Wednesday, February 21, 2018

“Leaving the Highway” - A Dispatch from the Sunshine State

The River Styx - February 2, 2018
Dateline: Gainesville, Florida


Florida has always been a big part of my life having vacationed here with my family when I was young. I spent my undergraduate college years at Florida Southern College, in Lakeland, if for no other reason than I was quickly growing tired of those cold and dreary Midwestern winters. It was in Florida where I met and married my wife of 43 years, a native Florida gal. I still have family and friends here. My father is buried here. And it was here in Gainesville where I began this blog almost a decade ago.

Many of us, including my younger self, think of Florida as a place of sun and fun, a place to escape to when life elsewhere in America has grown old and tiresome. Yet for some of the natives, Florida can become just as old and tiresome . . . just a place to be. My wife has felt this way having grown up here although nostalgia and thoughts of family and friends still here have tempered this a bit over the years. "Florida is a transient state in which too many rootless people dare nothing for the past nor this state’s future," writes Floridian novelist Randy Wayne White in Ten Thousand Island (2000). "Florida is a vacation destination or a retirement place, as temporary as time spent in a bus station . . . Like a bus station, Florida attracts con men and predators. It always has, Florida always will."

I am quite certain this is true. When you get right down to it, Florida is really no different from any other state. There will always be those who sing its praises while others disparage it every chance they get. Florida is certainly not the state I expected to find the first time I visited here in December 1962. There was a lot more to the place than the beaches and palm trees I had seen in photographs and on postcards. I have always enjoyed the beaches, but I am strongly drawn to the less visited hinterlands, especially the inland scrub of central North Florida. Ocala north to the Georgia border, along with the Panhandle, resembles southern Georgia more than it does peninsular Central and South Florida. To quote an old adage: "In Florida, the farther north you go, the farther south you are." And this is truer than one might think for North Florida still retains its strong Southern roots.

For over five decades I have been a regular visitor to Florida - mainly to the Gulf Coast where my family vacationed when I was young and where my parents retired in 1984. There were my three years of college in Lakeland (a year was also spent in Germany), and now there is my in-law’s home in Gainesville, the county seat of Alachua County in central North Florida about an hour and a half southwest of Jacksonville and two hours north of both Orlando and Tampa. For several years now Gainesville has been ranked high on the list of the best places to live in the USA. Driving across town one is struck by the large variety of trees; despite development the city has been careful to preserve its urban forest. I have always felt very much at home here. It feels like home away from home.

Alachua County today is somewhat of an anomaly, tending to be more liberal than the rest of North Florida due in large part to the presence of the University of Florida campus (the fifth largest in the USA in terms of enrollment) and the diversified community that supports it. There are world famous medical facilities. There is a thriving cultural scene in the area with several museums and performing arts venues. Gainesville is the home of the late Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Stephen Stills lived here as a boy, as did Don Felder and Bernie Leadon of The Eagles. They, along with Petty, all attended Gainesville High School. And one cannot overlook sports (GO GATORS!!) The University is by far the largest employer in the area and locals wear the Orange and Blue everywhere you go.

That said, Alachua County was not always this forward thinking. According to the county’s Historical Commission it was the site of at least 21 documented lynchings of African Americans between 1877 and 1950, including at least ten in Newberry, just a few miles west of Gainesville. In 2017, Alachua County announced plans to place markers at the sites of every extra-judicial killing in the county along with a memorial plaque in Gainesville listing all of the victims. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center there are still several Ku Klux Klan entities, as well as other white supremacist and separatist organizations, operating throughout Florida. How can we overlook the fact that a self-proclaimed white supremacist murdered 17 high school students and faculty in South Florida just a week ago? So Randy Wayne White was perhaps not too far off the mark with his views on modern Florida. It is still a very edgy state in so many ways, especially when one ventures into the rural interior.

I choose, however, not to dwell on all of this, but to celebrate
this inland North Florida scrub land I have come to love over the years. This brings me back to my own "small place of enchantment" as Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (1896-1953) called rural Alachua County southeast of Gainesville. Rawlings, a 20th century American author, moved south to Florida in 1928 and purchased a 70-acre farm and orange grove in Cross Creek where she lived until her death in 1953. There she wrote novels set in the Florida scrub, the most famous of these being The Yearling which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, in 1939.

It is to this little corner of Alachua County that I return to every time I come to Florida. A visit would not be complete without a trip to Cross Creek and the Florida scrub, roaming the back roads over by Cross Creek, Micanopy, Island Pond, and Hawthorne. The narrow country roads pass under canopies of live oak festooned with long gray beards of Spanish moss. This year, in the wake of last autumn’s Hurricane Irma and its torrential rainfalls, there is plenty of water in Cross Creek, connecting Orange and Lochloosa lakes, and in the River Styx which is only a few miles long and more a swampy creek than a formidable river. It connects Newnan's Lake with Orange Lake. This is not always the case and I have visited this area there was no water in them or in the lakes they connect. But this year there are white herons and egrets wading the sedgy sloughs looking for their next meal. An alligator was resting on the bank as if he had not a care in the world. This entire area is a high-quality bald cypress swamp forest surrounded by Southeastern conifer, sand pine scrub, saw and scrub palmetto and swamp tupelo . . . part of the extensive Ocala National Forest, the southernmost in the USA and one of the largest east of the Mississippi.

Again, I am reminded why I like to come back to this special part of Florida. Perhaps Miss Rawlings said it best when surveying her home and farm at Cross Creek. "It is necessary to leave the impersonal highway, to step inside the rusty gate and close it behind. One is now inside the orange grove, out of one world and in the mysterious heart of another. And after long years of spiritual homelessness, of nostalgia, here is that mystic loveliness of childhood again. Here is home."

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Called By No Name Except Deportees

The crops are all in and the peaches are rott'ning,
The oranges piled in their creosote dumps;
They're flying 'em back to the Mexican border
To pay all their money to wade back again


Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita,
Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria;
You won't have your names when you ride the big airplane,
All they will call you will be "deportees"
 


My father's own father, he waded that river,
They took all the money he made in his life;
My brothers and sisters come working the fruit trees,
And they rode the truck till they took down and died.


Some of us are illegal, and some are not wanted,
Our work contract's out and we have to move on;
Six hundred miles to that Mexican border,
They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.


We died in your hills, we died in your deserts,
We died in your valleys and died on your plains.
We died 'neath your trees and we died in your bushes,
Both sides of the river, we died just the same.


The sky plane caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon,
A fireball of lightning, and shook all our hills,
Who are all these friends, all scattered like dry leaves?
The radio says, "They are just deportees"


Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards?
Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit?
To fall like dry leaves to rot on my topsoil
And be called by no name except "deportees"?

