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Guest Column: March 13, 2012

‘Welcome Mary House’ Peace Abbey

A Passion That Took Root for a Lifetime

We’d just arrived by overnight steamer out of Boston town. But now we’d been like newly arriving immigrants from some far-off land. Uncle Paddy would take us to Brentwood; a tiny village nestled in the distant pinebarrens of eastern Long Island.

Little could I have known just how unique in culture and secrets was this island. “Modern Times,” a free-love settlement, had been Brentwood’s founding name. Now it would have the world’s largest insane asylum with two other asylums in nearby villages. “Mom, why so many?”

And so many villages with Indian names, but no Indians! “But Mom,” I’d pester, “Where did all the Indians go?” They vanished because a hostile government had vanquished them.

“Mom, what is the Bund?” The German-American Bund, fiercely active, a Hitler initiative, was an American Nazi organization with youth camps whose main goal was to promote a favorable view of Nazi Germany.

America’s youth at a nearby camp [in Suffolk] were being indoctrinated into Nazism as the Nazis prepared to take over Europe. On the eve of World War II, the Bund insisted the Nazi salute was as American as apple pie. Meanwhile, Nazis submarines were stalking our shore. All of this on top of the Klu Klux Klan – sometimes supported by respected politicians and clerics – having had a fiery following in local affairs here and there.

Our family moved nearer the city, to Westbury. Soon, hundreds of bombers, on their way to Europe for the invasion, began flying loud and low over our village – shielding the sun and darkening the earth for long minutes. It was not something a youngster could easily forget. I recall long convoys of trucks bearing soldiers from the mountains of Kentucky and Tennessee. They had a down-home way of speech, made us laugh and feel safe.

On the beaches of Normandy, 6,000 lost their lives. I remember hospital planes flying into nearby Mitchel Field, bearing the bandaged and broken. They landed every 15 minutes around the clock for weeks on end. With tears rolling down my cheeks, I’d stand just off the runway and watch the litters being carried off. At night I’d lay in bed counting the incoming planes flying low over our home and, then, in my dreams picturing the faces of their human cargo. I’d wake up in tears.

While these were the lasting impressions quietly at work shaping my destiny, the idea of pioneering had stirred a certain fascination when thinking about my future. But there’d been no idea, nor reason to suspect, that Long Island would be my training ground from where I’d be joined to the great social causes of America’s World War II era forward.

Such had been the passion for a healed, happy, harmonious world that our family homestead grew from having been seen as a Light House, then as a Welcome House, and now: Welcome Mary House Peace Abbey. My beloved Adella is the linchpin holding everything together. Our vision is that of a “Sane World, a Compassionate Planet.”

We Salute One of Our Own

With sadness, our peace abbey salutes Long Island native Marie Colvin of East Norwich. One of our own; globally esteemed; slain (Feb. 22) for being a relentless voice for innocents caught up in the crosshairs of war.

She who ran to what others ran from. She who if someone was suffering, she had to report it. If someone was fighting, she had to go there. She, who in the besieged city of Homs, Syria, at age 56, was intentionally killed by a barrage of government rockets. Killed on assignment, reporting on the merciless shelling of cold, starving civilians in a city abandoned to its fate,

courageous war correspondent Marie Colvin, a graduate of Oyster Bay High School, was killed, just days ago. Syrian government loyalists deliberately shelled her makeshift press center in the blood-soaked city of Homs – to silence her reporting on the slaughter of civilians. The regime of Syrian despot Bashar al-Assad was able to pinpoint the press center by locking in on reporters’ cell phones.

While covering the Tamil rebellion in Sri Lanka in 2001, she’d been badly wounded by a government grenade. She nearly died; for the rest of her life she carried shrapnel in her brain and in her chest. But the only outward sign was the black patch she wore over her lost left eye. Marie Colvin was one of the most outstanding foreign correspondents of her generation. Indeed, her talent, courage and self-belief were recognized widely enough for her portrait to be hung in London’s National Portrait Gallery.

Given her innumerable scrapes with death in Iraq, Palestine, Chechnya and Sri Lanka and elsewhere, we should have known better than to be shocked! How could we be surprised? Fortunes in war, after all, are governed by nebulous rules of chance. In death, as in life, she could make grown men cry.

“Journalists covering combat shoulder great responsibilities and face difficult choices,” she said in a 2010 speech. “Sometimes they pay the ultimate price. It has never been more dangerous to be a war correspondent, because the journalist in the combat zone has become the prime target.”

We think here of CNN’S tenacious woman of gutsy determination and passion, Christiane Amanpour, who, no less courageously, famously covered the bestial wars in Croatia, Bosnia-Heregovina and Kosovo during the 1990s. We think about Ernie Pyle’s take on war. Pyle who was the most celebrated war correspondent of World War II. Killed by the Japanese, he is remembered as having been a humble correspondent who artfully and ardently told the story of a war from the foxholes. He wanted people to see and understand the sacrifices that soldiers had to make.

All three believed passionately in the role of war correspondents as a means of bearing witness and giving voice to those living under the shadow of the gun, the missile, and the bomb. Said Marie Colvin just two years ago, “Covering a war means going to places torn by chaos, destruction and death … and trying to bear witness. It means trying to find the truth in a sandstorm of propaganda when armies, tribes or terrorists clash.” Over 125 journalists covering the Mideast war zone have been killed during the past 20 years; over 40 in Bosnia.

Ted Conlin
Westbury Resident