Delbert Belton, 88. R.I.P.


Delbert Belton, veteran. Credit: Spokane police department

Two stories of late have caused me to reflect deeply on the condition of young people in this country. The first was the wanton killing of a 22-year-old college student in Oklahoma by three teen-aged boys who were motivated by nothing more than boredom. The second was the brutal bludgeoning of 88-year-old WWII veteran Delbert Belton in Spokane, again by teen-aged boys with no apparent motivation other than meanness. Has human nature always been this bad, I wonder, or has our culture changed for the worse? I’m thinking it’s the latter.

Today’s culture of young people is rife with distractions and bereft of profundity. The social media fads all seem to cater to navel-gazing and narcissism. Even 16 year-old Hanna Anderson, the kidnap victim from California who was recently rescued, couldn’t wait to discuss her experience with other teens on a social web site, this despite only just learning of the violent murders of her mother and brother. It simply doesn’t seem like the right reaction. Kids are different now, and I’m thinking it’s not in a good way either.

I know I was different from this. My parents were depression people and I myself grew up during and just after World War II, and the American Dream then, as now, had as one of it’s bedrock notions that each generation ought to be “better off” than the last. That has tapered off in the last decade or two, if you measure it financially that is. Because of the income disparity, middle class net worth has stagnated and might even be declining. But that doesn’t mean kids are starving, or needy. In fact, never before in my memory have parents been more indulgent and children been more pampered. They are so sheltered from reality they can’t seem to adjust to it. One indication that this is a long-term trend is that because of college debt and the Great Recession, a huge portion of them have moved back in with their parents.  Back in the day “sink or swim” often would have been the alternative.

One of the problems I see is how we do basic schooling. One would think that here in the 21st century, in the most prosperous country in the world, we would have figured out how to educate kids, and yet high-school graduation rates have stagnated around the 80% mark. That means that 20% of them haven’t completed even the basics that enable people to be good voters, good consumers, and good workers. They likely can’t communicate well and surely won’t continue to learn for the rest of their lives. And from what I read, about half who do go on to college fail to complete a degree and of those who do, only a few do so in STEM disciplines that command good jobs. Meanwhile and despite the continuing high unemployment rate there aren’t enough people sufficiently motivated or skilled to fill serious trades like mechanics, technicians and building. Something is fundamentally wrong.

President Bush signing the bipartisan No Child...

President Bush signing the bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act at Hamilton H.S. in Hamilton, Ohio. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I would like to see schools try a different tack, make a fundamental shift. NCLB with its emphasis on testing, was a dismal failure. Teachers “taught to the test” and left the joy of learning in the dust. Why not reverse that? What would happen I wonder if elementary and high schools eliminated grades and just taught for mastery of a subject? Let teachers judge that mastery and then let the teachers’ reputations rest on their students’ long-term success or failure.  People aren’t numbers, so why define our children by them?

Thus, there could be different curricula tailored to several different paths, depending on the bent of a child’s talents, within which they would work until they mastered a discipline appropriate for their age group, and that would include math, communication arts, science and civics. Such a plan would, I hope, eliminate the trap of failure when some kids fail to keep up, something that’s surely inevitable given the variability of human beings. We all have different talents and grow at different rates, so putting them in a lock-step curriculum just makes failure inevitable for many. There’s nothing inherently wrong, I say, with having children of different ages in the same class, and if that were to become common, then there’s no disgrace.  (I remember in my own high school a young black veteran came back and completed his degree with us – it was admirable.)

How then would such kids compete for college slots? Through the same SAT’s or ACT’s they take now. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see this tried and have such schools compete with conventional schools? Let’s try. We’ve got nowhere to go but up, and maybe we could even quell some boredom in the process. Maybe even save some lives.

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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17 Responses to Delbert Belton, 88. R.I.P.

