War for Kids

Dozens of new books pour uninvited into the Reader office each week, half of them posing formulaic solutions to the quandary of how to fill an inconsequential life with wealth and meaning. One recent oddity is something else entirely, yet it touches on the theme of mattering. It’s an adolescents’ history of the Spanish Civil War; we read it and now we hope our oldest daughter will. It could teach her things she doesn’t know yet about bravery, honor, hate, death, failure, and blind ingratitude.

The author of The Abraham Lincoln Brigade: Americans Fighting Fascism in the Spanish Civil War turns out to be a Chicago widower living in the same Rogers Park apartment he’s had since 1950. When he was a young man, Don Lawson told us, he wrote an autobiographical novel called A Brand for the Burning about growing up in Downers Grove. He’s published 40 books since, and they’ve all been for teens. Among them is the series of 11 books that Thomas Y. Crowell calls its “Young People’s History of America’s Wars.”

“Boys are crazy about war,” Lawson told us. “Boys will read anything about war. That’s why I try to tell it like it is. A lot of the good guys get killed and not everyone comes home.”

Lawson came home from his war, World War II, and took a job at Compton’s Encyclopedia (eventually he became the encyclopedia’s editor in chief). While rewriting Compton’s entry on the war he discovered that only one history of it for kids existed, and that one was British. American kids need their own book, he remarked to the editor of his novel. So write it, said the editor.

“So I did,” said Lawson. He wrote The United States in World War II. A friend in charge of children’s literature at the Chicago Public Library asked if he planned to do any more. Lawson didn’t. “She said, ‘Somebody should do a book for teenagers on World War I. I get requests from boys every day on World War I and the only thing I have to show them is Nordhoff and Hall’s Falcons of France.’

“Well, see,” Lawson went on, “I read Falcons of France in high school.” So he wrote The United States in World War I. It came out in 1961. It’s still in print. “The thing is,” he said, “World War I for some reason or other–I had the same feeling when I was a kid–it was a sort of romantic war, with Eddie Rickenbacker, Joyce Kilmer, all those poets.”

Is that how you wrote it? we asked him.

“No. In none of my books do I romanticize anything. In fact, my Vietnam book is a real blast at the government and everything else. There was some retired general who complained, so I sent him my war record, which is not too shabby, and I didn’t hear any more from him. How many guys do you know who spent three years overseas during World War II? Not many.”

We coaxed a few details out of him. How many guys do we know who spent three years in Air Force counterintelligence organizing underground networks behind enemy lines? Not many.

So anyway, Lawson continued, “I said to my wife, why don’t I do all the wars? She said, ‘I think you’re just crazy enough to try it.’ So I thought, what the hell, I’ll do them one at a time. In between I did a bunch of books on other subjects on American history.”

The Spanish Civil War was one of those subjects, “a great romantic cause,” Lawson writes, although if you read his book you’ll be glad you missed it.

“It’s just a fascinating, to me, period in American history,” Lawson said. “I am somewhat convinced–I wouldn’t say totally–that if the United States and Great Britain had backed the anti-Franco forces and defeated Franco, we wouldn’t have had World War II. No, we made a mistake by keeping out of it. Britain made a mistake by keeping out of it. France made a mistake by keeping out of it. And then the roof fell in. There were these 3,000 guys fighting against fascism, when we later had eight million fighting in World War II. Three thousand damn worthy citizens!

“The thing was, and still is to a degree, see, a lot of these guys were communists, young communists, and something in the American psyche reacts against communism to the point where nobody can understand reason. These guys were disillusioned young men–after all, half the country was starving to death in the 1930s–and these guys thought, ‘Hell, we’ve got to do something or this country will go down the tubes!’ And as a consequence, in the halls of Congress it became anti-American to fight with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade–you were a no-good commie. As recently as the Honorable Ronald Reagan, his comment on the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to somebody who fought in it was, too bad you fought on the wrong side.”

Lawson said, “I think these guys were very noble souls to do it.” A third of them died.

