Should Steetcars Ply the Streets of Boston Again?

Boston should have far more street car lines than the 5 existing lines. When buses were taking over in the 1940s and 1950s, their maneuverability and low maintenance were good reason to use them. But there is a certain charm, at least, but a new economy with the return of streetcars. Many cities, El Paso, Dallas, Sacramento, Portland OR, and other cities have rebuilt their streetcar lines. New Orleans, which at one point had only its St. Charles route for streetcars, has returned them to the city streets and is still expanding. Certainly if streetcars were so uneconomical and the public so much against them, they would not have sprung up in these cities and thrived. There must be something else in play, something city planners here in the east are missing.

I think Boston should consider returning trolley to the streets of Boston and surrounding communities rather than limiting them to the exclusive rights-of-way as present. One area, which is growing and lacking in ground transportation, is the seaport area. This area is ripe for a streetcar line which could be built along the area’s broad streets. If you look at a map, a line could run in a circular route, starting at Summer Street at South Station, and continuing out to Black Falcon Pier, turning left on Tide Street and then left again on Northern Ave, then Seaport Blvd to Purchase Street where it would turn left until it reached Summer Street. There is a wealth of people who work in this area and another large group, visitors, who depart South Station looking for easy transportation around the seaport area but finding none. And if the MBTA got just a little bit creative, it would find a way to shuttle these streetcars underground at South Station making a very convenience connection to the Red Line.

The MBTA under the agreement struck with the Federal Government promised a return of the Green Line from Brigham Circle, where it ended for a long while, back out to Forest Hills. Businesses along the route complained it would tie up traffic and reduce parking spaces. Each of these argument could have been allayed by the MBTA at the time but instead they simply caved in to public pressure.

The present MBTA proposal for extending the Green Line to West Medford is extremely flawed and the expense involved shows this. The MBTA would do much better but simply putting the tracks into the streets, McGrath Highway out to Broadway, left of Broadway and out Boston Ave to West Medford. The need for building new stations eliminated, construction costs could be kept to a minimum. And with proper planning, road closures could be kept to a minimum. And as for the branch off to Union Square, that could easily be continued to Porter Square.

One thing streetcars have over buses in spades is lifetime. The eldest MBTA buses go back to the early 1990s where as some of the streetcars date back to the 1970s with the Mattapan Line cars dating to the 1940s. The point being, a properly maintained streetcar can easily have 3 times the life expectation as any bus.

Making the a little more interesting, the City of New Orleans orders throwback style streetcar which look old but have all the modern conveniences and are ADA approved. The City of San Francisco found the actual old streetcars valuable as a tourist draw and use them rather extensively. Those cities used their imagination and probably reasoned properly with the public to gain its support.

While downtown Boston certainly is far from ideal for a return of streetcars, when you go just a few miles from center city you find roads more than broad enough to hand both automobile traffic and streetcars. Washington Street, Tremont Street, Massachusetts Avenue, Beacon Street out to Watertown Square and many others could easily be converted but the MBTA has to want to and has to do its homework.

While this may sound like pie in the sky, the operation of streetcars today is far less than that of the bus. And who knows, the public may actually welcome their return!


Vietnam Era Veterans; All Veterans Remembered

I am a Vietnam Era vet. I did not serve in Vietnam as I was sent to Korea. And that turned out to be a bit of a hot zone all by itself, though Americans had little if any knowledge of that. But I am getting ahead of myself.

When I joined the army, I was sworn in February 19, 1968, the Vietnam war had taken a dark turn for Americans. Earlier that month the Viet Cong mounted what is known as the Tet offensive. Tet is the Vietnamese New Year. Americans let their guard down figuring the Vietnamese would be busy celebrating Tet, their new year. Contrary to what people were told in America, the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong were very smart and very savvy. They hoped we would let our guard down so they could spring a surprise attack of large proportions, and that is what happened. Starting on January 31 they attacked over 100 South Vietnamese cities and nearly overwhelmed many American strongholds. Hue, Danang and even Saigon were attacked. The Marines at Hue were nearly overrun and suffered nearly 700 casualties.

But who were the men who were fighting in Vietnam? All branches of the armed forces, Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines, and the U.S. Coast Guard too, who in those days fell under the auspices of the Treasury Department. A very large portion of those in Vietnam were draftees even though some were never formally drafted. Many guys waited for the draft notice to show up and went for induction. But others with the knowledge that they were probably next, gave in and enlisted just prior to their likely drafting. Then there were the poor. The army was filled with a disproportionate number of blacks, mostly poor, mostly poorly educated. To them, the army seemed like a good deal. Then there were the white kids like me who, lacking direction, enlisted because we did not know what else to do but also because our fathers had fought in World War 2 and it seemed like the right thing to do.

