Monday, June 29, 2009

Coming home to public celebrity, private hell

Audie Murphy had the kind of face you find on a baby shampoo bottle. He was every grandma's grandson.

So, after World War II, Hollywood wanted a crack at one of history's most heavily decorated American soldiers.

Among the amazing things about this man's story is that, at least on the set, he didn't crack.

It was only afterward that the war Murphy left, and which carried his fame to theaters across the country, brought him down.

Murphy's psychological makeup came to mind as I paused on a cable dial awash with war films over Memorial Day weekend. To see him in the movie version of his autobiography To Hell and Back is to be amazed at two kinds of steel — first, on the battlefield; second, that shown recreating hell on a movie set. I wondered how someone who'd experienced real war didn't collapse into a quivering heap.

That, apparently, was later.

With all that's been said, and rightfully, about Murphy's heroics, too little attention was given to the horrific mental toll that war took on him.

Isn't that the way it always is? The war ends when the director barks, "It's a wrap."

Born to sharecroppers in North Texas (Hunt County), Murphy enlisted in the Army at age 18. He was anything but a cherubic-faced innocent on the battlefield. He won 33 battle commendations, including the Medal of Honor.

In To Hell and Back his heroism flows right off the screen — manning a machine gun on a soon-to-explode tank to fend off advancing Germans; taking out an enemy pill box when his unit has been destroyed.

Seeing him re-create these moments playing himself, seeing the re-creation of his friends perishing on Europe's bloody soil, one wonders how Murphy handled it.

Not very well, it appears, at least when they dimmed the stage lights.

For more than 20 years, though his film career thrived, he suffered extreme depression and insomnia. He reportedly had violent outbursts aimed at his loved ones.

Before Murphy departed from the public scene quite prematurely, he became one of the first and most prominent military figures to build public consciousness about what was then called battle fatigue and is now called post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Murphy, who died in a plane crash in 1971, would find some comfort in what's happening at Waco's Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

At risk of being shut down only a couple of years ago, the hospital recently received $9.8 million to help it become a Center of Excellence for veterans suffering psychological trauma.

At the hospital's newly created center for PTSD studies, one of the efforts will be tracking 1,000 veterans back from war for the rest of their lives to see how PTSD develops and how it manifests itself in different environments.

I've interviewed PTSD sufferers who, at the height of their suffering, reported diving under beds at the sound of a lawn mower or seeing approaching armored vehicles which were in fact golf carts on a next-door golf course.

Americans in the '50s and '60s who, popcorn in hand, watched Murphy on the big screen probably never imagined the scenes he re-enacted weren't a nostalgia quest. They were a trip back to someplace his mind was telling him not to go.

Reportedly as many as one-third of our veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan will return with chronic psychological wounds, not including traumatic brain injuries that will necessitate medical and psychiatric care.

One-third may sound like a lot. Then again, maybe it only seems that way because too often in years past when the director said "wrap," people thought war was over. For countless soldiers like Audie Murphy, it wasn't even close.

John Young writes for the Waco Tribune-Herald. E-mail:

Thursday, June 25, 2009

'God commands: Disperse'

As horrors from the streets of Tehran snake-danced past America's eyes the other night, I had an eerie TV experience: viewing comparably unconscionable ugliness on the streets of America.

It came from the 2007 documentary Chicago 10 — footage from the bloody riots during the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

Chicago 10 is pulsing evidence that even in a republic whose plans are best-laid, authority can overreach in horrific fashion.

Also on my mind at the same time was a commentary on about the perils of unchecked power. The commentary's inspiration is Iran, but you can certainly see a lot about America between the lines.

"The demise of political racism leaves political religion standing as the most widespread form of tyranny in the world," Michael Lind writes.

He's talking about mullahs and clerics and a nation that calls itself democratic but is nothing of the sort.

It's some democracy, for instance, when candidates must seek the approval of the clerics of Iran's Guardian Council to run.

Lind's thesis: Though we want to believe that dictatorship in the raw is the root of global instability, the biggest source, without a runner-up, is religion. And the nations that present the most danger to their neighbors and their own citizens are religious states.

Iran? Well, of course. Then again, Pakistan's Ministry of Religious Affairs, Lind points out, observes the motto, "Islam is the only religion acceptable to God."