He’s at work on two more books at the moment, one on the Bay of Pigs, another on the Iran hostage drama. He just finished a teen history of corruption in the highest places.

“A neighbor asked, ‘What are you doing now?'” Lawson told us gleefully. “I said, a book on presidential scandals. He said, ‘Just one book?'”

Lawson chortled. “I guess you gather by now I’m a liberal. How many 70-year-old liberals do you know?”

How many 40-year-old liberals do we know? How many who are 20?

Turn to the Tribune

That was an odd Sun-Times editorial on Woodstock.

“For what seems like at least a month of Sundays, we have been suffering through an excess of overblown and overwrought baloney about Woodstock . . .” thundered Ray Coffey, editor of the editorial page. “It’s all been embarrassing, not least to the news media, which have been responsible for much of the ridiculous romanticizing about a crowd of self-indulgent people . . .”

It’s always an idle exercise to look back and rage at youth for acting young. A more specific problem with Coffey’s editorial is that if wretched excess was now afoot, nowhere had it lumbered more heavily than across Coffey’s own paper. A week earlier, the Sun-Times surrendered half its Sunday front page and five pages of its news section to “We Remember Woodstock,” plus three pages of Arts & Show to an assortment of ruminations on what it all meant.

Coffey knew that. “I think it was an excess indulged in, not alone, certainly, by the Sun-Times,” Coffey told us delicately.

But executive editor Ken Towers sounded almost festive. “We don’t always agree with our editorial page. We’re not straitjacketed,” Towers rejoiced. “We’re not back to the days of Colonel McCormick, where news columns and editorials have to march in lockstep, are we?”

This was merely one of his rejoinders.

“Did you read Royko today?” asked Towers, giving us the other. “He said the same thing [as Coffey]. So you’ve got to lump us with the Tribune.”

As odd as the editorial was Towers’s idea of where to turn for moral support.

Inert Gas

Cutting-edge humor . . .

Now I ain’t sayin’ Chicago ain’t a lively town. But they started up this new magazine there to register every flicker of the throbbing nighttime pulse . . .


And it’s a quarterly.

And how about this one . . .

Dad, what’s neon?

Inert gas.

Oh, yeah, we all gathered round to whoop and holler when the first issue of Neon came through the door. It’s a helluva thing, being born, probably the most ungainly, disgusting thing you’ll ever do. Fortunately, no one holds it against you.

Magazines don’t get off so easy.

They meet the light of day all matted in their sticky afterbirth: publicity. We cretins read aloud:

“NEON is the magazine with attitude. Cutting through the shadow of Chicago . . .”

We stomped. We brayed.

“Some people see the light. Some people are the light. NEON readers are all the way on! They create. They activate. They feel the pulse of the night as their own.

“Now there’s a magazine all their own: NEON. Radiating heat. Generating cool. On the edge of the cutting edge.”

Can you say those lines out loud with a straight face? We sure as heck couldn’t. When the hooting ran its course, we went back to our desk and thought it over.

Reflection number one: What does the phrase “on the edge of the cutting edge” mean, anyway? Ten years ago the pope held a mass in Grant Park, and the Tribune hailed it with the headline “The sermon by the shore.” It was a lovely phrase, vastly more poetic than “The sermon inland a ways,” which is where the pope was.

Clearly, “on the edge of the cutting edge” advances Neon’s interests more fetchingly than “on the butter-spreading side of the knife.”

Reflection number two: is “cutting edge” cutting edge? Neon as much as admits it’s not: see how it touts the music at Medusa’s as “on the rim of the proverbial cutting edge.”

Neon has a ways to go as a tout. Neon also touts the late-night grub at the Belden Deli, which closed for good in mid-July.

Reflection number three: a while back, Jim Warren wondered in the Tribune why Chicago has no outstanding city magazine. Maybe the reason is one he didn’t mention. Maybe Chicago journalism is too full of picky horse’s asses like us who get out their butter knives when anyone tries to put out something new.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.