We (Must) Take Care of Our Own

Driving in to work today, Springsteen was singing “We Take Care of Our Own.” As I have been mired in the angst and deliberation of finalizing next year’s budget, his words gave me an opportunity to pause, smile and reflect on the great impact of our daily commitment to youth. College Bound graduates our seniors (96%) and sends them to college – more than 1,000 during the past four years; our Arts Academy expanded our Monday-Friday arts programming and is now providing advanced instruction and performance opportunities during Saturday mega-sessions; our growing sports leagues provide great competition, but more importantly, an opportunity to have fun and develop an active lifestyle that will hopefully last for decades.

Facilitating the Club’s budget is analyzing and choosing – considering all of the opportunities and then prioritizing and developing a plan that will allocate primarily for the most important and impactful programming while designating lesser amounts or sometimes zero for other options. Nothing different than what you do with your business and/or home budget – we can’t have it all so we try and make the best choices possible to have the greatest positive impact within our limits. And even though our organization’s budget is $5 million – we still have to make choices as we now operate 17 sites and serve over 12,000 youth annually while sadly thousands more must watch from the sidelines.

I am writing on this issue because as a nation we have the same budget limitations with one added twist – besides taking care of our own we have long accepted the responsibility of being the world’s security leader as well as its greatest foreign aid provider. The reality is that all of our domestic needs must compete with budget considerations such as Iraq ($2 trillion over the past 10 years), Afghanistan, North Korea, Syria, world hunger, global disasters, drought, terrorist camps and third-world infrastructure needs just to name a few.

As a nation, we are once again subjected to our annual budget debate – a debate that includes a national debt that could strangle our children and grandchildren in the decades to come. Other facts and factors not necessarily a major part of the discussion is that we have the highest percentage of children living in poverty since the Great Depression. Our senior citizens are living longer while we are considering cutting back Social Security and Medicare. The number of Americans living on the streets or in their cars is shameful and debilitating. Public education is reeling from rhetoric rather than having the funding needed to once again include the arts, vocational training and support for our adult immigrants. And violence in this country continues to prematurely end lives while shattering many more. Add the growing need for Americans displaced by hurricanes and tornados, the lack of proper support for our veterans when they return home from foreign wars, a nation whose infrastructure needs FDR and the WPA, and the reality that tens of millions of Americans have little or no medical or dental care – then you have to admit that the needs of our citizens have been taking a back seat to other “priorities.”

Budgeting is not a perfect science but requires tough decisions that must decrease some needs while eliminating others completely. Also, we as a nation cannot be isolationists both on a moral level as well as the necessity to protect our borders from afar. Regardless, budgeting for the 21st century must further prioritize the needs of the children and families of this great nation over everything else. We can’t make The Boss a liar – we must do a better job of taking care of our own. spt

Gold Star Memorial Day

Every Memorial Day, our nation honors the men and women who died while serving in the United States military. But what happens if you can’t remember the soldier for whom that day means the most to you? If you are Tony Cordero, you spend most of your adult life volunteering to make it easier for others that carry the same cross. Tony was just four-years-old when his father, Air Force Major William Cordero, died on a bomber plane that went down in the Vietnam War. Tony can’t remember anything about his dad.

In 1990, Tony was among a very small group that started Sons and Daughters in Touch, which represented the children who lost their fathers in Vietnam. Until then, the only organizations that were set up to provide assistance for grieving family members were Gold Star Mothers of America, which was started around the period of World War II and later a group called Gold Star Wives was formed. Gold Star represents all Americans that had a U.S. military family member killed in war.

Many similar organizations have sprung up since Tony’s group started their nonprofit. They each provide benefits for Gold Star families, such as scholarships and counseling. Tony talks about kids that lose a family member to war when they are very young. He says, “What is their life supposed to be like? We can help because we’ve gone through it.” Tony cites a local member of his Vietnam group that every year flies out a recent widow and her two daughters from Texas to spend a couple weeks with their members. He explains, “We don’t sit around and grieve and visit cemeteries. We go camping, do tourist things, and share stories.”

