“C’mon George, you’re holding us up!”

Here’s something that didn’t make the cut in Baby Boomer Army Brat. In my first draft, I started all the way back, when our ancestors came to America. It quickly became clear that was just way too much information. The memoir now starts with Dad and Mom getting married, just before World War II.

“C’mon George, you’re holding us up!”

The parents of my great-great-grandfather, George Wagner, probably yelled something similar to him as they waited to board their ship from Germany to their new life in the United States, probably in the early 1850s.

It was no casual picnic. The family had been setting aside money for years for the trip to the fabulous New World and the new opportunities that waited in the US. We don’t know how many Wagner relatives came, but families were large in those day. It cost over a third of a worker’s annual income to bring an average-sized family to the US. With the limited space onboard a trans-Atlantic vessel, the Wagners would have carefully planned what they could bring on board. They had room for only the bare necessities, such as a few changes of clothes, tools, a family Bible, a few other small family heirlooms, basic hygiene items, and, if they’d been forewarned about the horrid food onboard, a small stockpile of their favorite foods that would keep for a while.

The family left from Bense, Bavaria, in southern Germany. After having having said goodbye to their friends and other family members, they would have taken a train to Hamburg and then made their way to the bustling departure port. While they could have smelled the dirty water, they couldn’t board the ship yet. They had to pass a series of medical examinations, which sometimes held up travelers for a week or so for physical exams and awaiting results of lab tests.

The trip itself would have been an awful, disgusting voyage characterized by seasickness, inadequate food, lack of privacy, cramped living quarters, vomit on the decks, and disease. The experience could stretch on for what seemed like an eternity. Up until the 1850s, most emigrants from Germany traveled on sailing ships, with an average voyage to the US taking forty-three days. Later, steamships shortened the voyage to 12-14 days. Living conditions on board were primitive. Passengers had to sleep in narrow bunks below deck. During storms, the door from the outside deck would be locked, leaving them with little light or fresh air. The stench of vomit and overflowing chamber pots was overwhelming. Constant jostling from weather and waves made even standing difficult on many days. On the worst days, passengers could not even stay in bed to sleep, tossed about and sliding over vomit and God only knows what else on the cabin floor.

The ship would priovide little variety in food. If a passenger was lucky, the vessel would be governed by at least some basic regulations, such as the British Passenger Act. Its minimum requirements included biscuits, wheat flour, oatmeal, rice, tea, sugar, and molasses. Food had to be issued in advance and not less often than twice a week. Passengers could bring additional provisions, and many did. The captain also had to ensure that each passenger received three quarts of water daily. Often, though, the water quality was poor. Prior passengers sent word back as to what to bring. Coffee was preferable to tea because at least it offerend some taste; the water was so bad it made the tea tasteless. Even the process of trying to eat was difficult. Many used their trunks as tables, and, in rough waters, struggled to prevent these makeshift tables from sliding back and forth across the deck.
Seasickness was constant. Many passengers threw up after eating their first meal aboard ship and continued to throw up often. Although some passengers adjusted to the constant rocking and bouncing of the ship, others spent the entire trip nearly bedridden with nausea. Occasionally, those with overwhelming seasickness starved to death during the voyage.

Life on board wasn’t all drudgery though. Couples got married, perhaps by a fellow passenger who was a minister, or, if the couple had money or connections, by the captain. Women had babies, and couples conceived babies. Many passengers celebrated birthdays. They held parties for many of those occasions. Passengers also made time for playing games, dancing, and writing letters home. Even though the conditions were harsh, the passengers were on a tremendously exciting adventure.

Perhaps the travelers thought the worst part of the trip—worse than the constant motion, the poor food, and the cramped and uncomfortable sleeping quarters—was the danger of life at sea: storms, poor ship construction, and ships simply being lost at sea for unknown reasons. Actually, however, the worst danger was disease, which killed far more passengers than storms or shipwrecks. Illnesses like typhus, cholera, and dysentery would spread throughout ships in epidemic proportions due to the crowded and unsanitary conditions. Sometimes upon landing, a large percentage of passengers went straight from the ship to a hospital, where survival rates were grim.

After the ship arrived in New York and the passengers disembarked, immigration officials herded them to Castle Gardens, located across from the Statue of Liberty on an island off the tip of Manhattan. This was the predecessor to the famous Ellis Island. Hundreds of immigrants crowded through Castle Gardens’ doors each day. There, the immigrants reported their name and destination. Government officials gave them information: where they could purchase train tickets, exchange money, seek directions, learn about employment opportunities, and use other services. The immigrants could also sleep on the floor there for a couple of nights until they got their bearings. Amazingly, given the experiences conveyed in “The Godfather” and other movies, the government was attempting to shield immigrants from the many thieves and thugs who hung around the harbor waiting to prey upon them.

“Baby Boomer Army Brat” To Launch


My new book, Baby Boomer Army Brat, will launch publicly on November 6. It is already available in print on Amazon and will be available as an e-book on Kindle shortly. Here are some of the publicity descriptions:

In this journey through a 1950s-early 1960s “Army Brat” childhood and adolescence, John Wagner brings the reader directly into his life of dramatic changes. We see him go from a good Catholic altar boy: with obedience to rules and respect for authority and religion, to the opposite: a bad boy secretly breaking the rules, hanging out with potential delinquents, suffering social isolation due to severe acne, and questioning everything, including his family’s longstanding Catholicism. Status is everything in the military and we see his family moving from the high status of an up-and-coming officer’s life to the lower status of an enlisted man’s life, through no fault of his father. We see John become a hero for all the wrong reasons: in a vividly described deer-hunting trip—an initiation into his father’s life—and in the hilarious finale to a championship baseball game. Wagner has a unique, direct, voice, bringing us into the immediacy of the highs and lows, even the sounds and smells, of this military family’s life. We finally see Wagner survive, achieve a smidgen of self-confidence and maturity, as he prepares for college and for what will become the Vietnam era.

