Holiday Slices of Days Gone By

By J.F. McKenna

Thanksgiving Day. Let all give humble, hearty, and sincere thanks now, but the turkeys.

 – “Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar”

My first brush with entrepreneurship, once commonly known as small business, came complete with turkey, duck and chicken feathers as well as the gentle aromas of cow stalls.  My father’s bachelor brothers owned a 35-acre farm off Sprague Road in Columbia Station from the late 1940s until 1966; all the McKenna boys, their spouses (those that had such), and my cousins and my sister participated each in his or her own way to this business affair over time.  Being the youngest of the next generation, I typically contributed the least during my weekend trips to the farm family.

Were they still with us, Uncle Leo and Uncle Don would most certainly agree with that assessment.

By the time Ike was settling into the White House, I was settling into life on Cleveland’s West Side—a mere ten houses from the home in which my father was reared—along with settling into weekly visits to the farm. By then, all family adults stressed to me the importance of careful listening and strict observance to adult commands: “Do not…do not…touch the fence at the front of the barn, Joey.” No comprehensive explanation was ever included with this caution, or any other commands, for that matter: just stern tones laced with references to Michael the Archangel and the constant temperature of Hades.

As I reached age four, my curiosity went into an early stage of overdrive—I touched the fence in front of the barn, I wasn’t killed instantly, and I confidently, if erroneously, assessed that adults were often wrong in their warnings. I carried that notion as an iron chain around my neck for many decades.

But in youth I took time out from resentment at family to enjoy the pleasures that came from being part of a clan that owned a farm. Uncle Leo brought me a puppy to our West 100th Street home; it was back at the farm by the end of the weekend.

Never easily deterred, UL decided a pair of rabbits would be perfect companions for me; he should have checked with Mom. Back went the hoppers.

The uncles finally compromised with Mom: I could keep a duck at the farm. The duck was christened Joey Jr., and he proved to be the most disagreeable creature in Ohio, reestablishing his reputation every day by chasing customers around the front of the property and biting their legs.

Of course, even the youngest of our brood got a victory to savor every so often. One day while Mary Ann and was doing a chore or two, Uncle Leo came through the backdoor of the house and announced he would be “doing an egg run.”

“Can I go with you, Uncle Leo?” asked Mary Ann, applying a pleading voice that she would later hear come from the mouths of her own children.

“No,” said Uncle Leo. “Look you have cow crap on the front of your coat. I’ll take your brother, instead.”

That day I went on the egg delivery with Uncle Leo, who started our journey with a stop to the corner market for a box of Dutch Masters and a box of Tootsie-Rolls. Sometimes it pays to be five and quiet. And to be wearing a clean jacket.

The fact of the matter is that my older male cousins—Tom, Dick, Jerry, and Michael—were pulled out of school before Thanksgivings to help with dressing turkeys. As they related their tales at family gatherings much later, the hard work of the latter cancels out the pleasure of the former. And as a frequent ringside observer of fowl preparation myself, I can attest that Uncle Don was a master of the game but he never raised poultry prep to the level of a sweet science. Frankly, it’s just messy.

Of course, cousin Jerry told the tale best at one family gathering: “I hated helping prep turkeys—hated it. You know, I haven’t tasted turkey in years.”

When I got a little bigger, Uncle Don entrusted me with candling eggs for customers. I quickly proved so inept that my good uncle pulled me off that duty posthaste. Many an egg was saved because of that fine business decision.

Bachelors running a farm do not a particularly good business plan make, especially when strapping nephews show more interest in other working pursuits. But all of us McKenna kids learned how to present ourselves to customers and how to be as helpful as possible. Uncle Leo often headed up our customer-relations classes.

“Uncle Leo, babshi walked over from her farm to get some duck blood,” Mary Ann said. “Do we have some fresh?”

“No,” said our uncle. “But there is some chicken blood. Give that to her.”



In 2011 John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley was the inspiration for a magazine article about Lady Carol and my regular turnpike shuttles between Cleveland and Pittsburgh. The hook of this human-interest feature was our loud and loveable Beagle, Holly, aka The Duchess of Hollingsworth. As four-legged companions go, Holly was the best. (See: ) After more than two months suffering with an intestinal blockage, our sweetheart died on November 10. Carol, Max and I miss her terribly. Reach me at .


Words Well Written, a Life Well Spent

By J.F. McKenna

Writing well is a pleasure in itself. The joining of the ideal subject to the perfect verb, the crafting of paragraphs that tell a story long on clarity and style, the fashioning of a clever lead promising an equally clever ending—all are delights of writing well.

No one knew that better than William Zinsser. And few preached the joy of writing well to others better than Zinsser.

“Don’t assume that bad English can still be good journalism, or good business writing, or good technical writing, or good travel writing, or good sports writing. It can’t,” declared the writer, editor and teacher in his 1998 introduction to On Writing Well, the best-known of his shelf of books. “Good English is your passport to wherever you need to go in your writing, your work and your life. All the writers I’ve quoted in this book are vastly different in personality and style. But all of them write good English. You can, too.”

William Knowlton Zinsser won’t be with his disciples to celebrate the 40th anniversary of his classic next year. The East Coast native and one-time drama critic of The New York Herald Tribune died this past May at 92. I’m sorry I never got to meet him in person, or to introduce him to the journalists who literally guided me in my apprenticeship in Cleveland—Russ Faist, Stan Modic, Joe Breig. Stan would have been fiercely devoted to Zinsser’s advice that “when you’re ready to stop, stop,” and Zinsser would have gladly endorsed Russ’ favorite newsroom doggerel: Get it right. Write it tight. Make it bright. And make it march.

Zinsser started creating On Writing Well in 1974, the year I talked my way into a Kent State-approved journalism internship at the weekly Universe Bulletin. “By then I had been teaching at Yale for four years,” Zinsser would later recall in his 2009 memoir, Writing Places, “and I liked the idea of trying to capture my course in a book.” Back in that Summer of Watergate, I would have considered myself lucky to have just a copy of Zinsser’s notes to go with my frontline education from such old pros as Joe and Russ at East 9th Street and Superior Avenue.