  1. Jeff says:

    I think that human nature has been getting better over the last 10,000 years. I suspect that if you look at the evolutionary pressures we were subjected to at the dawn of the agrarian age, It might have resembled what Kublai Khan did around Mongolia a while back. Violent people in general would have a much harder time coping in today’s society than they would have 10,000 years ago, if for no other reason than because it is harder to hide crimes. Someone who could combine violence with good political maneuvering back then would have left lots of children, but the same is not true today.

    “… there aren’t enough people sufficiently motivated or skilled to fill serious trades like mechanics, technicians and building.”

    I am not sure what you mean by this. The average person making 50k a year today would be making around 90k a year if wages for the median skill band had grown at the same rate as the overall economy. Instead of solid wages that we need to work hard for, since 1980 we have been just working our jobs while waiting for the cocaine rush of stock market jumps and real estate spikes to make up for what we lost in real earnings. And in many cases it has made up for what we lost, which is why our growth rate dropped by a third instead of dropping below zero. But it made up the difference to a different group of people. Now today’s blue collar worker is giving less, but is also getting less reward for what they do do. Can we really say this is a one-sided phenomenon?

    “I would like to see schools try a different tack, make a fundamental shift. ”

    Maybe… If we maximize the benefit our STEM students get at the graduate level and beyond – fund NSF heavily, etc., then I wouldn’t be opposed to some experimentation in non-STEM populations. I strongly believe that students should be integrated and be exposed to every role model possible during the early part of that journey, though.

    I think that if we want to fix the schools, though, the most important step is to fix life. You can go into any prison today and number the people off by fives. Four out of those five people would be walking the street free if this were 1980 America. If we can create a society that will better meet the emotional and nutritive needs of our young, it will be a great first start toward meeting their educational needs. But I should say that just because I see different problems doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do what we can about the issues you mention.


  2. ansonburlingame says:

    Excellent blog, Jim,

    But you are bitting off a very broad and complex topic. You speak of matters, cultural, educational, etc. Combined with your last blog, you also take on addiction and related behavior, as well. HUGE issues, complex ones, for sure. For the remainder of this comment I just focus on a small part of education, DO we have a problem there and how severe is it?

    On my class web site a recent posting referenced a VFW article, one stating that there are some 33 Million Americans ages 17-24. According to that article only some 7 Million are medically and “apptitude” qualified to enlist in our Armed Services. With such a shrinking pool of eligible citizens to enlist, how do we sustain a capable volunteer Armed forced then became the quesion.(which I do not address herein).

    My response was a question. If 26 Million Americans are not elibible, medially or apptitude-wise to serve, some 75% of the total “pool”, age-wise, how many are simply not capable of serving because of “apptitude”? I have no idea the number, or even the accuracy of the statistic published by the VFW.

    But IF the overall statistic is even close to some accuracy, then WHY becomes the obvious question. Pull that string hard enough and it lands in the lap of K12 public education, in my view.

    As well, one could probably pull that string to point to other “social” issues debilitating our country today. I wonder what part of that 26 Million ineligbible to serve might “just” be obese? Then the question WHY are they obese. Is it a medical issue or a “social” issue, I wonder.

    All of that, such questions raised, reasonably, by you are subject to “social analysis”, sociology if you will. Is our culture (social structure) degrading? To answer that question, complete objectivity in collecting “data” is an absolute MUST, for sure, no “agendas” driving data collection.

    I am doubtful, in today’s great political divide, that we are capable of even that effort, objective collection of data to determine the state of Ameican “culture” today.



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      You raise a good point about the difficulties in finding recruits for military service, Anson. The services need not only a decent education level but, as you note, physical condition as well. Fortunately we only need about 1% of the population to serve, so I assume they are doing their best to skim the cream of the crop. Lord knows the benefits are excellent.

      I recall my eldest son’s comments after going through basic training in 1978, which was possibly the nadir of the recruiting game, coming as it did not long after the end of hated conscription and the Vietnam war. He described many of his fellow recruits as “rocks with lips”. Michael completed 22 years in the Navy, retired as a Senior Aviation Chief Petty Officer (E-8), and now has an excellent civil service job administering the maintenance of Coast Guard helicopters. His experience is, I think, a good example of turning a blue-collar career into gold.