When I arrive for my basic combat training at Fort Polk Louisiana, I discovered there were four identifiable groups of men, those who had signed up known as RAs, those who were drafted known as USs, those who signed up for the reserves, ERs, and those who joined their state’s national guard, NGs. The two letter codes were the letters that preceded our soldier’s identification number, for example, I enlisted and my number was RA11625182. Some things you never forget. But had I been a draftee the RA letters would have had US substituted. And since we all had to recite our number many times in the early days, we knew what every man had chosen.

A tour in Vietnam was mandated by law to last no longer than 12 months. This meant there was a high turnover of personnel going and coming to and from Vietnam. But there was also this country called Korea which also had a maximum 12-month tour. From 1964 to 1975 over 9 million men in uniform served in Vietnam, 58,145 died there. And here is a stunning fact: over the 4 years an infantryman served in WW2, he saw about 40 days of combat. Over the 1 year an infantryman served in Vietnam, he saw about 240 days of combat. It is small wonder so many came back so screwed up.

The infantry training at Fort Polk, in those days, was rough. The drill sergeants were charged with bringing together a very disparate group of men into a single fighting force. One of their most successful ways of doing that was to pit us against each other. I was in Company B, 5 Battalion, 1st Training brigade. I was in what was called the “Yankee Platoon.” We were men from north of the Mason-Dixon line of course. Then there were two southern platoons and finally one “misfit” platoon. The misfits were from states like California which were not easily grouped. The drill sergeants showed great favoritism towards the southern platoon in large part because every one of them hailed from the south. The drill sergeant assigned to my platoon was from Texas. Our company command was from Alabama and his executive officer was from Georgia. But a funny thing happened during those 8 weeks, we all came together. Any sort of divisions which existed at the start of basic training disappeared along the dusty roads were we force marched along. Their plan worked magnificently. On graduation day a full 95% of the men of our company were loaded onto the back of cattle trucks and taken to “Tiger Land.” Tiger Land was the advanced infantry training course with an emphasis on tactics used in Vietnam with a faux Vietnamese village to boot. I had gotten myself into helicopter training school so that was not in my future. But for as much as those drill sergeants yelled at us “Charlie’s gonna get you!”, Charlie being a euphemism for the North Vietnamese army, I do not remember a single conversation regarding the possibility we could die over there.

The American forces in Korea in 1968-1969 number in excess of 50,000 troops. There were two full infantry divisions, 2nd and the 7th. And there were countless support units. I was stationed a mere 25 miles from the DMZ and had change to travel in its proximity on several occasions. Places known as Camp Humphries, Camp Casey, Camp Red Cloud and others we each an armed camp unto themselves. They were armed because there was always the very real threat of a North Korean incursion into the south which actually happened though in small numbers. Still, anything north of the Han River was considered a combat zone and many an infantryman in Korea saw his share of combat, as did some of the field artillery units. Remember, this was the time when North Korea captured the USS Pueblo and shot down a US Air Force EC-121 reconnaissance aircraft.

During my tour in Korea a fair number of American soldiers were killed in action by North Korean soldiers but most of that was never reported.  Few new of that war zone.  Those tasked with guarding the frontier were under the constant threat of an attack from the north.  North Korea regularly lobbed artillery shells into the south.  A lieutenant who was inspecting the DMZ was cut to pieces by a machete wielding North Korean soldier.  America seemed to have forgotten that even 15 years after a truce was declared, it remained a truce in those days and that truce was violated by the north of many occasions.  American soldiers died and no one knew.

As for Vietnam, on April 30, 1969, there were 543,482 men station there at one time. But one thing was consistent for the soldier in Vietnam, his short-time calendar. A “short-time calendar” was the outline of a naked woman with 365 squares, or what passed for squares, within her body. You filled in one day waiting impatiently for that day you could call yourself a “short-timer.” A short-time was someone who had 99 days or less of time to serve. You got to call yourself a 2-digit-midget because you were getting so close. Sadly, stories abounded of guys who were within two weeks of rotating back to the U.S. only to be killed. Everyone knew such a story and some even knew the guy. Such things wreaked havoc on the psyche’ of the young soldier. Many came back so damaged, not just physically, that putting them back together was an impossible job. It wasn’t until either very late in the war or in the first few years following it that the term PTSD came into being. The VA and Army hospitals overflowed with men so damaged that it was felt they would never be right. I knew of at least 2 such individuals. One put a gun to his head and the other had a heart attack at the young age of 34. He had yelled at the VA that he had been sprayed with agent orange but that fell on deaf ears.