“Joe, with Randy on his vacation, you’re going to handle obituaries, ok?” Russ said. “It’s standard stuff, a chance to pick up house style. You’ll get it quick.”

“Got it, Russ.”

“One more thing, Joe. No one in this paper ever ‘passed away.’ Here one moment, gone the next. Everyone ‘died.’”

By the end of that summer I had moved from obits to news and feature stories—and to this day I still haven’t lost my appreciation for the basics of any craft, but especially journalism. A couple of years after that internship, I discovered William Zinsser and On Writing Well. The discovery has proved my continuing post-graduate education in the word trade.

Here’s how the author, in his 2009 book, Writing Places, recalled putting together the first edition of On Writing Well:

I began by writing brief chapters on fundamental principles such as clarity, simplicity, brevity, usage and the elimination of clutter. Then I settled into the heart of the book—longer chapters explaining how to write a lead, how to write an ending, how to conduct and construct an interview how to write about travel and science and technology and sports and the arts, and how to write topical humor. Throughout I provided examples of writing I admired in those fields. The authors I chose were very different in personality and style, but all of them wrote good English. That was the premise I wanted to establish: that nonfiction is hospitable to an infinite number of voices. Any style is acceptable if the writing is clear.

For many non-journalists, On Writing Well has been a trusted guide, too. “Countless careers,” Zinsser advises in the book, “rise or fall on the ability or the inability of employees to state a set of facts, summarize a meeting or present an idea coherently….But just because people work for an institution, they don’t have to write like one. Institutions can be warmed up. Administrators can be turned into human beings. Information can be imparted clearly and without pomposity….”

So sayeth still—from the eternity of book publishing, that is—William Zinsser, a man who spent 13 years at the Herald Tribune, 11 years as a freelance writer and other years as a writing teacher at Yale and to the larger world. Hard credentials to ignore. And, for extra measure, add in his other books, including Mitchell & Russ and Spring Training, a book about my beloved Pittsburgh Pirates.

Zinsser modestly called himself “a writer who taught”—until glaucoma brought an end to seventy years of writing in 2012. And even then he welcomed requests for help with writing problems. As he said, “No project too weird.”

So is there a suitable epitaph for William Zinsser, a fellow who said he was cursed with optimism, an acknowledged demon who chased word clutter, and a common man’s philosopher who was often wary about security in life as a goal? That epitaph is found in the last paragraph of Writing Places:

And yet, stuck with my traditional skills, I’m not feeling obsolete. Language is still king, writing still the supreme conveyor of thoughts and ideas and memories and emotions. Somebody will staff  and have to write those Web sites and blogs and video scripts and audio scripts….Whatever new technology may come along, writers will continue to write, going wherever their curiosities and affections beckon. That can make an interesting life.

CBR contributor J.F. McKenna, a longtime West Park resident, is a business journalist, former magazine editor and marketing-communications consultant. He is a former staff editor of such magazines as Industry Week and Northern Ohio Live. McKenna and his wife, Lady Carol, now live in neighboring Steeler Country with their dogs, Duchess Holly and Lord Max. Reach him at .











CBR contributor J.F. McKenna, a longtime West Park resident, is a business journalist, former magazine editor and marketing-communications consultant. He also attends all meetings of the Mark Twain Society of Penn Hills, a small and informal literary gathering near Pittsburgh. McKenna and his wife, Carol, now live in Steeler Country with their dogs, Duchess Holly and Lord Max. Reach him at .

The Debate Is Over: America Celebrates a Platinum Exec

By J.F. McKenna

To this day Britain cherishes its Iron Lady, the tough-talking, tougher-acting former PM Margaret Thatcher. Now we can send our counterpart, America’s Platinum Executive, to the White House.

That is, if we’re smart enough as a nation to elect her.

(Just in case you’re thinking I’m writing about Hilary Whatshername, please leave the site immediately. CBR has a closely administered IQ minimum for readers.)

With the digital housekeeping rules executed, let’s get back to Carly Fiorina, and to her exceptional performance at that sometimes chaotic CNN presidential debate. All totaled, hers was a 13-minute performance marked by facts, honesty, clarity and toughness.

No surprise, though, given the source. Here’s a bit of what I wrote about Carly from this corner back in March— :

Former business executive Carly Fiorina is no stranger to success, and certainly no stranger to making mistakes and failures out in the open. What really stands out—and makes her ideal for the toughest exec job in the world—is that Fiorina has learned management lessons in the unforgiving private sector.

As The New York Times recently chronicled, “When Ms. Fiorina, formerly a top executive at Lucent Technologies, took over at Hewlett-Packard in 1999, it was the largest publicly traded company ever to be led by a woman. Yet she also outraged some feminists by saying, ‘I hope that we are at a point that everyone has figured out that there is not a glass ceiling.’ Her business career ended a few years later in one of the more notorious flameouts in modern corporate history. After orchestrating a merger with Compaq that was then widely seen as a failure, she was ousted in 2005.”

An unabashed and outspoken conservative, Fiorina has stayed on the nation’s radar, even after losing a Senate challenge to California’s Barbara Boxer in 2010 and sharing such sentiments as “America is the most innovative country” while cautioning the U.S. that it can’t keep said status if its runs away “from the reality of the global economy.”

And, as noted, she’s not above owning up to her own failings. When the Los Angeles Times showed she had failed to vote in most elections, Fiorina responded: “I’m a lifelong registered Republican but I haven’t always voted, and I will provide no excuse for it. You know, people die for the right to vote. And there are many, many Californians and Americans who exercise that civic duty on a regular basis. I didn’t. Shame on me.”