  3. Jeff says:

    One of the questions presented in this blog is, did we lose a lot of skilled builders and tradesmen in the last 50 years?

    Perhaps many of the most qualified of older industries have found a good place in younger industries and the older industries have to pick over the scraps of what’s left. A free market theorist might agree with the idea that pay for blue collar positions has gone down over the last 50 years so we shouldn’t be surprised that the selection of talent for these professions has gone down as well.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Jeff, all the literature I can find indicates that the problem isn’t losing old workers but finding young ones who are literate in basic arithmetic and English and are motivated to work hard and learn new things. (The unemployment rate still hovers around 7% last I heard.) Forbes lists the below as the top 10 good-paying blue-collar jobs. The salaries listed are average. The averages for the top 10% within each group run 30% to 80% more than that. See the link for specifics.

      $56,650 aircraft mechanics
      $56,650 boilermakers
      $58,540 rotary drill operators
      $58,600 commercial divers
      $59,400 subway/streetcar drivers
      $59,450 electrical linemen
      $60,290 petroleum refinery/pump system operators
      $65,770 transportation inspectors
      $65,950 powerhouse operator

      The first commenter on the Forbes/ site had this to say:

      I’m a retired Union Field Construction Boilermaker. I started out going to welding school just to learn to weld to do work on my motorcycles. Found out I could make a good living at it anywhere in
      the country, or overseas. I contually worked at it and practiced to be better and learn all the
      current skills involved in the trades. Retired I make a pension that is as good as if I was working
      at a 40 hour a week construction job 50 weeks a year. You will never find that kind of a benefit any-
      where else in the working world now days, as all other employers are taking away any benefits
      paying less for more hours worked. Go to a trade school, learn industrial tech welding, pipe
      fitting and any other mechanical work that you can. The opportunities are much better than they are for a college education. Many people I know who got a college degree ended up in the building trades and made better money at it. After getting a welding cert. from a tech school take
      any welding job that comes up and continually look for a better welding job and go to the Trade
      unions and apply for their apprenticeships. The apprenticeships continually add new apprentices
      to their rosters. If you try to be as good as you can be you will succeed. I put 35+ years in the trade and enjoyed it the whole time. I followed the advice of one of the first old timers I worked with. He told me to move around in the trade to learn everything I could about it.


  4. Jim,

    Again, another thoughtful and provocative post. Thanks,

    Ah, education, one of America’s most difficult challenges. We saw the worst of it earlier this summer. You remember Rachel Jeantel, Trayvon Martin’s friend and a key witness in the trial?
    She is a 19 year old senior attending Miami Norland High School. And she can’t read or write. Let me say that again – high school senior, can’t read or write. (Incredibly, the prosecutors didn’t even know this until they put her on the stand! And even more incredibly, some idiot out there is going to give her a college scholarship!!!)

    So, one wonders how many other Rachel Jeantel’s there are in the nation’s school systems. I personally think that Miss Jeantel’s matriculation though the Miami-Dade County School system was based on her race, since it obviously wasn’t due to her academic skills. And that’s an indictment of that school system and probably scores of others.

    Now I’m sure Rachel had a number of issues — personal, familial, and otherwise — that were also influencing factors. But, of course, that’s true of all students isn’t it?

    Perhaps the most important of these is the family. The Census Bureau has reported that, as of 2011, there were almost 25 million children (out of 74.5 million) living in single parent households. The majority of black children nationwide – 54 percent – are being raised by single mothers. Only 12 percent of black families below the poverty line have both parents present, compared with 41 percent of poor Hispanic families and 32 percent of poor white families.

