Monday, December 14, 2015


Catherine Maria McGrath, the daughter of James McGrath and Kathleen McGrath (nee Brennan) was born in London, England on December 6, 1955 and died in Stillwater, NJ on January 13, 2015.  She was brilliant, beautiful and loved by all who knew her.

During the week between Christmas and New Year of 2014, Catherine received a holiday visit from one of her closest (I won't say oldest!) friends, who now lives on the West Coast, and her friend's family, including her husband and elementary school-age sons, whom I will call "Sam" and "Max."

Sam, now in Sixth Grade, recently wrote a memoir of that week and Catherine, which I reproduce without edit, because it needs none.
Nobody Likes Death 

One day I came home from school and my dad said, ”Be gentle with your mother she has had a rough day,” but I really wanted to know what was going on… 

Earlier that year, I was so excited because I got to go to visit my mom’s best friend, Catherine at her farmhouse in New Jersey. Catherine’s husband’s name was Bob. She was the nicest person I’ve ever met. 

Catherine got stage four breast cancer when she was younger and almost died then, but she got lucky. My mom said, “Don’t be surprised if she doesn’t have as much hair as last time. She is very ill.” 

“Will anything else be different about her?” I asked. 

“I don’t know,” my mom said. But when we got to Catherine’s house, I found out a lot was different from the last time I saw her. 

We got to Catherine’s house at 1:00 in the morning on a cold windy night. We all thanked Cliff, Catherine and Bob’s friend, for picking us up at the airport and driving us there. It was so late, but I wasn’t even tired when Cliff said Catherine was going to make a special dessert, so we got whipped cream at a gas station shop on the way there. When we arrived, the house smelled like the meatballs and marinara Catherine and Bob had cooked that day. Bob woke up and said hi to everyone. My mouth was watering because dinner the next day was going be Bob’s “famous” ham. Everyone loves how Bob’s ham tastes, and it smells like warm spices. 

When I saw Catherine the next day, I was surprised at how bald and skinny she was. When I hugged her, I could feel her bones. At the end of dinner that day, Catherine was feeling sick so she went to bed. 

We stayed with Catherine for about a week. When it was time to leave to go back to California, I was upset because I didn’t want to go. 

About a week after we got home, my mom was crying a lot on the phone. My brother, dad and I were on the way to the library and my mom told my dad Catherine had died. My mom went to her funeral but I couldn’t go. 

I remember hugging Catherine so much that when we had to leave my mom pulled me away from her. I remember the times that I would watch movies in their big house with soft, fluffy cushions on the couch. I remember going on walks with her through farmland and forests on chilly winter days. I also remember Cliff setting off fireworks on New Year’s eve. Catherine and I watched together from inside the house because it was so cold outside. I remember her amazing cooking that always tasted like it came from a fancy restaurant. I learned how important being with people you love is while they’re still around. 

I loved Catherine so much.

Me too, Sam.  Thank you for your beautiful memoir.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

"The Japanese obviously did pep-talks differently"

In his fine The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War, Andrew Roberts relates the horrors of the war - the Final Solution, the atrocities committed by the Japanese - with appropriate gravity and revulsion.

And yet, in even so terrible a landscape as the war presents, every once in a while a hint of extremely dry British humor bubbles to the surface.  Witness, for example, Roberts's description of a "pep-talk" given to his officers in April 1944 by Japanese General Kotoku Sato shortly before the Battle of Kohima, in which Japanese forces launched an attack on a mountaintop village held by British and Indian forces in northeastern India:

Despite his formidable advantage in numbers at Kohima, Sato had little faith in the success of U-Go [the code name for the Japanese plan to invade India] in general.  On the eve of the attack, he drank a glass of champagne with his divisional officers, telling them, "Ill take this opportunity, gentlemen, of making something quite clear to you.  Miracles apart, every one of you is likely to lose his life in this operation.  It isn't simply a question of the enemy's bullets.  You must be prepared for death by starvation in these mountain fastnesses."  The Japanese obviously did pep-talks differently.

The illustration is of Colonel Hugh Richards, whose 1,500-man British-Indian-Nepalese force held off more than 6,000 Japanese under Sato for almost two weeks.

"A nudist who frequently wore only a pith helmet and carried a fly-swatter in camp"

I've been reading (and listening to) Andrew Roberts' exceptional The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War.  Highly recommended. On the audio side, the Audible narrator, a British chap, is highly entertaining, although his imitations of an American accent need some work (his renditions of Churchillian cadence are excellent though).

But I digress.  The purpose of this post was to highlight this brief description - which had me laughing out loud - of the extraordinary Orde Wingate, a highly unconventional British commander who developed and led two long-range jungle penetration missions into Burma in 1943 and 1944 by British, Indian and Ghurka troops known as the Chindits:

A manic depressive who tried to commit suicide by cutting his own throat with a knife in Cairo in 1941 after the Ethiopian campaign; a nudist who frequently wore only a pith helmet and carried a fly-whisk in camp; someone who never bathed but instead cleaned himself by vigorously scrubbing of his body with a stiff brush, Wingate ate raw onions for pleasure and has been described as a "neurotic maverick" and a "foul-tempered, scruffily dressed egomaniac."

Roberts also relates that Wingate told luncheon companions at the War Office in August 1940 that "'he had acquired quite a taste for boiled python, which tasted like chicken.'"

Churchill loved him though, "call[ing] him 'this man of genius who might well have become a man of destiny' and liken[ing] him to Wingate's relation Lawrence of Arabia . . .."

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Millard Fillmore, "the most Jacksonian of any president of the era"

Our thirteenth president, Millard Fillmore, is typically cast as a craven milquetoast who facilitated the Compromise of 1850 because he didn't have the guts to stand up to the southern Slave Power.

I have long argued that this is nonsense.  Citing among other things Millard's determination to address the state of Texas's threat to invade the New Mexico Territory, I have repeatedly argued that Millard was a bold and decisive leader who authorized and was prepared to use military force to put down rebellion if necessary.  See my post "Anyone who thought that Fillmore lacked spine was now disabused" for a summary of my views and links to earlier posts on the subject.

I am pleased to report that author Chris DeRose has clearly carefully studied and absorbed my posts.  In his most recent volume The Presidents' War: Six American Presidents and the Civil War that Divided Them the author correctly characterizes Millard as "the most Jacksonian of any president of the era."
In a message to Congress, Fillmore promised to respond to this [Texas's threatened invasion of New Mexico] for what it was - criminal invasion.  He underscored his words by dispatching 750 additional troops to the region. 
. . . Fillmore learned that extremists in South Carolina planned on seizing federal installments at Charleston.  As he had with Texas, Fillmore acted decisively, inviting General Winfield Scott to cabinet meetings.  He poured federal troops into South Carolina and positioned others in North Carolina that could strike if necessary.  The South Carolina legislature, through their governor, demanded an explanation.  Fillmore, through his State Department, made clear that he was the commander in chief of the army and navy, that the decision to direct troop was entirely within his discretion, and that he was not answerable to the governor, the legislature, or anyone else. 
. . . [B]y finding the right balance of firmness and flexibility, Fillmore has prevented civil war and ironically was the most Jacksonian of any president of the era.

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