Certainly this 2005 Fiorina quote suggests a Lincolnesque job-readiness for 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue: “The worst thing I could have imagined happened. I lost my job in the most public way possible, and the press had a field day with it all over the world. And guess what? I’m still here. I am at peace and my soul is intact. ”

These days, the Platinum Exec’s soul looks even stronger. Only days before the CNN debate at the Reagan Library, Carly had been asked about The Donald’s smarmy comment about her face. Her answer was that she didn’t “really care what Donald Trump thinks about my face.”

The question came up again at the debate, and Carly shut it down by saying that all American women had clearly heard the comment. Case closed.

On the far more serious issue of foreign affairs, she won my heart with her comment on her first planned day in the Oval Office. She’d call PM Bibi Netanyahu to say America has Israel’s back again and then call Iran’s leadership to employ a much-less-friendly tone about nuclear inspections.

Likewise, when the debate turned to the issue of abortion and federal law, the Platinum Exec donned her executive cloak on behalf of all America and spoke about “the character of our nation,” a phrase that has been misused as a thin and tasteless rhetorical topping as of late.

“I can win this job,” Carly said the day after the debate, “and I can do this job.”

As I wrote in March, I tell myself that it would be great to elect a woman president.  The right one, I said then. The Platinum Exec, I say now.

J.F. McKenna, a former resident of Cleveland’s West Park, has worked as a reporter, business editor, speech writer and communication specialist. He is a former staff editor of such magazines as Industry Week and Northern Ohio Live. The Cleveland native and his wife, Lady Carol, now live in Pittsburgh with their dogs, Duchess Holly and Lord Max. Reach him at .

Summer Break on Cannery Row

By J.F. McKenna

Waves rhythmically gather toward shore and then recede, and the sight and the sound of such action deliver a sense of comfort in most of us. That same sense also comes when this child of Lake Erie takes refuge in the pages of John Steinbeck. That is particularly true after the past year’s winter, which painted the Northeast a dull gray day after day, week after week. Is it any wonder, then, that I have chosen this summer to indulge myself in a brief break inside the author’s Cannery Row? There any open-minded reader can find renewal amid “weedy lots and junk heaps…laboratories and flop houses.”

Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches, by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,” and he would have meant the same thing.

Published 70 years ago this year, Cannery Row makes an ideal escape from the frenetic 2015 world of e-mails, 24-7 news and an Apple growing on one’s wrist.  Despite its seemingly hard-luck Depression Era venue, the row—modeled on the old Ocean View Avenue in Monterey, California—is Steinbeck’s portrait of unadorned fellowship, featuring roadside philosopher Mack, Bear Flag Restaurant madam Dora Flood, wily entrepreneur Lee Chong and, of course, beloved marine biologist Doc.

Steinbeck biographer Jay Parini tagged the short novel as “a poisoned cream puff thrown at society beyond the town lines,” adding that “Steinbeck, writing at his most lyrical in places, indicts his country and its materialistic values—a theme that will resurface without the covering froth of charm in his last novel, The Winter of Our Discontent.”

“It has always seemed strange to me,”said Doc.“The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.”

Where else in literature can one attend some ne’er-do-wells’ party for Doc and find timeless insights about the whole world? Only in Steinbeck.

But, hey, my midyear break is defined by the pursuit of pleasure and relaxation. And Steinbeck’s styling in Cannery Row offers both in abundance. For Steinbeck, writes biographer Jackson J. Benson, “one of the most important ingredients in writing was sound,” noting that Steinbeck’s “intricate patterning of a novel such as Cannery Row…suggests that this interest in musical forms may have continued until late in his career….”  Here are a few of from-the-row samples in which I continue to delight:

He was such a wonder Gay was—the little mechanic of God, the St. Francis of all things that turn and twist and explode, the St. Francis of coils and armatures and gears.

The word is a symbol and a delight which sucks up men and scenes, trees, plants, factories, and Pekinese. Then the Thing becomes the Word and back to the Thing again, but warped and woven into a fantastic pattern.

Over a period of years Doc dug himself into Cannery Row to an extent not even he expected. He became the fountain of philosophy and science and art….Doc would listen to any kind of nonsense and change it for you to a kind of wisdom….And everyone who thought of him thought next, “I really must do something nice for Doc.”

This Summer of 2015, Doc and the others of Cannery Row have done something not merely nice but special for me. Would I recommend just such a getaway? Damn right I would. The cost of the visit is minimal: Half-Price Books can arrange the trip for a couple of bucks.

And, to the author’s everlasting credit, the visit always proves priceless.

J.F. McKenna is a veteran business journalist and marketing-communications consultant. He is a former staff editor of such magazines as Industry Week and Northern Ohio Live. A native of Cleveland, he and his wife, Carol, now live in Pittsburgh with their dogs, Duchess Holly and Lord Max. Reach McKenna at or through his LinkedIn profile: Jos. F. McKenna. Other McKenna thoughts on Steinbeck can be found in the online archives of Will Ray’s .


The Art of Messaging Today

By J.F. McKenna

During my often misspent days at St. Edward High School, how I wished I had someone like Arthur Plotnik to spice my daily diet of Warriners English Grammar and Composition, the standard-issue manual on sentence building and righteous rhetoric. Lawrence Cody, my sophomore-year English teacher, cleverly leveraged Mr. Warriner’s tome to fashion students who could communicate properly and effectively; and for that I have long been grateful. Messrs. Cody and Warriner’s diligent efforts duly if belatedly acknowledged, I still insist even a dollop of sagacious sass from Plotnik’s Spunk & Bite would have enlivened my Brothers of Holy Cross education.

I’m just glad I discovered Spunk & Bite after its debut less than a decade ago.

Plotnik, a bestselling author and former publishing executive, is a wordsmith after my own heart. He readily acknowledges the long-standing impact of Will Strunk and E.B. White’s iconic The Elements of Style, pointing out that the little book of English usage—often seen in the company of Warriner’s text in my SEHS days—“may yet save America from choking on its own jargon and obfuscation.” At the same time, Plotnik correctly declares that even the compact good-writing supplement understands “that bending the rules—judiciously breaking them—can give writing its distinction, its edge, its very style.”