    I could go on, but I think you get my point. Single parents have to work (most of them anyway) to support their families. So, the children are left alone during the day to become what we used to call “latchkey kids.” When the parent, three-fourths of which are moms, comes home there’s dinner, laundry, etc. Not much time left to help with home work. And not much left to go to parent-teacher conferences, or join the PTA, or otherwise become active in the child’s school life, with the possible exception of athletics.

    Therein lies the rub. It seems to me that education can only thrive in society that values the importance of family. That’s why, IMHO, Europe, Japan, China and most other developed nations are kicking our butts when it comes to education.

    And that brings us to what Jeff said above, with which I agree totally: “I think that if we want to fix the schools, though, the most important step is to fix life.” In other words, the failure of our schools are just a reflection of the failure of our society.

    Who do we see about that?



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Herb, I only watched snippets of the Zimmerman/Martin case and was unaware of Jentel’s illiteracy, but I do remember some of her testimony. I’m glad you brought it up because it goes to the central point of the post. Maybe Jentel can’t read or write because she’s just plain stupid, but given that she’s got a lot of company in her category I suspect that isn’t the problem. She was reasonably articulate in her testimony as I recall. No, I think she’s that way for all the reasons you so cogently list, and perhaps one more: that it is un-cool in some youth cultures to like school. Therefore I agree with your conclusion that the basic fault lies in ” . . . the failure of our society.” Then you (and Jeff) ask, “who do we see about that?” Obviously a good question.

      I submit that the family is unfixable through political means. If there’s anything I’m sure of it’s that Americans absolutely hate being told how to act or what to think. We are natural-born rebels. Hell, even after incontrovertible scientific proof that smoking causes cancer it’s taken 40 years to get the smoking rate down to a quarter of the population. If fixing education depends on restoring Leave It To Beaver behavior within the population, we are doomed.

      Nope, the only hope I see is for the education establishment (and the state governments that control it) to recognize that they need to educate people differently, to adopt some method of preventing the slower students from falling behind and getting discouraged, no matter what’s going on in their home life. That’s why I am suggesting to throw out the grades and make sure each Jentel learns each lesson before continuing on. If kids see the class continuing on without them, they’ll just give up and find some other interest. And we need to pay teachers better because if we’re going to adopt this method, teachers are going to have to be more creative. They are going to have to motivate through the joy of learning and not just by the fear and loathing of tests.

      Thanks for a valuable contribution to the discussion, Herb.


  5. ansonburlingame says:

    A couple of points, if I may, in addition to another good string of thoughts. If 75% of kids (sort of) in America are not qualified to be “grunts” in the military (everyone starts as a grunt, even Jim and I during Plebe summer at USNA, one helluva boot camp) what exactly ARE they qualified to become? Give me one good drill sergeant and free rein to discipline and I could turn just about any kid (less the truly disabled) into a “grunt” in short order. By free rein to discipline I don’t mean torture, physical injury of the grave sort, etc. But mental stress, by golly yes I would do that for sure, until they were wimpering cry babies screaming for Momma. I did almost exactly that at one point long ago.

    But if they can’t be grunts, well what can they become in a modern society??

    I also agree that politics cannot DIRECTLY change families. But just look at American politics for the last 50 years and the decline in American family values. I am sure there is a correlation in there somewhere.



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Give me one good drill sergeant and free rein to discipline and I could turn just about any kid (less the truly disabled) into a “grunt” in short order.

      I used to think the same, Anson, until I found it isn’t so. Not unless, that is, the kid is motivated either through desire to pass or fear of failure, but those motivations are not always present. In fact, I would say they are in decline.

