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The Sad Story of Felix Powell

April 10, 2017 1 Comment

I have a special treat for my gentle readers today. My good digital friend Marjorie Clayman is my guest today.  We probably met on twitter, being a little silly, but over the years I have come to really appreciate Margie’s attitude.  She spends a great deal of her time crafting hand made items of the useable sort, which she donates to those who need it the most at the time.  She is not only a powerhouse of crafty artful blankets and hats, but also is pretty crafty as a wordsmith.  She works in public relations, so words are her stock in trade.  Margie adds her own personal commitment to a better world to all her communications.  She brings us a story about war and the way it leaves lasting impressions.  Without further ado, I bring you Ms Clayman:

Marjorie Clayman, guest author

Marjorie Clayman, guest author

The other day, in honor of the 100th anniversary of the US entering World War I, I attended a commemorative event filled with speakers and musicians. One of the singers sang a song called “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag and Smile, Smile, Smile.” The singer, in a laid back tone of voice common to folk singers, talked about how the song had been written by two brothers. One of the brothers, Felix Powell, performed the song for soldiers all along the WWI front. The song became popular again during the Second World War and resurfaced once more during the Vietnam War.

You are thinking that this is a feel-good story at this point. You might think that even more so when you learn, as I did via this article (http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/features/chapter-and-verse-the-surprising-story-of-the-song-pack-up-your-troubles-in-your-old-kit-bag-2124620.html) that the brothers submitted the song to a contest as a joke. They thought it was a dud. When they won first price they thought it was hilarious, and Felix decided to take that opportunity to win some fame. What are the chances?

Sadly, however, the story did not end happily for Felix Powell. This is not a story of rags to riches, per se. Rather, this is a story about the humbling and very real impact of gruesome warfare.

When Powell first got to the front lines, he felt really good about himself, as anyone would. His song was hopeful. Cheerful.

“Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag, 
And smile, smile, smile, 
While you’ve a lucifer to light your fag, 
Smile, boys, that’s the style. 
What’s the use of worrying? 
It never was worthwhile, so 
Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag, 
And smile, smile, smile.”

Powell was giving these boys a happy message while they tried to survive, far from home.

As the war dragged on, however, Powell began to see just how tragic trench warfare was. He visited battlefield after battlefield, and it dawned on him that these boys were dying. Thousands of them were dying. They were undertaking the ultimate sacrifice, in fact, and he was strumming away at them asking them to smile smile smile. According to the singer at my concert, as well as the article posted above, Powell began to see the contradiction between his light-hearted message and the world he and these boys were actually living in. He became filled with regret, and he never really was the same.
Powell pursued some other writing opportunities after WWI, but he had a rough time of it. When the Second World War broke out and the song gained popularity with a new generation of fighters, you can imagine him grimacing. Now his song was going to be used to make light of more young men marching towards death.

In 1942, Powell, who had entered his town’s Home Guard, dressed himself in his uniform, took his assigned rifle, and aimed at his heart. It is a shocking mark of how much his experiences had impacted him, and perhaps how much regret had come to overshadow any level of success he had ever enjoyed.

I found this story to be deeply moving. Many entertainers, of course, have gone overseas to try to cheer up the troops. You never really think how that impacts those celebrities, though. How can you perform with joy and verve and cheer when you know that you are trying to raise peoples’ spirits who could be killed on the field? It puts war itself, as well as entertainment tied to war, into a very real, and oft overlooked, perspective.

Remembering 1968

July 29, 2014 1 Comment

 

