. It actually blows my mind that I was once in the same room with one of Ruben Sevak’s direct descendants. I’m sure she’s gone now, but how amazing is it that she visited the school where I worked in 1995? What are the odds that I, an American from a small town in Virginia, would one day work in a country that was once part of a larger country that was pretty much off limits to Americans until 1991? And then I would attend a party held in honor of the daughter of a famous poet and doctor who was murdered in the Armenian Genocide? Fate is an incredible thing.

Playing For Time… a movie about the Holocaust that I saw on TV in the 80s.

I had heard of the Holocaust when I was growing up, but to be honest, I think it was because I had seen a made for television movie calling Playing For Time. That film aired in 1980, and my parents let me watch it, even though I was 8 years old. I remember the movie starred Vanessa Redgrave and Jane Alexander. It was about young Jewish women in a death camp who were musicians tasked with playing music for arriving prisoners and entertaining Nazi bigwigs. I’m not sure I totally understood the film as I watched it. I do remember thinking it was interesting and I never forgot it, but the horror of what it was about didn’t dawn on me until years later. And I honestly don’t remember learning about what actually went on during World War II when I was in school. Of course, that was many years ago. Maybe I’m mistaken. But it seems like there was so much that had to be covered during those years that we didn’t spend a long time talking about one specific incident in history. U.S. schools, at least in the 80s, covered world history in ninth or tenth grade, U.S. history in eleventh grade, and Government in twelfth grade. Prior to that, we had civics in eighth grade and social studies in seventh grade and below. I’m not even sure if learning about the Holocaust was considered age appropriate in those days.

Fascinating video, if you can take the subject matter.

So there I was a few days ago, watching the above video about the Holocaust, which had popped up randomly in my YouTube queue. I listened as the narrators described the conditions the Holocaust victims encountered as they arrived at Auschwitz. I tried to imagine the terror and extreme horror of it on some level. I thought to myself that I probably wouldn’t have survived, if I had been among the unfortunate people who went to Auschwitz or the other death camps. Hearing about it and seeing the footage is one thing, but actually living through that– watching friends and loved ones being marched off to be executed, freezing in filthy, inadequate clothes and shoes, starving while being worked to death, getting deathly ill or badly hurt and being forced to keep working… being treated as worse than the lowest form of life. It’s just so hard to reconcile that reality with what I’ve seen in Germany, having now spent about nine years of my life in this country. It amazes me that such decent people can be reduced to treating other human beings the way Holocaust victims were treated. I can’t imagine sinking so low… and yet so many ordinary people did.

It suddenly dawned on me that I have now lived in a country whose citizens were systematically exterminated by Ottoman Turks. And I have also lived in a country whose citizens systematically exterminated Jewish people, as well as political prisoners, Gypsies, homosexuals, disabled people, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and anyone else Hitler didn’t like. I read that Adolf Hitler was actually inspired by the Armenian Genocide when he came up with his “Final Solution”.

This is a screenshot of the text on the last link… Hitler’s justification of the Holocaust, inspired by the murder of Armenians in the Genocide.

Then I thought of our present day situation. I read that Donald Trump is being encouraged to run for president again. He “handily won” a straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference. I have mentioned before that I see some similarities between Trump and Hitler. No, he’s not yet having people rounded up and sent to concentration camps to be murdered, although some people have compared the situation at the southern border of the United States to the Holocaust. I’m not sure I would go that far, as many of the people in that situation weren’t necessarily rounded up from their homes and forced to march to detention centers. And I don’t think there’s really anything that quite compares to the absolute sickness and sheer awfulness of the Holocaust. At least not yet.

Hmmm…
Worth a view.

The similarities I do see between Trump and Hitler have to do with the way both men worked a crowd, as well as some of the historical events in Germany that led to Hitler’s rise to power, and the actual things that both men say– which are things that most narcissistic types say. The narrator in the above video describes how Germans were caught up in fear, poverty, and bigotry. The public were frustrated and looking for scapegoats on which to blame Germany’s depressed economy. Hitler exploited people’s fears, humiliation, anger, and ignorance to get common citizens to accept him as the only person who could make Germany great again. Elections were suppressed, and soon Hitler became a tyrant who murdered millions of innocent people. If you listen to Trump’s speeches and compare them to Hitler’s speeches, you hear a lot of the same kind of stuff. No, they aren’t exactly alike, and they never will be. But I do see similarities that disturb me, and I am not the only one.

Another quotable idea.