      Back in the ’70’s we had an Ensign of ROTC origin on board our ship. Strangely, he had a hippie attitude and went AWOL for a day. Hardly officer-like conduct. But what really topped it was where he said he was – on his motorcycle at an anti-war rally. This is a true story. I was XO and read him the riot act. The CO was apoplectic and he did too. Ensign K. was completely without promotion ambition and therefore unaffected by the our tirades, or by his punishment which I forget the nature of – I think it was confinement to the ship for a period of weeks. How an anti-war zealot got commissioned is a mystery to me. The point is that boot-camp discipline, just like that at the service academies, only works if the subject cares about program outcome for himself. To put this in context, I submit, you need to understand that young people at the service academies and in the Navy’s nuclear program have all been previously screened for motivation. They wouldn’t be there otherwise. Elementary and high school aren’t like that. School really ought to be seen as a privilege but instead it’s something they are made to do.

      I believe this is a big part of what’s wrong in education today. Except for high achievers, youth culture marginalizes the importance of hard work and ambition in school. If a kid falls behind and loses hope of catching up, when she’s promoted past her level of competence like Rachel Jentel (see Herb VanFleet’s comment), it seems understandable that she would look for respect and status elsewhere. Sometimes that’s a gang and sometimes the initiation price is some form of violence, which could, I suppose, have been the case with Shorty Belton’s murderers. What I’m hoping for to motivate kids in school is the lure of a diploma that, unlike Jentel’s, actually has real significance, both to the student and to prospective employers.


  6. ansonburlingame says:

    I almost started to blog on Jim’s comment above but decided to just re-emphasize my point in response. Jim said, (bold letters which he rarely does) “I submit that the family is unfixable through political means.”

    Permit me to assert (all caps as I cannot figure out how to “bold” this): POLITICS CAN DISRUPT FAMILIES, CONSIDERABLY.



  7. ansonburlingame says:


    Yes Jim, I agree to a degree with your concerns about motivation. Recall perhaps the most brutal training in our Armed Forces, initial training of a sort, SEALs and BUDs training. “Someone” rings the bell the first day and those guys all have huge motivation at 5 AM that first day on the grinder.

    But that is not High School motivation, either.

    For those 75% not qualified for military service it is a so what to most of them as they would never consider such service. For HS dropouts they, at the time of dropping out have little concern as well. So it boils down with “what to do with failures”.

    At USNA, I knew or at least was told that once I signed up, if I quit I was obligated for at least 2 years in the fleet starting as a Seaman Apprentice (E-2). I certainly did not want to do that and thus was motivated, in part, about what I would have to do after I quit USNA. I call that “fear of failure”.

    Society is fully capable of imposing harsh consequences on kids that fail. But it rarely does so. Try no “qualification” for all sorts of social benefits, if ……….. Is American society willing to use “sticks” as well as “carrots” to motivate kids today?

    In my mythical boot camp above, the consequences of failing that boot camp would be more “painful” than sticking it out to finish.




  9. Kids today don’t have enough to DO. Their lives are far to easy and not at all structured enough. I can count the kids I know who have to do “chores” on one hand. Parents need to start parenting again!


    • Jim Wheeler says:


      Like Jeff and Herb you are urging a return to the culture of yore. I agree, that would be great, but reality is against you for the majority I’m afraid. (I know this, I have grandkids.) Nowadays, with both parents working and commuting they have much less time to make the parenting effort. The babysitter is TV / internet. Breakfast and lunch occur at school. Dinner is prepared food, nuked in the microwave. Playtime is on social media, something that’s a distraction for the parents as well. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. Well, maybe you can, but most parents won’t. Good luck.


  10. Jim,

    Speaking of the decline of the family, here is an excellent article by a federal judge on that very subject. It’s a speech he gave to the Augusta Kiwanis Club this past May. I think what he says about Augusta applies nationwide:

    It reminds me a little of something in Garrett Hardin’s 1968 essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons.” (Seems like I find new stuff to think about in there each time I read it.) Anyway, the part that may apply to this discussion is Hardin’s provocative warning:

    “In a world governed solely by the principle of “dog eat dog” –if indeed there ever was such a world–how many children a family had would not be a matter of public concern. Parents who bred too exuberantly would leave fewer descendants, not more, because they would be unable to care adequately for their children.

