About Bruce McDonald

I was an Air Force pilot, then an international subcontract negotiator for an aircraft manufacturer. After a fulfilling, though hectic, career in industry I asked the question, "What next?" The answer, for my wife and me together, was the Peace Corps. As it always does, the Peace Corps enriched our lives beyond measure. "A Breeze in Bulgaria" tells the story.

History

When I was in training for my Peace Corps assignment in Bulgaria, we exercised our community involvement muscles by organizing a civic improvement event. We recruited kids from schools and orphanages, did pledge drives and bake sales, organized volunteers, and had a great time of it. We contracted with a local welding shop to make some sidewalk trashcans, got children into teams to paint them, bought paints and brushes, and had an art contest in the town square to decorate the cans and award prizes for the best designs. As part of our Bulgarian lessons concurrent with the project, we made posters to advertise the event and tried to come up with team names to suggest to the kids. Peace Painters, Paintbrush Friends… simple and corny phrases with words we could find in our ever-present English-Bulgarian dictionaries. The word we found for “Friends” was Drugari. (‘dro͞o·gə·rē).

Our Bulgarian language teacher frowned and said, no! That wasn’t appropriate, not at all. What, the word “friends” is not OK? We were steered to a synonym, Priyateli, and told that was a nicer word. “We just don’t use that old word much anymore,” she said. We persisted: why was her reaction so negative? A little reluctantly she explained that was what Communist Party members called each other before the old government fell. Comrade! That was the word for Comrade. The word, swept up in the tumult of history. had been spoiled.

History turns things around. In a book I’m reading, Margaret Mitchell & John Marsh: The Love Story Behind Gone With the Wind, I read how the young author was imbued from childhood with her Georgia history in the early twentieth century. She recalled long summer evenings with her extended family, hearing stories of hardships and triumphs down through the generations from back as far as the earliest days of English colonial life, up through the terrible war which was then still smoldering hot in the memory of her elders.

“None was a more powerful storyteller than Grandmother Annie, who told Peggy endless tales about the Civil War, bloodthirsty Yankees, freed slaves, scoundrelly scalawags, cheating carpetbaggers, and the importance of behaving well in the face of either defeat or prosperity.”

Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone With the Wind was made into a movie, epic in its scope and grandeur and immensely popular since 1939 for showing the tragedy wrought by the Civil War. History. Like The Wizard of Oz, it is an early Hollywood classic that has endured to a robust old age while lesser works of film art faded and died. The film has been shown in Memphis’ historic Orpheum Theatre as part of a summer film festival for 34 years. No more. It offends. Canceled. Things change.

I recently read and shared (on Facebook, if you must know) an interview by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on the subject of Confederate monuments. Confederate. That’s another word that has changed, like drugari. She took the position that the monuments were a part of history, should be given appropriate context and not be torn down. With Charlottesville fresh in the news, I rather thought it would be an opportunity to examine a different view than what most of my friends are exposed to in their (our) own silos and echo chambers.

By Hal Jespersen at en.wikipedia (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By way of background for why the topic was of such interest to me, I grew up in Richmond, Virginia (google “Monument Avenue“). What I knew about Robert E. Lee and the other Confederate figures was informed by the perception that they were bound by a sense of duty and honor, and took up arms to defend their beloved home states (never mind who fired the first shots). On my walk from the bus stop to my high school, I passed the Confederate Widows’ Home and would wave to the little old ladies sitting on the veranda in their rocking chairs. They would wave back and smile. In my basic training for the United States Air Force, after leaving my home state behind, I was required to memorize, among other things, “Lee’s Quote.” It was, “Duty then is the sublimest word in the English language. You should do your duty in all things. You can never do more. You should never wish to do less.”

It is hard now to understand the depth and passion of that feeling of loyalty and duty to one’s home state, rather than to all of the states together, but that was 1861. Things were different. Then once the war started, it could only be governed by the relentless, inexorable logic that war brings to itself. I concluded my sharing of the Rice interview with a quote from a thoughtful reader of the Dallas Morning News, saying that “We cannot change history by removing statues and renaming schools…. We can change the present by stressing positive concerns, such as equal educational opportunities, equal job opportunities and equal respect for the opinions of others.”