                                             – Woody Guthrie

Seventy years ago, on a winter morning in late January 1948, a DC-3 aircraft chartered by the former US Immigration and Naturalization Service [INS] departed an airport in Oakland, California bound for El Centro, just a few miles north of the US-Mexican border after a brief refueling stop in Burbank, the plane’s home near Los Angeles. On board was a three-person flight crew and an INS agent. Some of the remaining 28 passengers were bracero guest workers returning to Mexico at the end of their contract in the fruit groves. Some were undocumented aliens being deported by INS.

Some of us are illegal, and some are not wanted,
Our work contract's out and we have to move on;
Six hundred miles to that Mexican border,
They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.


Approximately 150 miles south of Oakland a fire broke out in one of the plane’s two engines. As the fire spread one of the wings sheared off and the aircraft spiraled into Los Gatos Canyon some 20 miles from Coalinga near Fresno, crashing in a massive fireball. Despite attempted rescue efforts, everyone on board was killed instantly.

We died in your hills, we died in your deserts,
We died in your valleys and died on your plains.
We died 'neath your trees and we died in your bushes,
Both sides of the river, we died just the same.


Media reports at the time would identify the flight crew and the INS agent and their bodies were eventually returned to

their families for burial. The remaining victims were identified only as "deportees." Not all of them were. In fact, one of the victims was born in Spain and was not a deportee or a Mexican national. Nevertheless, he was buried anonymously with the others in a mass grave on the fringes of a cemetery in Fresno. "Here lies 28 Mexican nationals."

This incident would have passed into a distant and soon forgotten memory had it not been for Woody Guthrie who penned the above poem – "Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos") – to retell the story of the crash and the sad fate of the mostly anonymous victims who died violently and were buried without their names. Very few of their families ever learned what happened to their loved ones until much later. Guthrie’s poem condemned the treatment of those who came to this country to help harvest our crops.

They're flying 'em back to the Mexican border
To pay all their money to wade back again


The poem was eventually set to music by Martin Hoffmann, and Guthrie’s friend Pete Seeger began performing it at concerts. Over the past seven decades it has been covered by numerous and varied musical artists, including this beautiful cover by Woody’s son Arlo: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c2eO65BqxBE

In the years since this song was written the plight of the Mexican field workers has improved only slightly. Those who have remained in this country to work the fields live mostly in poverty. Those who are here illegally always live with the threat of deportation. And still they come to America to what they hope will be a better life for them and their families. They do work many Americans feel is beneath them. Today there is a border wall and our current so-called leaders want to build a bigger and better one. In Woody Guthrie’s time the Mexican workers were treated "like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves." Our current president added "rapists" and believes America can only be great again if this country rids itself of undesirable foreigners, be they Mexicans . . . or Muslims . . . and whoever he decides to add to the list. To him they are not immigrants yearning to be free. They are not field workers, students, teachers, doctors, lawyers, inventors, veterans who served this country in combat . . . this list goes on. Dreamers all.

You won't have your names when you ride the big airplane,
All they will call you will be "deportees"




Friday, February 9, 2018

Corporal Harry E. Kirby - A Brother in Arms

I wrote briefly about my father’s wartime service shortly after his death, in October 2009. He had served in the104th Infantry Regiment, 26th Infantry (Yankee) Division in General George Patton’s Third Army during the northern European campaign, in 1944-1945.

In the spring of 2011, I visited his grave at the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell for the first time since his memorial service there the previous spring. It was my first opportunity to see the inscription on the marble tablet marking the niche containing his ashes. It was then and there that I learned for the first time, and much to my complete surprise, that my father had received the Bronze Star, the fourth highest decoration awarded for distinguished, heroic or meritorious achievement or service in combat. He really was a hero even if not many people knew it.

A few days later my wife and I visited with one of the last surviving members of Dad’s unit. I first learned about Harry Kirby a few years before when I was doing some online research on the Ardennes region of eastern Belgium and Luxembourg. I came across a photo essay on the area by a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge who had returned to visit the places he knew from the war. Many of the places and events he described seemed very similar to the ones Dad had told me about when I was a kid. I called Dad up and asked him whether he knew the guy who had posted the photos. "Why sure," he said. "Harry was one of my closest buddies during the war." They had not seen each other since the early days of 1945, in the immediate wake of the battle, and, as it turned out, they lived only a few miles apart in Florida.

Dad gave Harry a call and over the next few months they renewed their old friendship. Harry and I also exchanged 

Ralph C. Rogers (1924-2009) & Harry E. Kirby (1924-2017)
Florida 2008
occasional notes and we planned to meet one day when my travels took me again to Florida. I regret that I was not able to meet with Harry while Dad was still alive, but over our lunch with Harry and his wife Jean in their lovely home near Ocala, I told Harry what I knew of Dad’s wartime exploits and he was able to fill me in on many more details. He answered a lot of questions I had about that chapter of my Dad’s life, including how and under what circumstances he received the Bronze Star. It turns out he and Dad were together during the days leading up to and during the Battle of the Bulge. Harry won the Bronze Star the same time as Dad.

The above sketch of then Private First Class Harry Kirby was made at Esch-sur-Süre, Luxembourg in December 1945, at the height of the American counter-offensive during the Battle of the Bulge, the largest land battle ever conducted by the US Army. Harry and my father were pinned down there at Christmas, and Dad told many stories about this. Harry provided more details about the battle, and his subsequent visits to the area after the war, and he was tickled to learn that I had also visited the area, including Esch-sur-Sûre during Christmas 1971, when I was a university student in Germany, and had searched out many of the landmarks Dad had told me about.

I would have more questions and Harry and I continued to exchange notes; not only about the war and his friendship with Dad, but also about his growing up in Maryland and his years sailing the Chesapeake Bay. We both studied at the University of Maryland and he also shared several memories of life on campus. Having resided in Maryland for over 40 years, I was always interested to receive his stories and anecdotes. I also enjoyed other stories about his postwar years that took him to Chicago, my hometown, and his career with Sears. He laughed when I told him Dad retired from JC Penney’s corporate headquarters. They fought together, and Harry was willing to forgive this one lapse in judgement on my Dad’s part. And I always wished Harry a Happy Birthday on February 3. I was getting ready to do so again this year - he would turn 94 - when I learned that Harry passed away last summer, on July 29. As he was the last surviving member of my Dad’s immediate wartime unit, and the only one I was lucky enough to meet, I think it only proper that I pay tribute to his service and his memory.

Harry Elmer Kirby was born February 3, 1924 in Baltimore, Maryland. Prior to the war he studied at the Baltimore Business College, the University of Maryland, and after entering military service, at the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP), at the University of Maine (where he first met my father). The ASTP was designed to single out specially qualified soldiers for their exceptional IQs and send them to various college campuses around the United States to learn special war skills. Some were also enrolled in Officers Candidate School (OCS) to be trained for a specialized officers corps to serve as Army engineers as the war expanded in the European Theater. The war had not yet begun in earnest for these young men, but they all knew their time would come. They were "soldiers first, students second." Unfortunately, it would not last.