I have watched from afar as people in my country have become more and more radicalized and unreasonable. I have seen a lot violence and heard a lot of disturbing rhetoric. I believe a lot of Americans think of Trump as their savior. They ignore the many disturbing signs of his extreme narcissism, as well as the obvious efforts of Republicans to suppress votes from people who won’t vote for them. People are very polarized and some have forgotten their basic sense of decency and compassion. I actually worry less that Trump will be re-elected than someone younger, smarter, more charismatic, healthier, and crueler might be waiting in the wings, ready to take over when Trump inevitably meets his end. I have noticed a lot of vocal Republicans who are rallying disenfranchised and ignorant people to support them in their quest to reclaim power.

“You don’t know me, but I’m your brother…”

Maybe I shouldn’t be writing blog posts like this one. Maybe I will end up being rounded up and killed. I’m sure the people who perished in the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust had no clue that one day, they would face the horrors they faced. But I can’t help but think of Spaniard George Santayana’s quote, “Those who cannot learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.” So I hope and pray that enough of my fellow Americans open their eyes and demand decency and compassion in our leadership.

If you’re supporting a politician who is beloved by the KKK or Neo-Nazi groups, you may want to re-evaluate your choices. Do you really want to be lumped in a group of people who are driven to hate and kill others? Isn’t it better if we come together in peace and moderation? Is money and power really worth more than other people’s lives? Think about it… and all of the exceptional people who have died because of extremism and the desire for power, money, racism, and religion.

Look familiar?
Trump refused to condemn the KKK. He claims to know nothing about white supremacists, and yet they all love and endorse him.
Holy shit. This man was a protestor. Trump is all about silencing the critics.
And yet, they still love Trump, despite his “condemnation” of their groups! Why is that?

So ends today’s blog sermon… Gotta take Arran and Noyzi for a walk before the rain starts again.

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healthcare, history, nostalgia

Repost: Remembering David Vetter, the boy in the plastic bubble…

This post originally appeared on January 31, 2016. I am reposting it as/is today because it accompanies a book review I will repost after this.

The 70s and 80s were an interesting time to grow up.  They don’t seem like they were that long ago to me, but now that I’ve reached middle age, I can say with honesty that they were.  One story that intrigued millions of people when I was growing up was the story of David Vetter. 

David Phillip Vetter was born on September 21, 1971, about the time my parents conceived me.  He was from Conroe, Texas, a suburb of Houston.  He had an older brother, David Joseph Vetter III, who died the year prior to his birth.  Both David and his brother had a genetic disease called SCID (severe combined immunodeficiency).  It meant that they were born without immune systems that could effectively fight off infections.  The slightest illness could be fatal to someone with SCID.

A program about David Vetter.

Because David had this disease at a time before there was a treatment for it, he was forced to spend all but two weeks of his life in a plastic bubble.  I distinctly remember hearing and reading about David.  I also remember the 1976 film John Travolta, Robert Reed, and Diana Hyland famously starred in called The Boy in The Plastic Bubble.  I saw the movie many times when I was growing up.  It was based on the real life story of Ted DeVita, a teenager who had severe aplastic anemia.  Ted DeVita lived in a sterile hospital room for over eight years.  DeVita’s and Vetter’s experiences were fascinating to people all over the world.  DeVita died in 1980 of iron overload, caused by too many blood transfusions.

A preview of John Travolta’s movie loosely based on David Vetter’s case. At this writing, you can see the whole thing on YouTube.

I’m reminded of David’s story this morning.  There was a link to a New York Times retro report on my Facebook feed.  Though I hadn’t thought about David Vetter in a very long time, I quickly found myself recalling him as I watched the 12 minute video and read the accompanying article.   

Had he lived, David would be my age.  He had a bone marrow transplant that initially worked.  Unfortunately, the marrow had a dormant strain of the Epstein Barr virus in it.  The virus activated and David ended up with a virulent cancer that overwhelmed his body.  He died on February 22, 1984.

On David’s grave, the epitaph reads “He never touched the world… but the world was touched by him.”  Even now, knowing that children with SCID are no longer kept in plastic bubbles, I can’t help but wonder what life would have been like for David had he managed to become an adult.  Though he was able to accomplish a lot in his twelve years and provided science and medicine with new knowledge about a rare disease, there were so many things he couldn’t do.

A New York Times video about David Vetter.

NASA made David a space suit, which he wore a handful of times.  The suit allowed him to emerge from the bubble, though he remained tethered to it by an eight foot long cloth tube.  He never felt his mother’s kiss until he emerged from the bubble for the bone marrow transplant.  He never would have been able to have sex.  I even wonder if he ever saw a dentist… though, I guess if you live in a sterile environment, bacteria is not an issue.  Doctors worried what life would be like for David if he made it to teenhood or even adulthood.  Would he be able to tolerate life in the plastic bubble for en entire normal lifespan?

