Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Stretching the Tree

John L. Milligan
My maternal grandfather died of lung cancer when I was eight years old. He was sixty-five.

I remember him as a mountain. A strong, ready-smiling man who loved to wrestle with us on the living room floor and then read, side-by-side, on the couch. By the time I knew him, his blond hair had turned yellow-white. He seemed infinitely old, but he and my grandmother nonetheless traveled every year to visit our family where we lived in the Amazon, in Peru. He was a kind, generous man.

Although I didn't know it at the time, he was also an intellectuala man who overcame a vicious stutter and early diagnosis as mentally handicapped to earn a doctorate in agriculture and nutrition, eventually working as an executive in the poultry division at Purina foods. Before "retiring" to the house-flipping he was doing when he died, he volunteered his considerable knowledge to work in development around the world. This last perhaps most notably in Peru, where my barely-post-teen American mother met my Canadian father and whirlwind-romanced their way toward the culmination that is myself (he said, joking).

In the summer of 1940 my grandfather was eighteen years old. 

World War II had been raging in Europe for less than a year and American Isolationism was still going strong. But a little over a year later, the Japanese would bomb Pearl Harbor and the United States would declare war against the Axis powers. My grandfather would enlist to fight in the Army at the rank of Sergeant (his stutter prevented further advancement). Years later, he would return to the U.S. with a chest full of ribbons and a lot of memories he didn't care to share.

But in the summer of 1940 my grandfather was a teenager writing an essay—a book report on the historical novel, "Freedom Farewell," which was written by Phyllis Bentley. My grandmother (coincidentally named Phyllis, as well) saved that essay, and a few days ago when I was going through a box of her memorabilia I'd found in my parents' attic, I came across it. 

If you'll indulge me, I'd like to share that essay with you here. First, because I'm proud of my grandfather and I'd like for you to know him a little better, and second because I think his words are appropriate to the world we're living in today, seventy-eight years later.

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John Milligan

June 8, 1940

Freedom Farewell


"Biography is sometimes a fertile field of adventure."

Phyllis Bentley, in her book, "Freedom Farewell," uses Caesar and Roman Imperialism to describe the grandeur and Corruption that was Rome. This account of the rise of Caesar is of peculiar interest to us today. The gradual decay of the Roman Republic and the rise of autocracy serve as a warning to the modern world. The failure of the democracy to solve its problems, and the corruption of the people gave Caesar his opportunity. Today the same fundamental forces exist, threatening our way of life.

Phyllis Bentley takes up the life of Caesar when he is about twenty years old. To all appearances, he is simply a typical young rake. Under that licentious mask, however, lies a keen, calculating mind. Already he is plotting to overthrow the corrupt republic—and make Caesar supreme. With cool audacity, he plans every move. He allies himself with his two strongest potential opponents, Pompey and Crassus. Pompey has the army, and Crassus the money he needs. Assisted by them, he is elected to the consulary. When his term expires, Caesar is made governor of Gaul on both sides of the Alps. Ten years later he is in supreme control of the Roman Empire. Inefficiency, which Caesar abhors, is abolished. Needed reforms are made. Yet, withal, he is unhappy. Something is lacking to render his triumph complete. And herein lies a warning to all modern "men of iron." Good things done in an evil way are never lasting. The end never justifies the means. Caesar seized men's freedom in order to make them free. He failed. And they, too, shall fail. Democracy is slow, but it is sure. Servilia, Caesar's mistress, once said:

"As long as a tree lives, it may grow fine and tall, even though slowly and with many twistings. But dictators want to stretch it to twice its length at once, by force. When they have finished, the tree is dead."

The "strong" men of today are again trying to "stretch the tree." Why don't they study a little history?

The author clearly shows that the defeat of democracy in Rome was really a case of self-destruction. If the Senate had not been corrupt, it could have made the necessary reforms in government to perpetuate democracy. But, torn by jealousies and internal dissension, the Senate committed political hara-kiri. Here, again, is a lesson to the modern world. 

As you may have inferred, I found "Freedom Farewell" intensely interesting. It is extremely well written. This book is neither a biography, nor a history, strictly speaking. Rather it is the account of an era, written with all the fire and zest of fiction. Romance, adventure, intrigue, all figure throughout the book. The author's treatment of the characters makes them seem modern. She gives a graphic description of everyday life of the time, without making the account sound like a travel book. I think anyone who knows a little of the historical background would find this book both enjoyable and informative.

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The bolding above is mine, but my grandfather's words should resonate with all of us. Autocracy is on the rise throughout the world. Our faltering democracy is quite ill. We need to set aside our political infighting and stand firm against the cruelties being perpetrated in our name. The belief that the world is somehow better or more evolved than in my grandfather's day is a delusion.

Unless we learn to fight with the democratic tools at our disposal, I'm afraid we'll be forced to fight in a war (or wars) that no one can win.

It takes time and some judicial pruning, but if we work together the tree will grow tall.

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