If you want a good picture of the army in those days first watch “The Boys of Company C” which will give you an excellent view of basic training during Vietnam and then watch “Good Morning Vietnam.” Each in its own way does justice to what really happened, to the tensions which existed, the horror of war, and how boys were forced to become men literally overnight.

About 90% of the men who served in Vietnam never saw any combat but it did not free them from the horrors of the war. No one was ever very far from a medivac hospital where surgery was frequently done in what would be considered unsterile conditions but the surgery being needed in such an immediate fashion, the doctors had no choice. These doctors and nurses suffered greatly as they attempted, too many times in vain, to put back together the wounded soldiers, and to provide some sort of reason and solace for those of his friends when the soldier died. The rock group, Country Joe and the Fish, came out with a song in 1968 which had a line that went “then it’s one two three four, what are we fighting for, don’t ask me I don’t give a damn, next stop is Vietnam.” That was the sentiment of the soldiers in those days. We don’t know why we are here but we will do the best job we can.

While in Vietnam there were phrase such as “back in the world” which meant back at home, and round eyes, which meant American girls. The soldiers had created a language peculiar to their environment which helped them deal with what they were up against. Many of those soldier had never traveled more than 100 miles from home and now they were in a country so alien to them, that fitting in was impossible so they worked hard just to get by. Soldiers received no training about the customs of Vietnam nor what to expect of the general population. It was all on the job training.

Guy did not do marijuana in Vietnam. Why would they when they could get the more potent form of cannabis known as hash, of Thai Stick. Much stronger in content it allowed many troops to escape the horror of the day. And there were those who found solace in the all too prevalent heroin.  And what did the military do about those problems? Virtually nothing. They were too busy fighting a war than to consider the welfare of their men.

Soldier returned to America in large numbers from 1968 to 1972. But they found no welcome mat, no parades, no gestures of kindness. Americans knew the war was ugly and they wanted to distance themselves from it. They did this by ignoring the returning troops. They turned a blind eye to the problems the troops returned with. They did this because of their collected guilt.

It was well-known that the upper middle-class and the upper class did not serve, or if they did, they found comfy jobs in Washington or in Germany. Their service would have been good except that they took extraordinary measures to insure that the Department of Defense would not mistakenly assign them to Vietnam.

If nothing else, the War in Vietnam should have taught us what not to do, which skirmishes to stay away from, and to let people pitted against themselves the space to work out their issues. But we did not do that. Iraq 1 seemed a necessity and I have no issue with it. But Iraq 2 was a pure boondoggle. In Vietnam we said we were preventing the expansion of Communism. In Iraq we were supposedly going after weapons of mass destruction. In each case not only was the premise faulty, but our actions were and are virtually defenseless. But once again, the American soldier has been asked to do far more than is right. Our armed forces have been decimated by repeated reductions in force to where once again soldiers are being asked to do more than their psyche can handle, and it shows in the returning troops.

One thing which has changed for the better, it is common to hear the phrase, “thank you for your service.” But as nice as those words are to hear, they do not heal the injured psyche, and that remains an all too prevalent problem.

All who serve, by the nature of the oath they take, promise to put their life on the line in defense of our Constitution and our country. No other job requires this of a person. A truly grateful nation will take care of all its veterans to whatever extent is needed, but that is not happening. Too many veterans come back to no jobs and no prospects. Too many come back severely broken, are patched up and pushed back into society long before they are ready. If America wants to show how it is truly grateful for the service of all veterans, it will do whatever is necessary to insure a safe and secure future for them. It will find the reasons they turn to drugs and sometime crime and resolve those issues. It will make Veteran’s Day more than just a national holiday, it will treat it with the same respect as Christmas gets, only necessary people work that day and all others take a day to remember those who put their lives in danger so that we can live feeling safe and secure.

My First Love: Classical Music

I do not know what piece of classical music I heard first was but I do know that I was young, maybe 5 or 6. I was introduced to classical music by my father. He spawned my love affair with it which has lasted to this day. In fact, were you to inquire of me my favorite music form, it is classical. And the reason for my affection is simple, it always moves me.

