Wednesday, May 30, 2007


By Roger Repohl

THE BRONX, N.Y. - Last week the PBS documentary series “The American Experience” aired “Building the Alaska Highway,” Tracy Heather Strain’s taut and telling account of one of the most spectacular engineering feats of World War II: 1,500 miles of road cut through virgin land in the harshest of environments and completed in under eight months.
Think about that. Now think about Iraq.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, faced with the very real possibility of a Japanese invasion from the north, the War Department set as top priority the construction of a supply route from Dawson Creek in British Columbia, through the Canadian Yukon to outside of Fairbanks, forging the last link between the 48 states and the heart of the Alaska Territory. Conceived by bureaucrats with little first-hand knowledge of sub-Arctic terrain and weather, the Alaska-Canada (or Alcan) Highway was begun in March of 1942. Eleven thousand soldiers of the Army Corps of Engineers, most of them raw recruits with no road-building experience, were sent up to do the job. Three of the seven regiments were African-American, put to their first great test of the war and proving their resourcefulness and grittiness. In addition, five thousand experienced Canadian and American civilian construction workers, supervised by the Public Roads Administration, complemented the force.
The plans of the bureaucrats were modified by reality. Seat-of-the-pants engineering built the highway: every obstacle forced a workaround, every failure forced a try-again. Bridging rivers and blasting rock were one thing; muskeg bogs that immobilized trucks and mosquitoes that ate you alive were quite another.
Enduring mythic hardship - frostbite in April, sweltering heat and insect-bite in July - these men completed the project on November 20, 1942, months ahead of schedule. And none too soon; that summer the Japanese had captured two of the Aleutian Islands at the westernmost tip of Alaska. The highway allowed a military buildup in Alaska that stymied the enemy’s ambitions and supplied the Soviet Army on the Eastern Front.
How was this remarkable feat of engineering and construction accomplished, and with such speed? It had to do with two things: attitude and apparatus.
As for attitude, the Army of 1942 was drawn from a nation of survivors of the Great Depression. Not only had people learned to endure economic hardship for over a decade, they had also been trained by Franklin Roosevelt to think collectively. Facing the Depression required a mustering of national will and the application of centralized power. When the U.S. Congress declared war in 1941 (yes, it actually declared war, not granted “war powers” to the President), the people’s will and the government’s power shifted from the enemy within to the enemy without. Would the U.S. have been able to conquer two mighty nations in less than four years had it not been steeled by its fight against poverty?
As for apparatus, the U.S. Army was an integral self-sustaining whole. It was not just a fighting force, it was its own support force as well. It maintained its own equipment, supplied its own provisions, built its own bridges and roads. It had all-around general expertise, invaluable for meeting all the unknowns and unexpecteds of war. There was little that it couldn’t do on its own, because its resources were its own and applied in a unified way.
Now think about Iraq. Think about Halliburton and Blackwater. Think about how long it’s been and how much has been spent and how little has been done. It’s all about attitude and apparatus.
The attitude of the country and its military subset is very different now. Ronald Reagan, FDR’s ideological opposite, retrained the nation away from collective commitment and toward individual gain. He trained it to see government as obstacle, not instrument. Self-interest, not the common good, became the operating ethic. Privatization was seen as the means to shrink an inept, costly federal bureaucracy while allowing free-market competition, efficient and self-regulating, to provide the best services at the lowest cost. The Invisible Hand of capitalism, not the meddling hand of central planning, would guide the nation.
Reagan’s social philosophy, like FDR’s before him, has endured long after he left the scene; its high-water mark may have been reached in the present administration, with its schemes for privatizing even the most hallowed national trust like public lands and Social Security.
Nowhere has this attitude been more misapplied than in the apparatus of the military. Over the years, and especially during the Rumsfeld tenure, the armed services have come to be run on a business model. The Army’s job is to fight; why should it have to deal with food or construction or other peripherals when private firms can do it all better and cheaper?
The multi-billion-dollar outsourcing mess in Iraq has proved that model wrong. Beyond the enormous profits made by private companies for support services, and beyond the spotty and shoddy attempts at “reconstruction,” is the debilitating effect of self-interest upon a military campaign. In Iraq it has reached right up to the fighting itself, where legions of mercenaries from firms like Blackwater compose a parallel army, making exponentially more money than the soldiers serving their country.
The issue in Iraq is more than money. The issue is fragmentation, both of resources and of will. If the military in its present configuration had to build that road in Alaska, they might still be working on it.