In February 1944, many of the soldiers enrolled in the basic part of the program, including my father and Harry, were called to active combat duty. Casualties were mounting rapidly in Europe and they did not realize the Sword of Valor on their ASTP shoulder patch would come so quickly. The Army decided its need for infantry replacements was more pressing than the need for technical specialties. My father and Harry traveled by train to Tennessee to join the 104th Infantry Regiment, 26th Infantry "Yankee" Division, in the US Second Army’s spring maneuvers. They were needed to bring the division up to strength before it was shipped to France in the wake of the D-Day invasion where it would join the US Third Army under General George Patton. Originally consisting of personnel from the Massachusetts National Guard, the division was no longer the special pride of New England as its ranks swelled with men from all over the United States. The ASTP soldiers would serve in the front ranks as combat infantry riflemen and knew from the beginning that their future looked grim. Many who went would never come home again.

Harry and Dad served their country proudly in France,
Ralph Rogers (far left) and Harry Kirby (second from right with pipe)
Northern France 1944
Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany and both were awarded the Bronze Star, the Combat Infantry Badge, Good Conduct Medal, World War II Victory Medal, and the American Campaign and European Theater Ribbons with three Battle Stars – Northern France, the Ardennes (Battle of the Bulge) and the Rhineland – as well as the Croix de Guerre awarded by the Government of France. And thankfully, they were both able to return to their families and to build new ones of their own.

After the war, Harry continued his studies at the Baltimore College of Commerce for three years. He worked in the tire and rubber industry, first with Firestone in Baltimore, and then at Sears' Chicago headquarters as an Assistant National Sales Manager, and later as National Marketing Manager for commercial tires and batteries, a position he held until his retirement. He then accepted a position
as Vice President for Sales and Marketing at TTS Corporation, in Chelsea, Massachusetts before establishing his own consulting business in North Carolina. He finally retired to Ocala, Florida.


Harry and his wife Jean made five trips back to Europe after the war, especially to Luxembourg to visit memorials to Americans who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, including the Hamm Military Cemetery where many from his and Dad’s 26th Infantry Division are buried. Harry was a member of the Yankee Division Association, the Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the American Legion. He frequently spoke at local schools and to other groups about this wartime service.

Harry is survived by his wife of 72 years, five children, six grandchildren, and two great granddaughters. He was buried at the Florida National Cemetery with full military honors on August 15, 2017. I visited Dad and Harry a few days ago. Brothers in arms during World War II, Florida retirees in later life, they rest together in this sacred and hallowed ground. They have joined their other buddies from their unit. They are all gone now. Gone, but never forgotten. They all traveled many miles in peril and in peace. They sacrificed for the living and the yet unborn. This was the promise they were sworn to keep. Now they rest in peace and deserve their sleep.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Speak Out Against Fascism!

Writers and artists fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s because they believed that art cannot flourish in a reactionary environment.  Ernest Hemingway, speaking in New York City in 1937, said, "There is only one form of government that cannot produce good writing, and that system is fascism." American writers and artists today should use their talents to stem the tide of reactionary nationalism and populism taking root in this country, even at the highest levels of government. It is how we keep creative thought alive in this country. The alternative is unacceptable. RESIST!!

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Turkey’s Olive Branch??

On January 20, Turkey, a NATO ally of the United States, launched a military offensive, including a massive ground operation supported by air strikes, against the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units [YGP] in the northwestern Syrian province of Afrin. Turkey considers the YGP, which is supported by the United States in their joint effort to eradicate Daesh [ISIS] in Syria, a "terrorist" organization. Ironically called "Operation Olive Branch" (a traditional symbol of a peace offering), this military action seeks to eradicate the YGP rebels, which Turkey also believes is part of that country’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party [PKK], operating in Afrin province. This is Turkey’s second major military incursion into Syria since 2011 and to date dozens of Afrin civilians have been killed or wounded in the latest operation.

Yesterday the Turkish Interior Ministry in Ankara announced that it has detained over 300 Turkish civilians, including pro-Kurdish politicians and journalists, for their condemnation on social media of Turkish military operations against the Syrian Kurdish enclave in Afrin. The Turkish government believes these individuals are involved in "propaganda for a terrorist organization." Hundreds of others are under suspicion and are being investigated. Accusations also included the very murky charge of "insulting the government" and the unity of the Turkish republic. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdo an has also accused the Turkish Medical Association of treason for its opposition to the military offensive, calling them a "gang of slaves" to [US] imperialism and their opposition to war "real filth." Today Turkish authorities arrested eleven members of the Association’s Central Council for opposing the military incursion into Afrin province. The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders has called these detentions nothing more than a "witch hunt against critics."

Many international organizations, including Human Rights Watch, are warning people living or traveling in Turkey to be cautious when expressing political opinions in public or on social media. These recent arrests make ever clearer the increasing restrictions on freedom of speech in Turkey as the government continues to crackdown on opponents real and imagined since the failed military coup attempt in the summer of 2016. Over 60,000 people have been arrested while 150,000 have been fired or forced to resign from their jobs and positions.

Yet there is more to this current military offensive than meets the eye. Washington-based al-Monitor reported yesterday that Erdo an aims to resettle Afrin province with "the real owners of the area." This includes pro-Turkish Syrian militias along with the thousands of Syrians who have fled their homeland during the civil war and who are now housed in refugee centers throughout Turkey. This new offensive will continue, the Turkish government claims, until the province is cleansed and the so-called terrorists, whom we should not forget, are backed by the United States, are eradicated. Erdo an has gone a step further claiming he would destroy all Kurdish "terrorists" in Syria. Furthermore, the Turkish government has warned that a confrontation with US troops is not of out the question as long as they continue to arm and support the YPG. More ominous, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozda warned yesterday that US troops will be targeted if they are discovered openly supporting YGP troops. Although Bozdag stated further that the chance of such a confrontation with the US is slim, Turkey has shown it has no problem clashing with a NATO ally considering its numerous confrontations with neighboring Greece, including a brief one only yesterday in a disputed area in the Aegean Sea. Given these threats I fear that somehow the US will bend to Turkish pressure and abandon its YGP ally, as well as the broader Kurdish anti-ISIS forces in Iraq, who helped destroy ISIS in that country and in Syria.

