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  • November 9, 2016

    Coming to Terms with the Past

    Fifty-one years ago today, my life changed forever. There have been many changes since that time, some extremely good and some not so much, but I was one person before November 8, 1965 and another person afterwards.

    I don’t like to talk about it. I have tossed and turned through many sleepless nights, trying not to think about it, but now, more than half-a-century after that day, maybe it’s time to write about some of my unresolved issues. For perspective, you can go on the internet and google “November 8, 1965, Vietnam.”

    It wasn’t the bloodshed or the horror of war. By November 1965, I had seen quite enough of that. But the date marked the biggest Vietnam battle involving U.S. troops up to that time, although bigger and bloodier battles would come as the conflict dragged on. And I was medevacked early in the fight, so I was gone well before the worst of it.

    The thing is, I knew it was going to happen days before it did. But, I got it wrong. I was certain – positive – that I was going to die on the next mission. I even thought about writing a good-bye letter home, but what would I say?

    “Dear Mom.

    I’m going to die in the next few days, please take care of my little brothers.

    Love George.”

    And so I didn’t write the letter, which was a good thing because I didn’t die.

    The platoon sergeant who was standing near me was killed, my radio operator who was standing next to me was killed, and the medic who was standing between me and the mortar round that exploded in our midst was killed. His body shielded me from much of the flying shrapnel. In fact, I was the last life he ever saved.

    I’ll skip the gory details, except to note that when Gen. Willian Tecumseh Sherman said “War is Hell” in 1870, he was not exaggerating.

    I also will not reveal the names of my comrades who died that day, except to say that the platoon sergeant, who bled out on the floor of the helicopter during my ride back to a tent hospital, was a 34-year-old black man with a big smile and a kindness that belied his choice in careers.

    The medic was a sweet-natured 19-year-old white kid, who dreamed of turning his Army job saving lives into a civilian pursuit after he was discharged.

    My radio operator and I were from the weapons platoon. I was a forward observer, whose job was to call in mortar fire when the need arose. In the jungle, you usually couldn’t see far enough through the underbrush to call in fire. During those times, I basically became just another guy with a gun. On November 8, 1965, I was three weeks shy of my 25th birthday.

    To be honest, I was not particularly pleased with my radio operator. He was 18-years-old, fresh out of some inner-city slum, with a bad attitude and a chip on his shoulder. He had been shot in the butt 34 days earlier, and the forward observer to whom he had been attached was killed. It was just a flesh wound, and it healed quickly, but it shook him to his core.

    The sad truth was that he was a kid, and he was scared. He had the same premonition that I did – a premonition that he was going to die on the next mission. He had literally begged the weapons platoon sergeant not to make him go, but you don’t get off the hook because you’re scared. Everybody was scared. I was not particularly happy when he was assigned to me, but he got way worse than he deserved.

    I mention race, only to note that it didn’t seem to matter a whole lot on the battlefield. We were infantry. Our battalion was just about equally divided between black guys and white guys with a few Hispanics and other minorities mixed in. We didn’t choose our friends by race. It wasn’t exactly a warm and fuzzy love fest, but you knew who you could count on and trust and who you could not, and it had little to do with the color of anybody’s skin.

    When they finally got a helicopter to land in the middle of bullets flying through the trees, they loaded it so full, I had only a few inches of seat with my knees hanging out through the open doorway. Despite the noise of the engine and rotor, I remember the flight back as a quiet time. A couple of thousand feet above the jungle canopy with the doors open, the slip stream rushing past, it seemed cool and unreal as I went into shock. I am not religious – not then and not now – but I remember singing to myself all the hymns I learned going to the Baptist Church with my grandmother when I was barely 5.

    The Old Rugged Cross, Bringing in the Sheaves, Peace in the Valley. And all the time I was wondering, why am I still here? Why am I alive when the others standing next to me are dead?

    It would be nice to say that I saw the experience as a second chance, that I took control of the rest of my life and did something grand and good with it. Maybe I should have, but I did not. My experience was no more terrible or unique than thousands of other young men who fought in that mindless war and the terrible wars that followed.

    Fifty-one years later, I’m doing pretty well. I have a woman who loves me, a couple of bucks in the bank, and a place to get out of the cold. I’m actually happy – maybe happier than I have ever been.