I came to the University of Texas as a freshman in 1968, a very turbulent year in American history.  The Texas History Museum is currently showing an exhibit about that year.  It makes me wonder why we never hear anybody say “fascist pig” any more.  I was clearly against the war in Viet Nam, and went to see Hubert Humphrey when he came to campus to speak.  I did not particularly like him but was only 17 so I had no voting rights.  As students we were not very tied into current events because we had studying and partying to do.  We also mistrusted news sources that were conventional.  This was the era of the underground newspaper.  It was also the era of protest for political change.  The campus was divided.  The football, sorority, fraternity people were already invested in status quo.  The rest of us were rallying to stop the war in Viet Nam because it had no earthly purpose, and was destructive.  I came to school in September and Richard Nixon was elected in November.  There was much to protest.  I remember on very symbolic gesture that illustrated our differences.  A group of students wanted to raise money to buy The Texas Longhorn, Bevo, and send him to Biafra to feed the starving people.  “Send Bevo to Biafra” was actually a moral pivotal point in student organizing.  It had only been 2 years since Charles Whitman, a Nam vet, shot people on the mall from the UT tower.  To the anti war faction the shooter was not seen as a victim or a sufferer of post traumatic military issues.  He was seen as typical of the “other side”.  Some of us liked killing and some of us thought war was not healthy for children and other living things.  We believed Charles Whitman was doing what we thought all Nam vets wanted to do, kill people with a big gun.  He was a capitalist imperialist pig, and that was all there was to it.  Things were so simplistic in 1968, but somehow I feel that nothing has changed.

Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated in 1968.  Lyndon was president when I came to school in Austin.   Even though he signed the Civil Rights Act he was not seen as a progressive hero by the youth.  He was seen as a crooked politician who sent kids to war.  Lady Bird, who wanted people to stop throwing garbage out the windows of their cars, was seen as a wet blanket.  Garbage throwing was perceived as a birthright, just like owning a gun or hating other races.  Her “Beautify America” campaign was the foundation for today’s ecology movements.  Museums and libraries document history and put matters into perspective for those who were not alive or old enough to know what happened.  When I walked through the 1968 exhibit it brought back memories as well as a sense of struggle.  For a while it seemed that the struggle resulted in peace and harmony.  It did not last. Where were you in 1968?  Were you on the bus or off the bus?

Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, Ho Chi Minh is Going to Win

May 26, 2014 2 Comments

You did not have to be psychic to know that Ho Chi Mihn would win.  The United States had invaded a country in southeast Asia with no previous relationship with the people of that area.  They had instituted a draft to conscript the youth of America to fight in a war of political insanity.  Many died, many more became embittered and seriously addicted to opiates while fighting in a way made up by old white men to conquer Asia.  Lyndon Johnson stood in the spotlight of this ill-conceived battle to create American supremacy throughout the world.  He was a complete tool of what America stood for in the world…which all the youth of America quickly named bullshit.  I was 17 years old, knew friends who joined the Marines, and found the entire idea despicable.   I could not support this kind of slaughter of youth for the ego of old men in power.  I did not want to sacrifice my high school friends to a stupid, ill-timed, ill-executed war for no reason.

I attended the University of Texas, not far from Johnson City, in 1968.  Some high school friends had willingly joined the military, but more had done what they could to avoid being sent to Asia to kill people.  I had no sympathy for those who thought our job was to police the world and make everyone pretend they are aligned with capitalism.  I had already seen that capitalism and communism at that time were virtually the same thing…state capitalism.  I wore a patch on the ass of my jeans that said war is not healthy for children and other living things, and I meant what I said.  My young ass was not alone in expressing this sentiment.  I have been to the war memorial in Washington,DC…I have been on Rolling Thunder weekend, during which ‘Nam Vets and others ride their bikes around our nation’s capitol to make a statement about defending this stuff.  We do not have to believe in the motives or the politics of those who sent our young people into war to risk for no reason in order to honor the sacrifice made.  Some are just loyal, even if the leadership is unethical and delusional.  They die in large numbers throughout history to defend the popular ideas of a small privileged class.  It is time for the United States of America to give up the role of moral police and defender of status quo in the entire word.  It is time to honor those who serve by not sending them into useless and egotistical battles that defend nothing in the end.  It is time to defend our ethics, out morals and our  compassion, and in so doing defend the lives of those we put in danger.  I marched on Washington and ae a little teargas but when the soldiers came back from Viet Nam, it was obvious they had suffered so much more.  The big drug fling, including opiates, LSD, hashish, and more made the ‘Nam Vets the instant commandos of the drug scene upon return.  They knew much more than civilians could know about drugs.  These people had gone on killing sprees on LSD.  This stuff does not just stop after the battle.  PTSD and all the guilty feelings of being at war in somebody else’s country started in Viet Nam.  The decline of the world’s respect for the United States also initiated with the Viet Nam War.  In Viet Nam that war is known as the American War.

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