So with a punny nod to Strunk and White through his book’s title, Plotnik lays out a writing strategy for our hyper-wired 21st-century world.

“With…readers drawn to ever-new distractions, who can afford a writing-as-usual attitude?” asks the author of the journalistic classic The Elements of Editing. “Not creative writers, not journalists, copywriters, or corporate communicators. Nor can writing students gear up in all the old ways. Even bloggers, even troubadours, must realize that in today’s forest an undistinguished post falls soundlessly.”

Hallelujah! say I. (Particularly in the last few years I haven’t seen so much settled content since my days as a bulk-buyer of generic mac-n-cheese dinner. My family, friends and colleagues—savvy media consumers all—share that sentiment, if not my preference for the perfect entree.) With no slight at all to the use of middle-of-the-road grammar, Plotnik constructs a compelling 275-page case to the message-makers “whose composition skills compare with the next writer’s, but who itch for creative ideas, smart locutions, and realistic takes on language for today’s media.”

Wisely observing that “readers love surprise,” Plotnik advises his writers to look for the figurative route to Unexpected Stimuli. But while on the road, AP adds, always stay alert.

“Even as you set out to be surprising,” Plotnik cautions, “gangs of predictable idioms and images will bully their way into first drafts. Let them appear, as they tend to do when the brain is spewing words. But in the editing process, show no mercy. Occide, verba, ure! Kill, beat, and burn—sniff out and destroy everything that smells predictable. cliched, formulaic, labored, or lazy. Force yourself to fill the gaps with language that hoists a big exclamation point (but not a question mark) above the reader’s head.”

Great stuff, eh? And that’s only a slice of Chapter Two. From there Plotnik acts as a sure guide to negotiating verb tenses, commanding both hyphen and semicolon, looting a Thesaurus like a literate pirate, and more.

At the end of his playbook Coach Plotnik delivers a rousing go-get-’em speech to his players in prose, each of whose next big game may involve an email, a critical proposal or a website feature:

When virtuosity of language and style starts to overwhelm story (or, in nonfiction, the point), it is time to tug at the reins. But writers often rein in themselves in from the start, never giving sacred frenzy a start….

Writing has always been about surmounting fears. But at the end of the dayat the beginning, tooonly a single fear, that of boring your readers, merits a change in the direction of one’s language and style….

And if you occasionally land on your tokus, that is only the journey, the way, of spunk and bite.

This St. Edward alum’s advice to those at the alma mater in 2015—and to writers everywhere else, for that matter—is simple. Plunk down $12.95 for that copy of Arthur Plotnik’s book. I look forward to reading your spunky and biting thank-yous.

CBR contributor J.F. McKenna, a 71 SEHS graduate and longtime West Park resident, is a business journalist, former magazine editor and marketing-communications consultant. He is a former staff editor of such magazines as Industry Week and Northern Ohio Live. McKenna and his wife, Carol, now live in neighboring Steeler Country with their dogs, Duchess Holly and Lord Max. Reach him at . Check out Arthur Plotnik at .


A Vision Not Up For Debate

By J.F. McKenna

When that rabble of Republican presidential hopefuls arrives in Cleveland this August, the hotel managers will cheer. Calculating the profit from the pols, their minions and the media visiting C-town, the inn keepers are guaranteed an actual payoff connected to the 2016 election—even if other Clevelanders, along with the rest of the nation, can’t be equally certain. As of right now, even the most delusional political Pollyannas expect little more than an evening of confusing crosstalk among the top-10 GOP candidates for the White House.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be as bleak as just described. And given the national and international challenges that post-Obama America will face in January 2017—it shouldn’t be.

As management guru Peter Drucker once wrote, creating a customer—or, in this case, a voter—demands mastery of marketing and innovation. The aim of marketing, Drucker explained, is “to make marketing superfluous,” which means “knowing and understanding the customer so well that the product and service fits him and sells itself.” Drucker also insisted that the second function of a business—or, in this case, the federal government—is innovation, which the father of modern management defined as “the provision of different economic satisfactions.”

“It is not enough for the business to provide just any economic goods and services; it must provide better and more economic ones,” Drucker preached in his 1974 classic, Management, Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices. “It is not necessary for a business to grow bigger; but it is necessary that it constantly grows better.”

Which brings me to the upcoming hot August night in my hometown. What if the candidates were to junk their debate notes, jettison their over-rehearsed ripostes and pass on the empty if telegenic posturing? What if these Grand Old Partiers simply gather and present the American voter with their united vision of what the nation needs, must have and can be in the 21st century?

Kind of a revolutionary idea, in that truly American sense, no?

Without question, the framers of the Constitution didn’t agree with one another on every detail of what ensures national greatness; nonetheless, they worked out a common vision “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility…and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Prosperity….”

Surely 10 folks scoring rhetorical points against one another can’t compare with the preceding eloquence—even if the stage is in good old Cleveland. But a common vision delivered from that stage is a worthy restart toward national recovery.

And there can be plenty of vision to share with that “customer” who has his hard-earned vote to invest. Take the economy, just for starts. Or as the classic comedian Henny Youngman might quip, “Take my economy—please!”

“Take the case of Barack Obama,” Forbes columnist and eminent historian Paul Johnson wrote earlier this year. “By any standards he’s been a bad President—idle, muddled, contradictory and weak. His one major achievement, ObamaCare, is likely to prove costly and inefficient….Obama’s Administration is crowded with enemies of business. If it has an ideology, it’s watered-down socialism. Obama has done nothing positive for the economy, and many of his decisions have been discouraging and obstructive to private enterprise.”

