Monday, May 28, 2012

I Remember Memorial Day (re-posted)


In remembrance of those who served and gave their lives for our country, I am re-posting my father's 2008 blog post about the speech he delivered on Memorial Day, 1987, at the Watervliet cemetery. The photo above is of the Memorial Day parade in Watervliet, not long after WWII. My Uncle Dick is second from the left.
--Karen Stock (Jim's daughter) 

May 25, 2008

During my professional career I made a lot of speeches, mostly about energy. But the last, best and probably shortest speech I ever made was at the Watervliet Cemetery on Memorial Day 1987:

                                I REMEMBER MEMORIAL DAY

I seriously doubt whether I can get through this program without breaking down, so strong are my feelings for this cemetery, this town, this state and this nation.

Buried in this cemetery is my great-grandfather, who came to Michigan before it was a state 150 years ago. And buried in this sacred plot is a native American veteran of World War I whose ancestors lived in this beautiful peninsula for a thousand years.

Up there is the grave of Uriah Wood, Watervliet's last living Civil War veteran. He survived the horrors of the Confederate's Andersonville Prison knowing that his sacrifices were not in vain, since his war ended slavery and preserved the Union. In my mind's eye, I can still see Mr. Wood as a white-haired, feeble old man, dressed in blue, riding in the back of an open touring car in the late 1920's or early 1930's. It was called "Decoration Day" then---and then we could decorate the graves of the veterans of but three wars---the Civil War, the Spanish-American War and World War I.

Back in 1868, General John A. Logan, the Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, which was the Union veterans' equivalent of the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, designated May 30 of that year "...for the  purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion and with the hope that it will be kept up from year to year." May 30 was known as Decoration Day until 1882 when the G.A.R. urged that the proper designation be "Memorial Day". By that time, however, the term Decoration Day was fixed in the people's  vocabulary.

I suppose it is an apt commentary on our times and values that by Congressional decree Memorial Day is now observed on the last Monday in May rather than May 30 each year, so that people and commerce can benefit from a three-day weekend in which to do just about anything other than honor this country's war dead. However, by whatever name or on whichever day, I am proud to be in my hometown on the 120th of these days which are set aside to decorate the graves and remember and honor those who served their country---and most especially those who gave up their lives in that service.

One of my most poignant memories of this day is that of watching and hearing my father, the first Commander of Watervliet's American Legion Post, reading the names of all the town's deceased veterans---three names at a time---pausing after each three while the bass drum sounded three solemn, mournful beats. Each year throughout my childhood, until it came time for me to go away to college and then to my own war, the list grew longer and longer; as it has each of the forty-odd years since I left Watervliet.
I remember as a grade school kid walking with my schoolmates---spring flowers in hand---along old US12 from the old school house to the cemetery; with a stop at the bridge down there to throw some of our flowers into the water of Mill Creek in honor of the sailors who died for their country. How proudly our local police stopped all traffic between Detroit and Chicago to allow the people of little Watervliet to parade in honor or their departed veterans.

I remember marching in parades with the Watervliet High School band in our maroon and white uniforms--and that the best trumpet player always had the honor of playing "Taps" for the cemetery ceremonies. I especially remember after I became a veteran myself, marching with the American Legion firing squads and honor guards--with two generations of proud ex-soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen--brothers, cousins, friends and comrades-in-arms.

With all of these memories I am particulaly grateful to the new Veterans of Foreign Wars post for reviving and preserving this fine and patriotic tradition.

Two hundred eleven years ago this summer, in 1776, the American Colonies declared their indpendence from Great Britain---but it took six more years of struggling, starving, fighting and dying by Washington's soldiers to make that declaration stick.

However, the overthrow of tyranny does not automatically create a viable nation or even lasting freedom, as we have often seen to our bitter disappointment. In their revolution, the Russians escaped the tyranny of the Czars only to be ensnared in a worse tyranny, that of Communism under Stalin. The Cubans overthrew the dictator Batista only to fall victim to the dictatorship of Castro. The Nicaraguans overthrew the dictator Somoza only to have their revolution pre-empted by the Communist Sandinistas. These are but a few of many examples throughout history of revolutions gone awry.

After our revolution Americans were either uncommonly lucky or uncommonly blessed, it seems to me, when in 1787 the 13 newly independent but weak and quarelling states chose their wisest men to gather in convention in Philadelphia to work out a framework of a republic, based on democracy, as an alternative to chaos or monarchy. The resulting document is our precious Constitution, and this year we thankfully celebrate its 200th birthday and its continuing vitality.

Although the Constitution created a nation, by itself it could not preserve that nation in the face of the awful dilemma of slavery. As was the case with the birth of this country, the preservation of the resulting union required the shedding of blood in armed conflict among men and armies. It should be remembered that the Civil War of 1861-1865 cost more American lives than any war since--percentage-wise far more. But although a civil war is a particularly bitter type of war, our Civil War--or the War Between the States, if you are of southern heritage--at least had lasting benefits. Slavery was abolished (though discrimination and racism persist). The union of the states which makes our country great was preserved (although crisis after crisis seems to be our national way of life).