John Wagner somehow became a prominent lawyer, won a case before the United States Supreme Court, marched for civil rights and against the Vietnam war, was in the Nixon “Counter-Inaugural,” and was the host of “Uncle John’s Jam” on a listener-sponsored radio station. He is now a full-time author and has a blog at http://johnpwagner.com. He is still waiting for the clouds to lift about the meaning of life.


John Wagner’s Baby Boomer Army Brat is the penetrating story of a boy who would become a teenage acne-riddled social outcast, and his coming-of-age within the unique subculture of an Army family. With warmth and energy, Wagner shows a vivid slice of Americana foreshadowing the dramatic changes about to hit the baby-boomers and all of American society: the new civil rights laws, the psychedelic era, and above all the searing division of the Vietnam War.
Wagner details many of the cruel, yet often hilarious, struggles of adolescence, from which he emerges with a core inner strength, although also full of doubts. John must try to forge his own values and beliefs in the midst of a constant inability to do anything right and ongoing criticism from his no-nonsense Army father. Baby Boomer Army Brat shows John trying to survive within the military culture, including sexual abuse from a predatory soldier. John must find his way through a minefield of an ever-changing identity, overwhelming anxieties, seeking a spiritual path, and above all struggling to become authentic.

JOHN WAGNER’S previous book, Troubled Mission: Fighting For Love, Spirituality, and Human Rights in Violence-Ridden Peru, won the Non Fiction Authors Association Silver Award, 2015.

My Love Affair With Studebakers, Part 2

In eleventh grade, I got to take auto mechanics. Somewhere I found a 1952 Studebaker Commander for twenty dollars and Dad actually let me buy it. It ran, but often put out white smoke from the tailpipe. Someone told me that if the smoke turned blue, it meant the car needed a ring job, a project far too advanced for our class. The white smoke was something with which we could live.

Oh, how I loved my Studie. I knew it had a Mallory ignition. I didn’t know what that was, but knew it was something advanced, like a transistor radio, which didn’t have to warm up but came on right away. I also was proud that Studebaker was the first car make to use safety glass, for whatever that was worth. I thought I was driving the coolest thing around. It was essentially the same car Dad had bought in Germany. Maybe that was why he let me buy it.

I’d fill up the Studie with gas at the Fitz service station, where the price was around thirty-three cents a gallon, about the same as a pack of cigarettes. But the car used oil like crazy and I had to add oil almost every other fill up. I made sure not to mention that to Dad, as I knew he’d give me a hard time for buying such a lemon. I knew by then that the white smoke was related to using too much oil. Later, Mom and Dad told me they knew about my sneaking oil into the car but thought it too funny to give me a hard time about it.

Somewhere I saw an ad for the same 1952 Studebaker Commander, but without an engine, for twenty-five dollars. Dad agreed to buy it as a parts car for the Studie that did run, but it was galling to both of us to pay more for a car without an engine than for a car with an engine. Dad tried to get the price down but the seller would not budge.

“Well,” Dad said finally, “it’s like paying twenty-two fifty for each car. That’s not too bad.”

We parked the Studie that ran in front of our apartment on the Fitz army base and the parts car in the field behind our backyard. I’m surprised we didn’t get an order to remove it from some officious MPs, but they never hassled us. Even before I began the auto mechanics class, Dad and Tom and I replaced the windshield and a fender from the parts Studie.

One night I was driving the Studie around Fitz by myself, violating one of Dad’s cardinal rules: “And don’t think you have to go somewhere, just because that car’s sitting out there!” I was listening to KIMN and the Ventures’ Walk, Don’t Run by came on. What a hot song! What a beat and melody! I couldn’t keep still. I was bouncing around, my foot bouncing on the gas pedal, and I began to accelerate like crazy right near the main hospital building. An MP spotted me but for some reason let me off with a warning.

One of our projects in auto mechanics was to bleed the brakes. I was teamed with Don Baird of “Now, you come back here, Don Baird!” fame. That’s what Mrs. Hutchinson, our Latin teacher, yelled at him when he just up and walked out of class one day. He had the potential for becoming a serious juvenile delinquent and that story traveled immediately from our class to the entire school. Don must have heard a million taunts of, “Now, you come back here, Don Baird!” I said it all the time at home but never to his face. He was a tough guy, and I was chicken.

Don was handsome and, unlike most tough guys, friendly. He never hassled me. Having been assigned to be my partner for the auto mechanics project, he treated me friendly, cracking jokes all the time. He had thick blonde hair that he combed into a ducktail with perfect rolls on the front, curling down toward the center——more Elvis than Elvis. After we finished the brake job on the Studie, he suggested we take the next day off and test out the Studie by going to the Denver Zoo. What a great idea! I would be with Don Baird, which would, I thought, make me cool like him. We went to school the next day but not to classes. Don and I met at the back lot near the auto mechanics area, where we kept the cars on which we were working. But we never made it to the zoo.

As I discovered after getting a few blocks away from school, we had messed up the bleeding of the brakes and the entire system was full of air. I had to pump the brake pedal several times for each stop sign or red light. That wasn’t too bad because I could see in advance the stop signs and lights that were already yellow or red. But if a light turned yellow suddenly, I had to pump the brakes really fast to bring the car to a stop in time. Just after we crossed the city line from Aurora into Denver, I was approaching an intersection and the light turned yellow. I pumped furiously, but the car did nothing and I sailed through the now-red light. The instant we went through the light, I saw a police car stopped in traffic going the other way. Within seconds, the officer was behind us with his red light on. The Studie had finally slowed down, and I was able to pull over with a minimum of braking.