Johnson’s lyrics may sound a bit rough to the untrained ear, but his notes ring true. In this exclusive appearance near the shores of Lake Erie, the Cleveland Ten can assemble quite a common song book from which to sing this summer. And the candidates will find a receptive audience on opening night. Moreover, a tune never sticks better in the listener’s mind as when each singer is harmonizing with the others. Time enough for solo performances.

Certainly the encore that evening should focus on national security, and the candidates can start by jointly recommitting to the words of one of the country’s three basic documents: “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of the President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

You bet the devil’s in the details of that oath. I’m too experienced a business writer to believe otherwise. But the rest of America and I want to hear these job candidates, in their own words, convince us that any of one of them is up to the task of fulfilling that oath to our expectations. In a world threatened by ISIS and its thug-brethren, each voter especially wants to hear a pledge to principles, not reheated platitudes.

Overall, as my hero Drucker also wrote, “What distinguishes the leader from the misleader are his goals. Whether the compromise he makes with the constraints of reality—which may involve political, economic, financial or interpersonal problems—are compatible with his mission and goals or lead away from them determines whether he is an effective leader.”

For starters agree on that, candidates. And enjoy your visit to Cleveland.

We citizens can figure out the rest on our own.

CBR contributor J.F. McKenna, a longtime West Park resident, is a business journalist, former magazine editor and marketing-communications consultant. He is a former staff editor of such magazines as Industry Week and Northern Ohio Live. McKenna and his wife, Carol, now live in neighboring Steeler Country with their dogs, Duchess Holly and Lord Max. Reach him at .

Duty and the Well of Fortitude

by Doug Magill

A man does what he must – in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles and dangers and pressures – and that is the basis of all human morality.  Winston Churchill

On a moonless Pacific night during World War II, the pilot of a Hellcat fighter returning from a routine patrol desperately searched for the comfort of an aircraft carrier he would never find. My father, directing fighter operations on the ship that was the home of the lost plane, listened in horror to the static-roughened panic in the young man’s voice. His radio direction-finding equipment had failed and fleet orders prevented the carrier crew from illuminating the ship due to nearby Japanese submarines.

Disappearing into the blackness of the sea, terrified and alone, the pilot was not considered a coward by his shipmates. My father first told me this story when I was young, and I asked him how a brave military pilot could panic. With a soft and faraway look in his eyes, he replied, “It’s just that his well of fortitude ran dry. We all never knew how deep it really was for any of us.”

Eddie Rickenbacker, the World War I combat pilot once said, “There can be no courage unless you’re scared.” He understood that there is a well of fortitude within that can be drawn upon time and again, under even the most terrifying circumstances.  And yet, military men know that there are occasions when even that is not enough, when fear can overcome even the hardiest soul, when there is no more bravery, no more strength, no more belief. Still they are drawn beyond what can be humanly expected by their sense of duty – to themselves, to their comrades, to their country.

During the war my father was aboard a jeep carrier, the USS Cowpens, which was attacked by kamikaze aircraft, and barely survived the monstrous waves of Halsey’s typhoon (Typhoon Cobra), a ferocious cyclone in the Pacific Ocean that struck the Pacific Fleet with one-hundred twenty mph winds and sank three ships.


USS Cowpens (CVL-25) during Typhoon Cobra
18 December 1944

The Cowpens was also sent as a decoy into the Sea of Japan without escorts.  When I asked Dad if he was scared, he would only say that he was able to draw from his well of fortitude during those times, and hang on. At times he was so frightened that he couldn’t move, but when he saw his shipmates doing their duty he felt he had to do his job and not let them down. He never boasted or showed pride, only relief that he had performed his duty and not failed his shipmates.

Landing on the beaches of Okinawa with the 1st Marine Division, my uncle Tom suffered from migraine headaches which prevented him from seeing. All he could do was hang onto the web belt of the man in front of him. His comrades would tell him where to aim so that he could shoot. Though he didn’t share many details of that bloody island, he told me of times when he was so afraid he couldn’t move, or shoot, and that the chaos of war gave countless opportunities for heroism and panic, often to the same person in the space of moments. He described the jungle and the insects, the heat, and the constant fear. He told me, “I was afraid all the time, and felt suffocated because there was nowhere to hide. It was a relief sometimes to dig leeches out of my legs with my combat knife. The pain was real, and distracted me from the fear.” He drew deeply from his well of fortitude, time and again shaking and panicked. Wanting to do his duty for the men around him he would take that next, halting step which kept him going for one more minute, one more agonizing hour, one more terrifying day.

Proud of their service, both my father and my uncle never described themselves as heroic or deserving of special consideration. They knew that brave men could panic, and cowards could become unexpected heroes. Incredible feats of courage were often not recognized and medals were awarded for trivial things, or for momentary political purposes.

To most veterans, medals and awards are not indicative of the value of one’s service, and do not imply a hierarchy of bravery. They do not judge the value of one’s duty, as they know that even clerks in Washington are important, as are the bases and supply ships manned by tired and overworked soldiers, sailors and airmen – who will never be recognized. They, too, perform their duty and may have had to draw upon their wells of fortitude due to accidents, weather, or other events that required bravery unrelated to combat.

A childhood friend of mine declined a Bronze Star during his service in Vietnam because his sense of honor caused him to feel that others deserved it more. Dan felt it would have been false pride to accept a decoration that he didn’t feel he deserved, though he knew he had performed his duty and saw combat that tested him.

Most veterans understand that medals aren’t scorecards for manliness. Performing their duty was all that mattered. The rest was randomness and fate.  A man performed his duty when required, regardless of acknowledgement or reward, and without complaint. The concept of duty is something that these warriors passed on to their children.  I have many childhood memories of completing required tasks, hoping in vain for recognition from my father. Acting responsibly was not worthy of note.

Most military men would react with disdain to a leader who attempted to take credit for the actions of men at arms when all he did was to make a politically-calculated decision to send them in harm’s way.  Particularly after requiring the overall commander of the operation to sign a document that would place blame on him should the operation fail.

