In 1941, legendary North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il was born. He would have been 75. I snapped this photo back in my days with the diplomatic corps, during a three-day bender with Jong-il and a trio of Belgian prostitutes we’d picked up after a failed, clandestine meeting in Antwerp. He wanted nothing to do with increased grain subsidies, he’d laughed, unless that grain arrived in the form of Jack Daniels bourbon, which was hard to come by in North Korea thanks to an American embargo on luxury goods.
Jong-il decided he wanted to swim, and one thing led to another. We crossed France without incident. Surely some palms were greased along the way, as there was no mistaking the sleek, vintage 1974 Lincoln I wouldn’t see again until his funeral parade. Man, was that car cool.
Just after dawn we found ourselves in an apartment two blocks off the Cotes de Basques, ostensibly maintained as an RBG safe house. There was so much beer, pot, and cocaine–Jong-il was crazy about snorting the coke from one of the hooker’s ass cracks, after which he would laugh for half an hour, just giggling like a school girl–I’ve never seen anything like it, even during the out of control years of the first Bush administration. We never even left the apartment, let alone saw the beach. Sure do miss that crazy little guy; he really knew how to party.
I know, you’ve missed me–I’ve been buried in real-world work again–but I’m swimming towards the surface. In the meantime, here’s a transcript, with some additions, from a Facebook post that’s making the rounds–a story too fascinating, exciting, and (sadly) unsurprising to not share with you.
Do you know who this is a photo of? Chances are you don’t, but don’t feel bad because probably not one American in one million does, and that is a National tragedy. His name is Eugene Jacques Bullard, and he is the first African-American fighter pilot in history. But he is also much more then that: He’s also a national hero, and his story is so incredible that I bet if you wrote a movie script based on it Hollywood would reject it as being too far-fetched.
Bullard was an expat living in France, and when World War 1 broke out he joined the French Infantry. He was seriously wounded, and France awarded him the Croix de Guerre and Medaille Militaire. In 1916 he joined the French air service and he first trained as a gunner but later he trained as a pilot. When American pilots volunteered to help France and formed the famous Lafayette Escadrille, he asked to join but by the time he became a qualified pilot they were no longer accepting new recruits, so he joined the Lafayette Flying Corps instead. He served with French flying units and he completed 20 combat missions.
When the United States finally joined the war, Bullard was the only member of the Escadrille or the French Flying Corps who was NOT invited to join the US Air Service. The reason? At that time the Air Service only accepted white men.
Now here is the part that almost sounds like a sequel to ‘Casablanca’: After WWI Bullard became a jazz musician in Paris and he eventually owned a nightclub called ‘L’Escadrille’. When the Germans invaded France and conquered it in WW2, his Club, and Bullard, became hugely popular with German officers, but what they DIDN’T know was that Bullard, who spoke fluent German, was actually working for the Free French as a spy. He eventually joined a French infantry unit, but he was badly wounded and had to leave the service.
By the end of the war, Bullard had become a national hero in France, but he later moved back to the U.S. where he was of course completely unknown. Practically no one in the United States was aware of it when, in 1959, the French government named him a national Chevalier, or Knight.
In 1960, the President of France, Charles DeGaulle, paid a state visit to the United States and when he arrived he said that one of the first things he wanted to do was to meet Bullard. That sent the White House staff scrambling because most of them, of course, had never even heard of him. They finally located him in New York City, and DeGaulle traveled there to meet him personally. At the time, Eugene Bullard was working as … An elevator operator.
Not long after Eugene Bullard met with the President of France, he passed away, and today very, very few Americans, and especially African-Americans, even know who he is. But, now YOU do, don’t you? And I hope you’ll be able to find opportunities to tell other people about this great American hero that probably only 1 American in 1 Million has ever heard of.
Postscript: It’s worth noting that I also discovered this photo of Bullard being beaten by police in the famous anti-black, anti-communist, anti-Semitic Peekskill Riots of 1949. God bless America–the more things change, the more they stay the same.
The italicized text above arrived in my hands attributed to someone named Terry Dunn, via Facebook. I’m unsure of its provenance.
A more complete biography of Corporal Bullard appears here. His wikipedia page is here. (link repaired)
And there is even a book. It is amazing how much there is that we don’t know.