Regardless of the military operations in Afrin and throughout the rest of Syria, which are becoming increasingly complex, I am most deeply troubled by the domestic instability in Turkey which has resulted in a quickening deconstruction of basic human rights and personal freedoms, including the freedom of expression which has targeted domestic and foreign writers and journalists. The Turkish constitution and various penal codes restrict various freedoms of expression, including prohibitions against insulting the government and the institutions and symbols of the "Turkish nation." These restrictions apply to speech, print, and the Internet and social media. Turkish courts have blocked access to websites that insult "Turkishness," whatever that might include.

These most recent arrests announced yesterday are yet another 300+ nails in the coffin of free speech and democracy in Turkey. As long as these threats and restrictions exist, Turkey can never assume a place in the community of civilized nations.

Monday, January 15, 2018

I’m Sorry - An Apology, Not an Apologia

An "apologia" is a defense - justified or not - for one’s opinion or conduct. An "apology" is a regretful acknowledgment of an offense or failure.

This is an apology, but for nothing that I have done personally. I am apologizing for the failure of my country to live up to the standards our Founding Fathers and Mothers established for the people of the United States . . . "to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity . . . ." If you disagree with that, let me remind you this comes from the preamble of the Constitution, a document the folks in the White House and on Capitol Hill should be familiar with by now. Or so one would hope. Each has taken an oath to uphold the Constitution.

I am growing tired of the constant litany of faux pas, gaffes, indiscretions, improprieties, and solecisms that have come to represent the will and the way of this White House throughout the past year. It seems to me each one is more outrageous and contemptible than the last. The president has long been considered the leader of the free world and the spokesperson for democratic ideals, yet the current occupant of the Oval Office has promptly and completely surrendered these roles confounding our enemies and our allies in equal measure. And in doing so he is leaving the American people, those who did not vote for him, and now many who did, bewildered and perplexed. He promised to make America great again. But should this be at the expense of our hard won reputation throughout the world community? We can no longer call ours the greatest country in the world if we are going to sit idly by and let this poor excuse of a national leader speak for us.

I am likewise getting damned tired of having to apologize to friends and colleagues in other countries – including some who live and work in countries our president [sic] has now characterized as "shithole countries" . . . just one more disparagement in an unbroken chain of asinine, ignorant, xenophobic, and downright racist comments and tweets flowing out of this Oval Office. Also for all of the senseless, ill-informed, not to mention his loathsome, unsavory, insalubrious, exasperating, infuriating . . . and just downright ugly rhetoric. Add to this the lame apologia offered up by those in the White House and on Capitol Hill who continue to defend the man [sic] and his ignorance and lack of statecraft. Those who enable and excuse this aberrant behavior are equally guilty. I feel I have to apologize for, but never excuse, these words and actions because the man [sic] guilty of this ignorance and offence does not have it in his DNA to admit when he is wrong. The president [sic] should be ashamed of himself, but then again he has no shame, no moral compass, not one iota or scintilla of an idea what he is doing or the significance of what he does or says. If he did, we would not be treated to these daily, if not hourly, dreckfests.

That said, as a citizen of the United States, I apologize to those offended and I assure you that I am equally ashamed of the leader [sic] of this country and all those who, for whatever reason, refuse to step up and register their shame and disapproval. As folks say in some of the nations referred to as a "shithole countries" - "Digame con quién caminas, y te diré quién eres." . . . . "Tell me who you walk with, and I’ll tell you who you are." Please know that I do not walk with those who cast dispersions on others out of ignorance. RESIST!

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

In the Golden Arc - Johannesburg and Soweto - Into Africa - Part III

Part Three of Six

I was reminded that first morning in Johannesburg of something Ernest Hemingway once said . . . that he never knew a morning in Africa when he awoke and was not happy. Before arriving here I would have questioned if such a thing were possible. Yet I knew there was something to it when I arose every morning of our trip with a happiness I could not explain . . . perhaps knowing that each day would be full of new discoveries and experiences . . . seeing things I had only dreamed of.

We slept like the dead, and that first morning, after showering and dressing, I took a short walk around the grounds of our bed and breakfast. It was early autumn in the Southern Hemisphere and the leaves were beginning to turn. The air was fresh and sweet. Autumn has always been my favorite season, and now I was going to enjoy it twice in the same year. One thing I noticed almost immediately were the high security walls topped with barbed wire and the gated driveway. I asked our host, a white Afrikaner, about this and she said it was pretty much de rigeur throughout South Africa. And not just the residences of the minority white population. Our travels throughout South Africa would prove this true. Marlboro Gardens seemed such a quiet and peaceful residential suburb today, yet during the years of apartheid, when the area was an Indian township, it was frequently the scene of bitter racial disturbances and the crime level, as is the case throughout Johannesburg, the country's largest city with its 4+ million inhabitants, is still a significant problem.

When planning our trip to South Africa we gave very little attention to Johannesburg as it has never been considered a traditional tourist destination due to its size and its infamous crime. Many view it as just another big city with little to offer compared with what lies beyond. People fly into Johannesburg and then quickly disperse to the many game preserves and other nature sites throughout the region, returning only to catch their homeward bound flight. This was essentially our own plan as we mapped out the logistics of our own trip. We would fly into Johannesburg, spend one night and then head into the bushveld to see what we had really come to see. As our planning began to coalesce, however, we looked into the possibility of visiting one of the former Black African townships that encircle the city. Soweto and Alexandra immediately came to mind as they each played a strong role in the eventually existential battle against apartheid.

If crime was rampant, you would not know it on that pleasant early autumn morning as we ate a casual breakfast on the porch of our B&B. Afterwards our host drove us a short distance to the Marlboro train station where we caught the Gautrain for the short hop to the upscale northern borough of Sandton. She would meet us there again in the afternoon along with our luggage. This modern light rail system opened in 2009 in time for the 2010 FIFA World Cup soccer competition hosted by South Africa. It now links Johannesburg and the airport with the capital city of Pretoria a few miles to the north.


Along the way we got our first real look at the former "native township" of Alexandra – known locally simply as "Alex" – which in contrast to modern Sandton is among the poorest urban areas in the entire country. Almost 200,000 people are crowded into three square miles. Alexandra was the home of Nelson Mandela in the early 1940s, as well as several ministers of his African National Congress government when he became the first black president of South Africa in 1994. It was also home to Samora Machel, later president of neighboring Mozambique whose widow Mandela married after divorcing his second wife Winnie. Machel lived in Alexandra in the 1950s and 1960s when he worked at a hotel in downtown Johannesburg. Hastings Banda, a former president of Malawi, also lived here for a time before moving to Soweto. It is now home to an ever-growing population of Zimbabweans who have fled their chaotic homeland in search of jobs. In the early 1980s a new master plan was introduced to transform and modernize Alexandra, but all of this came to an end in February 1986 when a violent uprising known popularly as "Alex Six Days" resulted in scores being killed by security forces while attending a funeral. Tensions still exist there today as they do in other townships around the country.