Friday, May 18, 2007


By Roger Repohl

THE BRONX, N.Y. - It’s etched in my memory, an icon of education: Warm spring day in New York, sun streaming through the open window of my office at the college, trees in bud, birds in song. Half a dozen students are there, declaiming on politics, religion, and dorm food. One sits on the window sill, sunning herself; another sits atop the office desk, yoga-style; a third sits on an uncomfortable wooden chair; the rest sit cross-legged on the floor. They’re there for no reason in particular; they were roaming the halls, found the open door, and settled in. They’re seniors now, chafing to graduate. Two years before, they’d taken my intro course in religious studies and, sometimes to my annoyance, had challenged just about every idea I put forth. They’d relished the verbal battle, and I’d relished battling back.
The dialectic went on past the final exam, and two years later they’re still at it. I’m still at it, too, testing their reasoning, rebutting their assertions, and having my own rebutted. They’re in training for the life of the mind. Beyond the confines of classroom and library, there in that sunny room, they’re getting an education.
This indelible scene dates from 1994. In the years that followed, fewer and fewer of these free-wheeling sessions occurred. Students still came to argue, but seldom about politics and religion; instead it was about grades. “Be careful, they’re little lawyers,” the department chairman warned me. “They’ll press their case till you relent.”
Last year, the U.S. Department of Education issued a report by its Commission on the Future of Higher Education. Among other things, it called for standardized testing of college students, primarily to bring “accountability” to colleges, similar to what is happening to elementary and high schools under the No Child Left Behind Act. In a way, it’s understandable. Average costs for four years of college now range from $63,400 to $133,000. Shouldn’t parents and prospective students, the argument goes, have some hard criteria by which to judge whether they’ll get what they’re paying for, whatever it is that they’re paying for?
Like the SAT for college applicants, these tests would check students’ ability to read, to write, to analyze, and to solve mathematical and logical problems. They would be administered in the freshman and senior years, thus revealing the effectiveness of the teaching. Apparently, the testing would be generic; knowledge of the information and analytical tools within one’s major would not be included.
The thought of measuring the results of a “higher education” infuriates and insults many professors and administrators, but the thought was inevitable, because non-elite colleges have now become higher high schools, trying to do something with the growing numbers of students whom they accept though they are practically illiterate. It is not uncommon for professors (myself included) to complain that they have been forced over the years to lower the bar of performance in their courses, assigning fewer readings because students cannot read, assigning more basic readings because the students no longer possess core knowledge in any subject, assigning fewer and more basic writing projects because the students can barely write.
Of course, an institution could just turn those candidates away, but they need the income-stream. When my college instituted an “open enrollment” policy late in the last decade, taking almost anyone who applied, it was good for the bottom line but spelled the end of college as we knew it.
Today, college has become what high school was 40 years ago, yet another four-year attempt to shape people up for the work-force. The mission is now to stop the hemorrhaging of lower education.
Despite this dumbing-down, statistics show that a good number of people graduate from four-year colleges with little more than a piece of paper to show for it. One federal study done in 2003 revealed that just 31 percent of college graduates were able to explain and analyze non-technical passages. A college degree by itself is no longer a reliable indicator to employers that a person possesses the skills necessary to perform acceptably. And thus the cry for standardized tests.
The traditional college model is based on the presumption that the work in the lower grades was basically informational and operative, involving the memorization of vast amounts of facts and the acquisition of language and computational skills, both of which can and should be subject to standardized testing. College could then build upon this foundation and, in the liberal arts at least, be “philosophical” in the literal sense, involving the acquisition of wisdom through wide reading, incisive writing, and intense dialogue with the wise. Becoming philosophical is not something that can be subject to standardized testing.
That’s the very idea of the traditional college horarium: Unlike the lower grades, rigidly structured with classes five days a week, class-time is reduced to three hours precisely to allow the leisure to read and to dialogue on critical ideas and issues. There isn’t much leisure in college today, for faculty or for students. Faculty are too busy doing remedial work (and in the future, teaching to the test) to engage in the interplay of ideas. Students hold part-time or even full-time jobs to make tuition, and the courses themselves have become little more than just another job, except they have to pay for it instead of getting paid. Do the work, get the grade, get the diploma, get out.
I’m sure there are still places where students will invade professors’ offices to hold forth on politics and religion, but in my academic life, it’s just another beautiful memory of springtime in New York.

