A view of distant churches …

It is sunrise on a clear morning as I write this before a window facing south toward the sun and the magnificent church known as the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, a few blocks west of the Mississippi River. It is a huge affair, that Basilica, with a classic dome rising far into the air, creating a vast interior space brilliant with tiled mosaics and rich with concerts of great music. Tomorrow we go to hear the world-famous Vienna Boys Choir open the Basilica’s Christmas season. It is well over 500 years since that choir was first formed, and a century since this Basilica was first consecrated.

I will not be raising my voice in song here, however, bowing to the harsh truth that my singing can make a dog wince and, given enough volume, could throw the most prestigious choir off-key. No. I will spend a few hours on Christmas Eve, along with my favorite candle-lighter and half-a dozen grandchildren and at least one new great-grandson singing my heart out with the humble congregation of Pastor Joe, a former bartender who tends his flock of souls in a plain little church in the pines along the White Horse Pike just west of Egg Harbor City. We have been showing up there for a dozen Christmases now, Pastor Joe and his congregation welcoming even the most mediocre singers and the most dubious supplicants. My singing, as with my religious wandering, causes no comment among plain people who prize fellowship and goodwill above theological niceties.

But seeing the sun bathe the Basilica this morning called to mind the private religious journeys of billions of people around the world; people wrestling with the mysteries of God, the purposes of our lives, and the inexplicable hatred that seems to root itself in a soil equally comprised of the nutrients of hope and the acids of fear, viciousness and violence.

I watched the television coverage from Paris, that city of great cathedrals and sidewalk cafés, and wondered how the world is to ever find peace. Millions insist that they have found the one, true god while other millions vow they’ve got an exclusive on the truth. Religious nuts of every flavor run around in wild-eyed fanaticism determined to burn out all heresy, no matter how many unbelievers they must behead, massacre and burn at the stake. Everywhere zealous opportunists reach for power over the lives of man by claiming exclusive rights to our souls.

But it’s the quiet places that I think offer our best hope. Not the austere alone-ness of the hermit’s cave or the monk’s cell, but the places where we meet in our daily lives and talk about the stuff of life; such trivia as the health of each others’ children or how to lose weight or where to find a new job. I suspect there is more true understanding of life in the chance talk between two people in the aisles of the supermarket than there is in the halls of Congress or between the pages of philosophical tomes. The nature of being human is that we reach out to one another for advice, for solace, for inspiration, for laughter and most of all for understanding.. Maybe that explains why so many loners unable to share their thoughts and emotions have so much difficulty in life and so often lash out blindly against the world.

Being as ignorant as most Americans of the distant churches of the world, I don’t know what goes on in the mosques and temples of faiths other than the one in which I was raised. I’ve been in local churches of various denominations, and synagogues, and to a Quaker meeting or two. But absent social occasions such as weddings, funerals and the like, I’ve always felt it a bit intrusive to check out the spiritual homes of others whose faith I don’t share – a sort of uncivil voyeurism to be avoided. My attendance at a Quaker meeting was by invitation and fueled by curiosity about services my ancestors attended in Woodbury a couple of centuries ago. I found it intriguing because there was no service of a sort I recognized. Much quiet contemplation and meditation, with an occasional offering of testimony by individuals sharing their thoughts on their own faults or the faults of the community.
I’ve attended black churches as an invited speaker in southern states, usually the only white there, and always greeted with courtesy. The preachers at those churches had passion and vigor, but I noticed it was the “amen corners” of influential church ladies who had the power and the workers to get things done.

My life thus far has not taken me to a Mosque or a Hindu temple. I confess I would welcome an invitation, if only to expand my understanding of the faiths sustained by so many millions.
© 2015 Joseph T. Wilkins

It tolls for thee …

I write this column for a chain of weekly newspapers here in New Jersey; roughly the two southernmost counties of the state covering the Atlantic coast from immediately north of Atlantic City down to Cape May Point where the Delaware Bay opens to the ocean. I usually stick to local subjects. But sometimes the wider world intrudes, as it did when the news of the ISIS attacks in Paris broke last Friday. Soon the bells of Notre Dame were tolling the deaths of over a hundred people in that horror.

ADo not send to know for whom the bell tolls,@ poet John Donne wrote over four centuries ago: AIt tolls for thee.@ We learned that lesson the hard way. On that beautiful morning of September 11, 2001 I was at an outdoor café in Galloway Township writing when terrorists destroyed New York=s World Trade Center 90 miles up the coast. Jet fighters from the NAFEC base in Atlantic County flown by pilots who live here and in Cape May County were among the many that raced to patrol the skies over New York that day and in the days that followed. The hatred that spewed then from a far distant Al Qaeda exploded close enough to send up a plume of so much toxic smoke and ash that fine particulates from it eventually fell on us here in South Jersey. making it impossible to ignore that what happens in the Mid-East is our problem. The news now is that terrorists have vowed more attacks, including in Washington, DC an hour=s flight from us.