A leader takes responsibility first, and credit last.

Military men know that courage is what is shown, not claimed.  And, that duty is what takes them beyond courage.

To shiver for days on end while being underfed and improperly clothed, waiting as your comrades slink away, knowing that you will soon be asked again to fight a professional enemy vastly better equipped and trained than you are.

To walk in ramrod-straight pride up a hill in sweltering July heat knowing that those you are attacking are entrenched and will soon devastate your comrades in a hail of grapeshot and gunfire.

To endure endless days and nights of rain and snow while your ship becomes coated with ice and knowing that a relentless foe is marshalling submarines and aircraft to send the ships you are bound to protect to searing moments of hell followed by the iciness of the depths.

To be starving and shivering in the relentless snow, surrounded by arrogant troops believing they will crush your dwindling forces as you run out of ammunition, and finding those last moments of pride when your leader responded to a request for your surrender with a single word, “Nuts!”

To be asked that one last measure of energy and strength to defend a wind-blasted hilltop in cold so deep your weapons have frozen and your arms are so heavy it is a burden to place your bayonet on your rifle to repulse one more charge of a fanatical foe.

To find the heat of the jungle dissipate and the sweat on your body chill as you crawl into a tunnel pursuing a mind-numbed enemy who plants traps to maim you and hides behind children and executes women as an example and who will never stand and fight directly.

To step carefully through the blasted remains of buildings knowing that a relentless foe wishes to take your legs or arms without ever having to fight you as you search through the stench and the garbage in deadening heat for men for whom cowardice is a moral code.

And yes, to feel the vibrations of the helicopter engine in your back as you prepare to leap into the night of a foreign country where you don’t know the strength of your enemy and the deviousness of his waiting traps.

Because your country needs you to.

Because you have been ordered to.

Because your comrades depend on you.

Because in all, it needs to be done.

These are the men who have found the meaning of courage, and duty.  Not those who issue commands and boast in comfort and security behind the protection that they and their comrades provide every day.

These are the men we remember today.

As the young Hellcat pilot found in his last moments before entering the silent embrace of the sea, duty doesn’t always involve the risks of combat. His service and death were nonetheless noble and honorable. Military men will forever salute him because of that. Today, it would be fitting for those who profess to lead us, and for those who evaluate them, to humbly remember all of those who have died nobly, regardless of circumstances. They owe the opportunity to do such things in a democracy to those who performed their duty for all of us, even if their well of fortitude ran dry in darkness and solitude, far from home.

Doug Magill is a communications consultant, freelance writer and voice-over talent.  He can be reached at

Unburdening the Past

The Russians developed a well-earned reputation for dark humor during the days of their failed socialistic experiment when they slaughtered millions in the name of equality.  One of their lesser known expressions was that the future is known, it is the past that keeps changing.

Today, our academic commissars believe that the future can be controlled by destroying the past:

Under New AP Standards American History Will not be About America

Raftin’ with Huck and Andrew

By J.F. McKenna

As American literature’s widely acknowledged platform, Huck Finn’s raft remains our sturdiest conveyance of native genius even as it continues to receive endless inspections. Mark Twain’s 1885 novel delights youthful readers, furrows the brows of many ahistorical souls, occasionally tempts the misguided toward censorship and always demands undivided attention as a singular case of the human condition.

Now Andrew Levy, whose imposing academic title at Butler University belies his own gifts as a storyteller, gets the latest last word on Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—and, as last words go, he has fashioned a fresh view of the novel that Ernest Hemingway christened “the best book we’ve had.” It’s no overstatement in this Land of Hyperbole to declare Huck Finn’s America, published by Simon & Shuster, an enlightening if challenging journey on that old raft.

Looking far beyond Twain’s liberal application of the epithet “n****r” in a oft-called children’s classic, Levy writes that “his work is a cultural biography of Twain in his era, one that shows how Huck Finn is the great book about American forgetfulness, and how our misjudgments of the book’s messages about race and children reveal the architecture of our forgetting.

“I started it twenty years ago with a dim idea that there was something about the child in Huck that was misunderstood and something in the argument about the book’s treatment of race that had reached an impasse. I spent months in the late 1990s reading ancient newspapers, tracking Twain as he toured America in 1884 and 1885 alongside Louisiana writer George Washington Cable in a show he called the ‘Twins of Genius,’ which was intended to help Twain promote the publication of Huck Finn. I explored the debate about children and schools that raged at the time to see if Huck Finn entered into it. And I explored what black readers of the day said about Twain’s book, scouring through the frayed remains of black newspapers from the 1880s. Yet what stayed with me was the milieu, not the thesis: the whispers of a lost, dying America, and an America uncannily like our own. A lot had changed. And nothing had.”

Point-blank the writer-scholar insists: “After years of reading, teaching, and writing about the book, though, I’ve come to believe that we got this backward—that our understanding of what is comic and what is serious in Huck Finn says more about America in the last century than America in the time Twain wrote the book.”

Not exactly a simple tale about a seemingly inconsequential boy, a runaway slave and their adventures on a raft, is it?

As is illustrated by the analysis of Butler University’s Anna Cooper Chair in English, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has continued to grow even more remarkable as a cultural gauge since its first days in print, when readers initially agonized along with the abused and semi-educated Huck about his letter telling Miss Watson the whereabouts of his friend and her slave, Jim.

“It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was trembing, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: ‘All right, then I’ll go to hell—and tore it up.”