As I have said, Uriah Wood and Watervliet's many other Civil War veterans who are buried here had the satisfaction, pride and peace that comes from knowing their struggles were not in vain. They did much permanent good for their county; and, by example, for the world
.
Contrast that with the situation of the Vietnam veterans. Much has been said and written about the futility if the sacrifices of our Vietnam veterans, but not having been able to share their experience, or to know first hand their anger and frustration, neither I nor others of my generation are really qualified to pass judgement on the worth of their sacrifices.

But what about those who 70 years ago in World War I fought "The  War to End All Wars", the "War to Make the World Safe for Democracy", and then little more than two decades later endured the heartbreak of sending their sons to fight and die in an even more deadly war against the most powerful totalitarian forces ever assembled?

What about those patriotic and eager Spanish-American War volunteers who in 1898 fought yellow fever and the Spaniards to liberate Cuba and the Phillipines? What would they think today about Communist Cuba or the Phillipines in chaos?

And what about the veterans of the Korean conflict? In 1945, I was with the U.S. occupation troops in Korea which expelled the Japanese after their defeat in World War II. That year, Korea was split in two at the 38th parallel--communists to the north, non-communist to the south--Russians occupying the north, Americans occupying the south. Yet only five years later after victorious, triumphant, foolish America had naively dismantled the mightiest military force in world history, out-numbered, out-gunned American soldiers were rertreating and fighting for their lives in Korea in a war they were not allowed to win--a war which was was not even dignified by being called a war.

What about the veterans of my war, World War II? We are probably most like the Civil War veterans in that we knew why we were fighting--for survival and to keep civilization from being submerged in totalitarian madness. Also we saw some real results--the destruction of German Nazism, Italian Fascism and Japanese Imperialism were triumphs of gigantic historical magnitude.

Our generation dared not fail in war, but let us hope that history does not find that we failed in peace.
Thus far, I have spoken about veterans who survived their wars and lived to remember and to learn what became of their cause. But what about those who did not live to become veterans, but who instead died violently in battle, or agonizingly from wounds or gas, or miserably from sickness which often killed more soldiers than lead or gunpowder or shrapnel? Surely nothing could have--or ever did--erase the hurt and sorrow and grieving of those whose sons died for their country. But who is to say that such a death, in the vigor of youth, fighting for a cause or fighting for each other is, after all is said and done, a worse fate than that faced by many survivors? True, they were denied the unmatchable pleasure of watching their children grow and the joy of grandchildren. But also they were spared many sorrows and miseries. Having died young as the consequence of war or service to their country, they could not die of the ravages of tuberculosis or cancer, or miserably abandodned in old age, or from alchoholism, drugs or A.I.D.S.

It can certainly be argued  that many did die in vain, particularly those who died in the long Viietnam agony. But do those tens of thousands killed year after year in automobile accidents not also die in vain? What has been accomplished by their deaths?  At least those who died for their county's cause (whether history judges that cause to be just or unjust or merely irrelevant) died for something, not for nothing! And they deserve to be remembered. That we are here today proves that they are remembered and that they are honored.

Thank you.

IN MEMORY OF MY BROTHERS DICK AND JOHN, WORLD WAR II VETERANS

L to R  Dick Woodruff, ?, Dick Bridges, John Woodruff, ?

Jim Woodruff

Monday, May 21, 2012

So what are two Watervliet boys doing in the Denver city Jail?


After the Pearl Harbor attack on December 6, 1941 several Watervliet boys signed up with the armed forces. Among these was Lewis F. "Louie" Long, a graduate of WHS with me in 1940. Louie had always dreamed of flying, and had nicknamed himself "Wings" and decorated his high school notebooks with flying symbols. Thus he naturally applied for flight training in the then Army Air Corps (now US Air Force). The Army sent him to Lowry Field east of Denver for some sort of pre-flight training. 

At the time I was a Sophomore at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden up in the mountains from Denver. One day Louie got a pass from Lowry and he and I got together in Denver for some good ol' Watervliet-type hoot-and-hollering. 

Among other indiscretions, he and I made dates with two bar maids in a disreputable drinking joint in downtown Denver. The only problem was they didn't get out of work until 1 a.m., while Private Long's Army curfew was midnight. I had the brilliant idea for Louie to take off his Army cap and put on  my civilian overcoat to hide his uniform. So we are waiting in front of the bar for the girls to come out when a Denver police car slowly passes, the cops eyeballing us. I said to Louie "Let's get out of here!" so we cut through the alley and guess who's waiting for us at the other end? The cops, of course. 

Well they put us in their car and haul us to the City Jail, Louie and I protesting innocence all the while. At the jail they discover Louie's camouflage and turn him over to the Military Police. Me, I'm protesting that they should do to me whatever they were going to do to my buddy. Not smart. A kind police sergeant (larger than me) takes me aside and suggests that I go the hell back to Golden. Humbly taking his advice I go to the Interurban Station and lay down on a hard bench until the first streetcar to Golden leaves in the morning.

