Finishing Witness

 

 

 

An autumn scene at the Pipe Creek Farm in Maryland, once owned by Whittaker Chambers.

 

Image result for whittaker chambers farm

 

 

 

I don’t know if I have ever read a longer book in my life.

 

Witness is over 700 pages long, according to my Kindle reader.  As you know, if you’ve been reading this blog, I have read the book in small bites, over several weeks.  And yet, the end kind of sneaked up on me.

By now, you know what I think of the book.  It’s an important and neglected part of American literature.  The story it tells is at the very heart of the political and social polarization in this nation and in the world.  The storyteller, whatever flaws he has – some admitted, some omitted from the book – is a fantastic writer: a man with an enormous fund of knowledge, vast experience and a profound gift for expression.

His descriptions of the investigation and trials strike me – a man who has himself been through several federal corruption investigations and trials – as dead-on accurate.   His analysis of the forces at play behind the scenes in the case is, likewise, dead-on.

But in the last chapter of the book – after the guilty verdict against Hiss has at last been pronounced – Chambers rolls the camera back, away from the sweat and grime of the case and onto the broader picture of his entire life.   This chapter – only a few pages long – is one of humility, poignancy and poetry.  It alone would justify the price of the book and the time it takes to read it

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An Untold Story

 

Witness (Cold War Classics) by [Chambers, Whittaker]

If you’ve been following this blog, you know that I’ve been reading Whittaker Chambers’ book, Witness.

 

It’s an autobiographical book; the story of his journey into and out of Communism and his consequent ordeal as a witness for the government against Communist subversion.  At the time Chambers began testifying – the late 1940s – the Communist party, headquartered in Moscow, was continuing its effort to penetrate and undermine American democracy.   There were many men and women in rather high positions in the Federal government who were secretly members of the Communist party and who quietly worked to influence American policy in favor of the Communist movement.  There were also those who conspired with Moscow to gather confidential information about the workings of the United States government and disclose it to the Soviet Union.

This, of course, is espionage, and when, as here, it is conducted by citizens and servants of the government it seeks to destroy it has another name: treason.

In the book Chambers recounts his own philosophical passage into Communism and details the workings of the “apparatus” that he ended up supervising in Washington D.C. in the late 1930s.  In this operation Chambers was connected with men who were employed at the highest civilian levels of government.  One member of his apparatus was an assistant to the Secretary of State.  Another was an assistant to the Attorney General.  The group regularly spirited confidential documents out of their several agencies and gave them to Chambers to be photocopied.  The originals would then be immediately returned, so as not to betray the operation.  Chambers took the copies to a Russian Colonel in New York City for transfer, ultimately, to Moscow.

There is enough in just this part of the story for a great movie.  Here you have intrigue and suspense and even minor celebrity.  But, interesting as these cloak-and-dagger spy workings are, they are not the real story in the book; not the best part of the tale.

When Chambers began spilling the beans in the late 1940s, one of the traitors he exposed was a man named Alger Hiss.  Although many of the people Chambers named in his testimony eventually fessed up to their roles in the conspiracy, Hiss cried foul.

Hiss was, as they say in the movies, well connected.  A Harvard grad, he had worked at the highest levels in several government agencies and was, in fact, an assistant to President Franklin Roosevelt at the Yalta conference at the close of World War II.

https://i2.wp.com/www.orwelltoday.com/hissfdrstalinch.jpg

 

Hiss denied any participation in Communist subversion and at first even denied knowing who Chambers was.  After being directly confronted with Chambers during a hearing, Hiss finally said that he had known “this man” but only under the name George Crossley.  Hiss made up a story about his dealings with “Crossley,” much of which was within weeks proven false by reference to various business records.

It is the ensuing battle between Hiss and Chambers that is the real story here.  It was a long battle, involving two criminal trials of Hiss for perjury (the first ended in a jury hung eight to four for conviction, the second in a guilty verdict) and a slander/libel suit brought by Hiss against Chambers.

But it is not the ferocity of the fight between the two men that deserves the attention here.  It is the conflict between what these two men represented that makes the Hiss Case the trial of the century.