Just a short distance to the west is Sandton which is considered by many to be the wealthiest square mile in all of Africa. It certainly appeared so on first blush, especially after traveling along the outer fringes of Alexandra. Sandton became a destination of white flight in the mid 1990s when the ANC government took power in the midst of racial unrest throughout the country. Many hotels and corporate offices have since relocated here to escape the urban decay and rampant crime in central Johannesburg and elsewhere. Despite its reputation as a moneyed enclave, I found a rather cheery and pleasant racial mix going about their daily lives among sidewalk markets adjacent to upscale galleries and boutique, it streets full of traffic, including a fleet of tuk-tuks, those three-wheel motorized rickshaws used for deliveries and as taxis. These would be a common sight as one passes through South Africa’s urban areas.


From Sandton we made our way slowly through central precincts of Johannesburg on the MI autoroute. South Africa’s largest city – frequently referred to as simply "Jo-burg" - is situated on the Witwatersrand, an east-west escarpment running through today’s Gauteng (Sesotho for "place of gold") and Mpumalanga provinces. This area was originally highveld grasslands covered with scrub brush until the Afrikaner farmers moved into the former Transvaal (South African Republic) from the British (formerly Dutch) Cape Colony (centered around Cape Town and the Cape of Good Hope) in the late 19th century. This region is also part of South Africa’s Golden Arc," the massive gold-bearing reefs where at one time almost half of the world’s gold was mined following its discovery in 1886, the same year Johannesburg was established by those attracted to the new gold rush.

There were few if any naturally occurring trees in the Witwatersrand when the Afrikaners arrived. They brought with them seeds - oak and walnut mostly - from the Cape Colony to plant as wind breaks for their new farms. With the development of the gold mining industry in the area, the mining companies established a horticultural center just north of Johannesburg to cultivate trees whose wood would be satisfactory for reinforcing mine shafts and tunnels. They would eventually settle on the blue gum (eucalyptus) which quickly became an important commodity supporting the South African economy. Various types of trees were planted along city streets and residents were encouraged to plant trees on their property and in their gardens. Over the past century the city has continued to plant and cultivate trees, especially in those underclass areas that suffered under apartheid, and today Johannesburg is considered one of the world’s greenest cities. Towering above the city’s treescape are long ochre-hued hummocks formed by the tailings from the mining of the gold reefs.

Arriving in teeming Soweto, the oldest former Black African (the current official demographic designation) township established in the 1930s and situated on the southwestern edge of the city (thus the name), I was surprised to discover that it was far larger and more diverse than I had expected with a population well over one million. Established in the wake of the Urban Areas Act of 1923 which sought to separate the races, Soweto is now technically part of the City of Johannesburg Metropolitan Municipality since 2002. Yet Soweto is in many ways a city unto itself with its own core neighborhoods and"suburbs." Like many, I first learned of Soweto in 1976 when a massive violent uprising against apartheid rule erupted here and quickly spread to other townships, including Alexandra. Scores of blacks were killed and the uprising marked the beginning of the slow deconstruction of the apartheid system.

Our driver and guide was a Zulu resident of Soweto (they are
the largest ethnic Bantu people in both South Africa and Soweto) who shared with us the rich colorful history of various sections of the township, from Diepkloof through Kliptown to Orlando. Despite its size, in many ways my first impressions of Soweto matched what I expected to find. Here was the maze of shanty neighborhoods with their corrugated tin houses and huts.
Running water and electricity are still scare in many areas and electrical connection are jerry rigged, and many gather their water from communal wells. Stalls and open-air markets are scattered about everywhere. One sees few trees in Soweto. It’s streets - some paved and many not - are crowded with people, cars, motorbikes and scooters, mini-van buses, tuk-tuks and mule carts.


For me there were two memorable moments during our visit to Soweto. The first was our stop at Walter Sisulu Square, in the heart of Kliptown, where we were able to explore sacred ground for South Africa’s native peoples. For it was in a field located here on June 26-27, 1955 that the Congress of the
People rose up in resistance against apartheid with its Freedom Charter which would become the cornerstone of the African National Congress and the current constitution of a multi-cultural and non-racial South Africa. Many participating delegates were arrested and subsequently imprisoned for treason against the state. The ten tenets of the charter are etched in bronze under a brick tower located in the square.


Next we drove to nearby Vilakazi Street in Orlando West to visit the Nelson Mandela House and Museum. Mandela lived in this small brick house from 1946 until 1962 when he was
arrested for treason and later sent to prison for 27 years. He returned here briefly in 1990 upon his release from captivity. The house is full of mementoes from his life and public service. Mandela has long been one of my heroes, especially after I saw him motoring down Pennsylvania Avenue In Washington, DC in May 1990, just a very few months after his release from prison. So it was a very moving experience to spend some time here. A very short distance away is the home of Archbishop Desmond Tutu which is still a private residence. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Nelson’s second wife, also lives nearby. Vilakazi Street is the only street in the world that can claim the homes of two Nobel laureates. It is lined with shops and restaurants and street was full of warm and friendly people with smiling faces. Life is still hard in Soweto, but the people find a reason to smile.


Some of the residential areas throughout Soweto struck me as solidly middle-class, some even with Mercedes and Jaguars parked in the driveways. Our guide told us that some of the wealthiest blacks still choose to reside in Soweto. Much of the township, however, is gut-wrenchingly poor. To call it a slum would be too kind. It reminded me a great deal of scenes from the gritty 2005 film Tsotsi set in the Alexandra township although it was actually filmed in some of the Soweto neighborhoods we drove through. Based on a novel by contemporary playwright Athol Fugard (more on him in Part VI), it won the 2006 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film (featuring Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans, as well as some English).

We continued past the brightly painted Orlando Towers -
cooling towers at the former coal burning power plant - which are well-known Soweto landmarks and then passed the massive Chris Hani-Baragwanath Hospital, a former British hospital now named after the former head of the South African Communist Party and an ANC activist until his assassination in 1993. His image, and that of Mandela, Sisilu and other ANC luminaries, are found on buildings and walls throughout Soweto.


Following our visit we returned to the Marlboro train station later in the afternoon where our previous night’s host met us with out luggage. We took the Gautrain back to the airport to meet other members of our upcoming safari who were arriving on a flight from Atlanta. From there we headed north to Brits, near Pretoria, where we would spend the next two nights.


Sunday, January 7, 2018

The Longest Day - Into Africa - Part II


Part Two of Six

I explored various options concerning our travel to and from South Africa. I had originally hoped we might fly to Johannesburg via Addis Ababa which would have presented the option of exploring Ethiopia for a few days. Unfortunately our schedule and rather complicated logistics made this option impractical and we ended up flying directly from Washington, DC to Johannesburg.