There was no question of mercy, of being let off with a warning. We were two high school-age kids, obviously ditching school, who had blown a red light, no possible argument that there wasn’t time to stop. As the big, unemotional cop wrote the ticket and told me of the accident I might have caused, I knew it would do no good to say, “But officer, the brakes aren’t working right, and I was pumping them as fast as I could.”

The fine was huge, over $100, and there was no way I could hide it from my parents. I got the usual “What the hell were you thinking, boy?” from Dad and “Where have we failed you?” from Mom. I was grounded for months. That was also it for the Studie. They let me keep it at school so I could finish the auto mechanics course, and then it and the replacement car vanished.


Studebaker No. 1

When Dad was stationed in Germany after the war, we lived in a German house. I was just a toddler. My brothers then (more would come later, and a sister), Tom and Mike, were infants. I remember a snowy night but we were warm inside. Mom was getting us into our pajamas for bed. Dad and an Army friend were away on a trip. Suddenly, a commotion at the front door. Dad and his friend had returned—with a brand new car, a green Studebaker. (I would later learn it was a Commander, top of the line). Mom bundled us up so we could go outside to appreciate this wonder. I could only have been three or four, but I’ve never gotten over that beautiful Studebaker on the snow-covered ground with its new car smell that night in the cold.

New cars! Is there anything better to symbolize the American Dream for us Baby Boomers coming of age (and even, as above, way before we began to come of age)? Even when we became hippies and protestors, didn’t we all want to be in a new car or, better yet, to own one? Ah, American consumerism. Gotta keep the sales machine alive even as you protest the capitalistic sales machine system! Even though studies show it’s more cost-effective to get a used car, we really want a new, virginal, car. (Speaking of that, we also want to “break it in.” Numerous books have been written on the sexual themes and innuendoes designers and advertisers use to develop and market cars.)

I’m sure Dad drove that Studie all around Germany, often with us in the back seat (no child seats then). But eventually the time came for him to return to the US. He sold the car in Germany, we all got interested in other things, and Dad would go through a lot of other cars.

Those in the know about such things consider Studebaker always ahead of its time. See the delightful blog post by Roger Ebert, “I’ve got the Sweetest Set of Wheels In Town,” about his Studebaker.

Of course, I didn’t know about any of that stuff. I was just a kid. I didn’t even know I liked Studebakers.

US Postwar Imperialism

Now, looking back, I see a deeper issue. Look at the imperialism, our imperialism. Our stated goal after the war was to help Germany’s economy. See Bruce Bartlett’s article, “How the Revival of Postwar Germany Began”
(The New York Times, June 18, 2013). Helping Germany’s economy would mean, among other things, US personnel buying German cars, especially the famous “peoples’ car,” the Volkswagen. The US did help Germany. But, consider….

Dad was no VIP. He was one of thousands of junior officers in Germany after the war. But he was able to buy a US car that had been exported to Germany precisely so that US personnel could buy them. How did that help the German economy? It’s just showing off. The German people were poor, scrabbling for food, trying to rebuild their homes and their lives. And our message was: “Look at the fancy stuff we have and you don’t.” What was going on? Maybe a way to reward our soldiers who lived through the war with a little touch of “home” luxury without considering whether it helped Germany?


[I’ll refer to: ”President Trump” as opposed to just “Trump.” I couldn’t stand it when opinion writers refused to call President Obama “President.” I’ll try not to do the same thing to President Trump. He may not have been elected fair and square but he was elected legally. At least until a court says otherwise.]

President Trump’s Lies Begin at the Beginning

The media was concerned about how to report Candidate Trump’s provable lies. Now that he is in office, the media is in a tizzy. Immediately after the inauguration, Team Trump started a fight with the media about the size of attendance at the inaugural. The press immediately disproved President Trump’s statements. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/21/us/politics/trump-white-house-briefing-inauguration-crowd-size.html. In response, Counselor-Without-Apparent-Portfolio-Kelleyanne Conway said President Trump is entitled to “alternate facts.” <aref=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2017/01/22/kellyanne-conway-says-donald-trumps-team-has-alternate-facts-which-pretty-much-says-it-all/?utm_term=.3229bf88caed”>https://.

Alternate facts? Like, in an alternate universe? Are we living in a comic book world.

And press secretary Sean Spicer claims the Trump Administration is entitled to dispute the facts. http://www.newsmax.com/Headline/US-Trump-The-Latest-Sean-Spicer/2017/01/23/id/769998. You can dispute points of view or theories or arguments. But dispute actual “facts?” Facts are facts because they are undisputable. At the beginning of the Trump administration, it seems facts don’t matter anymore. But facts must matter. A free press should always think facts do matter.

What is a “Lie” Versus a “Misrepresentation” versus a “Falsehood?”

In the Nixon days, when the administration was caught in a lie, the administration would say the statement was “no longer operative.” Not, for heaven’s sake, a “lie.” In the immortal words of Ben Bradlee in All The President’s Men (both the book and the movie), a “nondenial denial.” http://www.nytimes.com/2003/02/16/weekinreview/the-nation-the-nondenial-denier.html Most of the media is afraid to call a Trump administration lie a “lie.” (Notable exception: Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC. Who, coincidentally, as head of the Democratic National Committee during Watergate, happens to know a lot about Nixonian lies.) Some journalists now consider themselves brave in using the terms “false” or “falsehood.” Journalists were actually debating whether to call some lies “falsehoods” as opposed to “lies.” What is a “falsehood” except a nicer and gentler way of saying “lie.” And if it is a lie, why should journalists be looking for a way to soften it. Isn’t this simply bowing to the new power structure? The New York Times seems to be attempting to avoid the lie-versus-other-name-issue by using footnotes to point out the falsity of Team Trump’s statements.

