Archive for April, 2009

A Tank Is A Tank Is A Tank, Of Course

images2As a broadly curious dilettante, I know just enough about a lot of things to create an impression among the uninitiated that I might even know what I’m talking about. Last week during a tour of the U.S. Army’s Ordnance Museum and Restoration Facilities in Aberdeen, Maryland, the shallowness of my knowledge became all too evident.

A friend had invited me to the tour, and since I can glibly ID on sight, things like an M-4 Sherman, or a British Centurion, a Panzer Mk IV, or a Soviet T-34, I accepted the invite. And by the way, a 155-mm rifled gun was the primary armament on the Cold War version of the Centurion.

The Aberdeen tour was arranged for a convention in nearby Havre de Grace of an organization of affable eccentrics called AMPS, “The Armor Modeling and Preservation Society.” These are the highly skilled and even more highly knowledgeable hobbyists who build detailed scale-models of armored fighting vehicles, i.e. tanks. They periodically gather to bond and to pass judgments on each other’s works. Mostly middle-aged to older males, they tilt heavily toward the “gearhead,” engineer, “gosh gee-whiz” personae.

During the orientation preceding the tour, I began to get intimations of what I had fallen into. Surrounding me, were jackets and hats featuring embroidered tanks and the patches of the various regional chapters of AMPS. The fleece jacket on the camera-laden man to my left announced his membership in “AMPS, Ottawa.” The back of the T-shirt on one of the guys in front of me sported a silk-screened image of a Wermacht-era King Tiger and large Gothic letters proclaiming “Panzerfest 2007.” There I was, embedded among the true and obsessed literati of the machines of war.

There were almost one hundred or so AMPS attendees, just about all male. The few women present seemed to have the same attentiveness to the subject matter as the men. One guy, far too young to have served in WW II, wore a vintage khaki shirt with T-5 stripes and the shoulder patch of an armored division that had been deactivated in 1945. I felt I was staring out onto that slippery slope that separates a somewhat rational interest in the minutiae of history from the totality of reenacting.

Following our orientation, we were divided into groups, and in what turned into a complete muddle, dispatched to the restoration shops. With different disassociated crowds of lost armor tourists, we wandered the post’s workshops and warehouses in search of the restoration facilities. Being among the lucky, we found a workshop where a French, Renault FT-17 tank, used by the AEF in France in 1918, was being restored for display. That the AEF was equipped with Renault tanks was a reflection of the war ending before American factories could provide a suddenly gigantic U.S. Army with tanks, aircraft or artillery pieces.

The first thing that struck me about the shell of the Renault was its size, not much bigger than a VW Beetle. The thickness of the steel that made up the shell was as remarkable to me as the complexity of the over ninety-year old wheel assemblies that carried the vehicle’s tracks. Everything had been stripped-down and water-blasted to bare metal, a process that also removed any residual muck of a long-ago Western Front.

While I ruminated on this little wonder of a fossil in the evolution of armored warfare, an AMPS member next to me was busy shooting photos of a pile of stacked up tracks when one of his fellows walked up and began pointing at the tracks and excitedly going on. “See! See! I told you that the numbers on the underside of the tracks were on the inside as well as the outside.” I sensed it was time to move away.

Falling in with another group, we were passing a line of derelict and rusting vintage tanks that a Proving Grounds staffer told us were awaiting restoration for museums around the world. One enthusiast near us began shouting and pointing at a particular tank. “Look at that M-4. It’s an ‘Iwo’ tank.” Like a school of fish, we turned as one toward this “Iwo” thing. What had captured the attention of the group were the flotation rings on the hull which according to our excited expert had been fitted to a number of M-4 Shermans for the amphibious landing on Iwo Jima in 1945. In an aside to add credence to his declaration, he noted that he’d been on Iwo thirteen times, but being about forty-years too young for the battle, he announced that he’d been there as a “battlefield” tour guide. If that wasn’t enough, a guy standing near me noted that another M-4 actually had an A-3 turret. As all heads turned toward this new discovery, a murmered “Very rare, very rare” filled the morning air.

I discreetly suggested to my buddy, that perhaps it was time for us to get the hell out of there. What if this whole business was contagious?

Stanley Cup Playoffs: There Will Be Blood

images1The Flyers went into yesterday’s Game Three of the first round Stanley Cup Playoff Series against the Pittsburgh Penguins down by two games. They went on to win the game by a score of six-to-three.