Chambers was, to say the least, a reluctant witness.  Although he came to understand what a monstrous, murderous force Communism was in that day, the fates of the men he would testify against weighed so heavily on Chambers that he initially tapered his testimony – to the point of falsity in more than one place – to protect the men he conspired with from the repercussions they would have suffered if all were made known.  Indeed, Chambers was so distraught over what his testimony would do to the men it implicated that he attempted suicide.  The story, as Chambers compellingly relates it, is one of his hand being forced, time and again, by evolving circumstances as the case proceeded.

I spent the great majority (over 34 years)of my legal career  as a Federal Prosecutor.  I investigated and tried more than one high-level government corruption case.  I’ve spent countless hours before investigative grand juries and I know the dynamics of criminal trials.  Let me tell you this: Chambers’ account of his experience in the federal criminal investigation and trials of Hiss is spot on.  He describes the legal procedures accurately and conveys the sense of the attendant relationships and resultant emotions profoundly.

Like so many high-profile corruption cases, this one had a life that lasted long after the trials were over and after Hiss had served his prison sentence.  What is important here is not so much Hiss’s own determination, but rather the persistent denials of his supporters, even as the years passed, the Soviet Union fell, and documentary evidence came to light from several sources once behind the Iron Curtain that Hiss had, indeed, been a Soviet operative.

Why is this perseverance so interesting, so important?  Because it is the very emblem or apotheosis of the political and philosophical battle that rages on, here and now.  Here is what Chambers has to say about it:

The simple fact is that when I took up my little sling and aimed at Communism, I also hit something else. What I hit was the forces of that great socialist revolution, which, in the name of liberalism, spasmodically, incompletely, somewhat formlessly, but always in the same direction, has been inching its ice cap over the nation for two decades.

***

It was the forces of this revolution that had smothered the Hiss case (and much else) for a decade, and fought to smother it in 1948.  These were the forces that made the phenomenon of Alger Hiss possible; had made it possible for him to rise steadily in Government and to reach the highest post after he was already under suspicion as a Communist in many quarters, including Congress, and under the scrutiny of the F. B. I.  Alger Hiss is only one name that stands for the whole Communist penetration of Government.  He could not be exposed without raising the question of the real political temper and purposes of those who had protected and advanced him, and with whom he was so closely identified that they could not tell his breed from their own.

And now here we are in the twenty-first century.  We are not left hanging.  All of the shoes that might drop in this case have already hit the floor.  The case is at long last closed.  Hiss was a Soviet spy, a traitor and a perjurer.  There is not only high drama in this story – the kind that Hollywood thrives on – this story is a revelation of the political and spiritual realities that lie beneath all of modern politics.

Then why is it left alone?  Why no television series on the case?  Why no feature movie?

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As Promised . . . .

 

Overtime: A Basketball Parable by [Ellis, Larry]

 

Here it is, folks, as promised.  My latest novel for 99 cents.  If you like the writing on this blog, you’ll like the book.  Take a look at the reviews by clicking here.

Don’t think you have to be a basketball fan to enjoy this book.  It’s about basketball in the way that Field of Dreams is about baseball.  That is, it’s really about something deeper and more universal.  Like love and faith and courage.  Like honesty and breaking out of the grip of self-deception.  Give it a try!

To buy the book, click here.

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Mid-day Post, August 26, 2017

 

 

This autumn will be like any other.  First the newly-stiffened breezes will pull the first of the dying leaves from the high branches and sweep them, rolling and tumbling, across field and pavement.  Twilight will come earlier now and will not last as long and the day’s heat will no longer linger through the night.

But this autumn will also be like no other.  Never before and never after will there be the precise mixture of rain and sunshine and prevailing wind in the days preceding that taken together made the trees and the vines and the bushes grow in just the way they have this summer.  Never before and never again will there be this precise mixture of flowers in the woods.  The honeysuckle, the white blossom of the wild grape.

And so the scent that carries out of the woods and to the roads and lawns of the town will speak not only the message of every autumn, but the discrete communication of this one alone.  It is the season, the only season, where certain young men and women will come of age.  The season where one family grows and another sees itself dissolve in any number of leavings.

This singular scent, the very subtlety and complexity of it, will be what men and women vaguely remember and almost recognize,  but they will never know it again.