Should Journalists Fight Every Lie?

For the journalists speaking or interviewed on the SIRIUS radio channel POTUS (“Politics of the United States”) today, the issue seems to be: do you fight over every single lie or intentional misrepresentation, even if the subject is of minor importance or do you “pick your battles” and only make a fuss over the “big” lies? Most of the journalists I heard agreed the danger in reporting every little lie to be, in fact, a lie is that the public will soon tire of the fighting and, later, won’t be responsive when the press reveal a very big lie.

Who Decides?

The first question, of course, is: who decides what is a small lie versus a big lie? Is the President’s insistence that he had “the greatest” inaugural attendance a triviality? Or is it reflective of his insecurity and his need to stand unchallenged on anything he wants to say? If so, isn’t that important? Isn’t that an indication of demagoguery? Are there indeed a million little lies? But let’s assume that question away, keeping it for another day. Today, let’s assume we would all agree on what constitutes a big versus a little lie.

No–The Press Shouldn’t Ignore The “Little” Lies

The majority journalistic opinion seems to be that it just isn’t worth it to make an issue of “every little lie.” I must disagree. Yes, the public may get tired of hearing about “little” lies—perhaps they will occur from Team Trump on a daily basis and the team will say (as they do now) the media is biased against them. Perhaps we’ll accumulate a million little lies in an incredibly short period of time.

In the campaign, the Trump spokespeople repeatedly said that little lies don’t matter. Reminiscent of the Clinton staffers, the Trump people will say—are saying already—we need to “move on.” (Look at Conway saying the people “have already litigated” the issue of whether President Trump should disclose his taxes.

What? we have litigated no such thing. A blatant and by no means “little” lie. But Ms. Conway would have us just move on from the issue of whether President Trump has had numerous serious conflicts of interest from the instant he took office.

Yes, there is a danger of public apathy or burnout. It’s a danger we must accept. Yes, people may get tired of hearing that President Trump lied about this or lied about that. But that’s the job of a strong and free press—to hold the government accountable.

How Not To Ask a Question: The Capehart-Lynch Interview Relating to the Bill Clinton-Loretta Lynch Meeting and to the FBI’s Hillary Clinton Investigation

I’m assuming we all saw the recent interview of Loretta Lynch by a fawning and laughing Jonathan Capehart regarding the recent visit between Lynch and former President Bill Clinton on Lynch’s airplane in Phoenix. The problem was Capehart: didn’t frame his questions with precision, didn’t carefully listen to the answers and follow up on obvious gaps, and let General Lynch change the subject throughout the interview.
I don’t have a dog in this fight. I can’t stand Trump for the obvious reasons and I believe Hillary Clinton has (alas, successfully) played the public for fools with her continuing and outlandish evasiveness (“What, wipe the server, like with a cloth?”) and perhaps outright lies both now and throughout her public life. My point here is simply to look at how Capehart, perhaps in full good faith, presented himself as getting to the bottom of the matter but in reality left holes big enough to drive a truck through. What new facts did he elicit? None that I can see.

“What Were You Thinking?”

First, he deserves credit by trying to go to the heart of matter right off the bat but he did so in the manner of a late-night TV comedian, letting us, the audience, er, public, know he really was on her side but had to raise the issue. Then he asked her two questions at the same time (“What were you thinking?” “What happened?”), allowing her to say anything she wanted and it would be unclear what question she was answering. Ably, General Lynch went into a monologue about how “that” (what, precisely?) was the question and then redefined the so-called question into one she wanted to answer, what her role was and would be in the Clinton investigation. She totally evaded Capehart’s questions and Capehart made no attempt to follow up.
• What was she thinking? She didn’t answer this at all.
• What did happen? Likewise, she completely evaded this question.

“What Did Happen?”

Think this through with me. How does anyone, even a former president of the United States, simply appear in the cabin office of the plane carrying the Attorney General? Someone on Clinton’s staff had to call someone on Lynch’s staff? What was said by each? What was conveyed to Lynch? What did she say? What was she thinking? Even if we accept the (implausible) implication of the Hillary campaign that there was no phone call but Bill just somehow appeared at the airplane, at least at that point someone had to advise Lynch and she had to say something. Again, What did she say? What was she thinking? She did say she wouldn’t do it again but how many people have said that to federal prosecutors only to be shot down with, “You’re only sorry you got caught” and no sympathy.

“Primarily Social”

In other statements, Lynch had said the meeting was primarily social—chitchat about grandchildren, travels, the usual sort of discussion one might expect between the nation’s top law enforcer to whom the FBI reports and the ultra-prominent husband of a politician under active investigation by that very FBI. OK, let’s accept that the meeting was primarily chitchat and that, at the time, she saw nothing wrong with having it. Still, primarily. Thus, she admitted part of the meeting was much more than social chitchat. What was that part of the meeting about?

“That’s The Question”

Not only did Capehart not even try to keep the focus on his questions, he gushed in Lynch’s praise of him for asking “the” question while she came nowhere near answering it and he then allowed her to take off on how she took her work seriously and was “pained” that her meeting had “cast a shadow over how people are going to view that work”—whatever that was supposed to mean. That certainly sounds pious but means absolutely nothing.

“I Fully Expect to Accept Their Recommendations”

Lynch said that the team of career FBI agents and Department of Justice (DOJ) prosecutors would make findings and recommendations to her and that she “fully expected” to accept the recommendations. Later, she said that she had already decided “Findings” are the government’s conclusions as to the facts and “recommendations” are what the government should do about those facts, specifically if it will indict someone and if so, whom? A certain HRC perchance? Capehart never pressed General Lynch on precisely what she was saying. Was she saying she wouldn’t be involved regarding a decision of the facts, the findings? Was she saying she wouldn’t be involved regarding a decision on the recommendations? Or was she signaling that she didn’t “expect” to be involved in a decision on the recommendations but that, well, you know, anything could happen. Capehart completely failed to “spot” this issue, as they say regarding law school exams, let alone get a specific answer from the Attorney General.
General Lynch certainly tried to create the impression, and succeeded in doing so, that she would not be involved in either the findings or the recommendations. But she did not precisely say that. There’s plenty of wiggle room for her to backtrack later.