I am amazed by what David Vetter’s twelve years on earth did for the advancement of science, ethics, and medicine.  I am also amazed at how old I am now.  It seems like yesterday, I was just a youngster.  I look at those photos and videos of David Vetter in his germ free environment, knowing that was state of the art medicine for the 1970s and 80s.  What happened to him then would never work today. Nowadays, kids who are identified with SCID before they get sick are given bone marrow transplants.  In fact, in the video posted with the New York Times story, there is even a story about a woman whose son had SCID identified in utero.  He had a bone marrow transplant before he was even born.

When I was in high school, one of the most popular guys school developed aplastic anemia.  He ended up going to the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, where he died just weeks later.  The day Mike Haury died was coincidentally also the day 55,000 Armenians died in a massive earthquake… December 7, 1988.  I have read that aplastic anemia is now much more successfully treated than it was in the 80s.  Again, it just doesn’t seem like it was that long ago.  I guess it was.

Edited to add: Although I know that COVID-19 life is nothing like it must have been for David Vetter, in a weird way, the constant focus on contagion and masking kind of reminds me of him. I’m looking forward to having the next vaccine.

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book reviews, history

Repost: A review of Flory Van Beek’s book, Flory: Survival in the Valley of Death

Here’s another reposted book review. I read Flory: Survival in the Valley of Death in June 2018 and have decided to repost my review of it as/is today, since I hadn’t yet done it.

Every once in awhile, I go on a book buying spree on Amazon.com.  A couple of weeks ago, I was browsing Amazon’s suggested books for me and I noticed one called Flory: Survival in the Valley of Death.  Originally published in 1999, this book was written by Flory Van Beek, a Dutch Jew who survived the Holocaust thanks to good-hearted Christians who sheltered her and her husband, Felix, during World War II.  I downloaded the 2009 version of Van Beek’s book, never having heard of it before I read it.

Flory’s story…

Flory Van Beek was born in Rotterdam, The Netherlands in 1924, the youngest of four children.  She was her parents’ youngest child by quite a few years, and her father died in an accident when she was five years old.  Flory’s parents were Orthodox Jews who were close to both sides of their family.  After her father’s death, her mother moved to the town where she’d grown up, Amersfoort.  There, young Flory enjoyed a good education and proximity to her mother’s side of the family, which was reportedly much more religious than her father’s side had been.  Flory writes that everyone had faith in the Dutch royal family, led by Queen Wilhelmina.  Her mother reassured her that Holland would stay neutral and remain unaffected by Hitler’s hostility toward Jewish people.  She describes an idyllic upbringing in The Netherlands with plenty of exposure to music and sports.

As Flory grew into a young woman, political tensions developed between Germany and the rest of Europe.  Hitler had taken charge of the German government and was inexorably invading surrounding countries and systematically exterminating people who threatened him.  Jewish people were at the top of Hitler’s list of people to hate.  Flory Van Beek describes what it was like as Hitler gradually took over, confiscating businesses and homes of Jewish people and deporting them to concentration camps.

Sixteen year old Flory met Felix Van Beek one day while she was hanging out at the tennis courts; he had asked her to play a doubles set with him.  Felix was a twenty-five year old German man who had immigrated to Holland with his brothers and worked for an import-export grain company.  Felix and Flory became friends who eventually developed romantic feelings toward each other.  As their relationship bloomed, the Germans continued to threaten Holland. 

Many Jewish people tried to flee Europe.  In May 1939, the S.S. St. Louis, a large passenger ship, left Germany.  Some of Felix’s family members were aboard the ship, which was destined for Havana, Cuba.  Cuba had granted visas to German refugees; however, when the ship approached Havana, it was not allowed to dock.  The ship turned back toward Germany, with some hoping that the United States would allow the refugees to disembark in Miami.  Unfortunately, U.S. officials also refused to harbor the refugees.  Many of them eventually died in concentration camps, although some European countries did take in some of the refugees.  Among those who landed in Holland was one of Felix’s relatives.  By June of 1939, it became clear that Jewish people were no longer safe in Europe. 

Felix decided he no longer wanted to stay in Holland.  Felix convinced Flory’s family to let him take her by ship to Argentina by way of Chile.  In November 1939, the two were booked in separate cabins on the S.S. Simon Bolivar.  One night into their trip, the ship collided with a German mine.  Felix and Flory were both seriously injured, but they were among the 274 of the 400 passengers on the ship who were rescued.  The couple recuperated in England for several months before they went back to Holland, where the political situation had become ever more dire.