Departing Dulles
It was a twenty hour flight. Departing Dulles International Airport shortly before dusk, the South African Airway jet cut through the night as it crossed the North Atlantic. I have flown to and from Europe many times and the seven or eight hour flight can seem grueling, leaving one in the throes of severe jet lag due to the length of the flight and the five to six hour time difference. One’s circadian rhythm is disrupted and it can take days to recover. The flight to Africa would take ten hours to Accra, Ghana followed by an equally lengthy leg to Johannesburg. Not being able to sleep well on planes (this flight being exacerbated by the fact that the passenger sitting behind me was coughing up a lung all the way to Accra), I feared I would be totally exhausted by the time we arrived in South Africa.

There was nothing to see below until I spotted the lights of Dakar, Senegal extending along the African coastline from Cap-Vert in the early morning darkness. Jutting far out into the dark Atlantic void, this is the westernmost point of the African continent. It seemed fitting that this is where we would make landfall, and rather poetic considering that Dakar, my first sighting in Africa, is a sister city of Washington DC which we had departed just a few hours earlier. I’ll mention Dakar again in Part VI of this blog series as our plane would land there for a brief refueling stop on the trip home.

From there our route took us across the length of Senegal and Guinea, and a thick cloud cover greeted us as Palm Sunday dawned somewhere over northwestern Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast). We did not descend through it until we made our approach to Accra, Ghana – the trip’s half-way point. The green landscape stretched as far as I could see, interrupted only occasionally by a clearing surrounding a small village from which dirt trails and roadways extended in every direction. There was very little traffic on the roads. The ground below became more cluttered with housing tracts and industrial sites and we made our final approach to the Kotoka International Airport situated in central Accra. Most of the roads were unimproved except in the city center business district which appeared quite modern.

I had always imagined that, if I ever came to Africa, Accra would be on the list of places I would visit. Ghana, formerly the British Gold Coast colony, was one of the earliest African countries (after Liberia, South Africa, Egypt, Sudan, Libya and Tunisia) to throw off the shackles of colonialism, in 1957. Kwame Nkrumah, a colonial leader and first president of Ghana, was an early advocate of the pan-African movement and a founder of the Organization of African Unity. In high school I read Dark Days in Ghana, his 1968 autobiography, as well as a collection of his political axioms published the previous year. Both were published following the 1966 coup d’etat in which he was overthrown while visiting North Vietnam (he was a dedicated Marxist). The coup and its impact on the independence movements throughout Africa was one of the subjects discussed at the conference I attended in Chicago in 1969 (see Part I). Nkrumah lived in exile in Guinea until his death in 1972. He is now buried in Accra. Unfortunately I would get no farther than the airport on this trip, yet as we sat on the tarmac on a rainy Sunday morning in Accra, I hoped that one day I might return for a longer visit. There is so much history there.

We were on the ground in rainy Accra for less than two hours as we took on fuel and a new crew and passengers. Soon we were back in the air and into the clouds again as we crossed the Ghanian coastline shortly after take-off. We continued our journey over the Gulf Of Guinea and the South Atlantic. The remainder of the flight was during the daylight hours and I watched our position on the seat-back screen as it ticked down to 00º00". We crossed the Equator for the very first time not far from the islands of São Tomé and Principe, a microscopic republic in the Gulf of Guinea off the coast of Gabon. We crossed back over the Africa coastline in northwestern Angola. The cloud cover was still thick and I did not see the ground again until we were somewhere over the Caprivi Strip in northeastern Namibia.
 

Over Botswana
This was my first good look at southern Africa; not much down there but barren hills, forests, and an occasional road or track as we continued to fly over the Okavango Delta and the edges of the Kalahari desert of Botswana. "Why is it you can never hope to describe the emotions Africa creates?" writes Fransesca Marciano. "You are lifted. Out of whatever pit, unbound from whatever tie, released from whatever fear. You are lifted and you will see it all from above." Indeed I was. Far below was the continent I always dreamed of visiting. And now I was here.

We eventually arrived at Johannesburg’s O. R. Tambo International Airport just before dusk. Named for a former president of the ruling African National Congress, it is the busiest airport in all of Africa since 1996. Coupling the flight time and the stop in Accra with the six hour time zone differentiation, we arrived in South Africa roughly 24 hours after we took off from Washington. And having slept very little on the flight, we were quite exhausted as we awaited our luggage and trudged through customs inspection.

Happily our luggage arrived intact and upon clearing customs we were immediately greeted by our hosts for our first night in Africa. They ran a charming little bed and breakfast in Marlboro Gardens, which is a constituent borough of the City of Johannesburg Metropolitan Municipality on the northeastern outskirts of the city.

It was a short drive from the airport and we quickly settled into our comfortable quarters. It had been an extremely long day and we soon fell into bed. A great adventure lay ahead.









Friday, January 5, 2018

An Unfamiliar Voice - Into Africa - Part I:

 There is always something new out of Africa.  
     – Pliny the Elder

I have been sitting at my desk in my darkened study looking through the several hundred photographic images I took when my wife and I traveled across South Africa last spring. I had long planned to post several travel essays during the course of our month-long visit, and I did manage to complete and post a couple along the way. Yet as they often say, all good things come to those who wait. I have let my recollections simmer over the interceding months and I feel it is time to share them here.

I am reminded of something Jonathan Raban wrote in the Washington Post many years ago which I jotted down in my journal and which seems most applicable here. "Traveling (and one might as well say living) turns us into creatures of hap and contingency. We are forever navigating in fog, where the sensations of the moment are intense, and both our point of departure and our intended destination are lost to view in our concentration on the overwhelming here and now." Well, that is exactly what happened to me during my travels in Africa. "Things are constantly happening," Raban continue; "but we’re in no position to judge their meaning and significance." So true. Thankfully I maintained a very detailed travel journal during our trip and now, as I look back through all of these images, I can more properly reflect on what I wrote while we were there, and consider it all carefully and place it in its proper context.

My interest in Africa goes way back. I grew up with the story that one of my distant English ancestors was an intimate confidant of David Livingstone, the Scottish medical missionary and explorer, and I read everything I could find by and about him and his exploration of East and Southern Africa, hoping without success that I might find some reference to this friendship. On my first visit to London, in early 1972, I visited Livingstone’s final resting place at Westminster Abbey (sans heart which is buried in the heart of Africa). Something might turn up one of these days.

In high school in the late 1960s, as much of Africa was beginning to cast aside the yoke of its colonial past, I seriously considered a career in African history and politics. I had teachers who encouraged me in that vein and gave me books to read. "There are as many Africas as there are books about Africa," Beryl Markham wrote in her 1942 memoir West With the Night. "And as many books about it as you could read in a leisurely lifetime." I discovered how correct she was. And more and more books were published every year. It would be a daunting task.