Such malevolence must be faced promptly and with vigor. Most of all, it must be faced with clarity of vision. I, for one, have had all I can take of muddle-headed statements that it=s not primarily our fight; that we should help but must rely on the wretched inhabitants of the Mid-East to do the actual fighting with arms we provide. When a man vows to kill you and your family, it is most assuredly your fight. Talk about building a coalition of other people as fighters is pathetic mewling. I don=t know if we have to put Aboots on the ground@ as the cliche goes, but if we must, we must.

What I don=t favor is being overly tender about collateral casualties. When the time came to invade France in order to destroy the Nazi evil, we bombed and destroyed the cities of Europe and killed many innocent civilians and other Nazi victims. There was no other choice. When we faced the prospect of hundreds of thousands of combat deaths of American boys to invade Japan, President Truman did not hesitate to deploy the atomic bomb. I don=t want to use nuclear force that would inevitably spread in today=s world, but short of that if we have to destroy the viper=s nests of the Mid-East with relentless bombing and swarms of drones, so be it. The home-grown fanatics there are themselves already murdering innocents by the thousands, destroying cities and homes and civilization itself with unrelenting zeal.

They will not stop of their own volition, and the flow of refugees desperate to flee such evil has made it clear, in Lincoln=s language, that we are threatened by Acombinations too powerful to be suppressed by ordinary judicial proceedings or by the powers vested in the Marshals by law@. Local governments cannot handle the threat, nor can the regional governments or evidently the United Nations muster the will and unity to halt the evil, although that was the original hope in its creation.

If we do send troops, will we be wading into a quagmire like Vietnam? Make no mistake. However disastrous Vietnam was, ending Isis is no military adventure drummed up by right-wing Patton wannabees. Nor is this a religious war. Islam has nothing to do with the ambitions of the fanatics for a world-wide Caliphate. Al Qaeda and Isis are fueled by the lust of fanatics for power. Defeating them by overwhelming force will not challenge the faith of a single devout Muslim.
8 2015 Joseph T. Wilkins

The curse of today’s politics …

This year’s elections are over. It’s time to finalize plans for Thanksgiving Dinner; especially for those of us fortunate enough to have a choice of which grown child to cook the turkey. Pumpkin pies and happy visits are on the agenda. We talk about whether we’ll celebrate Thanksgiving with one branch of the family and Christmas with the other, or the other way around.

But before we let the election mud-slinging dry up and the dust settle, we should give a good swift kick in the pants to whoever writes and runs those vicious political ads candidates ran against each other on television. You know the ones I mean; the ads where smooth-voiced liars in tones dripping with contempt and disgust say Democrat Vince Mazzeo isn’t what he seems, and Republican Chris Brown can’t be trusted in Trenton.

But Mazzeo is exactly the hard-working and experienced public official he seems, and Chris Brown can certainly be trusted to look after our interests in Trenton. We’re lucky both of them got re-elected. Mazzeo is a small local businessman who is part-owner and operator of the well-known BF Mazzeo grocery and produce business. Go to his store and you’ll find a fine selection of foods in a clean and friendly place at reasonable prices, as people have found for years. He’s built up his experience in governing by serving on the Northfield City Council, then as Mayor of Northfield, and these past two years as a NJ Assemblyman. He’s a local guy with a wife and two kids and enjoys public service. People know him and they trust him.

Chris Brown is a straight-shooter and home-grown guy who served honorably for many years in the US Army in the Mid-East, got his college and legal education here at home, served as a Municipal Judge in Galloway and as Assemblyman has been unafraid to tackle the Casino/Stockton bungled misuse of restrictive covenants on land sales intended to cripple the development of Atlantic City. He has a wife and three kids, and is active in civic affairs beyond his elective office.

Those are the kinds of backgrounds we need and admire in our public officials. However they may differ in their ideas on public policy and the legislation on which they labor and vote, neither man is the type who would deliberately betray the trust of their constituents. Neither of them deserve the vicious slanders dreamt up by the so-called “consultants” who flock around political campaigns like so many bloodsuckers draining the lifeblood of our political vigor. I know the law requires candidates to pronounce their approval of such ads, but I also know today’s candidates are left with a Hobson’s Choice, which is essentially “If you want our money, approve the ads we pay for, or they’ll be no ads and you’ll lose.”