The best way to read Huck Finn, Levy advises his 21st century audience, “might be to see that Twain found the borders that divide parents and children as false as the borders that divide black and white—and that he even saw the way those borders overlapped. In turn, he attacked both with the same rough play, a tricksterish mix of comedy and political se­riousness that meshed with the stereotypes of the time but fought them, too. And now we are indulging in more rough play—myths of nostalgia and myths of progress, and the instinct to classify, classify, classify—that inspires modern politicians, critics, teachers, filmmak­ers, and readers to divide the book into two books, one funny and ‘harmless’ and one not. Huck Finn can show us more about how we keep the discussion of childhood stalled, and the engine of racial difference humming, than any other book in our canon. To benefit from that insight, however, we would have to admit that it is not a book (flawed or otherwise) about children and adventure, or about racial progress. It is a book about what Junot Díaz calls ‘dedicated amnesia’ on a national scale. It is a plea—as is this book—to remem­ber, and a fatalistic comedy about how we don’t.”

So allow me to recommend climbing on the raft and carefully listening to Levy’s eloquent observations about Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—observations such as “If we are concerned about the uses of Huck Finn, we might fairly ask whether such moments of wit and artistry can be distilled from their murky and tricksterish origins, and turned into polemics, or whether those murky and tricksterish origins are the point. Does the ‘assault of Laughter’ really win the game of history, as he claimed? It makes a difference.”

Samuel Langhorne Clemens—aka Twain—certainly knew a lot about making a difference. The great Anglo-Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once declared that Twain was one of this nation’s greatest literary assets, noting that the American writer did not give his countrymen “much chance of ignoring him.” In 1907 Shaw wrote Twain himself: “I am persuaded that the future historian of America will find your works as indispensable to him as a French historian finds the political tracts of Voltaire.” Prima facie proof of that assessment is Andrew Levy’s latest last word on Huck.

CBR contributor J.F. McKenna, a longtime West Park resident, is a business journalist, former magazine editor and marketing-communications consultant. He also attends all meetings of the Mark Twain Society of Penn Hills, a small and informal literary gathering near Pittsburgh. McKenna and his wife, Carol, now live in Steeler Country with their dogs, Duchess Holly and Lord Max. Reach him at .

It Is Well

Featured image

by Doug Magill

Grander earth has quaked before,
Moved by the sound of His voice.
And seas that are shaken and stirred
Can be calmed and broken for my regard.

There is a sign at Volcano National Park in Hawaii that claims greenhouse emissions can be reduced by limiting the most common sources of carbon dioxide (CO2): transportation, solid waste and energy production. One presumes the National Park Service has no sense of irony, as nearby is the caldera for an active volcano, Kilauea. This volcano has been erupting since 1983, its record one of the longest.

Civic-minded propaganda aside, one has to search elsewhere to find out that Kailauea emits at least 4,000 tons per day of sulfur dioxide, presumably without a permit from the now-godlike EPA. That amount of SO2 sometimes exceeds the capability of current instrumentation to measure. It also emits more than 4,000 gallons per minute of water vapor and about 10,000 tons per day of carbon dioxide. For comparison, the average car emits about five tons of CO2 per year. There are other chemicals put into the atmosphere every day such as hydrogen, hydrogen chloride (which results in acid rain downwind), hydrogen fluoride and carbon monoxide.

There’s more: at least a ton a day of lead, copper, gold, silver, zinc, bismuth and mercury are wafted into the air by Kilauea.

Such has been the story of volcanoes throughout history, particularly ones in modern history: massive amounts of gases, ash and contaminants spewed into the sky. Current estimates are that active volcanoes emit 300 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year. Krakatoa alone (1883) disturbed weather patterns for years, lowered average temperatures and caused a year without summer around the world. Timbora, in 1816, caused global disruptions on an even greater scale. There have been others, tending to wreak havoc with the media’s favorite oracles – climate models.

Some models claim that the effects of Krakatoa alone lasted for a century and caused ocean cooling which delayed global warming due to human activity. Then again, more recent studies say that those models incorrectly accounted for heat sink effects and conclude human activity will not have as great an effect on atmospheric CO2 therefore temperature changes will not be as great as originally predicted.

Ah, computer models. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them.

Having been involved with some of the earliest computer modeling in automotive manufacturing, I can state that it had a revolutionary effect on how cars are designed, and how quickly. It subsequently became an essential part of aeronautical engineering, and Boeing’s recent Dreamliner, the 767, was exclusively designed with computer models (results still to be determined).

But there is a vast difference between design and prediction. The record for computer models in the predictive arena is much less impressive – just ask the Sales VP who got fired because his actual annual results did not match his forecast.

Or the weather people, for that matter.

I have been involved in the development and utilization of a number of computer models over the years, and there are inherent inaccuracies in every model, with increasing complexity of the model causing those inaccuracies to increase exponentially. Many times the coefficients in models are inexact, sometimes even guessed. They are really ranges of potential values. By tinkering with these you can get a whole range of results as well.

Robert Caprara, who developed computer models for the EPA wrote that his job was more like a lawyer than a scientist, building a case for his client. His epiphany occurred after his superiors kept having him tweak his models until the results they showed aligned with the department’s need for grant renewals. He stated “there is no denying that anyone who makes a living building computer models likely does so for the cause of advocacy, not the search for truth.”

We know that climate computer models are wrong simply because they have already been refuted by experience. Even though they may be marvels of programming and design and take weeks to run on the world’s most powerful supercomputers, their ability to model an incredibly complex and chaotic climate is not only impossible today – it will never be possible (See Dr. Christopher Essex’s lecture on the limitations of computer modelling) . It is silly to even presume that what is done with a programming language could even resemble what happens in the world.

Another volcanic eruption on the scale of a Krakatoa or Timbora would render most climate models obsolete overnight.

There is also the data question. The daily emissions estimates from Kilauea were revised upward in 2014 by a factor of 2. Moreover, estimates of the results of volcanic eruptions worldwide are certainly not exact. A recent book on air pollution noted that “It has been estimated that all air pollution resulting from human activity does not equal the quantities released during three volcanic eruptions: Krakatoa in Indonesia in 1883, Katmai in Alaska in 1912, and Hekla in Iceland in 1947.”