In early 1969, during my senior year, one of these teachers took me with her to a meeting of African historians at a downtown Chicago hotel where they discussed the international ramifications of the Nigerian civil war (1967-1970) and the resultant genocide of the Igbo (also Ibo) people in the breakaway Republic of Biafra. It was during my first trip to Europe the previous summer that I saw photographs in various newspapers of starving Biafran children and I first came to understand the meaning of "genocide." At that Chicago meeting I could not understand how the United States could remain neutral in light of these horrendous events; it was more interested in access to Nigerian oil than the people who lived where it came from. How ironic, that it was President Nixon, upon his inauguration in January 1969, who recognized the Biafran genocide for what it was and criticized the Nigerian central government. And although I chose a career in European history, who would have guessed that thirty years later I would be involved in the pursuit of perpetrators of another African genocide, this time in Rwanda, during my career as a historian with the US Department of Justice.

One of my colleagues at the Justice Department spent time in Ethiopia with the Peace Corps and he introduced me to that country’s history, culture, and its very fine cuisine during our visits to one or another wonderful Ethiopian restaurants found in the metropolitan Washington, DC area which hosts the largest Ethiopian diaspora community outside of Africa. I discovered more books to read, most recently The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears (2007) by Dinaw Mengestu. It tells the story of a young Ethiopian man who comes to DC to live and work and his interaction with American life. And I continue to enjoy Ethiopian cuisine every chance I get.

For me Africa has always been a place of mystery and transition and who knows where my life and career would have taken me had I followed this planned course of study. As it was, I pursued the study of German history, culture and literature although I have always remained interested in Africa and always knew deep down that I would visit there one day.

Almost fifty years later I finally arrived . . . ironically in South Africa which was for many years a pariah state and for which I held little or no lasting interest. All that changed once Nelson Mandela was freed from his imprisonment on Robben Island. He and the African National Congress ushered his country into the world community. Now it is a popular destination with its vibrant cities, its beautifully rugged landscape, its lovely beaches, its world-class wines, not to mention its numerous game preserves which was my primary reason for going there in the first place. Not to hunt animals, but to enjoy watching then roam about in their natural habitats. "Africa is mystic; it is wild; it is a sweltering inferno; it is a photographer's paradise, a hunter's Valhalla, an escapist's Utopia," Beryl Markham wrote in her 1942 memoir West Into the Night. "It is what you will, and it withstands all interpretations. It is the last vestige of a dead world or the cradle of a shiny new one." I would finally find out for myself whether Markham was correct. "Africa is less a wilderness than a repository of primary and fundamental values, and less a barbaric land than an unfamiliar voice."

This is the first part of a six-part series.
 

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Consent of the Governed?

I, along with a majority of Americans, recently watched with anger and disappointment as the United States Congress, those 535 individuals elected to represent us in Washington, passed a new tax reform package that very few of us want and which will add at least 1.5 trillion dollars to the already bloated national deficit while cutting taxes for the top 1% über wealthy and corporations at the expense of the middle class, the working class, and the poor. All of this comes in the immediate wake of the administration’s deep-sixing internet neutrality in favor of communication and media corporations over the overwhelming opposition of the American people.

Instead of standing up for America’s most vulnerable, the increasingly fascist-minded Republicans have decided to put tax cuts for the rich ahead of protecting the American people, many of whom have to work more than one job to make ends meet. The Republicans say this legislation will make them popular with the American people. If so, then why is a large majority of Americans opposed to it?

Once again we are promised the trickle down benefits from this hair-brained scheme that very few of those who voted for it even understand. Many admitted they did not have time to read and study the provisions of the legislation before they rammed it through Congress behind closed doors in the dead of night. I would think they would have learned by now that trickle down never works because there are too many greedy hands hauling in the lucre before it gets down to those anxiously waiting for it. Any ameliorating provisions pledged to the middle class are only temporary and will likely add to the deficit (a rising deficit floats all yachts). It is said that no one wants to know how laws and sausage are made. We just saw how sausage is made in Washington, DC, folks. Even Senator Marcus Rubio (R-Florida), who supported and voted for the legislation, admitted after its passage that it went too far in benefitting corporations. A day late and a dollar short, if you ask me. And who can ignore Congress’ aggressive maneuvers to enrich its own members and the president’s [sic] family? Just one more egregious example of Congress feathering its own nest at the expense of the people on whose behalf the have been elected to govern.

For the past several years, on the morning of July 4, I have participated in the reading of the Declaration of Independence. I’ve done so because I think it prudent that every person residing in this country should read it at least once a year to be reminded of the tenets on which our nation was built. It declares America’s sovereignty over its people and a destiny as a free nation in which everyone is guaranteed "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" by whichever creator they chose to recognize. In order to secure these rights, our Founding Fathers (and the women who stood by them) instituted a government deriving its "just powers from the consent of the governed." We established a congress of elected representatives and gave it our sacred consent to govern on our behalf.

Granted, the Declaration of Independence was drafted and sanctioned in order to separate the American colonies from Great Britain based on that country’s failure to guarantee its American subjects’ God-given rights, and to establish the free and independent United States of America. Should we not hold these United States, our own country, to the very same standards we expected from the British motherland? Franklin Delano Roosevelt certainly believed so in his second inaugural address, on 20 January 1937. "We are determined to make every American citizen the subject of his country’s interest and concern; and we will never regard any faithful law-abiding group within our borders as superfluous. The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little." This no longer rings true today. The current president [sic] and Congress have seen to that in spades.

So let’s take another look at the Declaration of Independence. It states that "whenever any form of government shall become destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing it's powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness." This is certainly something we should all keep in mind as we approach the mid-term elections in November. The Declaration cautions us, however, that "prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes: and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed." Yet the representatives who no longer represent our interests are where they are because we elected them. We can just as easily send them packing and elect leaders and representatives who will hold our Founding Fathers’ pledge and their sacred honor to a higher standard. "[B]ut when a long train of abuses and usurpations, begun at a distinguished period, and pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to [subject] reduce them to arbitrary power, it is their [the American people] right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security." This right is ours and we ought to take it back. November can’t come early enough.
It should be interesting to see what the new year holds for Americans who are pledging to take their country back from this Fascist-minded Republican administration and gearing up for what are likely to be punishing midterm elections in November . . . especially after the trouncing the Republicans took in the November and December by-elections. These 2018 midterms, more than those in previous years, will prove a referendum on the catastrophic Trump-Republican administration. Resist!! Vote!!

Monday, January 1, 2018

Farewell 2017

Frankly, I am happy to see 2017 fade into the past. We observed the opening salvos of a fascist oligarchy attempting to deconstruct American democracy as quickly as humanly possible. Those holding the balance of power in this country, all of whom swore to uphold the Constitution of the United States while representing their constituents in Congress, sequestered themselves behind closed doors to draft and enact legislation that a majority of the American people did not want. These so called "representatives" bowed down to wealthy fat cats and corporations who fill their war chests with vile lucre.