The last guy I remember who tried bucking that system was John Gaffney, an assemblyman after whom the Greentree county golf course is named. He ran against Tom Foley in a campaign in which Gaffney’s backers ran clips of Foley dancing at a local disco, implying Foley was a playboy. Gaffney promptly denounced the ads, which was the right thing to do. Foley was and is as dedicated a public servant as you’ll find. He spent years convincing local towns to save taxpayer’s money by sharing municipal services, and serves today as Emergency Services Director for Atlantic City. I never voted for Gaffney, but since his death I have often saluted his decency in that memorable gesture.

There is a cynical saying I remember from my days years ago as Treasurer of the Atlantic County Democratic Committee. It was known, sarcastically, as the golden rule and ran like this: “He who has the gold makes the rules.”

But it doesn’t have to be so. It’s high time to rid ourselves of this curse of modern politics and return to the standards of decency John Gaffney demonstrated.

© 2015 Joseph T. Wilkins

A good friend remembered

The leaves fall and turn brown on the ground, drying out and crackling underfoot when you rake them up. We get the winter coats and gloves out and ready for the season, hoping the first snowflake won’t get here until Christmas Eve, or at least until we’ve double-checked the tread on our tires and had the oil changed and the anti-freeze brought up to snuff.

Meanwhile, Halloween has come and gone, leaving hardly a trace of the real meaning of its hold on our calendars, which is to stop and pay our respects to the friends and family members who have moved on. Eventually we will be cheered up by the glow of Thanksgiving and Christmas and Hannukah, and the return of late afternoon daylight.

But for now walking down a country road or a leaf-covered fairway brings happy memories of my good friend Frank Jones, who died this summer at the too young age of 58. I cry too easily at funerals anymore , and dared not speak at his for fear of blubbering and making a damn fool of myself. But Frank’s been on my mind ever since. I want to tell you about him, and put something in writng that his many other friends, few of whom are given to reading except the sports pages, may appreciate.

Our friendship was one of those improbable connections that spring up where you don’t expect them. We had little in common; I a lawyer and a lover of books; he a man of physical work, a long-time driver of heavy trucks for hauling major construction equipment from one job site to another for Art Henry’s company. Arthur Henry is a well-known and respected family-owned local construction firm that can install a bulkhead for you in Cape May or fix a bridge in Atlantic County or install big pipes along a highway in Delaware.

My friend Frank Jones was a Holy Spirit grad, a man of stocky build, intense blue eyes, reddish-blond hair and a lightning quick wit that could make you laugh at yourself. I can’t think of Frank without picturing his smile as he delivered a zinger. Once, caught in our mutual love of golf, we went out to play golf at Greentree on a day so cold the water hazards were frozen three inches solid. We were the only two guys crazy enough to be out there. I parked a ball ten feet out on a frozen pond. He watched me decide whether to walk out and take a swing at it, then announced “Listen, Skippy, I want you to know two things. First, if you fall in you’re gonna die, ’cause I’m not coming in after you. And you’re still gonna have to take a stroke penalty!”

He was the most alert man I ever knew about the physical world around him. He understood how cranes worked, and bulldozers, and heavy traffic on a turnpike, and the feel of a big rig when the load wasn’t sitting just right. He could name every tree in the woods, and see a deer standing still as a statue deep within.

He was also the shyest man I ever met. A bachelor who built his own house, then built another for his sister, then took care of his mother and father until they passed, he fell in love with Marge, a bartender at the Pitney Tavern at the corner of Pitney and Great Creek Roads in Galloway. He was shy; she was shy. It took months for him to work up the courage to ask her on a date. They married and stayed in love till his last breath. He raised her kids as his own, and when her grandchildren came along it was his hearth they played before.

He was a Teamster, who had no illusions about where his union dues were spent, and he was a conservative who never tired of kidding me about the shortcomings of the Democrats. Two of my habits delighted his soul; when I drove the golf cart over something bumpy or swampy, and when I made some wisecrack about Rush Limbaugh, which gave him an opening to come back with a zinger about the Clintons. But all that was just banter; the kidding between us went on for years. There was in him no meanness of spirit. He knew his side of politics was as filled with clowns as was my side and was as willing to laugh at the one as the other.

Frank never held any office, nor had his name in the paper, but he had a turnout for his funeral any politician would envy. Tony Coppola hosted a reception afterwards in the Smithville Inn’s largest banquet room, and they had to set up extra tables to handle the crowd.

He was truly the salt of the earth. I miss him, and the friendship we shared.

© 2015 Joseph T. Wilkins