    But the ghosts still come around on those sleepless nights, to stand sad and silent by my bed. Why you, they want to know. How come we died so young and you lived to be so old.

    I have no answer, but I do think about them still. Especially on this day, 51 years later.

    — George Cunningham


  • June 30, 2016


    My wife Carmela would make a great nurse, even though she would hate it.

    She hates hospitals, she hates all the messy blood and ooze, and most of all she hates sick people. Even with her own husband, after a couple of days, her patience wears thin. It’s like are you going to get better now, or are you just going to keep laying around, moaning about how bad you feel?

    I will tell you this. The answer to that question is not sarcasm: Oh I think I will lay around for a few more days, coughing and throwing up and moaning about how bad I feel. The correct answer is to stop feeling sorry for yourself, start moving your butt, and start feeling better.

    The truth is that the tough-love school of nursing works. Pretty soon, you are feeling better, if for no other reason than you want to get strong enough to slap her dirty rotten face before you die. Of course, I exaggerate, but only a little.

    When push comes to shove, Carmela rises to the occasion. She does what is required, whatever that is, however disgusting, nasty, and scary it may be. It’s one of many reasons that I love her.

    The latest such incident came right before we left for vacation. I went to my dermatologist for – among other things – a pre-cancer growth on the back of my left hand. She sprayed the growth with liquid nitrogen, which is supposed to freeze it and cause it to fall off.  Two days later, when we left for vacation, I had the mother-of-all boils on the back of my hand where she had sprayed it.

    It was ugly and gross, but I figured that just meant it was getting ready to fall off and leave behind a patch of pristine skin. So off we went, cutting across the desert in weather hot enough to make a scorpion eat his own tail.

    But the mother-of-all blisters didn’t go away. By Flagstaff, Arizona, that night, it was bigger than ever, and by Gallup, New Mexico, it was beginning to leak. It was time for some hotel-room surgery. Carmela got some alcohol wipes from the First Aid kit, sterilized a safety pin and a pair of scissors, and laid out a towel and began to operate. It was absolutely disgusting, but Carmela is very brave.

    What Carmela has taught me in life is that you have to approach your problems straight on. You don’t whine about it or complain, you just clench your jaw and do it.

    Did it hurt? A little bit, but how could I feel sorry for myself, when Carmela was being so brave? The back of my hand is still scarred and ugly, but the big boil is gone and so is the pain.

    What it boils down to is this: In life, you do what you have to do, no matter how much you hate it.

    Thank you for that insight, my dear.


  • April 19, 2016


    By George Cunningham

    It seems that former L.A. Undersheriff Paul Tanaka is about to get a taste of his own medicine. Tanaka was convicted earlier this month of conspiracy and attempting to thwart a federal investigation into prisoner abuse in Los Angeles County jails. He could end up spending up to 15 years in jail. His boss Sheriff Lee Baca is getting off with a 6-month sentence after agreeing to plead guilty to lying to the feds during an investigation of civil rights violations at the county jail.

    Both sentences are richly deserved.

    Tanaka has also had to step down in his other role as Mayor of Gardena. Both Baca and Tanaka will still receive pensions for their years of service, but the taint on their names will remain. Unfortunately, some of that taint will also remain on the thousands of good deputies and police officers out there who do not abuse prisoners and who treat with respect the people who live in the communities that the police are sworn to protect.

    The sad truth is that we also share in some of the blame. The sheriff is an elected official, and collectively we elected him to office in 1998 and then re-elected him three more times. We will also be the ones who end up footing the bill to settle all the lawsuits filed by those who were abused and their families.

    I never met Tanaka, although if what you read is only half correct, he was a mean and nasty piece of work. I did meet Baca a couple of times and attended events at which he spoke. The first time I saw him was when he flew down to the Port of Long Beach in a sheriff’s helicopter to ask harbor commissioners for port money to help support the sheriff’s Cargo Cats program that focused on hijacking and cargo theft.

    He was turned down. Harbor Commissioner Carmen Perez – a politically savvy Democrat – lectured him at the time. Don’t come flying down here in your helicopter to ask for money, she told him. It doesn’t help make your case.

    Baca didn’t get it. He never did. Under his administration, standards dropped and brutality at the jail increased. At the end, he was still trying to cover up the problems he had helped create rather than solve them. Locking human beings in cages – even people who have done terrible things – carries with it the responsibility to treat them as human beings.

