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I found John Birch
Good morning. This Sunday is on the heels of the 37th anniversary of the Challenger disaster and Holocaust Remembrance Day. I don’t have much to say on the latter: If you want a good podcast on the topic, listen to Bari Weiss interview Ken Burns about his latest documentary, which, let’s just say cuts against the popular narrative of America’s role during that time.
On the former, I have a lot to say, but I’ll crib it from a piece I wrote several years ago. I was almost there for the disaster, having witnessed the scrub of the previous flight, where pilot and future NASA administrator Charles Bolden wrote,
We came back; don’t remember the date…that time we got down to thirty-one seconds, and one more time things weren’t right. So we got out…they found it. There had actually been a probe, a temperature probe that in the de-fueling, they had broken the temperature probe off, and it had lodged inside the valve, keeping the valve from closing fully. So that would have been a bad day. That would have been a catastrophic day, because the engine would have exploded had we launched.
Space flight is dangerous. It’s still dangerous. The more ubiquitous it becomes, we tend to forget that. The shuttle was the most complex machine ever devised by mankind, and we flew 5 of them a total of 135 times, launching 833 people on top of two enormous Roman candles. We lost 40 percent of the fleet and 14 souls to this adventure.
Now, on to John Birch, the topic in the headline (you thought I forgot?).
Back in 1973, a long-haired, scruffy-bearded 37-year old Charlie Daniels recorded a song about the culture clash in the South, illustrated by an inconvenient flat tire in conservative Jackson, Mississippi. Now I’ve been to Jackson, and it’s everything Daniels claims it is, especially for a pot-smoking, Chevy-driving, long-haired hippie with a peace sign, mag wheels and four-on-the-floor with a flat tire during the Nixon administration.
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One of the funnier lines in the song “Uneasy Rider” is when Daniels lays it on thick to buy getaway time from a bar full of suspicious locals, accusing the fella with green teeth of being a McGovern liberal and a pinko commie.
He's a snake in the grass I tell ya guys
He may look dumb but that's just a disguise
He's a mastermind in the ways of espionage
They all started lookin' real suspicious at him
And he jumped up an' said jes' wait a minute Jim
You know he's lyin' I've been livin' here all of my life
I'm a faithful follower of Brother John Birch
And I belong to the Antioch Baptist Church
And I ain't even got a garage you can call home and ask my wife
Here’s where it got interesting. I ran into Brother John Birch one day, some years ago. I didn’t even realize, after living in Middle Georgia over 25 years, that he was there, but he is. At least his uniform, that is. Let me explain.
In Middle Georgia they have this gem, this incredible diamond that most tend to ignore. When they do pay attention, it’s only for a golf tournament, a dinner, a special event or when visitors come to see us because there’s nothing else to do in Middle Georgia when the Georgia National Fair isn’t going on. I’m talking about the Museum of Aviation.
I visited England and France in the last few years, and got to experience a few aviation museums and military sites while I was there. I can tell you with great honor that the little-known Middle Georgia museum stacks up very well against the best museums in the world. It stacks up well against the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., actually, if not in volume of exhibits. And it competes very well side by side with the RAF Museum outside of London.
That says a whole lot. I’ve been to exhibits where they have an F-35B next to a German Me-262 WWII jet fighter. The Brits had invested over a million pounds into the Battle of Britain memorial and museum a few years ago, and technology-wise, it’s the best I’ve ever seen. Believe it or not, the Museum of Aviation in Middle Georgia is in the same class as those world-class places, and has its own collection of unique artifacts that you can’t find anywhere else on the planet.
Ok, enough of the pitch for visiting the Robins AFB Museum of Aviation. Just go. It’s also free. If you live somewhere else, go find your own local gem. Most places have one, if you bother to look.
About John Birch. He never knew Robert Welch or held a political office; he was not a member of the society founded in his name. Birch’s family owned 500 acres in Macon, Georgia, called Birchwood, right off Riverside Drive, back during WWII (now occupied by upper middle class subdivisions and a few McMansions). He was a Mercer University alum, who stirred up a bit of his own trouble back in the 1930s when he was part of a group that accused some Mercer professors of teaching heresy. Back then, Mercer was affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention (they’re not any longer).
The son of a Georgia missionary couple in India, Birch became a missionary to China just before WWII. After helping Col. James Doolittle escape the Japanese, he was recruited by none other than Gen. Claire Chennault, who led the vaunted “Flying Tigers.” (Connecting him to Gen. Robert L. Scott, to whom a significant part of the Museum of Aviation is dedicated.)
After serving as an intelligence officer for three years, Birch became what may have been the first casualty at the hands of Chinese communists just days after the Japanese surrendered. When red-scare conspiracist Robert Welch, Jr. became aware of Birch’s story in 1958, he made the 27-year-old preacher-turned-solider a martyr, and formed the John Birch Society. Now Birch’s name is posthumously and forever linked with ultra-right anti-Communist reactionaries.
All of that, just so Charlie Daniels could write it in a song. Folks, history is better than fiction.
These days, JBS thinking is making a comeback. Space flight is making a comeback. Antisemitism is making a comeback. As Ken Burns observed, history never repeats itself. No event has ever happened again exactly the same as before. But there are patterns of history, and we who learn from them can help avoid the mistakes others have made.
We should never lose that perspective, and this is why, friend, I recommend you support and visit your local museums. Don’t let the past die at the expense of entertainment, Twitter, and modern life.