    “If each human family were dependent only on its own resources; if the children of improvident parents starved to death; if thus, over breeding brought its own “punishment” to the germ line — then there would be no public interest in controlling the breeding of families. But our society is deeply committed to the welfare state, and hence is confronted with another aspect of the tragedy of the commons.

    “In a welfare state, how shall we deal with the family, the religion, the race, or the class (or indeed any distinguishable and cohesive group) that adopts over breeding as a policy to secure its own aggrandizement? To couple the concept of freedom to breed with the belief that everyone born has an equal right to the commons is to lock the world into a tragic course of action.”

    Talk about “Tough Love!”



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      An excellent and cerebral contribution to the discussion, Herb. Thanks.

      What Hardin describes relative to evolution rings true but I think we need to see his conundrum in its political context. If humans are little more than technological animals, the tip of the food chain as it were, then he and Malthus are right and we will eventually go the way of the dinosaurs and cockroaches will rule. However, to see the welfare state as inevitably causing overbreeding is clearly wrong. Only third world countries have a population problem and even China has taken drastic steps to control births. The U.S. birth rate is slightly under the replenishment rate and Europe’s is below ours. And not only that, despite two World Wars and the Cold War, we now have global trade and organized international agencies to do things such as the inspection for nerve gas in Syria. It ain’t perfect, but it could be lots worse. Many futures are possible, I think. One could look like North Korea and Somalia, but another could look like Finland and the new Germany.

      Nobody knows the future, but if there is to be hope then I submit that it lies with science and progressive-style government. And with fixing the education problem, I might add. That just might be what separates mankind from animal-kind. Tea-party thinking leads to cowboy diplomacy and to Hardin’s vision in my opinion.


  11. ansonburlingame says:

    Herb and Jim,

    The link sounds like a “Tea Party Judge” making a speech. But …….

    One point that struck me where he said, “The first is an unconscionable and immoral amount of public debt that our political leaders created, and unfortunately seem intent to continue to create, to satisfy the appetite of our here, now and me society.”

    He then goes on to elaborate on the single parent birth rate today and how it has changed since 1965, across all ethnic boundaries.

    Now complain of such comparisons all you like, but the numbers are factual as best I can tell. I have not heard anyone dispute the 75% (about) single parent birthrate for blacks today, as just an example of a “bad statistic”, statistically. But many will claim it is used only as racist views or statistics.

    But back to “debt”, far too much debt today. Consider this simple point. IF we governed to eliminate debt by the federal government, as we do to an extent at least with state governments, well just imagine the results. No I don’t mean eliminate the various programs causing the debt. I mean simply taxing all Americans to eliminate the debt, period.

    Simple example. If all Americans want Medicare, then tax all Americans to pay for Medicare, sustainably, year in and year out, period. Recall the uproar a year ago to increase taxes by some $60 Billion a year. Then go figure out how to tax enough and from whom, to eliminate the $250 Billion Medicare deficit each year.

    Of course such opinions create all sorts of uproar of “we need it” and therefore ………

    Europe faces that dilemma, America is increasingly facing that dilemma, essentially the entire “western world” is facing that dilemma, how to pay for all demanded. China does not yet face that dilemma nor does Russia seem to pay much heed to it as well, meeting the demands of the “people”.

    No doubt that the demographic center of gravity of America is changing, rather dramatically. More and more have nots are overwhelming the haves, numerically, in America. The middle class is going down rather fast for sure and joining the ranks of the have nots. I don’t dispute such “facts” or at least reasonable observations.

    But my challenge is what to do next, to face such demographic changes in America alone, forget the rest of the world for a moment (like bombing Syria with standoff cruise missiles as a solution to Syria’s issues). Force payment when payment is due, nationally and watch what happens next. My guess is the political center of gravity, a far different one than the demographic center of gravity might be, will cause ……… in the coming years.

    Now fill in such dots and my guess is the word “authoritarian” will be imbedded therein if we are not very careful, socially in America in the coming years.



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