I suspect one of the first pieces I heard what Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite; that perennial classic of the Christmas season. But what I did not realize, at least in my youngest years, was the fact that classical music was playing all around me and I was simply unaware. On television, for example, I liked to watch “The Lone Ranger,” the theme song for which comes directly from Rossini’s William Tell Overture which premiered in 1829. And the cartoons were littered with such music. The Warner Brothers cartoons Looney Tunes, and in particular “Bugs Bunny,” loved to use the music of Grieg and Mozart. A Bugs Bunny scene you may be familiar with, Elmer Fudd singing “Kill the Wabbit,” is from Mozart’s Ride of the Valkyrie” which was first presented in 1856. But when you consider the meager budgets 1950s television had to deal with, creating new music for their shows was simply not possible. The music for the television show “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” is the Funeral March of a Marionette by Charles Gounod written in 1872. And in the 1960s the comic Allan King did a song called “Hello mother, hello father, here I am in Camp Grenada.” That music is The Dance of the Hours by Ponchielli who first performed it in 1876.

I remember as a young boy delighting to Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody, Bizet’s Carmen, and many others.  The music spoke to me.

What we refer to as Classical Music was around for over 300 years before it was displaced by jazz, blues, swing and then rock and roll. Not that these latter forms of music are somehow not worthy, they are, but to me, at least, they lack the fullness of classical. And that is not a bad thing. Lord knows I love the blues, rock and roll, and folk music. But there is something I find special about classical music.

This afternoon I was listening to a program on the life of Rachmaninov. He was the last of the great classicists having lived from 1873 to 1943. Ironically George Gershwin may have been able to claim that title, having been born in 1898, but he died in 1937, a full six years before Rachmaninov. Gershwin dearly wanted to be of the classical genre and his dearest dream was to write an opera.  Like any artist, Gershwin had to be able to sell his music and it was suggested he look to American folk music to find what he needed.  He wrote the opera, it is called Porgy and Bess.  What you hear is the blues but the style is definitely operatic in nature.  One of Rachmaninov’s most famous pieces, Rhapsody on a theme on Paganini, was first performed in 1937, the year Gershwin died. This was one of his last pieces, his first, Prelude in C Sharp Minor, was performed when Rachmaninov was but 18 years old. I asked myself, “What 18-year-old writes such music?” The complexity of the piece is astounding and sounds more like a mid-career piece than a first of a career.

It is said of Mozart that he had mastered the violin at the tender age of five and was engaged as the court musician in Salzburg at age 17. He died at age 35! The vastness of what he did write leaves us wondering what might have been if he had lived as long as Beethoven, 57 years. And Beethoven, stone deaf when he wrote his 9th Symphony, names the final movement of the piece Ode to Joy.  He had little joy in his life at that point, to be sure, and yet that is what he writes about.

Each piece of music written by these masters has a story behind it and tells that story musically. Beethoven said the music is the pictures in the composer’s mind and each of his compositions, for him, conjured up those visions. In some cases we know the story the composer is telling. Tchaikovsky’s Peter and the Wolf is from an old Russian folktale. Mozart’s Valkyries is from German fables. And in one case, a composer named Grofe’, wrote a piece called the Grand Canyon Suite, just knowing the title and subtitles, we see the beauty of the canyon and the power of a storm, the sauntering of the donkey.

Classical music of this sort is no long written, and maybe that is all right. I sometimes wish its creation had lasted longer but I am left asking myself, is what we have not enough? Considering how much I listen to classical music and how little I know of what it is saying, I must say yes, it is quite enough.

Florida’s New Welfare Law Disregards Simple Human Decency

For probably four thousand years, people have had to deal with addiction. Drug addiction and alcoholism are two of the most misunderstood issues in today’s society. And until the late 1930s people probably had good reason to believe those issues were of a moral nature. Then a man named William Wilson and his friend, Dr. Robert Silkworth, took a different view of the issue. Dr. Bob, as he was known, defined alcoholism, and by default addiction, as a medical issue and not a moral issue.

The start of both alcoholism and addiction is a matter of choice. But there is a marked difference between the alcoholic to be and others in taking their first drink. The alcoholic to be uses a drink as one would take aspirin for a headache, to him it is medication. The same is true for the addict to be. And this means that there is far more to this disease than meets the eye. It means that absent an historical view of the individual, it is easy to lay blame at the feet of the alcoholic or addict. But that is simply not the case.

Alcoholics and addicts share common traits: past traumas, untreated psychological issues, and sometimes other medical issues. Taking the last first, it is not uncommon for a person who is prescribed one of the opioid medications to become addicted through long-term use. This means that once the physical necessity has passed a psychological necessity kicks in. Where a well-grounded person will overcome this short-term addiction, the psychologically damaged person will not even try. Or if he does try, will give into temptation.

One of the most common expressions in use in our society today is: “After that, I need a drink!” Or, “If you had to put up with that, you’d need a drink too.” The simple fact is, there has never lived the person who truly “needed a drink.” What such people are seeking is an escape. Most of those people will not become alcoholics but some will. But our society does not challenge the idea of a drink of alcohol as ever being a necessity.