Finally, many commentators have explained that the DOJ has very specific rules requiring “recusal”—completely bowing out of a case, including not making decisions on either findings or recommendations—if a DOJ official has personal dealings with the subject of an investigation, or a family member of the subject of an investigation. If General Lynch really was saying she would accept the findings and recommendations of the FBI and DOJ, then why would she not recuse herself? Capehart again never spotted this issue, let alone pushed General Lynch to deal with it.
All in all, I think we’re back where we started before the now famous interview.

Meeting Sonny Liston

The recent death of Muhammed Ali reminds me of the time I met Sonny Liston. In 1962, when I was in the tenth grade at Aurora, CO, High School, and my brother Tom was in the ninth grade at nearby North Junior High, Sonny Liston, the ferocious prizefighter who had won the heavyweight championship against Floyd Patterson some time earlier, moved to east Denver, not far from our apartment at Fitzsimons Army Hospital in Aurora. His recent fight against Patterson was over so quickly there’d been many allegations of a fix. But there were also many claims that his right hand was so strong, it could kill a man and Patterson was lucky to have escaped with his life.

Dad was stationed at Fitzsimons (now closed) and we lived in base housing. I don’t know why Tom and I were talking about Liston other than that he was in the news. Dad was the boxing fan, not Tom or me. A story in one of the papers (those were the days of a morning newspaper and a competing afternoon paper) had his address—-he was in a fancy part of east Denver, not that far from us. I’d recently received my driver’s license and, if Dad was in the right mood, was sometimes allowed to drive our black and Colonial Creme (not yellow! Colonial Creme) Chevy station wagon.

The summer before, one day when Tom and I were looking for something to do, we said to each other, “Hey, let’s go say ‘hi’ to the Governor” and we rode eight miles each way on our bikes to do so. We didn’t meet the Governor but we did meet the Lieutenant Governor, who showed us the new license plates that would come out in a year. Now in that same spirit, one evening one of us said, “Hey, let’s go say ‘hi’ to Sonny Liston.” And so we did. It was one of my first times driving at night but at least there were streetlights in east Denver. Somehow I found the address. We could see well enough to see Liston’s house was plush, near Monaco Parkway where the rich people lived. I parked the car and we walked up to the door. Two young white teenagers walking right to the front door of the African American heavyweight champion of the world. We weren’t even smart enough to be nervous. I rang the bell. We could hear voices and the door opened.

“Yes?” barked a large black man. Was this him, was this the fearsome fighter? I couldn’t be sure.

“Uh, good evening sir. We wondered if Sonny Liston was home.”

“Whaddya want with him?”

Good question. What did we want with him? What the hell were we doing there? It was clear now we were interrupting either dinner or a party.

“Um, we’d like to shake his hand and say ‘hi.’ And we’d like his autograph.” That was the best I could come up with.

“Wait a minute.”

Uh oh, was he going to get a gun to shoot us? Suddenly the doorway was full, one man was blocking out all the light.


Now there was no question. This was him. “Hi. Are you Sonny Liston?”


“How do you do sir?” I stammered. We were being the super respectful Army kids we’d been taught to be. “We live on Fitzsimons, a few miles from here. Our dad is in the Army. We just wanted to say ‘hi’ and ‘congratulations’ and could we have your autograph please?”

“OK. Hi. Did you bring a paper and pen?”

Oops. We hadn’t thought of that. “Uh, no sir. I’m sorry.” Now what? Maybe we had something back in the car but I wasn’t sure and that would only prolong what was now a clearly bad idea. We started to turn around.

“Wait a minute.” The great man took pity on us. He went back to his dinner group and returned in a few minutes with a pad of paper and a pencil.

Here we were, two scrawny white teenagers standing in fear of the great man we’d come to see. Sonny’s giant hand swallowed up the pencil. He put his face close to the paper and began writing his name very slowly. He doesn’t know how to write! I thought. Suddenly everything changed. This burly giant labored over signing his name like a child just learning to write. Instead of being afraid, I felt protective and angry-—this poor guy, look how everyone had taken advantage of him because he was big and tough and a great fighter. No one had ever cared enough about him to make sure he got a good education, I thought. Finally, he finished and handed the torn-off slip of paper to us. He graciously offered his huge hand, that instrument of death, to each of us to shake and was careful not to shake our hands too hard.

Since then, I’ve had to endure many super-strong handshakes, some even painful, and it seems they always came from guys desperately trying to prove something, not guys who’d already shown their abilities.


Both sides of the argument make strong points. By going to Cuba he helps normalize relations, which can lead to the ability of the US to have more influence on Cuba. On the other hand, by going to Cuba he does give some legitimacy to the Castro regime, with its horrific record on human rights. What to do do? As a former law professor would often say, pretending to pull out his few remaining hairs, “Gawd these are tough issues!”

Yes, I think President Obama was right. To paraphrase the president’s line, if you’re doing something for 50 years and it still isn’t working, what makes you think continuing that policy will accomplish anything? At least going to Cuba is “giving peace a chance,” even if does lend legitimacy to Raul Castro and company for the short term.

I’m assuming Fidel is near death. And Raul is no spring chicken. There will be replacements in the next few years. Yes, those replacements will have been previously selected and are unlikely to be advocating any changes in Cuba’s human rights policies. But they will be new people in new circumstances and US policies may be able to affect them, even it is in the unfortunate (for this question) Spanish phrase, “poco a poco,” little by little.