    That does not mean coddling them. Jail should be an unpleasant experience. But it should not be a place where those in authority abuse those in their custody.

    On the other side of the ledger, the Los Angeles Times recently posted an opinion piece praising former Central Jail commander Bob Olmsted, who blew the whistle on prisoner abuse, leaked the story to the media, and cooperated in exposing the problem. His example encouraged other deputies and former deputies to testify about the abuse.

    When people think about Baca and Tanaka and are justifiably outraged, they need to think also about Bob Olmsted and other cops like him – the cops who not only protect the community, but who are willing also to speak out against those who betray the trust given them.


    Let me know if you think I’m all wet on this. Send me an email at george@georgeleecunningham.com

  • September 15, 2015

    Port Town Redux

    Former Long Beach Harbor Commissioner Doris Topsy-Elvord is not happy with us. She doesn’t think her service on the harbor board from March 2003 to June 2008 was sufficiently recognized in Port Town, the history book the Port of Long Beach commissioned us to write in 2013.

    Ms. Topsy-Elvord has taken her case to port commissioners, gotten coverage of her issues on the front and editorial pages of the Press-Telegram newspaper, and even threatened to hire an attorney.

    It was not a mistake that we left Ms. Topsy-Elvord and other commissioners out of Port Town, at least by name. From the beginning, we knew that the last chapters would be the most challenging. There are several points in the writing of such a history – especially a history that has been commissioned by the entity being written about – that present challenges. We were assured at the beginning of the project that the port desired an authentic history, not one colored by the political sensibilities or politics of the present day.

    That is a lot of trust to place on authors and a lot of responsibility. We were determined to live up to that trust.

    In doing an extensive history of an institution, there are some sensitive landmarks the writers pass along the way. For one thing, it’s a lot easier to write about dead people than about people who are still alive. Dead people don’t care about what you say about them. People who are still alive – especially high-achieving people with strong egos – have their own version of their contributions, sometimes much inflated from reality and how others may view them.

    Even if those people are still alive, however, if enough time has passed, it becomes much easier to recognize the outcome of their actions and write about it.

    Commissioner George Talin, who left the commission in disgrace in 1991 after the District Attorney accused him of using his position to strong-arm port tenants into buying tires from his company, is a good example. Enough time has passed and Talin’s damaged reputation has been well enough established to include in the narrative.

    The closer the narrative advances toward the present day, however, the stronger the ego sensitivities become. The harbor commission indeed moved its agenda forward during the past 20 years. All the commissioners made their contributions to the whole, although some were clearly stronger leaders than others.

    Commissioner Carmen Perez – a power in the Democratic Party – was appointed in the 1990s to a Harbor Commission that included four Republican businessmen. It makes sense to have businessmen on the Harbor Commission. The port is a big business that deals in negotiations with tenants and it’s important to keep an eye of the bottom line. But it’s also a political institution that relies on government support and direction. In a strongly Democratic state, Ms. Perez was able to advance the port’s political and funding agenda in ways the other four commissioners were not capable of achieving.

    Ms. Topsy-Elvord mentions former harbor commissioner Mario Cordero, now chairman of the Federal Maritime Commission. Mr. Cordero was clearly a strong voice for an environmental ethic at the port. So was former commissioner and former city manager Jim Hankla, who as director of the Alameda Corridor Transportation Authority oversaw one of the most successful environmental transportation projects ever undertaken in California.

    Attorney Susan Anderson Wise was steadfast in her service on the board. Engineer Nick Sramek was successful in getting political and legal support for his neighborhood, which had been heavily impacted by the Union Pacific’s Intermodal Container Transfer Facility next door. David Hauser, Alex Bellehumeur, Roy Hearrean, John Hancock, former city attorney John Calhoun, accountant George Murchison, and educator Dr. Mike Walter all served with distinction.

    And, of course, Ms. Topsy-Elvord herself.

    We knew that former and present harbor commissioners would be disappointed not to see their individual contributions recognized by name, but that was a decision we made as the authors. Our job was not to massage the egos of the various political appointees to the board, but to tell the story of the port and of the accomplishments – and sometimes the failures – of the board as a whole.