So what happened to poor Louie? The MPs deliver him to his Company Commander back at Lowry, who had just got a promotion and was feeling so good that he just let Louie off with a lecture. Louie went on to become an expert Army pilot and after the war had a career in the Air Force. I don't know the details about what he did but I know he flew transport planes in the Berlin Air Lift and flew 100 missions during the Korean War.   

Monday, May 14, 2012

My Operatic Career, Part 2


The next show, Gilbert & Sullivan's "The Mikado", was performed during my sophomore year in 1938. I played the role of Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner of the Town of Titipu, again the comic baritone lead. Contralto lead Darlene Selters played the ugly old bag Katisha whom I had to romance, otherwise I would be beheaded and/or boiled in oil.

Cast of The Mikado,  WHS, 1938 (author 5th from right - the tall guy)
This led to me singing the sorry song about the poor little birdy who committed suicide by drowning. It is my family's favorite since
they sweet-talked me into singing it at my 89th birthday party. It goes: "On a tree by the river a little Tom-tit, sang willow, tit willow, tit willow...." etc. etc. for six choruses ending with "...an echo arose from the suicide's grave; willow, tit willow, tit willow."

Pete Yancich again played the tenor lead as Nanki Poo, son of the Mikado of Japan, Leonard Krall. Pooh-Bah, the Lord High Everything Else, was Ed Hawks. Pish-Tush and Ping-Pong were Bob Curtis and Bob Brown. The "Three Little Maids from School Are We..." were Betty Geisler, Lydia Pitcher, and Frances Webster. The entire cast included 78 WHS students, many probably progenitors of current Watervliet Facebook fans.

The third Gilbert & Sullivan operetta was "Iolanthe," performed in the spring of 1939. I was the Lord High Chancellor, my most difficult role. In it I was required to sing the song "Love, unrequited..." that included nine stanzas of of four-line rapid patter starting with "When you're lying awake with a dismal headache and repose is tabooed by anxiety; I assume you may use any language you choose to indulge in without impropriety..." First problem was memorizing the damn thing, the second was to sing and breathe at the same time. I deliberately cracked my voice a couple times for comic effect. When I finished the audience applauded spontaneously. That had to be the high point of my operatic career.

"Iolanthe" was mostly about fairies, including Helen Jackson as the queen, Maxine Ray as Iolanthe, and fairies Natalie Smith, Lillian Muller, and Rose Koshar. Then there was the Sheperd Jim Palmer and the Shepherdess Helen Warsko. Others with prominent roles were John Palmer, Ed Hawks, Harvey Faram and Tony Sweeney. The entire company was only 64 students for this operetta.

Monday, May 7, 2012

My Operatic Career, Part 1


While in Watervliet High School I performed in several musicals including three Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, "The Gondoliers," "The Mikado," and "Iolanthe." In my senior year we did a hokey musical I think was called "Hollywood Bound." Earlier in junior high or sixth grade I vaguely remember being in a minstrel show, complete with burnt cork makeup and fake Negro accents. That I remember so little of it may be the result of a subconcious guilt at being involved with something so politically incorrect by today's standards. 

I sang the baritone lead in all three Gilbert & Sullivan operettas and the hokey "Hollywood Bound." That was the result of kind of a fluke. My freshman year for "The Gondoliers" I was the understudy to upperclassman George Keiger for the part of the Duke of Plaza Toro, not expecting do do anything except sing in the chorus. But George came down with scarlet fever, thus thrusting me into the comic baritone lead of the Duke. I did such a good job that I was ever after the automatic choice for the baritone lead every year.

Here is the Watervliet Record write up about me in that role: 

"James Woodruff will sing the baritone role of the impoverished but gay Duke of Plaza-Toro, [gay didn't mean in those days what it does now] a Grandee of Spain, and is expected to gain the favor of the audience from the start with his interpretation of this difficult but interesting role. He is one of the youngest members of the Glee Club, this being his first year with the organization, but his keen appreciation of subtle wit, together with his capacity for hard work and his newly developed voice are all factors which point to success for him". 

The News Palladium said: "James Woodruff carried the honors as a character actor in his role of the Duke."

Author (L) with fellow cast members
The contralto lead, the Duchess of Plaza Toro, was played by Viginia Keefer. The tenor and soprano romantic leads were played by Pete Yancich as Luiz, my attendant, and Betty Geisler as Casilda, the daughter of the Duke and Duchess. Ed Hawks was the Grand Inquisitor. Ken Shimer, Bob Curtis, Ferris Norman, Warren Willmeng, and Leonard Krall were Gondoliers. The Venetian Maidens were played by Lydia Pitcher, Lois Doolittle, Darlene Selters, Helen Curtis and Isabella Crumb. In all, there were 79 students in the cast.


All of these shows were chosen and directed by Mildred Shelters, the school's excellent music teacher and the wife of Superintendent "Buck" Shelters. Marion Scherer accompanied us on the piano.