The Nazis had demanded that Jewish people start wearing Stars of David on their clothes so that they could be easily identified.  One day, Flory went to the grocery store, against her mother’s wishes.  The family needed food to eat.  She’d had to go during the two hours per day when Jews were allowed to shop.  At the store, she met the man who would save her and Felix from extermination.  A man named Piet, who had been riding a bicycle, stopped Flory and said, “What the hell are you doing here with that damned star on your blouse?  Take that damned thing off and follow me.”  Flory did as the man ordered.

Piet Brandsen and his wife, Dina, were a Catholic couple raising four young daughters.  He led Flory into his house and asked her to tell him her story.  He told his family that Flory was a Jewish girl who needed help, since the Germans were systematically executing Jews.  Piet said it was the family’s duty to help and that they must take her in and hide her.  Piet took Flory to her home, then returned the following morning to speak to Flory’s mother and take her to his house.  Felix had gone to Amsterdam in an attempt to get paperwork that would give them a stay before they were sent to Germany to “work”.  In June 1942, Flory had received a summons to Germany and Felix was trying to get her an extension. 

While Felix was in Amsterdam, among throngs of many desperate Jews trying to obey the insane laws put in place by the Nazis, the Germans arrived and started herding people to concentration camps.  Felix managed to flee and made it home, just in time to join Flory at the Brandsens’ home.  Since the Brandsens’ were observant Catholics, they insisted that Felix and Flory marry before they were allowed to share the one room they had available.

Three heroic families…

For the next few years, Felix and Flory remained in hiding, sheltered by kind and patriotic Catholic families who protected them.  Throughout those years, they quietly worked with the resistance against the Nazis.  They survived illnesses and dental traumas, thanks to compassionate healthcare providers who were willing to look the other way.  Piet was even arrested and sent to a camp at one point, although he was eventually released.  Flory lovingly writes the story of how through the efforts of decent people who cared, she and Felix were able to survive the Nazi occupation. Sadly, many members of Flory’s and Felix’s families did not live.  Several perished at Sobibor, including Flory’s mother.  A few died of illnesses.

In 1948, Flory and Felix were able to immigrate to the United States.  They lived in Newport Beach, California, where Felix co-founded a Jewish temple.  Both died in 2010. 

My thoughts…

This book was fascinating to me on many levels.  First of all, it was very hard not to see the parallels of what is happening in the United States with what happened in Europe during the 1940s.  While I’m not sure Donald Trump is going to be able to accomplish what Hitler did, there are a lot of similarities between his leadership style and Hitler’s.  Flory’s vivid descriptions of how Jewish people were rounded up and deported are eerily similar to some of the stories I’ve read about how illegal aliens in the United States are being treated now.

Secondly, my heart was warmed by the courageous Catholic families who did their best to resist the Nazi regime and help Jewish people who were being persecuted.  These families were fine examples of real Christians.  I was particularly moved by how close Flory and Felix were to the people who helped them. 

Thirdly, more than once, as I was reading this book, I couldn’t help but look at the place where I’m currently living and shake my head in disbelief.  It’s hard to reconcile the way Germans were in the 1940s to how they are now.  It just goes to show you that countries are made up of all kinds of people.  There is a pervasive sense of shame among Germans today about what happened during World War II.  They do not joke about those days.  And yet, as Flory said, “[The Holocaust] is history, and it should never ever happen again.  War, I don’t know. But persecutions? . . . If you die for your country, it is one thing. But to be persecuted because you have a certain religion is unbelievable.  What the Germans did, it can never be made good–ever, ever, ever, no matter what they say.”

I have noticed in the wake of Trump’s disastrous G7 meeting, many media reports of other countries getting fed up with Trump and his antagonistic policies.  Americans are commenting on those posts, hoping to remind people in other countries that not every American is an asshole.  Fortunately, it seems that many people understand that, despite the Twilight Zone political climate we’re in right now.  Still, I can’t help but worry about what’s going to happen if Trump’s bullshit isn’t reined in soon. 

Finally, Felix and Flory were an amazing couple.  They were married for over sixty years and managed to touch so many lives.  They were not able to have children of their own; a baby girl Flory delivered in 1946 was stillborn.  However, they did eventually adopt a son, Isaiah, who sadly died of brain cancer in 1970.  He was just sixteen years old.  They named the temple after him.   

Flory apparently tried many times to write her story, but each time she’d start her manuscript, she’d have to stop because emotion would overwhelm her.  In 1997, she finally decided once and for all to write her book.  It was published in 1998 and remains a very relevant book twenty years hence.  I’m so glad I had the chance to read Flory’s amazing story.  I hope you’ll read it, too.

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