I grew up up rural western Pennsylvania, and I never even heard about Cinco De Mayo until I was grown up. I mean: hell, we didn’t even have tacos until the 1980s. Not in the town where I lived. Even after I first heard of Cinco De Mayo, I just assumed it was another one of those foreign holidays we Americans like so much to appropriate, an obscure (often stern and religious) celebration, like St Patrick’s Day, that we explode into full-blown binge-fests of sin an libertine indulgences–you know, because we can’t help our ingrained need to rebel against the puritanical undercurrent of our bawdy culture. And Cinco De Mayo is well on the way–just watch all the college bars running promotions backed by the makers of Mexican-themed beer and booze.
So, what the hell is it?
It is not, as I thought, a sort of Mexican Fourth of July. Nor does it have anything to do with dead people–that’s Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, but I understand your confusion: all those foreign holidays sound the same to us.
Wait? What Union? Do I mean Lincoln and Grant and all those guys?
Yep. The French, you see, being back in the Empire game under Napolean III (you’d think they would have learned after the first two) naturally allied themselves with the the Confederacy, with their mutually twisted dreams of idealized courtly fairytale nonsense. Most Hispanics, on the other hand, weren’t thrilled about France’s stated goal of crushing a thriving young democracy and restoring a Mexican monarchy (under France’s auspices, of course); nor were they thrilled with slavery. Or Texas, which had pretty much been taken from Mexico by force, and was still a haven for vicious mercenary raiders who, fancying themselves freedom fighters, crossed the border into Mexico to steal, rape, scalp and murder Native Americans and Mexicans alike.
Hispanics in the American west saw a two-fronted war, with the confederacy to the east and the French pushing from the south, and in California and Oregon in particular it seemed that the army of freedom and democracy had struck a huge blow against the elitist forces of slavery and monarchy. It had little to do with Mexican patriotism–it was about defending freedom and democracy.
In fact, Latinos were joining the Union army, Union cavalry, Union navy. Spanish language newspapers in the west closely covered every single battle of the Civil War.
Networks of Latino groups called “juntas patrioticas mejicanas,” or Mexican patriotic assemblies, mostly in California but also in Oregon, Nevada and Arizona, with 14,000 members, organized parades, speeches, dances, banquets and bull fights as a morale builder for President Lincoln and Mexican President Benito Juarez, and from 1862 to 1867, the public memory of Cinco de Mayo was forged in the American West.
In the years after the Civil War, veterans of the Union and Mexican armies would put on their uniforms and give speeches every Cinco de Mayo but the meaning of the holiday changed as years passed, first becoming a David versus Goliath tale among Mexican immigrants in the 1900s, then morphing into a celebration of U.S.-Mexican unity during World War II. In the 1960s, the meaning shifted towards pride in Mexican heritage and on in the past decade has become what Professor David Hayes-Bautista calls an, “undeniable commercialization in the late 20th century, a fake holiday recently invented by beverage companies. Now it’s become this big commercial holiday and a wonderful opportunity to get services and products in front of the Latino market and it even got its own postage in 1996 and in 2005 President Bush even had a Cinco de Mayo celebration at the White House.”
It can be argued that the Germans were already doomed; they just didn’t know it yet. Morally bereft, overextended, overconfident, and reaping the seeds sown by poking the Russian bear to their north and east, the “Thousand-Year Reich” would not last a decade. For millions, it could not end soon enough. Despite its losses in Africa, the defeat of its axis partner, Italy, and the terrible grinding will of the Soviets, who had clearly shown they would fight not only to the last man, but to the last woman and child, the Nazi war machine in the spring of 1944 could still muster terrible destructive force–and millions still languished under the twisted, genocidal psychopathy of Adolf Hitler and his minions. They had to be stopped.
And they would be. Seventy years ago today American, British, and Canadian forces slogged onto the heavily fortified beaches of Normandy, France under a withering firestorm and into the arms of mayhem and, for many, death. I can’t imagine it. YOU can’t imagine it. Steven Spielberg might have come close, albeit on a very small scale, in the opening moments of Saving Private Ryan–the clip below is not for folks prone to nightmares.