For the most part, alcoholism and drug addiction starts at a young age. In meetings of alcoholics anonymous the story of getting drunk in the early teen years is quite common. But even though nationally the drinking age is 21, underage drinking is not only common but accepted. That being true, the fault lies in our society’s mores. With society allowing teens to have parties with alcohol, they are not considering that the use of drugs in such parties becomes quite possible. It is well-known that alcohol and drug addiction usually starts at a young age. This means as a society, we can do something about it by become vigilant and not turning our heads to underage drinking.

Medical research has shown that the brain is not fully formed in females until about their 21st birthday and for males it is even later. Research at the University of Rochester suggests that full development for everyone is about the 25th year. (

It is also well documented that the use of alcohol and drugs retards the growth of the brain as-well-as a person’s psychological growth. Sadly, the incident of alcoholism and drug addiction by age 25 is extremely high relative to other age groups after the 25th year. But this same research has shown that the person who becomes the alcoholic or addict has his ability to choose against drinking or drugging taken away. Alcohol and drug use has gone from choice to necessity. This, by definition, puts it into the category of a medical disease.

This all brings me to the law the state of Florida just passed requiring drug screening of welfare applicants. If a person tests positive for a banned substance, they are denied access to welfare. The problem with this approach is that is simply exacerbates the situation. It seems the rationale behind such a law is to curb the use of illegal drugs by welfare applicants. But that of course ignores the fact that these are sick people who need to get well and not bad people who need to become good.

It is time we all become “our brother’s keeper.” I mean that in the sense that we as a society must become responsible for all those suffering from alcoholism, drug addiction and all forms of mental disease and disorder. A disease of the mind is difficult to both understand and treat but it is none the less a disease just as getting the flu, cancer, or malaria is. We do not stigmatize, for the most part, people who contract diseases in the rest of the body, why must we continue to stigmatize those with diseases centered in the brain?

The Evil That Is Donald Trump

Every four years we have an election for the office of President of the United States. For over 150 years we have had one Republican, one Democrat and always someone from other smaller parties. Some of those from smaller parties made people extremely uneasy because their world view seemed so skewed from the norm. But we never feared the American Communist Party or the American Fascist Party would be able to win even a single state let alone the presidency itself. This year’s election cycle, however, has changed all that with the rise of Donald Trump.

That Trump’s ego is so large is of no surprise to anyone. But he has shown us sides of himself which should scare all Americans. He is absolutely a misogynist, xenophobic and a racist. We can live with his arrogance but his blatant lack of fairness and decency is so totally lacking it is almost incomprehensible how he is leading the Republican party in delegates and is likely to get the Republican nomination in spite of the best efforts of the Republican National Committee to derail him.

But this brings into focus a much larger and more ominous question, what does this say about the millions upon millions of Americans who have voted for him thus far? It is impossible they have missed those parts of Trump’s campaign that most of us find offensive. We have always thought of ourselves as Americans as being ultimately fair in all things. But Trump’s campaign has moved that into doubt.

What’s next? Next I think will be the Republican leadership running a candidate, likely Kasich of Ohio. It will split the conservative ticket and likely guarantee the Democrats a November victory. Why would they do this? To maintain as much of a good image as is possible. And to maintain control of Congress. Were Trump to be elected, he would likely so polarize Americans that moderate Republicans would likely migrate towards Democrat politicians.

But American urgently needs to do a gut check in the form of a personal inventory. Just how racist are we? And are we so xenophobic that the words at the base of the Statue of Liberty just that, words?

Although Trump has brought out the worst in us, I still believe that the vast majority of Americans are better than he is, that they are good and decent people who are neither racist nor xenophobic. While Americans may struggle to understand Islam, most bear it no ill will towards those of that faith and certainly do not want to exclude them from entering the U.S. I think it highly unlikely that Trump can be elected but when this election is over, Americans have their work cut out for them.

In our Declaration of Independence, it is stated in very exacting terms what our new country cannot tolerate and what we have to expect of ourselves. If we are to continue to be the leader of the free world, then we have to clarify our intentions towards that world. We must redouble our efforts in the areas of human rights, basic human needs, and fairness. We must make positions such as those expressed by Donald Trump to be unacceptable under any circumstance. We must hold ourselves to the highest of standards, set the bar extremely high, and we must make it more than just a little bit uncomfortable for those who would do otherwise.

America is greater and better than Donald Trump. Every few generations his ilk shows its ugly face and America has found a way to overcome them. I suspect such will be the case this time as well.