Whatever their opinions about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, most Americans treat our soldiers and their families with respect because we understand the huge sacrifices they have made. That wasn’t the case during Vietnam. Tony says, “That mindset today is an outgrowth of the lessons learned a generation ago when there wasn’t a big embrace. Whether you think we should have gone into Iraq is one conversation, but the reality is a couple thousand of our citizens who volunteered to go didn’t come home, and it’s a good thing their families are embraced.”

One of the hallmarks of that new respect is the overwhelming outpouring of love that Americans show when they see heartbreaking photos of young children at the funeral of a parent killed in battle. Oftentimes the children are the same age as Tony when he lost his dad in Vietnam, which is tough for him to see. However, there is another scene that is harder for him to watch. He explains, “When you see a little kid in class and the teacher says we have a special guest today and in walks dad returning from war, that’s painful for all Gold Star children because that’s what we missed out on. We all had a funeral. Those are great moments and I’ve never met a single Gold Star family that has animosity because someone else had their loved one return home and we didn’t, but you look at them and selfishly say, ‘I didn’t have that homecoming.’”

As part of the cathartic process of honoring his dad, ten years ago Tony was among fifty Gold Star sons and daughters that returned to Vietnam. It was the largest contingent of Gold Star families to ever visit Vietnam together. “The families got to stand in the place where their fathers died. Combine that with seeing Vietnam and making Vietnam a place instead of a bad word and it was an outstanding experience. The locals loved us, anything made in America they wanted. I wish every Gold Star family could have the same experience,” states Tony.

As we all enjoy the Memorial Day holiday, let’s take a moment to remember the fallen soldiers and their surviving family members for their ultimate sacrifice for our nation. Tony was especially keen that this year we remember former Wilmington resident, Tofiga Tautolo, and his family. Memorial Day falls on May 27, which is the one-year anniversary of Tofiga being killed in action in Afghanistan. He is survived by a wife and two-year old son. spt

Jack can be reached at jackbaric@hotmail.com.

Repairing The Ring

photo by John Mattera

Although the Korean Friendship Bell’s home has always been on the bluff in Angel’s Gate Park, the very first time it was rung was almost 6,000 miles away in Seoul, Korea. United States and Korean officials ceremoniously rang the bell before it made its voyage across the Pacific on the Fourth of July, 1976.

The creation and erection of the bell was unlike any monument in the US. The bell was given by the Republic of Korea on the bicentennial celebration of American independence. In creating this bell, they tapped a lost art. When the 17-ton bell was cast, it had been over a thousand years since a bell of that size had been cast in Korea. The bell was modeled after the Bell of King Seongdeok, which was cast in 771 AD.

When the bell arrived in the Port of Los Angeles, it took two weeks to unload 28 cargo containers of materials. Korean stonemasons and carpenters worked 14-hour days to construct the belfry, platform and steps.

Finally, in October of 1976, four months after its first ring, the bell was officially dedicated, and struck on American soil.

Now, almost four decades have passed with little or no maintenance to keep the bell in good condition. Bird excrement is caked onto the belfry, there is obvious deterioration of the protecting layer on the bell and deviants have even marked the inside of it with graffiti. For nearly a year, the bell could not be rung because the link needed repair. The link is the wooden structure holding the bell to the belfry, which had fully broken causing the bell to twist.

The bell was in obvious need of a protector. That’s where Ernest Lee and the Korean Friendship Bell Preservation Committee come in.

The committee of 33 formed in 2006 with hopes of getting the bell back to its former glory.

“The bell called out to us,” says Lee. “ When you see the bell, you feel heartbroken with the shape that it’s in, and still awestruck with its beauty. Rather than just aching about it, we thought, let’s do something about it and have a long term plan.”

Rarely seen photographs of the construction of the Korean Friendship Bell belfry circa the mid-1970s. (photos provided by Korean Friendship Bell Preservation Committee)

While there are organizations that are designated to take care of city or federal landmarks, Lee says they don’t have the trained personnel to do it. Bell making is a particular craft, so the committee did their research.

“We found the company that originally worked on the bell,” says Lee. “All but one of the masters had passed away. We spoke with the surviving member of the group who, in 2011, sent his protégé here to give us an estimate to refurbish the bell.”