    The truth is that all the members of the harbor commission contributed to the success of the port programs – some more so and some less so. For us to define which members deserved how much of the credit for each success was an impossible task and far beyond the scope of the book.

    Over the years, there have been 67 harbor commissioners, 20 of them in the last 20 years, including the five commissioners currently occupying those seats. Most of them were decent people who took their jobs on the harbor commission seriously and did what they felt was best for the port and the city.

    That does not mean they didn’t sometimes disagree with one another – sometimes strongly disagree – but in the end, they made their cases to the full board, they voted as a board on new policies and direction, and the port moved forward in the manner in which the board as a whole decided.

    They were indeed a diverse group, both ethnically and in the perspective they brought to the table. They included several businessmen, several former government administrators and workers, one college professor, five lawyers, one physician, and a member of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

    There were Carmen Perez, the second woman to sit on the board and the first Hispanic commissioner; Dr. John Kashiwabara, the first Japanese-American and second medical doctor to so serve; Doris Topsy-Elvord, the first African-American commissioner; Mario Cordero, the first Hispanic man to sit on the board, Thomas Fields, the first African-American man on the board and the first African-American harbor commissioner to be fired by the City Council; and Susan E. Anderson Wise, the fourth woman to sit on the board.

    The present commission includes Doug Drummond, a former Long Beach police officer and councilman; Richard T. Dines, the first union longshoreman; and Lori Ann Guzman, Lou Anne Bynum, and Tracy J. Egoscue, the fifth, sixth, and seventh women on the board. It is also the first board with a female majority.

    There was one commissioner whose name we had included in the last chapter of the book, and that was Commissioner Thomas Fields. The submitted draft included a very short mention that Fields had been fired by the city council. We thought it was significant to include because it marked the end to a battle between two factions on the port board. With Fields gone, fellow Commissioner Nick Sramek resigned, clearing the way for a change in the board’s approach. That item was removed from the manuscript at the insistence of Mayor Robert Garcia’s office.


    The Press-Telegram has treated us very well on Port Town, but we must take issue with some of the points made in the recent Press-Telegram editorial on the book.

    One, “much of the 21st century is given short shrift.”

    For the Port of Long Beach, the 21st Century is a work in progress. If one were writing a history of the Revolutionary War, for instance, that story is complete. The history of the Revolution can be told from the dumping of tea in the Boston Harbor in 1773 to the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783.

    Unlike the Revolutionary War, the history of the Port of Long Beach is not over yet. The challenge was always how does one end an ongoing story. And the answer is that you end it imperfectly. It is similar to the old science fiction movies in which giant mutant grasshoppers have been exposed to radiation and are now destroying the city, until a few brave souls find a way to stop them. And when it’s all over, the words “The End,” appear on the screen, followed by a big question mark.

    Now, as always, there are many challenges and question marks facing the port. Everybody is clamoring to take credit for the clean truck program, but the price of the program was huge and the final level of success is yet to be determined.

    The volume of containerized cargo coming through the port is only now beginning to reach the level that it was when the great recession hit in 2006. Progress is not always pretty. History lurches forward as the people who make the history attempt to find new solutions to both old and new problems.

    There are many issues ahead, including the replacement of longshore workers with computerized and robotic equipment. The union is concerned about the jobs of its members, and well it should be. In fact, all of us should be concerned. Those healthy longshore pay checks end up supporting a lot of folks in the community, from shoe stores to supermarkets and from dog groomers to the kids working at McDonalds. If those longshore jobs start to disappear, the pain will spread like ripples through the local economy.

    While we can – and did – identify those emerging issues, they are for future historians to examine fully and provide perspective.

    Two: “While the Cunninghams wrote the book, they can’t be fully blamed for these holes. At one point it looks as if the Cunninghams, almost apologetically, try to explain why they don’t get deep in the weeds of modern history for fear that “the narrative ceases to be history and becomes instead a short-sighted journalism.”

    We are responsible for the book as it is written. We shift that responsibility to no one. If we gave the impression that we were apologetic, that was not our intent. We did say that as history approaches present day, it ceases to be history and becomes merely journalism. That is correct. Journalism is by its very nature short-sighted. We remain proud of the book and the decision we made. We offer no apologies.

    Three: Another chapter could be written and run in any reprint of the book. Or, a companion, part-two book could be written about the last four decades at the port and the people behind it.