And look at what actually happened. Raul Castro said, “show me the names!” Unfortunately the reporters weren’t prepared for that. But they’ll be back. And lists of names will be widely publicized. And the Cuban people saw President speak for human rights right in Raul’s face. Raul Castro isn’t going to release human rights prisoners, or change government tactics, immediately. But the duplicity of his stance will be obvious and will inexorably become a topic of conversation in Cuba, a conversation heaping more sarcasm and disgust on the regime.

I salute President Obama while recognizing human rights workers, and all of us, must keep up the pressure on Cuba.

On Leaving Law To Do Human Rights Work in Peru: The “Red Shoes” Interview

Elsewhere on this website, you’ll find a link to my interview with Jennifer J. Rose, who runs the “Red Shoes Are Better Than Bacon” blog. It turns out that Jennifer is also a former lawyer, which explains many of her perceptive questions about leaving, and coming back to, the practice of law. She also had other perceptive questions about the book. Jennifer’s name seemed familiar and I learned that she was the editor of a legal journal I read when I was practicing law. Small world. And now she herself has left the practice of law and she’s living in Mexico! I thought you might be interested in seeing the interview here.

1. It would be too easy to reflect on how law school prepared you to do human rights work as a missioner. How did practicing law prepare you for this experience?

You’re right—law practice, as opposed to law school, was what really prepared me for human rights work. But the answer goes back to law school. At first, I had no desire to be a practicing lawyer. Before law school, I’d been a social worker and mental health administrator and saw myself getting a law degree and then going to a policy role in either a state government or the federal government, such as a Department of Mental Health. But when I took Evidence in law school, our excellent professor really made everything come alive. He kept saying: “You’re the lawyer. How are you going to make your case?” The more he focused on the practicalities of being an advocate, the more I began thinking, Hey, I really like this stuff. I want to be a trial lawyer.

Then, when I actually was a lawyer, I was always struggling with that same question—how am I going to prove up my case? I learned to focus on the building blocks of case preparation and the many traps for the unwary. It so happened I had some early controversial cases. One was pro bono for a whistleblower who was fired by a city government after challenging the unfair way a city was running its parole and probations programs. I could see very quickly the case wouldn’t be won on “legal” reasons—I had to make the commissioners mad about what the administrator had done to my client after the extraordinary things she had done for the city. Later, I heard an experienced litigator say it more precisely: “You have to build up enough facts to piss off a judge!” All of that led to my focus on developing a case based on real-life outrage (or at least real life understanding) but, of course, with solid legal theory behind it.

In the big case in my book, against Victor, our agency’s Peruvian attorney, I couldn’t be an attorney for Victor as I wasn’t licensed to practice law in Peru. But that didn’t bother me because I knew we had to build a public relations case that would put pressure on the local and national prosecutors who were going after Victor. I focused on working with human rights organizations around the world, explaining why the case was an effort to stop legitimate human rights legal advocacy and asking the organizations to pressure the Peruvian government to drop its case. At the same time, I had to be careful not to have the organizations go too far. The Peruvian president at the time, Alberto Fujimori, basically had declared himself dictator and had rammed through his hand-picked Congress a wildly overbroad “assisting and abetting terrorism” law. The law was blatantly unconstitutional in the opinion of all the Peruvian lawyers I knew who’d studied it. Yet I knew that if the human rights agencies argued that point, it would just make the prosecutors defensive and might make them feel they had to go forward to show they weren’t anti-Fujimori. So I asked them to focus on the specific facts in the case that made the prosecution improper and not on the numerous defects of the new anti-terrorism law.

2. You went back to practicing law, first with legal aid, and then back to BigLaw, representing hospitals and health care providers, pursuing Medicare/Medicaid reimbursement appeals, performing internal fraud and abuse investigations, and representing professionals whose licenses were at risk. What did your sojourn in human rights bring to what some might call going over to the Dark Side?

Let me tell you a little about my background. I was never a careerist determined to work at a big law firm, say like the take-no-prisoners firms shown in the movies The Verdict and A Civil Action. There really are litigators who just want to strap on the jackboots and fight it out, regardless of the issues, but that’s not me. I just happened to stumble into a niche in which I could represent clients—in this case hospitals and health care professionals—against the overwhelming might of the federal and state governments. And I found I could be successful. In my case that went to the US Supreme Court, there were two of us attorneys for the hospital against more than twenty different attorneys for the US government! My dad always told me—“You always root for the underdog,” not as a compliment, and it’s true. I always wanted to fight against injustice and that has been the defining characteristic of my career.

After law school and a judicial clerkship, I actually would have liked to be a trial attorney for the Justice Department as long as I wouldn’t have to work on politically objectionable (to me) cases and if I could’ve made enough money to pay off my student debts. But you don’t get to choose your cases and I couldn’t have afforded it unless I lived somewhere with several roommates, which by then I was too old for. I wanted to develop solid legal skills and I went with the firm that offered the best training program. Yes, it was a big-name firm but here were all these newly minted attorneys coming in buying their new BMWs and renting fancy apartments while I was driving a ten year old VW beetle and renting a modest apartment. I paid my debts and saved for a down payment for a house, which took many years. But I was proud that I never sold out. I never represented employers against employees (or anybody against “the little guy”), I never represented the tobacco companies (and my firm had numerous opportunities for advancement if you did that) and I never represented causes I didn’t believe in. If I thought a case was morally wrong, I either bowed out or, later when I was a partner, actually told the client why I couldn’t do what they wanted, losing an important client along the way. I was lucky in that no one ever pressured me to work for a client or cause I objected to.