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Keep Me Singing

 

 

 

So many of my peers started smoking cigarettes in high school and, sometime before they turned 40, started to see and feel the evidence that what the Surgeon General had been telling them on the sides of the packages really was true.    They kicked the habit and, in most cases, were in time none the worse for the wear.  But one of those friends, despite his intelligence and good-heartedness, was never able to stop.  To say that he had mixed feelings about smoking would be understatement.  I remember him once talking about his accommodations for an upcoming business trip.  I’ll have to get a smoking room.  But I don’t really want that.  Those rooms all smell stale and the walls are yellowed.  What I really want is a non-smoking room, but I want to smoke in it.

I’ve never heard this aspect of the human impulse put so succinctly anywhere else.

I could generalize and moralize now (I often do that) and go on about how universal this attitude really is – that we want our world to be clean, free of all corruption.  But we would like to continue our own selfish and destructive habits while everyone around us refrains from doing the like and indirectly limiting our enjoyment in any way.

But I’m not going to be that serious tonight.  Instead I want to compare my friend’s memorable confession to – of all things – buying record albums.

I want to listen to Oldies music, but I want the songs to be new songs.

What I mean is this.  There is just something about the music of my generation.  The stuff that went down from about 1965 til about 1972.   This is not just me.  It’s not just because I happened to be young then and I associate those old songs with the good times, the crazy times, the times of high emotion and high hopes that are concentrated in one’s early life.  I know that those memories do affect my taste, but allow me to argue that other forces are also at work here; like, for instance, the intrinsic quality of the music itself.

When I was in college  – 1970-74 – I played in a rock and roll band.  And when my older son went away to school in 2006, he too found himself in such a frat-house band.  When I looked at his band’s set list I was pleasantly surprised.  It was little different from my band’s back in the early seventies.  They were not playing stuff by Green Day or Death Cab for Cutie.  They were playing the Beatles and the Stones, Chuck Berry and Creedence Clearwater Revival, The (early) Eagles and The Band.   The original explosion of Rock and Roll was ignited in the late 1950s and lasted till around 1972.  Everything since in pop music has only been echoes of the original thunder.

But I have reached the point in life where I am actually grown tired of the old records themselves and I long for the old magic but not the same old songs.

Let me give you an example.  The Mamas and The Papas were not my favorite band of that day, but they did have a very distinctive sound.  One of the key elements of great pop music is vocal harmony, and they had that, in spades.  One day, not too long ago, someone loaned me one of their Greatest Hits-type albums to play in my car on a long trip I was taking.  This record, like many, was not actually one that was released in the heyday, but rather a more recent repackaging.

I put the disk in with very definite expectations.  You know – “California Dreamin,’”  “Monday, Monday,” “I Saw Her Again Last Night.”  All great songs, but all a bit time worn.

Deep into the album a song came on that I had never heard before.  I think the name of the song was “Safe in My Garden.”  It had everything that the great hits had – the poignancy, the fantastic voices, the dreaminess.

But it was in some sense new.  At least to me.  It was like someone had hidden away a bottle of that rare vintage and now, at last, it had been opened and I could taste the sunshine, earth and rain of that early day, with just enough surprise.  All as if it were new again.

I think that something like that happens with Van Morrison’s “Keep Me Singing” album.  I’ve had it only for a few days now, but it has in it the beating heart of the golden era.  Rather than me trying to describe it, why don’t you give this cut, “Every Time I See A River,” a listen.  It’s the old feeling.  The old longing.  The old dream.  The old romance.

Van has still got it.

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For My Followers

One of the really great things about blogging is having followers.

 

It’s even more exciting when you realize – as is quite true for this blog – that these faithful readers are all over the world.  I live in small town USA and lots of folks would see my environment as rather provincial and even boring.  I don’t agree with that at all; I love my life here – the freedom, privacy and simplicity of it – but it does spice things up a bit knowing that I can sit down and write a paragraph or two and that within minutes it will be read by someone in Malaysia or New Zealand or the Faeroe Islands.

I actually wanted to send this post directly to my followers, but I have not figured out how to do that yet – or even if that kind of thing is possible from this blog.  But here is the message: as a token of my appreciation, I am offering my latest novel for ninety-nine cents starting August 27 through September 2.  That’s 72 percent off of the regular price.

I’m not advertising this deal anywhere else.  It is aimed only at my blog followers.

If you enjoy the writing on this blog – and why would you have subscribed otherwise? – I think you’ll enjoy the book.  I hope you’ll at least visit the book’s page on Amazon.com (click here for that) and read the reviews.