I took a solid drubbing in the ensuing discussion. The points did not turn on duty and honor, but on traitors, treachery, and comparisons to Hitler. The most insightful comment in the discussion, the one that got my reasoned attention, was from my friend Ivan. He wrote that he thought my argument was focused too narrowly.

“The issue is not the monuments as reminders of history, the issue is that they are part of the broader effort, to maintain racism, and even restore racist policies. The white supremacy groups wanted to preserve the monument because it enhanced their views, not because they appreciated the historical value.”

My initial reaction had been that the momentum seems to be on the side of the monument-destroyers, and I thought it was a damn shame. The exchange made me think, and read, and think some more. I was aided in this by another friend, Laura, who put me onto a set of videos that exposed a sore point: my view had been shaped within the confines of a privileged position that I seldom, if ever, even perceived let alone understood what advantages it had given me.1 And finally, this article was most instructive in my eventual conversion. The Myth of the Kindly General Lee.

I have changed my view. The big bronze statues along stately Monument Avenue have long been a subject of contention, and now I can see what must have been obvious to others for a long time.2 Sadly for some and triumphantly for others, the tide is flowing and it will take them away. As the saying goes, take it as you will, “They’re history.”

As a native Virginian, I hold a tinge of regret for their passing. I have released the bitterness of thinking “It’s a damn shame,” but a faint scar of regret will remain. The regret is for illusions lost, and it is overshadowed by being on firmer ground, but it is regret all the same.

Peace in Our Time

In glorious times past, Macedon was the ancient kingdom of Alexander the Great. Now, it is a picturesque and  controversial little country. In Bulgaria, people tend to think of Macedonia as an erstwhile part of the Greater Bulgarian Empire, from back when their own vast kingdom reached “the three seas” — the Black Sea, the Mediterranean, and the Aegean. In more recent years it was part of what was known as Yugoslavia, the collection of mostly Slavic states cobbled together in the messy aftermath of WWI. Then when that was torn apart starting in the 1990s and running into this century, the bits and pieces included at least one part they couldn’t even label. That was, of course, Macedonia. The country’s official name is F.Y.R.O.M., at least as far as the EU and NATO are concerned. The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Really! That’s because neighboring Greece lays claim to the word Macedonia, since it is the name they call a region of theirs near the border. Like having trademark rights on “Greek Yogurt” (because, as any Bulgarian will tell you, yogurt originated in Bulgaria and the best comes from there. Even our FDA says it isn’t yogurt unless it contains lactobacillus bulgaricus. But I digress.)

FYROM

Image from facebook.com/MacoMemes/

I mentioned Macedonia only in passing in A Breeze in Bulgaria, in connection with telling about the history behind September “Unification Day” holiday (p. 52). Still, every time it came up it was an uncomfortable topic, one that people would say that’s too hard to go into now, beyond half-jokingly saying that the Macedonians are really Bulgarian but they just don’t know it. The languages are very similar, the food and certainly the rakiya are the same, the Orthodox Christian religion is separated only by political jurisdictions, and many cultural traditions are so similar as to be identical to the casual observer. I’m quite casual enough to qualify, and I expect many readers here will be as well. With so much similarity (for those of us unaware of nuances and old injuries), the underlying and persistent antagonism between the two countries is hard to comprehend.

With that background, I was surprised to read today of a breakthrough in international relations, one related to Macedonia. The headline caught my eye immediately:

Macedonia, Bulgaria Set to Sign Historic Friendship Treaty

I think it’s about time we had some news involving peace and friendship, don’t you? The story was reported in the Balkan Insight news service, and if I may quote,

    Leaders of Macedonia and Bulgaria on Tuesday are to sign a historic friendship treaty that aims to turn their long ambiguous relationship into a close, EU-oriented friendship.
   The occasion, deemed historic by observers in both countries, will be accompanied by much symbolism as well.
   In Skopje, Borissov and Zaev will lay flowers at the tomb of the Ottoman-era revolutionary Goce Delcev, a historic figure that both countries revere as a national hero. [More…]

That is great news, isn’t it? I hope it gives you a lift. It does me. I needed one. I’ve been drawn into a few rabbit holes lately, on Facebook and by watching the news.