After my human rights work in Peru, I knew I wouldn’t be able to get a job in my former specialization—because I had no “book of business” to deliver to a firm—and I did work for legal aid, which I generally enjoyed. But there were lots of internal politics and bureaucratic hassles. It just so happened that a former client tracked me down and asked me to represent his hospital system in disputes with the government. That brought me back into private practice (a mid-size firm, not really BigLaw) but not at all to the Dark Side. I’m not a right-winger but I do have strong feelings about the government abusing its authority. I even had to explain to a bureaucrat once why he couldn’t just do anything he wanted and why de had to follow “due process of law.” I had to explain that was an important part of our Constitution. His bosses had never explained that!

As you’ll see in my book, I couldn’t really get that many human rights cases in Peru because the agency administrator never really wanted me to come to her agency, even though our Peruvian attorney really supported me. That never was an issue in private practice. The big issue in private practice is, how much money did you bring in the door, not even, how good a lawyer are you. I don’t defend that at all. I think the private practice of law has lost its moorings and it really isn’t a profession (or, as they said in the old days, a “learned profession”) any more. But going back into private practice was so freeing, so exhilarating after all the internal problems at my human rights agency and then at legal aid. I could just concentrate on my cases and clients and I loved doing that, although I quickly reverted back to my workaholic ways.

3. You battled The Shining Path, the Fujimori Administration, the Peruvian Army, and the Catholic Church. Let’s not talk about how all of these experiences made you a better person. What did these experiences do to make you a better and more effective lawyer?

In Peru, I used my legal skills in non-courtroom settings, which forced me to combine legal skills with human relations skills. Before going to Peru, for numerous years I was immersed in the world of law, as a law student, as a clerk for a judge, and as a practicing lawyer. I tried to keep myself grounded by doing pro bono work, by getting involved in politics, and by still being a Grateful Dead fan. But little by little you become immersed in the world of law and most of your friends are in that world also. When I joined a mission program to do human rights work, I learned by accident that people who didn’t even know me were threatened by me because I was “a lawyer”—spoken like it was a dirty word. What? Threatened by little ol me? That had never occurred to me.

I’ve always had sort of an inferiority complex. As a lawyer I can be tough and aggressive. But when it’s “just me,” I tend to be shy and retiring. When I saw there was this reaction against me, this unknown person, I became even more shy and retiring, just to make sure that no one was threatened by me. In hindsight this may have been ineffective by keeping people from getting to know me, the real me. So after all these battles you mention, when I came back I tried to make a point of not being threatening to people but at the same time of trying to reveal myself more. I also tried to engage more with my law firm, joining committees, that type of thing. Marketing is a big thing with private firms and I think my focus on being more engaging may have helped me be more effective in marketing.

Strictly in terms of legal cases, I have to say my Peru experience didn’t help that much as I wasn’t “practicing law” there. But I knew that going in, so it didn’t come as a surprise. The big thing I noticed back in practice was that opposing attorneys seemed so personally hostile, as opposed to the professionalism I’d usually encountered before. Maybe that hostility was there before and I just never noticed it, as fish don’t notice the water. Or maybe it was a sign of changing times. But after a while it became so annoying, dealing with rudeness, sarcasm, especially, but not always, among younger lawyers. What was really frustrating was seeing attorneys lie and cheat, which I hadn’t seen before. Not saying it never happened but I just had never seen it. I tend to attribute this to the increasing focus by firms solely on “billable hours” as opposed to professional skills, leading to a lack of standards, a lack of ethics, and a “get away with whatever you can” mentality.

4. I don’t think I’ve ever met a lawyer who has hit the 10-year mark who hasn’t wanted to get out, if only for a respite. Those I’ve known who’ve gone off to do volunteer work seem to drop off the face of the earth. What advice do you have for those contemplating following in your footsteps?

That’s a big one. There are so many different angles. First, there are lots of practical considerations, especially money. You’ll have to build up a nest egg to cover your US expenses that don’t stop when you go overseas. (If you own a house, for example, as I did). And then you’ll need money for your re-entry time—which might be long—between when you come back and when you get a job. As well as extra expenses that your small personal allowance from your volunteer organization probably won’t cover. For example, I wanted to send out a newsletter and had to dig into my savings for the related expenses. (Actually, now in internet days, that would be a lot easier.)

Examine your motivations. There’s nothing wrong with having mixed motives—I think we all do—but it’s important to be aware of them. Do you really need to live overseas or can you find other things to do living in the US, where you know the situation and the language? There are so many little things that may become big things because we just don’t understand the culture.

Specifically for lawyers, we know what “due diligence” means—checking things out in detail. Inquire, in detail, about everything. The training program. What happens if you’re assigned somewhere you don’t want to go, or that doesn’t want you. Even in nonprofit and religious organizations, there can be many turf battles and you may unexpectedly be put right in the middle of someone’s turf.

Again for lawyers, question people in the organization very specifically on whether the organization has had lawyers before, how many, what did they do, and, as discussed above, whether people might be threatened just by someone being a lawyer. And, of course, not stop there. Try to contact former volunteers, especially lawyers and see if they’ll talk candidly about their experiences.

For non-lawyers, I have the same advice except, of course, not focusing on lawyers who have been volunteers. In an ideal world, I’d encourage asking for a specific written description of what the organization envisions as your job duties and negotiating that description to be as specific as possible. Realistically, however, most human rights or other organizations that use volunteers will be reluctant to give such a description. Most of the time, they just don’t know. So, the bottom line is what Joseph Campbell said: “Follow your bliss.” Do your due diligence as well as you can, knowing that what happens later may turn out to be a crapshoot. That, after all, is the way of all life.

Finally, be open to the unexpected. Maybe you’ll decide to live there permanently. Unexpected opportunities may arise. Or maybe you’ll decide this just isn’t for you. Who knows? Again, isn’t that the way of all life?