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night poem, august 22, 2017

 

 

Tonight the slow rain cools the dark streets

Sleepers wake and don robes and unbar their back doors

To stand under the porch roof and listen to the patter

It comes in waves over the houses, a rumble that rises and fades

like polite applause

A man looks at the drops falling from the oak leaves as they shimmer in the street lamps

He remembers that years ago he would have smoked one now

In this new air

 

copyright 2017

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Mid-Day Post, August 22, 2017

My bicycle has holders for two water bottles.

 

One is fastened to a low bar that angles up from the crankshaft to the front fork; the other is affixed to the vertical bar that supports the seat.  I ride almost every day, but I usually find that one bottle of water is plenty to last me for my daily trips and so to keep weight to a minimum I generally ride with one bottle only.

I knew as I began to get ready for this morning’s ride that my loop would be the same as usual – about 17 miles, all told, over hill and through woods and fields.  It’s my normal, one-bottle ride.  But this morning I filled and loaded two bottles.  I knew what I was going to do, but I did not anticipate the result.

It so happens that the maximum elevation I reach on this loop is just a bit beyond the halfway mark.  There is a long, uphill pull just before I reach the peak and right there at the top of the slope the shade ends.  So there is my resting place.  Just inside the last bit of shade and after I have conquered the day’s climb I stop and get my breath, take a long drink and – this morning, anyway – watch the cloud shadows sweep across the giant, rolling lawn of a great house away on the next knoll.

Today I acted a little differently.  Instead of staying astride of my bicycle I laid it in the grass and took off my helmet and glasses and took the second water bottle and splashed it all on my face and neck and down my back.  I shivered and grinned and the world around me, even as beautiful as it had been before, took on a new brilliance.

That fresh chill took me back to a day long ago and to a friend I knew then who stayed one step away from trouble, most of the time.  Our friendship was an unlikely one, since I was one of those kids who never got near trouble.  But it was an essential friendship; one that affected me then and one that has time and again pushed me back into connection with the blood and fire and ice and sunshine of the earth and the kaleidoscopic spinning  of the world.

In showering myself with the cold water I felt that I had somehow been immersed in the beauty that surrounded me there.  Beauty that before I had been only an observer of and not a participant in.  And I remembered a day on the river in late March, decades ago.  We stood on the riverbank weeks before any sane person would have dared to swim that frigid stream, still pulsing with the weight of the winter’s snowmelt.  He dove, and when he surfaced he yelled to me.  So many words – I won’t repeat them here – in throw-down challenge to me as I stood observing and not participating.

I jumped.

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Voices XXIV

I coast down the long, gentle slope, happy for the respite from hard pedaling.

There’s not a car anywhere in sight and as I lean into the turn and cross the tiny bridge over the trickle of a creek branch the big creek that parallels my road comes into sight.  The forest has been cut away here and the creekbanks mowed and the morning’s sun – too hot for my comfort – glistens and glares off the face of some wide, shallow pool.

As I start up the next hill, working to keep momentum, I re-enter the shade of the sycamores and oaks, as if I had stepped inside a tent.  It’s cooler here and as I speed along my view of the stream below is clear now in windowlike flashes as the trees and brush allow.

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In one pool a wave of long minnows sweeps in a J curve, their black shadows  silently drifting over the rocks beneath and, further on, in another pool, my shadow falls over the surface and I see the glossy roil as the minnows scurry this way and that.

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August Evening

 

 

These last evenings of summer are relaxed.  The cicadas chant louder than ever, but the day’s heat abates early now and in the half-light the white clouds drift like giant fish in a giant blue bowl and the air conditioners hum one note as if they are themselves both happy and bored.  The songbirds all look grey now as they perch on the sagging power lines.

Inside you hear the voices of the baseball announcers commenting on one more game that will mean nothing in the standings.  Their team has been out of it for weeks and now they search the statistics for something good to highlight: some interesting fact about one player or another that no one not locked onto sabermetrics would ever have imagined.  How many two-out walks this hitter has worked in odd numbered innings with men on first base and two outs.

Children run on the lawns and sidewalks, shouting to each other, hoping to stay just out of reach of their parent’s command,  knowing that it will be early to bed on this a school night.

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