The operative word is “estimated.” And therein lies the big issue. The accuracy of any model is dramatically affected by the quality of the data. Any person with experience in converting computer systems will tell you that if the data isn’t good, the results can be wildly problematic.

In climate science there are layers of estimates on top of layers of assumptions. It is well known that the desperadoes at East Anglia modified their data. Michael Mann of the now-discredited “hockey-stick” graph on global temperatures left out any data that didn’t fit his conclusion, including historical warming periods. Congress is investigating data adjustments by the unionized bureaucrats at NASA which always result in earlier temperatures being adjusted downwards to make recent years seem warmer by comparison. A recent announcement that 2014 was the warmest year on record was quickly followed up by a more quiet notification that maybe it wasn’t. There have been recent articles about data adjustments at remote locations like Paraguay for no explainable reason. Adjustments, by the way, that also make the past seem cooler and today warmer by comparison.

The questions about data are not only germane, they are critical. One has to wonder at the utility of surface temperature readings that encompass only 30% of the earth’s surface (though there are a few on ships) and that have to be adjusted to be meaningful. Satellite measurements cover only a few recent decades and show no warming trend.

Yet the climate is changing. It always has. Ice core samples, tree-ring analysis and other arcane fields of study tell us the earth has been warmer in the past. Settlements in Hudson’s Bay and Greenland and new discoveries in the Alps tell us in warmer times there were places colonized that have not recently seemed very habitable.

When terms like “settled science” and “consensus” are hurled as a means to eliminate questions, one has to wonder what scientists really mean when the word “certainty” creeps into the conversation.

Mike Kimmit early this year wrote about 10 new species recently discovered, which shouldn’t be a surprise as there are estimates that there may be up to 10 million more to be discovered. Yet other scientific sources tell us about estimates that 99% of all species that ever existed are extinct. Those wonderful guys in the white coats who opine about facts don’t really know how many species there have been or are or will be.

Science, thy motto is “estimate” – with the intent to frighten.’

And thy purpose is to drive political debate with the result of more funding.

There are also more fundamental questions we should be aware of and discussing. Our air is about 21% oxygen, 78% nitrogen, .9% argon and .038% carbon dioxide (CO2). Of what are considered greenhouse gases, water vapor is 90% and carbon dioxide is 4%. Of that 4%, mankind contributes about 3% which comes out to about .12% of greenhouse gases that are the result of human activity. I have yet to see a reasonable explanation of the connection between what seems like negligible amounts of carbon dioxide and global climate change. There is a huge assumption at work: more carbon dioxide means global climate change. Which leads to the next huge assumption: human contributions of carbon dioxide are causing an increase in carbon dioxide.

Greenhouse gases are essential to life on earth and levels of CO2 in the atmosphere have been higher in the past; but they have lagged global temperature changes. Correlation certainly does not imply causation. Such inferences get us back to that “science by estimation” circus leading to the supposition game that has become the world of science today.

National Geographic has swallowed the whole global warming mythology right up to its rod and reel. A recent issue devoted a great deal of copy speculating what southern Florida would look like if sea levels were to rise five feet. It certainly wouldn’t be pretty, but the article elided over the whole greenhouse gas thing to the presumptions that global warming is occurring, increases in carbon dioxide are to blame and mankind is causing it. That’s a lot of speculation wrapped in an apocalyptic view.

One thing they did mention was a developer who is planning on making money off the whole climate change thing by building luxury homes on tethered islands that would be unaffected by sea level changes. One has to love an opportunist who can find a way to make money regardless of circumstances.

When all is said and done there is room for questions and debate. Nothing as complex as our environment will be settled science, no matter how angrily liberals scream that it is. There are lots of questions and much to be known. Certainly when one considers that millions of lives can be affected by the imposition of new taxes, the concomitant reduction in standards of living, and the reallocation of huge portions of our economy to government control to affect something that may not be caused by us and may not be changed by anything possible we could do.

Unfortunately that is the liberal ethic these days: change without regard to consequences. Certainly there will be no concern about those who will lose by their proposals, particularly the poor. Environmental extremism has conquered California, and the recent drought has caused farmers to have to line up for food stamps. Not due to the drought, but rather because of regulations, lack of investment in water management and misallocation of resources to protect fish even though farmers are bankrupted.

When we were given dominion over the earth in Genesis, that did not mean control as anyone who has felt an earthquake, seen a tornado, escaped a hurricane or has watched the relentless advance of lava can attest. We were given stewardship, which implies care and responsibility. I suspect most people agree that we need to respect and use the earth wisely.

My grandfather’s generation celebrated the advance of the automobile because of the increasing waste inundating cities due to horses. It won’t happen in my lifetime and probably not my children’s, but someday our use of fossil fuels will be superseded by something else. In the mean time we need to use what the earth provides while working to enhance and improve the lives of all.

Ultimately we need to remember that something majestic is at work. Science can see some things, but there are still vast mysteries for which we are incapable of understanding or even knowing how to comprehend.

We know that humpback whales migrate from Alaska to Hawaii every year to mate, calve and nurse their young. To see them and to hear their plaintive cries underwater is breathtaking. But, we don’t know why or how they initially learned to do this. Yet it is majestic.

There are indeed millions of species yet to be discovered, and many of them are in the deeps where we have very little knowledge. One can look at the stars to see the enormity of a universe unknowable in human terms. Incredible mysteries yet to be seen, and maybe never to be understood.

This grand earth is majestic and has changed dramatically in the past and will do so again. It is well. Hubris aside what we do or do not do will have little effect through millennia as the earth will abide. Our most important thing to learn about it is awe.

Far be it from me to not believe
Even when my eyes can’t see.
And this mountain that’s in front of me
Will be thrown into the midst of the sea.
So let go my soul and trust in Him
The waves and wind still know His name.

Doug Magill is a former IT executive, communications consultant, voice-over talent and freelance writer. He can be reached at

Lyrics are from It is Well, by Christine DiMarco, Bethel Music


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