5. You’ve obviously transitioned from human rights back to life as a practicing, now retired, lawyer in Sacramento. What stumbling blocks did you encounter upon your return? What would you have done differently?

Re-entry is a major problem. First, you have reverse culture shock. This can be far more severe than you might think it will because you don’t realize how your attitudes and thinking have been affected until you actually get back. In my case, I had to get some medical problems cleared up so that actually ended up being a good thing because it gave me the time and space to re-acculturate. Also, I used the time to send out lots of resumes.

I knew it would be hard to find a job on my return and it was. Private firms wouldn’t have been interested because I didn’t have a book of business to deliver. I wanted to work for a human rights agency but those jobs are extremely scarce and everything seems to depend on having connections, which I didn’t have. The Peruvian attorney I’d worked with wrote a glowing letter of reference but he didn’t have any US connections. And the higher ups in my religious organization didn’t have any human rights connections and also many of the leaders had changed and many didn’t even know the work I did. When I was a humble human rights worker, I wasn’t shouting, “look at this, look at that,” regarding my accomplishments and it didn’t dawn on me until too late that when I got back to the States, it would’ve greatly helped to have a person in the program with some human rights connections who could act as an advocate for me. In hindsight, I could have tried to establish a re-entry plan early on and to push the organization for some early guarantees that they would help me when it came time to leave. But, again, probably most organizations won’t be willing to make commitments like that.

I had several months of unemployment, sending my resume to legal aid clinics all over the US. I was just about ready to give up and consider going back to school in social work to update my credentials but, even then, with all the changes I’d made, I feared no social work agency might want me. Luckily, I just happened to get a job offer with legal aid in Sacramento of all places.

I’m not sure what I’d have done differently—maybe if I knew how hard it would be to come back, I never would have left—but my advice to others (lawyers or nonlawyers) is to realize this will be a serious problem and to explore future job possibilities as an ongoing activity rather than wait until you come back.

6. You lived at the poverty level while in Bolivia and Peru. Would your lot have been more bearable, would you have been more effective, if you’d raised your standard of living to, say, middle class.

Definitely not! First, it was important to me for the spirituality changes I was trying to make. I write in the book of what the director of our language school called the “stripping effect” of a new language, a new culture, and a new, much lower, standard of living. I experienced that stripping effect in many ways and I think it really helped me grow as a person. Also, if I would have done this, it would have marginated me from the rest of the volunteers in my religious community. They already saw me as “different” because I was a lawyer and if I’d lived a more middle class lifestyle (from my own money), they would just have seen that as putting on airs. Nor would it have made me more effective in my work.

I could have used some help in finding a place to live, but I was able to afford a decent place, nothing fancy. I really had no need of a car as buses and vans were convenient.

I did think of buying a laptop, they were just coming out then, but I decided to buy a portable manual typewriter—almost the exact same kind as I’d used in college over 30 years earlier!—precisely for the purpose of staying within a poverty lifestyle. In hindsight, a laptop would have made many reports and newsletters much easier and that is one thing I’d do differently. But otherwise, I found living poorly to free me in many ways.

7. It was really about the women, wasn’t it? In your book, there emerge two strong and very different women who drew you in, guiding your experience—Stephanie and Bella. Stephanie pushed you into volunteering, and Bella got you through the experience. Would you have survived long enough to write this book and be where you are today were it not for Stephanie and Bella?

Very perceptive! Yes, Stephanie and Bella are wonderful women. Alas, as you know from the book, Stephanie died even before I went to Peru. It wasn’t that she pushed me into volunteering, it was that her example made me want to volunteer. I just can’t say enough about her. And, spoiler alert, Bella became the great love of my life. She is so wonderful and it’s such fun to see her now as a grandmother! I was also profoundly influenced by María Elena Moyano, who I write about in the book. She was a strong leader in Peru who was horrifically assassinated for defying the Shining Path and organizing women. (Alas, there’s also a strong nun in the book who, let’s say, is about the exact opposite of Stephanie.)

There are also some men in the book who really influenced me: Archbishop Oscar Romero and Thomas Merton (as heroic, mythical figures I’d read about) and Larry Castagnola, an activist priest in Sacramento who became a good friend and—another spoiler alert—later married Bella and me!

No, I don’t think I would have volunteered without the example of Stephanie and yes, Bella definitely got me through the many turbulent episodes in the book. We had some dramatic ups and downs but it all ended wonderfully.

One thing I write about in the book are the many class and hierarchical issues in the religious world between priests (all male, of course) and women (both nuns and lays). Even putting aside the issue of women priests (when will the Church wake up?), women are always assigned subordinate roles to priests, even when women are really developing and implementing important projects. Unfortunately, this leads to separateness and hostility. The nuns live in their own world and have little interaction with priests or male lays. The women lays are more integrated with the male lays but many of them have become quite hostile, and who can blame them? This was probably the biggest surprise to me—the serious tensions between men and women in my very own religious organization.

8. Who should read your book?

I wrote Troubled Mission for any readers who’ve ever thought of changing their lives, of throwing everything overboard and starting over. I wanted to put the reader in my shoes: what made me even think about such an idea and then, step by step, inexorably, what happened. I tried to show the reality of being a lay volunteer in a religious organization, the good and the bad, including my many imperfections, my “dark nights of the soul,” and the many strange situations I got myself into.

Readers interested in living in a country besieged by terrorism will, I think, be absorbed by what happened in Peru, the horrific violence as well as a democracy that turned into a dictatorship before my very eyes. And readers who wonder how people can survive the worst conditions of barbarity and totalitarianism will see and feel the real issues that bring out character, or not.

Readers who savor words and enjoy complications should read this book, as opposed to readers who want to rush to find out “who done it” and nothing more. Above all, readers seeking to appreciate the human spirit should read this book.