Now, that's a phrase anyone of reason would grant to another's conscience or congregation. But as government policy it is scary as hell.

"If it is barbarous for South Africa to to be a Nazi-like supremacist state," Lind writes, "why is it not barbarous for Saudi Arabia to ban public practice of others religions by its citizens?"

Lind is not advocating that secular nations confront theocratic tyranny in the way George Bush, Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz envisioned the "onward march of freedom."

"The one thing we in liberal countries can do, while reformers in Iran fight and sometimes die for their principles, is to understand our own," Lind writes.

He speaks of secular principles.

In our society, too often to celebrate the virtues of secular government is to be denounced as "devoid of morality," "anti-God" or "anti-religion."

To paraphrase the immortal James Madison: What a crock. The design laid out by our founders resulted in the most lush forest of faith, and faiths, imaginable.

Yes, we have a sectarian paradise. Thank secular government for that. Yet it gets no thanks, or respect, from posturing pols who want religion — their religion — to govern.

True, unlike in Iran we aren't required to seek mullahs' consent to run for president. But observe how candidates parade to American holy men for their blessing.

To what public policy ends? To order a pregnant woman to gestate to term? To pronounce personhood to discarded, frozen pre-embryos whose stem cells might save lives? To forbid spousal rights for partners of opposite sexes?

Each of these things a holy man might decree.

So, too, would he carve the words of the Ten Commandments in the courthouse foyer, though annoying secularists might see the biblical "thou shall have no God before me" as philosophically kindred to "Islam is the only religion acceptable to God."

The sad thing about many people of faith is they have no faith in what they believe. They think that for faith to be strong, government must reinforce it. Pitiful.

What we see in Iran — and Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan — should make us all disciples of a government that puts personal belief on such a pedestal that even it cannot rise to tamper with it.

But alas, sometimes it just feels right to distribute helmets and billy clubs.

John Young writes for the Waco Tribune-Herald. E-mail:

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Austin book-scrubbing club

They remind me of the springer spaniel I once knew who fell in love with a moldy piece of rug.

The fight put up last week by the social conservatives on the State Board of Education reminded me of the bared-teeth tug of war that ensued when someone tried to take that piece of rug away.

The teeth were bared last week.

Gov. Rick Perry signed a bill expanding the use of electronic textbooks despite calls for its veto by conservatives on the board.

The issue, not surprisingly, is control.

Power over textbooks is these ideologues' love rug. They have rolled on it, chewed on it, barked at interlopers seeking to place a hand on it.

The bill in question would leave the board in an advisory capacity only regarding state-funded electronic textbooks. The commissioner of education would sign off on them when they are chosen by local school districts.

Imagine: local control of school materials. What a dangerous precedent. The next thing you know, nude mud wrestling will be a core academic subject.

What's more, said a press release by opponents, "This bill will turn a thoughtful, systematic process that now exists for approving printed textbooks into a bureaucratic and disreputable process fraught with numerous opportunities to misdirect and harm our students because of the lack of elected and parental oversight."

Yes, the current process is "thoughtful." And Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a "Renaissance poet."

The only thing "systematic" about the Texas textbook process is the systematic efforts of religious-right conservatives to use it to their ends.

It's been that way ever since the late '70s when the state board was being cowed by Longview textbook monitors Mel and Norma Gabler. Demonstrating that the index finger is mightier than the sword, the Gablers once challenged a social studies textbook because it showed a woman with a briefcase — yes, violating God's commands by escaping the kitchen.

With Texas being the second-largest bulk purchaser of textbooks behind California, the Gablers had an influence on classrooms across the country. Fortunately, in 1995 the Legislature took away the board's ability to expunge particular references in books based on hints and allegations. The board could only reject errors or material that strayed from the state's essential elements.

That hasn't prevented the board's right-tilting majority from getting publishers' attentions with tantrums over textbook themes deemed "un-American" and "anti-family," and which are neither.

Interestingly, upon Perry's signing of the bill, we saw a telling divide between those of the Republican persuasion who believe "government is my shepherd" and those who, in fact, believe in less government and, heavens, "local control."

The Texas Association of Business praised the new legislation. So did the Texas Business and Education Coalition.