Over a third of the men in the first wave of the assault were dead within the first hour–many in the first two minutes. Immediately besieged by an onslaught of machine gun fire, many saved themselves by jumping from their landing craft into the churning waters, only to drown under the weight of their equipment. Those who found purchase in the waves faced a virtual wall of gunfire, artillery, and mines placed amidst carefully arranged obstacles.
The survivors in the surf now faced a thousand feet of beach, all of it in the gun sights of those fortified German emplacements in the bluffs above. It must have been impossible for some of them to believe, but within eleven months Hitler would be dead, and the German war machine in ruins. Much of the fiercest fighting of the war remained–not just in Europe, but in the Pacific, as well–but D-Day was the real beginning of the end.
As I write this, I find that my words are inadequate–better to show. This collection of photos is excellent, especially for the somewhat rare color pictures that are included. I find that the black and white pictures that were standard in that time create a certain disconnect, the shades of grey in some senses otherworldly in their starkness.
Allies who love to hate each other make perfect rivals, especially when Alain Bernard, the superstar French swimmer, derisively dismissed his USA counterparts before the 4×100 Freestyle in the 2008 Beijing games. “The Americans?” Bernard sneered, “We’re going to smash them. That’s what we came here for.”
While the cameras focused on USA Star Mike Phelps and Bernard, in the end it was veteran Jason Lezak, the oldest member of the team who was, for the most part, largely unknown outside the swimming world, who took down the haughty Bernard.
Panama…then Iraq, Somalia, Bosnia, Iraq again, Afganistan–right or wrong, for causes both just and cynical, we’ve been in an exhausting, nearly constant state of war, however distant and vaguely defined, since I graduated from High School in the 1980’s–and that was just a few deep breaths after the war in Viet Nam/ Cambodia/ Laos that defined my father and his generation. It seems fitting to start out a series of my favorite poems with war theme.
I’ve thought of no other poem more than this one over the past two decades, which speaks volumes for Wilfred Owen, who wrote from a foxhole in World War I–the “War To End All Wars.” In the age of biological weapons, this piece resounds like the deepest church bells on a cold, crisp night.
Dulce Et Decorum Est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.
GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!– An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.–
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
It was Sunday night, the sofa was soft, the down comforter warm, and the sun was shining on Downton Abbey–it’s always shining on the glacially slow BBC soap opera, you might have noticed, despite what I’ve heard about England, yet it was brighter still inside the ice arena in Sochi, Russia where the world’s finest ice dancers were doing their thing in the short program–see how I’m talking in cool skater jargon?–and lighting things up. We tuned out of England and headed for the East.
I don’t know what the hell I’m looking at, of course–I know basketball and football (American Football, the best kind 😉 )–but all I know about skating is that skaters have to fit “swizzles” into their programs. Otherwise, I’m judging what looks good, what looks fluid and graceful and, well, (sorry, gentlemen) what looks pretty. Last night, they all looked pretty, and it doesn’t help that I’m a guy who, despite feminist leanings, can’t help noticing how beautiful some of these women are–muscles, smiles, short skirts–it’s better than art on a wall. I’m generally too beguiled by the beauty and the unfamiliar sport to be any kind of judge, unless one of them teeters visibly or falls down.
A short while later, we enjoyed watching a young Russian pair, Elena Ilinykh andNikita Katsalapov, and you know what? Yep, they looked unbeatable, though I thought–or, more appropriately, felt something that made me wonder if the Canadians were not just a little bit better. At it turned out, it was close, but I was right.
The next skaters were noticed were a French pair, Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat, who I think I liked best of all, up to that point, and guess what: I thought they looked unbeatable. It doesn’t hurt that Ms. Pechalat wore the most beautiful, most exuberant smile on her already beautiful face throughout their program–I wanted them to do well on spirit alone, and they did, landing briefly in third place behind Ilinykh/Katsalapov and Virtue/Moir.
They had to know it would be short-lived. Even though another young Canadian pair–Kaitlyn Weaver, Andrew Poje--came out and gave a great showing–not quite unbeatable, but fluid and spirited, and Ms. Weaver’s brilliant blue dress was the hands-down scene stealer of the evening, the night belonged to the last couple to skate.
I love to tell stories with words and images, often with a darkly magical twist. While speculative fiction & dissecting pop culture are my primary passions, I also work with clients & brands by assisting with content creation, editing, marketing & design.