And don’t even get me started on the ignorant and narcissistic moron who moved into the White House this past January and the bizarre assemblage of advisors along with a motley collection of cabinet secretaries who exhibit almost complete disdain for the departments and agencies they were selected to oversee. I don’t have enough time, space, or energy to list the deficiencies of the house Trump is trying to build. In the meantime, he insults and alienates our enemies and allies alike. Indeed he has made America grate . . . the slow stripping of the gears that makes this country work. To quote #45 . . . "Sad."

As a counterbalance to this governmental mayhem assholishness, I have sought solace in family and friends while turning my attention to projects that mean a lot to me. There was interesting travel to anticipate and to reflect upon afterwards. Time spent in Maine, New Hampshire and Québec in January with plenty of wintry weather and cold. A couple trips to Ohio to visit family. A four month hiatus at a lake cottage in Maine during the summer during which we relaxed, painted, and I finished the first draft of my first novel. And this followed by a wonderful trip through the Canadian Maritimes and Québec . . . most of the time spent on my third visit to Halifax . . . to conduct research for a second planned novel. I am enjoying this new foray into fiction.

The crown jewel of 2017 was the month SallyAnn and I spent in South Africa. We put an ocean and a continent between us and the foolishness at home. We visited Johannesburg and Soweto and then spent a number of days on a photo safari near the borders with Mozambique and Zimbabwe. The scenery and wildlife sightings were beyond our wildest expectations. We also spent a couple weeks in and around Cape Town. We found the South African people to be warm and friendly and we are anxious to return as soon as possible. I’ll be honest; it was very hard to come home.

As we begin a new year we should all strive to avoid the mistakes and misadventures of the one just gone by. Winston Churchill, when asked to consider the not so pristine history of British imperialism, replied "Ah, but you see, all that belongs to the unregenerate past, is locked away in the limbo of the old, the wicked days. The world progresses." We can only hope so.

So why ruminate on the darkness of the past when today brings the dawn of a new day and a new year. If you must prophesy what 2018 will bring, consider that it will be a good year, a promising year, and do everything in your power to make it so.

Here’s wishing everyone a Happy and Prosperous New Year. Let’s all keep our chins up and hope for the best.

Monday, December 11, 2017

I ❤ Cheese (But Does it ❤ Me Back?)

I love cheese and now it seems cheese   loves my heart. The December 5 online edition of Time magazine posted an interesting article by Amanda MacMillan suggesting that eating a moderate amount of cheese each day might actually be beneficial to one’s heart health. Recent research published in the European Journal of Nutrition shows that individuals "who ate a little bit of cheese every day were less likely to develop heart disease or have a stroke, compared to those who rarely or never ate cheese." This is certainly a major departure from previous studies that have linked cheese, which is high in saturated fats (a no-no in any dietary plan), with high cholesterol and potential cardio-vascular disease although some researchers claim cheese has lower levels of LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) than does butter. Other nutritional experts now say that saturated fats are more benign than first thought. This could be too good to be true.

The first question that pops into the head of any self-respecting cheesehead is what constitutes a "moderate amount" of cheese? If you ask my own nutritionist, that would be approximately 40 grams, or the equivalent of a slice about 1/4 inch thick and the size of a matchbook. In my very humble opinion that does not seem like very much cheese. Putting a block of cheese in front of me is like putting a juicy, raw steak in front of a chained dog. Cut us loose and the rest is a foregone conclusion. Its not quite as bad as that, but you get the general idea. I can understand such a meager portion of cheese from a dietary standpoint; it contains approximate ten grams of fat and almost 200 milligrams of sodium . . . a lot when taking into consideration one’s blood pressure. Now researchers are saying that the high blood pressure risk is not that bad; as salty as cheese is, there are no clear links to hypertension. There is just as much protein in a small slice of cheese as there is saturated fat. And just as much bone-building calcium as sodium, and calcium tends to bind certain fatty acids so that they cannot be digested. And don’t forget vitamins D and B12. It would appear that the good outweighs the bad when it comes to eating cheese. Cheese is mysterious indeed.

But what about my heart? I have to protect my heart don’t I! The new study goes on to report that individuals who consumed "high levels of cheese" (again, what does this mean??) exhibit a 14% lower risk of developing coronary heart disease and are far less likely to suffer a stroke than those individuals who rarely or never ate cheese. So 40 grams does not seem like enough to get the full beneficial effects that a more substantial chunk of cheese might offer. "We are always searching for ways to minimize heart disease and reduce atherosclerosis," the study goes on to say. "It’s promising to find that something that actually tastes good and pairs well with a nice glass of red wine—may offer some protection, as well." So it’s damned if you do from a dietary standpoint, or damned if you don’t, if you consider your heart health. I guess the addition of red wine to the mix was the tipping point for me.

I was about to enlist in the "WTF, let’s give it a whirl" endeavor when I reached the conclusion of the Time article. The promising study was unable to find a definite cause-and-effect relationship between the consumption of a moderate amount of cheese and a decreased risk of heart disease. It might all just be a coincidence. "It could be that people who eat cheese on a daily basis are healthier overall, or have more disposable income and higher socioeconomic statuses." So now what am I to do? I love cheese, but now maybe cheese does not love me back after all. Thanks a lot Time for getting my hopes up for nothing. The mysteries of cheese remain as does the guilt of eating it with abandon.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

A Rack of Memories Redux

Three days ago I reported on my recent trip to my native Midwest where I relived some memories of my younger days. Two memories cited were its delicious cheeses and my rediscovery of a "Rack of Hamm’s," a six-pack of one of my favorite beers which I have not seen in a cooler in many years. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. Heading back to Maryland I wondered when I would get another chance to enjoy that favorite St. Paul brew.

So imagine my surprise when two nights ago my wife and I visited the MilkBoy ArtHouse, a new bar/café, art gallery, and performance venue on the Route One strip adjacent to the University of Maryland at College Park. We had stopped by to check out a pop-up gallery set up in the foyer where some of my wife’s jewelry was on display after which we stopped into the café for a late bite to eat. Having not been there before I was curious about its menu. I did not have to look far before I found cheddar cheese curds (the real thing!) lightly fried in a beer batter and served with a ranch dipping sauce. My heart went aflutter. And to wash them down? A couple cans of (drum roll please) Hamm’s beer!! To make matters even better, they also serve Narragansett lager, another of my favorite retro beers.

Was I dreaming? Had the stars suddenly realigned? Had I been transported back to those good old days in Wisconsin? Nope. Just a little bit of heaven fifteen minutes from home!