Supporters are excited about tapping a new dimension of educational materials.

The controlling clique on our state school board reminds one of the Chinese leaders who increasingly are seeking to put controls on what people can read on the Internet.

They are consumed with fear over the notion that information might be at schoolchildren's fingertips that the textbook monitors haven't already pawed over.

In Beijing, in Tehran, in Austin, "conservative" isn't about libertarianism or intellectual freedom. It's about just the opposite. I do detect, however, that some libertarians who call themselves conservative now have come to realize that the word has been hijacked.

That is why the Texas Legislature came close to pulling the state school board's teeth this session with a sunset bill. That is why we can expect to see the body's role and relevance eroded in future sessions. The board is not nearly as interested in students and education as it is in moldy remnants of power.

John Young writes for the Waco Tribune-Herald. E-mail:

Sunday, June 21, 2009

How Dad helped get that piano up the stairs

This time, as with last time, my Father's Day offering to my dad is a nod upstairs.

This is the second spring since his passing. Last spring about this time my brothers and I were elbow-deep in cleaning out the house of our childhood and his fatherhood.

I'll bet many who've been in this situation have had the same sensation: that the person lost was in the room with you as you sifted through his or her effects. I didn't feel it initially. Then I came to think he might have been in several places with us, particularly the stairwell.

If so, it would have been one of the first times in his mostly robust 86 years that, with heavy labor to do, he wasn't pushing, lifting or pulling.

This time what he did was the thinking.

That's what I started believing.

Those few days in the house, too many coincidences happened for me to ascribe them to anything but Dad fluttering around to make them so.

That week, for instance, a cold front came through Denver. I had come from Texas with nothing whatsoever to break the chill. I reached in his still-full bedroom closet for something to wear. My hand hit a nicely lined flannel jacket we bought for him one Christmas.

Pulling it out, I remembered that Dad's arms were a couple of inches shorter than mine.

"Probably won't fit," I thought.

It didn't. Not at first. Then I realized the sleeves were rolled. When I unfolded them, it fit my arms perfectly. It's in my closet right now.

It was the first of a string of odd occurrences that took dilemmas off our hands.

* The driver who brought the roll-off disposal container fell in love with Dad's '80s Crown Victoria and bought it.

* A father and son who salvaged metal made a bounteous keep of discards we didn't want to haul to the dump, including a once-exalted tetherball poll.

* A mattress we propped up against Dad's crab apple tree with a "Take it: good condition" sign got snatched up.

Then there was the piano.

I wish I knew how Dad got it in the basement. He hadn't asked for our help. But there it had been for at least 30 years.

One of my tasks on this trip was to deliver the lonely piano to my oldest son, who had given it many workouts when visiting Grandpa's house.

Knowing we couldn't extricate the piano ourselves, we called movers. They arrived: three men. One had a broken foot. Another was able but deaf. The third appeared mostly inclined to bark orders, and not in sign language. My brother and I exchanged "Oh, geeze" glances.

Eying the outside stairwell, the crew leader had an idea: Put a pad down. Lean the piano on its side. With him pulling the pad and us pushing from below, slide it up the stairs. Hah. I suggested instead that we use some nearby boards for a ramp. He wouldn't hear of it. He was the pro.

Our eyes bugged out as we pushed from below. Crew Chief slipped and fell as he pulled the padding. The piano, which had advanced one whole step, started to slide back, almost crushing us.

We tried it again. Futility.

Finger-spell mutiny

At this point I appealed to the deaf mover with one of my hidden talents. I can finger spell. My fingers spelled out "boards." Sweat pouring off his forehead, he nodded frantically. Crew Chief, you just got outvoted.

It turned out that the boards, two-by-fours, were perfectly proportioned. They reached from the top step all the way to the bottom. We placed padding on them and leaned the piano on its side. We pushed. Though not without great strain, it slid up the make-shift ramp. Mission accomplished. Take me to a chiropractor.

Later I wondered: Why the heck were thick, perfectly measured boards neatly stacked beside the stairwell? What purpose?

It must have been to help raise that once-lonely piano from that basement, so that one of Dad's grandsons could compose music on it a time zone away. It's something the kid might be doing at this very moment.

Thanks for thinking of him, Dad.