    This idea opens a Pandora’s box. Since such a chapter would be written to appease Ms. Topsy-Elvord, would she have approval rights over it? And if she does, shouldn’t every other living former and current harbor commissioner also be offered the opportunity to approve or disapprove of this proposed new chapter? Can you imagine a messier exercise in self-congratulation?

    In a separate note: We should have included a list of all the commissioners at the end of the book – not just Ms. Topsy-Elvord. Each one of them brought their own special talents and flaws to the table, and they do deserve recognition for that. There is such a list on the port website.

    When we started this project, we met on numerous occasions to discuss the book with Commissioner Drummond and now-former Commissioner Susan Anderson Wise. One of the things we discussed at those meetings was using the book as the foundation for continued education and research – possibly through the local universities, colleges and high schools.

    At the time, we thought that was a wonderful idea, and we still do.

    For instance, California State University, Long Beach has numerous oral histories – interviews with long-time community leaders – that are posted online. We believe that the port perhaps should work with Cal State to create an oral history with port commissioners that would be the forum for them to tell the inside story of their contributions to the community the way they see it. A volume of such interviews could be both printed and posted online, so that folks could read or listen to individual commissioners’ unique perspectives on their contributions and their time on the board. And if the stories conflict with one another, that’s OK too.

    Our goal with Port Town was to create a comprehensive historical foundation of information about our port. We believe we did that, and we hope that the book both informs and inspires bright students and professors to look at the future issues facing the port in order to push forward the ongoing discussion both on the board and in the community.

    –George and Carmela Cunningham

    Press-Telegram July 22 story by Rich Archbold on publication of Port Town.


    Press-Telegram Columnist Tim Grobaty’s Aug. 28 column on Doris Topsy-Elvord complaint


    Press-Telegram Sept. 11 Editorial on Doris Topsy-Elvord complaint


    List of harbor commissioners on port website.



  • August 27, 2015


    This is a caption for an image

    I’m not going to lie. Having a stroke, even a small one, is no walk in the park. It can shake you up, change the way you look at the world, and remind you that life does not go on forever. Life is finite. If there are things you want to accomplish, there are only so many years, so many months, and so many weeks, days, hours and minutes to accomplish them. This is true whether you are 7 years old or 70.

    Fortunately for me, my stroke turned out to be a minor one – a reminder from the gods about what’s important and what is not. Having seen the effect it had on my wife Carmela, I cannot, and will not call it a blessing, but you take from such experiences the things that are important and positive and accept the things that are not as part of the price you pay.

    I am on the rebound. I am not all the way back yet, but I hopefully will be soon. The scheduled CAT scan showed that any remaining blood clots in my brain are gone, so I am on warfarin – the generic name for Coumadin – a blood thinner that hopefully will prevent a repeat experience. Next week I will go back to have my eyes checked, to see if I have regained peripheral vision in my eyes. I am sure that I have. I find myself checking it all the time as Carmela drives through traffic. At first I thought maybe my peripheral vision was returning as the doctors said it might. Or was it just the result of wishful thinking? Now I am sure of it. The doctors will be checking it out next week and maybe, just maybe, I will be able to drive again. I hope so. Carmela, who hates to drive, hopes so, and so does our Yorkie son Henry, who likes to curl up on Carmela’s lap while I drive.

    I thank everybody for their kind cards and electronic messages of encouragement. I do plan to answer everybody, but it may take a little while. I still tend to tire easily.

    Lessons learned, big and small:

    As my pal, Freddy Nietzsche once said, anything that doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.

    Everybody from birth on, has a finite number of days on the planet. Identify what is important to you, learn from your mistakes, and try to take some joy in each and every day you have

    Warfarin, the blood-thinning drug that I am taking, was developed by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (the WARF in Warfarin) as a rat poison in 1948. It would be mixed with food bait, which rats would return to over a period of time to eat. It took about six days of returning to the same bait for the rat to accumulate a lethal dose, then he or she would quietly bleed to death internally. One popular conspiracy theory is that Nikita Khrushchev and others in the Soviet hierarchy used warfarin to poison Soviet strongman Joseph Stalin.

    With a little bit of luck, I should be back in the saddle soon, maybe even driving a car and working on my new book, “Nothing is Forever.” Until then, thanks to everybody for their kind thoughts and well wishes.

     –George Cunningham