Thursday, May 3, 2007


By Roger Repohl

THE BRONX, N.Y. - It’s always surprising to those west of the Hudson River that much of New York City has the feel of a small town. When I need a good cut of meat for a dinner party, I consult with the guys at Vincent’s Meat Market on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx’s Little Italy. When my 45-year-old Elgin windup wristwatch stops (every five years, like clockwork), I walk a block south of Vincent’s to Spinelli Jewelers, where this family store’s patriarch, not quite twice as old as my watch, takes it as a sentimental challenge: With a still-steady hand and a keen eye, he changes the mainspring and cleans the works and delivers it to me in a couple days. I’m good for another five years.
When I need a haircut, I drop in to Saverio’s Unisex Hair Styling, a block north of Vincent’s, as I’ve done for 15 years. Saverio is from that era when barbers, alarmed by the long-hair look and falling business, became hair-stylists, at least on their signs. As for the “unisex” part, that’s true: In all the years I’ve passed his window, I’ve seen only one gender on his chair. Gray-haired and full-bearded, he’s the kind of barber I like - the silent type. With the soccer game buzzing on the radio in Italian, he gives a decent cut in ten minutes for twelve bucks. I recommend him to John Edwards.
Twice a year I visit Dr. Tanzilli, the singing dentist, whose two-chair, one-man office is on the first floor of an apartment building near Westchester Square. With Sinatra, Peggy Lee, or Pavarotti playing in the background, he croons or hums along, occasionally stopping to ask you a question just when your mouth is full of gauze and suction tubes. He’s interested in you as a person, he’s unfailingly good-humored, and most importantly, he’s gentle, calming the most panicky patient. I endured years of ghoulish dentists in assembly-line offices, treating me like a specimen while making time with their cute assistants, before someone suggested Tanzilli. I almost like going to the dentist now.
It’s the same way with that other bane of life, auto repair. Finding a mechanic you trust is like finding a dentist that doesn’t scare you; it’s a miracle of good fortune. Frank was that man. I hold on to cars like I do watches, as long as they’ll run, and Frank kept them running. I first came to him on a recommendation over a decade ago, and it changed my automotive life. I used to do regular maintenance and minor repairs myself, but Frank was such a pleasure to deal with and so good to my car that I developed a dependency on him and eventually surrendered even the routine stuff into his hands.
Frank was an old-time generalist. He did everything under the hood and outside, including mufflers and windows. An Italian-American native of the Bronx with an accent to match, he opened his place on Jerome Avenue in 1963 after returning from military service. The South Bronx at that time was still prosperous, but verging on its steep decline. Unlike many businessmen who cleared out when the borough went up in flames in the 1970’s, Frank stuck around. He did take his family out of the city, buying property in Putnam County 50 miles to the north, where he could breathe fresh air and be closer to the state parks and forests where he liked to hunt and fish.
His love of nature backfired on him in the mid-1990’s, when a deer tick gave him lyme disease. It left him ungainly and sometimes spasmodic, but with the help of several personally-trained employees he carried on. His diagnoses were always accurate, his work meticulous, his prices fair.
He had the Bronx attitude, too. When my previous car, then on its last leg, failed the state emissions test, he shrugged and said, “Stay here a minute. I’ll be right back.” He walked to the shop across the street and soon returned with a valid inspection sticker. “How did you do that?” I asked. “We cheat,” he said.
Last summer I had some problem with the rear suspension and called Frank, but the number had been changed to one with an upstate area code. Wondering if he’d decided to retire, I drove over to his shop. It was closed. “Where’s Frank?” I asked the auto-body guy next door.
“He died,” the man replied. “He was killed in a car crash near his home about two weeks ago.”
All I could think of saying was, “What a way for a mechanic to go.”
“Yeah, I know. It was terrible. I miss him.”
I miss him too. We were never friends; the relationship was strictly business, and yet it was the humane way he conducted his business, his friendliness, patience, competence, and honesty that made him indispensable and irreplaceable. I’d never trusted a mechanic before.
Good professionals like these occupy a unique place in our lives. Seldom our friends, they are just as essential to our well-being. They support our personal infrastructure, and like our infrastructure, we never think about them until we need them. Only when they’re gone do we realize just how important they are.
Now I’m vetting mechanics, an occupational group with a reputation only slightly higher than politicians. Frank, why did you leave? I need you!