John Young's column appears Thursday and Sunday. E-mail:

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Suntan lotion and health care

Water is an efficient conveyor of sound. At a peaceful, four-star hotel pool, even more so.

Recently, in a departure from workaday toils at an education conference, I experienced at poolside how the nonworkaday world lives, and thinks.

Two suntanners, who definitely are not fans of our president, were talking health care policy. Both appeared alarmed at the prospect of change — though not frantic enough to change their bodily positions.

"They want what Canada has," said one.

"I hear Canadians come over here for procedures," said the other. "Where do we go if Canada's system comes here?"

Ducking my head under the chlorinated cool, I'd heard enough. It doesn't take long to hear it all from one side of the debate about health coverage. Basically, its members have health coverage, and that's enough.

Barack Obama is promoting a Canada-style health care system, they say. Yep. And he is converting the Washington National Cathedral into a juice bar.

Agreed, Obama covets the end result Canada has achieved — health coverage for everybody. But only a person addled with overexposure to sun, or to right-wing talk radio or Fox Spews, would compare his way to Canada's.

Obama seeks to create a hybrid in which government picks up where private enterprise poops out — 45 million Americans without health insurance.

So doing, he angers many on the left who advocate a single-payer system.

Bill Clinton's venture into this minefield had some of the same elements of intrigue and public-private intermarriage. Battered by the insurance industry, it ultimately fell under the weight of Rube Goldberg-style complexity.

Obamacare portends to be simpler, building on tried-and-true concepts like the Children's Health Insurance Program.

Those who spit nails as they deride this as socialist medicine will be seen swallowing their scruples soon enough when Medicare eases their health care dilemmas in retirement.

For Obama, the dilemma is getting enough votes, even in a Democrat-controlled Congress, to resolve that we won't continue to have increasing numbers of Americans among the uninsured.

We also can't continue to absorb the cost of caring for uninsured Americans the way we do — at the emergency room door.

That's the dirty secret of the current system. The other is the fiscal black hole we've created by putting middlemen's profits ahead of affordable preventive health care and coverage working Americans could have with a modest public subsidy, a la CHIP.

Anyone who worries about the cost of finding a new way needs to consider this: We'll spend $8,000 per person on health care this year. The French with their single-payer system? $5,000 per person.

France's system, as with Canada's, has its own problems — particularly rising costs. But both spend their money more intelligently — at the front end of the health care drama.

We use our money in the most ill-advised fashion, sandbagging it in a dance of individual and collective false economy. We wait until catastrophe forces our hands.

It's very much open to question whether Obama's hybrid approach based on preventive care can work in the face of an entrenched system based on profit.

Unfortunately, to a vast number of Americans the specter of 45 million without health insurance is of no concern. They have health plans. They can meet the deductible.

Thinking of the poolside think-tankers reminds me of the late Eddie Chiles, who owned the Texas Rangers before a certain U.S. president-to-be got a minority share.

Chiles' oil-services company had a slogan: "If you don't have an oil well, get one."

If you don't have a four-star swimming pool, get one.

If you don't have health insurance, get some.

Pass the suntan lotion.

John Young's column appears Thursday and Sunday. E-mail:

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Hate is in neither holy book

I am not going to ascribe to all Baptists the biblical stylings of Wiley Drake.

He's the preacher from California, a former vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention, who told Fox News he prays for Barack Obama to die.

Drake has an ironclad explanation should the Secret Service show up at his door. He says it's not Wiley Drake talking, but God talking through Wiley Drake. Whatever.

I think no less of Christians because this one says it is God's will that the popularly elected leader of the free world buy the farm at 47.

Neither will I assail Christianity because the Old Testament reeks of militarism and vengeance. That would be unfair.

So, why, when America has 7 million peaceable, hardworking Muslims in its midst, do we continue to hear Americans say this about them:

"Their faith dictates that we nonbelievers of Islam must be violently put to death." So said an anonymous post on our Web site last week after Obama spoke in conciliatory tones to the Muslim world in Egypt. This person simply was parroting what he'd heard others ascribe to Muslims in general. When their hands are called on it, some will qualify with "militant Muslims" or "radical Muslims." That's supposed to get them off the hook, leaving an intended slur of millions intact.