In the third period, with the score at five-to-two Flyers, Danny Briere just getting rid of the puck along the right wing board in the neutral zone near the Penguins bench, looks up to see Pittsburgh defenseman Brooks Orpik coming at him like a fast freight. Briere instinctively braces for the coming hit, by raising his stick in against his chest. Orpik, unable to slow down goes full-force, nose-first into the shaft of Briere’s stick. Blood splatters the ice, and Orpik heads quickly up the tunnel to the dressing room and to whatever succor the Pittsburgh trainers can provide.

Because there is blood, lots of blood, Briere gets a four-minute minor penalty, during which Pittsburgh scores a power play goal cutting the Flyers lead to two.

Later in the third period, watching preparations for a face-off near the Penguin bench, I am jolted by an image. There’s something strange about one of the Pittsburgh players seated on the bench, holding his stick in front of him, looking like just another skater ready to jump out onto the ice. It’s Brooks Orpik, and protruding from each of his nostrils is two inches of those solid white cotton sticks, the kind the dentist wedges up under your lips to absorb moisture. Brooks Orpik, a true hockey warrior, sits ready to go back at it, looking for all the world like broken-tusked walrus.

Hey, that’s hockey!

Arrivedeci Roma!

imagesWhat ever has happened to the Roman Catholic Church, my church, the one I knew in the nineteen-forties and fifties, the church that seemed to utterly dominate my childhood? What happened?

The end of the church as I knew it, and it is over, might have begun more than a century ago in Rome’s choice of battles. Throughout its history, Catholicism has found itself involved in what it always proclaimed were the clear-cut struggles against the universal forces of darkness. In recent times, the battle for Christ was joined against the rise of atheistic communism. At the end of the Sunday masses of my childhood, there was an addendum directing us to pray for “the conversion of Russia.”

When the settling of scores in Central Europe after the Second World War resulted in the jailing of a couple of cardinals, the party line pushed on us by the nuns suddenly cast a name we’d never heard, the Yugoslav communist dictator, Tito, as the personification of all evil in the world. Tito’s demonization, not at all unwarranted, involved his arrest of a Croatian Cardinal named Stepinac, implicated rightly or wrongly in the wartime mass murders of Orthodox Serbs, Jews and Muslim Bosnians and Albanians at the hands of his Croatian Catholic brethren.

I suppose that the church’s vehement anti-communism reflected a valid understanding of a threat posed to the status quo by the godless scientific socialism of Karl Marx and Joseph Stalin. In seeing the survival of Catholic Christianity in terms of stopping communism, the church had always to choose among what it believed would be the lesser of evils. I learned later that during World War II, political expediency dictated that there would be no call from Rome on behalf of Europe’s doomed Jews in the face of Nazi Germany’s Final Solution of the Jewish Question.

Like the Soviets themselves, the church seemed never to appreciate that history follows no dialectic, but more often than not chooses the ironic. Catholicism never saw it coming. While Cardinal Spellman schmoozed with J. Edgar Hoover about the enemy within, a less visible but lethally profound threat was devouring the foundations of every traditional way of looking at life. In less than fifty years following the end of the Second World War, a tsunami of change, an exponential acceleration in the rate of social, economic and cultural change, would engulf, transform and in many cases destroy the traditions of centuries and millennia. The successful counterattack of the Roman Curia against the reformist trends of Vatican II, the long reactionary reign of John Paul II, continuing now with Benedict XV, and finally, the tone-deaf and foot-dragging institutional response to the horrendous clerical sex-abuse scandals, would seem to deny Roman Catholicism much of a vital role in the future of this world. But then again, who knows?

Many in my own generation were the last of their kind to have lived their daily lives in accordance with the liturgical calendar of the Roman Catholic Church. A continuity spanning a thousand years has been snapped in a half century. I have no idea of what it all means, but for many of us who remember what was, it somehow seems to embody the sense of anomie that marks so many of our lives in this first decade of a new century.

This latest Fall of Rome, certainly hastened by the church’s distracted irrelevance in the ordinary lives of its people, particularly by its blind obstinacy in matters of human sexuality, has probably already occurred. While I mourn the accelerating passage of the church of my childhood into Trotsky’s historical dustbin, I also mourn the passage of many other things that were a part of my childhood. The ultimate historical significance of the demise of the Roman Catholic Church may not even outweigh the end of knickers, the A & P, or the Studebaker. Because, within the context of the validity of the Word, none of it is any big deal. In fact, it actually could be a prerequisite condition if a vital new Catholicism is to ever arise from the messy ruins of the one we thought we knew. One of the many interesting things included in the primitive theology I was taught so long ago by the Sisters of Saint Joseph was the idea that for the true Church, the Mystical Body of Christ to continue on, all it really takes is one or more of true believers gathered together in His name. No danger of that not happening