Peace in our time. Think about it.

Legacy

My old school, the U.S. Air Force Academy, established a “Legacy Class” program a few years ago. For each graduating class, for example this year’s 2017 crop, the class that graduated 50 years earlier is invited to participate in some of their special milestone events. My graduation was in 1967. You can do the math. During the past four years, some of my classmates took part in leadership seminars with the class of 2017, and led discussions on subjects such as honor and ethics in a changing society. A number of us attended a Veterans Day ceremony at the Academy Cemetery, seated in chairs set up for generals and department heads and us “Legacy” old-timers as the cadets stood in formation after marching the two miles from the main campus. Shivering in the November chill, we all listened to speeches about dedication and service and “the long blue line,” teared up as the bugler played “Taps,” and flinched at each volley of the rifle salute. 1

In connection with the Legacy program we attended a few key events marking some of the significant transition points in their junior and senior years. There were dinners with champagne glasses and formal toasts, litanies of “To the Chief!” and “Hear, hear!” Anthems and salutes, speeches and stories. Dinner conversations that ran like interviews: what did you do, where did you serve and what will you do, where will you serve. Careful table manners and courtesies, use the outside forks first, after you please sir. The MC called for us from 1967 to stand and be recognized, and with all the white-haired grads popping up across the grid of tables it looked like handfuls of golf balls scattered on a putting green. One difference from the old days, there was no “smoking lamp” in the dining hall to indicate when it would be OK to “smoke ’em if you got ’em.”

There was the “Ring Dance” when 2017 got their class rings in a tradition-guided ceremony, reminding us of how young we were back then, how serious, how eager to face uncertain futures. Some of the traditions have gotten more intricate and involved than back in our day, but there are threads that connect us across the years. The thinnest and least recognizable of these is the word “formal” in the term “formal dance.” Mrs. McComas never covered such moves in our mandatory ballroom dance classes as the ones we watched from the sidelines (pictured here in blinding nightclub red, reminding me how the unrelenting bass beat continued to ring in my ears for an hour after).

At the DanceThis week marked the graduation of the Class of 2017, and by now they’re off to all the places their careers will take them. Off to be pilots, engineers, planners, intel officers, managers, controllers, doctors, grad students, who-knows-whats. Some will be astronauts, generals, maybe later members of congress, diplomats, city council leaders. They are will-be’s. What does that make me? Don’t say it. The cadets now are more diverse, more involved, preparing for a more complex world than the one we faced. Statistics say they are more physically fit, stronger, healthier, and more active with the wider community than we ever were. And looking into the future at their role as an instrument of national policy, well… we had it so easy in comparison.

On the day before graduation we watched a parade on what used to be known simply as the Parade Field, now with the same grass, muddy spots and grandstands but called Stillman Field, named for the first Commandant of the Academy. The officers marching with swords like in the days of the American Revolution, the band playing familiar martial music in the crisp morning air. Ruffles and flourishes for the General, an artillery cannon to make everyone jump, a change of command ceremony with the rising seniors taking over. The graduates formed up and marched out across the field in echelon, to turn and be honored along the “pass in review” line as the rest of the Cadet Wing did the parade drill. It seems to never get old, for the spectators.

Later in the day came the high point of our “Legacy Class” standing, with the commissioning ceremonies. These were held in different locations all around the campus for each of the 40 cadet squadrons. Each of us was assigned to a squadron and gave a short speech to set the tone for the ceremony. Then, after the cadets were individually sworn in, we presented each one with a set of Second Lieutenant bars. Butterbars, everyone calls them. Our class had taken up a collection to buy the rank insignia over a year ago. The bars were engraved with 1967 – 2017 on one and USAFA on the other. They were in a little box with a slip of paper with some words of encouragement and advice. Old people always like to give encouragement and advice.

Then, on Wednesday, the graduation, hats in the air, the Thunderbirds roaring overhead. Such a cliché, right? Yeah, I know. It never gets old.