After hearing this claim for the quadrillionth time, that followers of Islam are commanded to kill non-Muslims, I did what a parrot would never consider doing. I inquired. Not of Google. Not of Fox News. I inquired at the mosque.

In Waco, that's the place adjoining Al's Auto Repair — Al being Al Siddiq, president of the Islamic Center of Waco.

The anonymous poster probably would insist that I seek out a militant Muslim, not Siddiq, who is about car repair and peace. Good point. Siddiq is so interested in brotherhood that he also is president of the Greater Waco Interfaith Conference. (Originally it was the Conference of Christians and Jews. Several years ago it was renamed to be made more inclusive.)

Siddiq said the line in the Quran calling to "fight and slay the pagans" hearkens back to rhetoric when followers of Mohammed were warring with idol-worshipping Arabs — yes, Arabs — in a far-off century.

It has nothing to do with today, unless exploited by someone tetched in the head theologically, like, say, a Wiley Drake.

Speaking of far-off words, Siddiq said that if non-Christians read Deuteronomy the way some Christians interpret a single line in the story of Islam, they would flee this country.

"Kill any friends or family that worship a god that is different than your own." Deuteronomy 13:6-10.

Are the voices of Islam and those of Christianity on a collision course? Not if one reads their sacred books, Siddiq said. In fact, he points out that the Quran mentions Jesus more often than it does Mohammed. It preaches about eternal salvation for the doers of good works.

Siddiq said he'd never heard about virgins and various eternal rewards for Islamic warriors until some of them, in suicidal blasts, left their blackened marks on the landscape.

He said religion is not driving the violence associated with radical Islam. What drives it is despair, economic hopelessness and the plights of marginalized people.

Though he's a devout Muslim, when Siddiq uses "we," he's not referring to Islam. He's referring to his country, a nation for which he served in uniform.

He's as patriotic as any American, but he knows why many in the Third World distrust the West. It's because of a history of invading, colonizing and exploiting people and resources.

Siddiq would not live anywhere else, however, or salute another flag. And the last thing he wants is conflict. He wants to live his life based on the tenets of his faith.

If the essence of Christianity is the Golden Rule, Siddiq said the essence of Islam is, "Serve mankind." Some conflict.

John Young's column appears Thursday and Sunday. E-mail:

Monday, June 8, 2009

Seeds of hope for gays, lesbians

I'd love to know back in the '60s when that delicious sense of inevitability set in — that sense that, though struggles would remain, right was winning and Jim Crow was toast.

It might have been like last week with these revelations: Both Dick Cheney and Ted Olson came out for same-sex marriage.

That was just a few days after lawmakers in New York (pending Senate approval) and New Hampshire (needs House approval) voted to become the sixth and seventh states to legalize same-sex marriage.

Yes, those votes came just about the same time California's Supreme Court upheld a voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage. So, you might say, aren't we just talking a political stalemate?

One could have said as much in the early '60s when some states were fighting desegregation with all their might.

They were losing.

When Ted Olson not only steps to the microphone for same-sex marriage but goes to court for it, it's a sign of victory on the horizon. Yes, human rights for human beings who happen to be homosexual.

It was man-bites-schnauzer news the other day when Olson joined the legal fight against California's prohibition.

Olson was solicitor general under George W. Bush. Before that he argued the case in court for Bush's tainted 2000 victory.

In joining the class-action suit, Olson shared the dais with David Boies, his legal rival who made Al Gore's case in the 2000 drama.

Olson's reason for taking this stand? "Creating a second class of citizens is discrimination, plain and simple."

Second-class: in how such issues as joint property and health coverage are handled. Second-class: regarding tax incentives for people to marry.

We don't need one of the nation's foremost Republican lawyers to call it discrimination, but it sure gets your attention.

As for Cheney, he already had shown himself "soft" on these human rights. We all know why. His daughter is a lesbian with a same-sex partner. Last week he went from soft to solid when he said, "People ought to be free to enter into any kind of union they wish, any kind of arrangement they wish."

Cheney has succumbed to something, call it an inconvenience, that some of his ideological brethren seek to avoid: eye contact. Once you know gay people, and know that what distinguishes them can't be spread through the air or by hand contact and that it isn't an illness anyway, you realize that their 21st Century Jim Crow treatment is both wrong and wrongheaded.