The budget based on his estimate: about $360,000.

Lee explains that the reason for the high price tag is that all of the key time frames for maintenance were missed.

“The salt air and strong winds of the area obviously don’t help,” he says. He stresses the need for caution with restoration. “First we want to do no harm. We have to work in careful and steady steps.”

Indeed, if the restoration is done hastily using craftsmen who are unfamiliar with the art of bellfounding, they may do irreversible damage. Besides it being an ancient craft, the bell is also covered with intricate artwork and an inscription engraved in relief on the bell. The bell is made of copper and tin, with gold, nickel, lead and phosphorous added for tone quality.

“The bell was designed to be an instrument,” says Lee. “It has a narrow tube inside and the bowl at the bottom for acoustic resonance.”

Korean craftsmen designed the belfry. Everything about the pagoda-like structure that houses the bell was done with purpose and symbolism. Creating the bell itself was not something that was done easily in Korea. Casting a bell that large is uncommon, and in the first attempt it was broken. The total cost for the bell and structure was over a million dollars, paid for by the Korean government.

With all of the painstaking attention to detail that was administered in its creation, it’s no wonder that there is a laundry list of repairs that the landmark must undergo to regain its full brilliance.

“We need to carefully sandblast the outer bell and fill holes,” says Lee. “There is bird-proofing that needs to be done, painting and the wooden striker needs to be replaced.” They already fixed the link in 2011, just in time for its 35th anniversary.

The road to getting the rest of these restorations will not be an easy one. The group of volunteers has worked tirelessly to get donations. One fundraising campaign was inspired by Lee’s friend and mentor, San Pedro icon, John Olguin.

“He used to say, ‘I’d rather get a dollar from a thousand people then have one person write a check for a thousand dollars,’” says Lee. “We fundraised all over San Pedro and Los Angeles, asking that people give a dollar donation for the bell.”

In following Olguin’s saying, they hope that with individuals reaching into their own pocketbooks, they will feel personally invested and connected to the cause.

The committee has about $280,000 for restoration. $5,000 came from residents in San Pedro and Koreatown and $275,000 has been allocated by the South Korean government. Although grateful for the large influx from the South Koreans, Lee believes that it’s time for the American government to take the reigns.

“We’re hoping that the city council will assist in matching what the South Korean government has donated,” says Lee. “It’s time to say it’s ours, we’ll take care of this magnificent gift.”

The committee is planning a fundraising golf tournament this spring to raise more cash. With the bell being such an iconic San Pedro landmark, Lee believes community members will step up.

“The meaning comes from the memory that attaches to it,” says Lee. Many San Pedrans find that meaning in the memories of family picnics on the great expanse of grass in front of the bell, flying kites, or even one of the many weddings that take place at the bell’s steps.

Deterioration of the wooden bell ringer (left), on the ceiling (bottom left), structural column damage and bell corrosion (right) due to improper upkeep and weather has taken its toll on the bell. (photos by John Mattera)

For Lee, the bell symbolizes an important friendship between two countries.

“If it were not for the United States involvement with Korean independence, I may not be here today,” says Lee. Lee’s parents emigrated from South Korea, which benefitted from the U.S. involvement in the 1950 Korean War. The U.S. defended South Korea against North Korean invasion, splitting the two countries at the 38th parallel or Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).

According to the Department of Defense, the total American military casualties resulting from the Korean War were over 50,000. Since the Korean War ended in 1953, South Koreans have fought alongside American military in both Vietnam and Afghanistan.

The bell’s symbolism holds a significance that’s not lost on the committee.

“I feel as the other committee members do,” says Lee. “Honored and privileged to have this opportunity. We’re also painfully aware of the grave responsibility.”

They hope to start restoration as early as May, but funds will dictate their timeline. Their wishlist for the future includes the lower parking lot connecting to the bell and more wheelchair accessible areas. “I know there are Korean War veterans who are disabled and would like to get around up here.”

Most of all, Lee hopes to restore the bell so that future generations can see it as it was when it first traveled nearly 6,000 miles across the Pacific to the bluff at Angel’s Gate Park. spt

For more info, visit www.kfbpc.org or email info.kfbpc@gmail.com.