Opponents of gay marriage skillfully have posed this matter as an assault on marriage. How so? This is pro-marriage. This is pro-monogamy. It's the age of AIDS. Isn't monogamy a life-of-death matter?You can defend same-sex marriage on public health grounds alone.

Clearly it remains a political loser in many states. So was race-mixing, depending on one's latitude and wrong-itude in the '60s.

But it's one thing for the California Supreme Court to rule that voters said what they meant in banning gay marriage. It's another to argue that a popularly supported ban doesn't violate equal protection of the law, Olson and Boies seek to prove it does before the U.S. Supreme Court.

When — not if — justice triumphs over this form of discrimination, Texas will have played an inadvertent role.

Olson pointed out that the Supreme Court's 2003 ruling overturning Texas' sodomy law provides a king-sized lily pad for hopping across the pond of popularly mandated discrimination to the solid ground of equality.

This time, when Ted Olson says it, I believe it.

John Young writes for the Waco Tribune-Herald. E-mail:

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Yee haw -- Texas is last, and dropping

Upon Senate passage of the state biennial budget, the well-attired David Dewhurst was busting his buttons.

The lieutenant governor praised a state budget "that meets the needs of our growing state."

State Sen. Elliott Shapleigh, D-El Paso, had a different take: With this budget, the gorgeous state of Texas once again is jostling for the crown in the Miss False Economy Pageant, likely again to spend less per capita on human services than any other state.

"What's the cost of being last?" Shapleigh asked.

What Shapleigh didn't point out was that wherever Texas ranks, it is certain to fall further in the biennium ahead because it has clothed itself in policies that have put tax cuts ahead of obligations like schools, highways and preventive health care.

Gov. Rick Perry, who looks good in any suit, hitched up his designer tie and bragged that Texas was alone among states in cutting taxes during a recession.

He spoke of a $172 million measure that increased the numbers of businesses exempt from the state business tax.

It's as if the state won't be needing that money down the road. But, of course, it will. Right now? Thanks to $12.1 billion in federal stimulus dollars, this budget holds the rate of spending increase to under 2 percent, below inflation and population growth.

Guilty pleasure: federal dollars

What will happen when those federal dollars go away is likely to make even the most hardhearted conservatives wince.

Remember, the state faced a $9 billion shortfall before Barack Obama rescued it.

Denouncing him all the way, our Republican leaders then set out to patch holes in the rotting life raft that we in Texas call state services.

Shades of 2003: That year Republicans, newly in control of the Legislature, went on a budget-cutting, privatization fest. But when it came down to certifying the budget as balanced, it was only a last-second infusion of $1.6 billion in federal aid that allowed lawmakers to say they had done their jobs under the law and balanced their budget.

Since then, our intrepid scofflaws have done much to make sure that Texas has a fiscal hole that one day will cave and collapse upon those who most rely on state services.

This was preordained with the bill that in 2005 misleadingly was framed as "school finance reform" but was really all about property tax cuts Texas couldn't justify.

Because lawmakers committed themselves to a one-third property-tax cut over four years, and because the business tax they created was not sufficient from the start to replace the lost revenue, they created a structural deficit that would have come into play this session if not for the big bucks from Washington.

Now watchdog groups from the left and right are projecting that in two years, Texas could face a shortfall of $13 billion to $15 billion and no escape hatch except to butcher state programs for the frail, infirm and mentally disabled.

Schools and highways? Maybe we can just do without. Can't private enterprise educate our children? Don't big-butted pickup trucks and off-road SUVs obviate the need for roads in the 21st century?

When those federal dollars go away, we will see what shreds are left of the fine threads our governor and lieutenant governor model today.

In the meantime, consider some brags.

Texas is last in the nation in per capita spending.

It has the highest percentage of uninsured children in the nation. It is last in the percentage of residents with high school diplomas. It does, however, lead the nation in executions.

Perry and Dewhurst believe that cutting taxes that are already 49th lowest nationally per capita is how we address our needs.

Chides Shapleigh, "Those who value tax cuts over children . . . have put Texas at risk in her ability to compete and succeed."

That's what being last means. Last and dropping.

John Young appears Thursday and Sunday. E-mail: