Monday, November 16, 2015

In This Peaceful Valley - Postcards from Germany

In Freiburg in Breisgau, Germany

During a recent trip through Germany I spent a delightful week in Freiburg im Breisgau where I attended university in the early 1970s.  It has been thirty years since I was last there and I was curious how much the town had changed over the years.  What a treat it was to wander about places that held so many fond memories from the past.  While I was there I reflected on its long history and I recalled a time when this place, where the Black Forest merges with the Rhine River valley, was the site of a major battle over three centuries ago. 

The Battle of Freiburg during the Thirty Years War is popularly known as the Three Day Battle as it took place on three non-consecutive days - August 3, 5 and 9/10, in 1644.  A united French army of approximately 16,000 troops commanded by a young Louis II de Bourbon, the Duke of Enghein and a cousin of Ludwig XIV, and by Marshal Henri de la Tour d'Auvergne, Viscount of Turenne, tried to recapture the city which had recently fallen to a Bavarian army under General Field Marshal Franz, Baron von Mercy on July 28, 1644 following a five week siege. 

Mercy had fought the French at Tuttlingen in November 1643 and began to assert Bavarian hegemony throughout Swabia, Breisgau and the Upper Rhine.  In April 1644 Maximillian I sent an army under Mercy through the Black Forest to engage French forces under Turenne near Breisach, on the Rhine near Freiburg.  After laying siege to Uberlingen, on Lake Constance, in May 1644, Mercy left a covering force there and advanced his army of approximately 16,000 troops toward Freiburg and the Rhine where it arrived on June 26.  The French under Turenne, not prepared to do battle against a superior Bavarian army, were forced to watch helplessly as Mercy besieged the French garrison in the city which fell a month later.  A French army under Enghein finally arrived in Breisach on August 2 fresh from his great victory of Rocroy to reinforce Turenne.  But they were too late to save the city.  By this time the Bavarians were well entrenched on the Schönberg and Lorrettoberg, known then as the Schlierberg, on the southern edge of Freiburg.  Nevertheless, the young and brash Enghein, who assumed command of the united French armies, chose to launch a full frontal assault against the Bavarian positions on August 3. 

The first day of the battle found approximately 16,000 French troops advancing from Breisach.  Enghein and his army of 10,000 proceeded directly to the foot of the Schönberg near Ebringen, while Turenne’s 6,000 troops advanced through the hills south of the city to Wittnau in order to attack Mercy's entrenchments from the rear.  Turenne encountered the enemy at Wittnau and forced the Bavarians to retreat toward Merzhausen where Mercy’s resistance stiffened preventing Turenne from gaining his objective at Uffingen and the flanking of Mercy’s defensive line.  In the meantime, Enghein’s force slowly advanced up the slopes of the Schönberg under merciless Bavarian firepower.  The French suffered heavy casualties and were thrown into disorder.  Forced to reassemble, Enghein mounted another assault against the entrenched summit of the Schönberg. Mercy, whose was forced to divide his troops in order to halt Turenne’s advance at Merzhausen, abandoned the Schönberg for new entrenchments on the Lorettoberg.  The first day was a stalemate as rain began to fall.

There was no fighting on August 4 as the two French armies reunited at Merzhausen where they were deployed for a new assault against the Bavarian positions on the Lorettoberg. On August 5 Enghein attacked straight to his front with successive waves of troops.  Fearing a breach the Bavarian line, Mercy ordered a quick counterstrike and forced the French to withdraw, again with heavy casualties.  There was no fighting for the next three days.  The French received food and supplies from Breisach while Mercy sought to resupply his troops from Villingen, to the northeast. 

On the morning of August  9th Turenne marched his army via Betzenhausen and Denzling and into the Glottertal while Enghein and his cavalry remained at Merzhausen facing the Lorettoberg.  It was his plan to have Turenne cut the Bavarian supply line forcing Mercy to either attack or retreat.  Little did Enghein realize that during the night of August 9/10 Mercy had left a  garrison facing him while marching to Sankt Peter to gather munitions.  There Mercy and Turenne fought a quick yet indecisive forward action before retreating as the rest of Turenne’s army advanced through the Glottertal.

Enghein’s strategy failed and Mercy’s army, although suffering heavy casualties, withdrew intact to Rothenburg ob der Tauber without serious loss of weapons and material.  Mercy abandoned Freiburg to the French yet his army survived to fight another day. The battle was a tactical victory for the French despite the heavy casualties and within  the next two months Enghein and his united French army were able to conquer much of the Rhine valley.

Thankfully peace now reigns in a valley I love so much.

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Sunday, November 1, 2015

Postcards from Germany

I have recently returned home from a long-awaited and much anticipated visit to Germany.  Due to a very busy schedule and the lack of adequate Wi-Fi and internet connections overseas, I was unable to post as I moved around the countryside.  Even in Berlin I felt cut off.  Still, I kept copious notes in my travel journal and outlined a series of “Postcards from Germany” with the intention of posting them once I returned home.  Several of these “postcards will appear here throughout November.  I hope you will check them out.

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Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Closing the Circle - Returning to Germany

Palace of Justice in Nuernberg, Germany
It was a long summer in Maine and although it did not turn out exactly as planned, I was happy to accomplish as much as I did in the fifteen weeks spent on the edge of Sabbathday Lake.  And now I have been home in Maryland for a cold, windy, and wet week trying to get back into a routine.  But it will have to wait.  Tomorrow I am boarding a plane to Germany where I will spend the next two weeks reliving old memories.  I hope to post from there.

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Tuesday, September 1, 2015

A View from Outside - New Dispatches from Maine

From Viet Thanh Nyugen's The Sympathizer (2015) referring to Americans: “They believe in a universe of divine justice where the human race is guilty of sin, but they also believe in a secular justice where human beings are presumed innocent. You can’t have both. You know how Americans deal with it? They pretend they are eternally innocent no matter how many times they lose their innocence. The problem is that those who insist on their innocence believe anything they do is just. At least we who believe in our own guilt know what dark things we do.” 

I am always fascinated to read what others think of us as Americans. Sometimes the truth is brutally clear. I wonder what the Iraqis and Afghanis really think about our efforts to make their worlds better for them? Americans must come to understand that not everyone wants to live like us. Who are we to tell them they are wrong?

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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Still a Peach: The New Look - New Dispatches from Maine

August 2015
March 1956
Strange what people will do when they are left alone and to their own devices.  My wife left me here in Maine while she went gallivanting around Scotland and I had to come up with ideas for entertaining myself.   One idea was to head into town for a much needed haircut.

Given the sparse arable acreage on the top of my head, my wife has long encouraged me to get my hair cut very short . . . and that is exactly what I did.  But after considering the gray fringes left afterwards, I looked at the barber with serious intent.
“Hell, Just cut it all off,” I said with a wave of my hands at my reflection in the mirror.
“Right down to the skin?” he replied.
“Nah,” I said.  “Right down to the bone.”
“And while you are at it,” I added.  “Take the sideburns off, too.” 
It just wouldn’t look right to leave them.  A goatee would suffice nicely.
I closed my eyes and listened as his clippers moved effortlessly across my head.  Front to back.  Side to side.  Up and down the sides of my face.  And as he maneuvered about my head and face they gradually grew more sensitive to the air flowing over and around them.  I was curious what I would find once I opened my eyes again.

I was first concerned about the shape of my head.  Would it look good shorn of its once  hirsute glory?  Would there be bumps and creases better left covered?  Would there be nicks and liver spots I would prefer left hidden?  As it turns out, my head looks pretty damn good for a guy my age.  In fact, shorn of the gray, thinning hair, I thought perchance I might even look a bit younger.  The verdict is still out on that one.

My hair has not been this short since 1956 . . . well, I actually had some hair back then.  So I guess it has not been this short since the day I was born.  But come to think of it, even then had a few downy wisps up there.  I had hair down over my shoulders in my 20s, and it has been medium long off and on since then.  Yet with advancing age I have watched it grow thinner and grayer and I seem to always be in a quandary as how to manage it so that it looks good.  Problem solved.

How long will this new look last?  There are already bets that it won’t be that long; I’ll grow tired of having to shave my entire head every day.  I don’t think so.  Five minutes with a razor in the shower and I am good to go for another day . . . less time than it takes to wash and rinse it.  Frankly, I like the new look and I think I will keep it.  I just hope others will look beyond the chromed dome and consider the inner man.  To quote Dolly Parton: “Just ‘cause you lost your fuzz doesn’t mean you ain’t a peach.”

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Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Autumn is Closer Than We Think - New Disparches from Maine

"Approaching Autumn" (2015) Steven B. Rogers
The bright greens of the all too short Maine summer are taking on a duller, yellowish tint.  The swamp maples, the first to show their autumn hues, turned a couple weeks ago, and now other trees are hinting of yellow and red, and the sugar maples are beginning to turn their familiar orange along the edges.  Strange when the current Maine weather is serving up daily temperatures into the 90s with matching humidity.  It is hard to believe that autumn is really not that far off.  How can this be true?  “Why, the ice just went off the lake!”  Summers up here are indeed short.  We are being reminded of this all too quickly.  Add to this the fact that the local breweries have just released their autumn seasonal beers.  Put a six-pack on the check-out counter and the clerks will  shake their heads and say it is too early.  “Summer just started.”  I am not complaining as these brews usually don’t come out until mid-September.  This way I get to enjoy them a wee bit longer.  There is a silver lining in every cloud.

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Saturday, August 15, 2015

Approaching Watercolors - New Dispatches from Maine

"Goldfinch Maelstrom" (2015) Steven B. Rogers
"Sabbathday Synapses" (2015) Steven B. Rogers
These past few weeks I have not been able to put many words down on paper, but I have been playing around with images "on canvas."  My wife is the true artist in the family, but while she has been away in Scotland, I have been wanting to see if I might get some visual images down on paper using watercolor as my preferred medium.   I have found the entire experience rewarding and I just may stick with this for awhile and see what comes from it. The image on the right is a new watercolor entitled "Goldfinch Maelstrom."  The image on the left is "Sabbathday Synapses."   What's next?

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Maine’s Two Worst Air Disasters Occurred on the Same Day - New Dispatches from Maine

Photo by Mario Sirabella
While doing research on a novel set in the remote northwestern corner of Maine near the New Hampshire and Canadian borders, I came across a story of a B-17 bomber that crashed on Deer Mountain, in the far northern margins of this region, on July 11, 1944.  The accident still stands as the second worst airplane disaster in Maine history, occurring on the very same day as the worst air crash, when a Douglas A-26 Invader bomber went down in dense fog, plowing into a government-owned trailer park near Long Creek in South Portland, killing the two-man crew and 17 on the ground.
The Deer Mountain crash, which will eventually figure into my novel, occurred in a remote section of the Bowmantown township east of Parmachenee Lake in the Montagne Blanche.  The B-17 bomber was part of Combat Group I, Ard 6-30 Provisional Group, and was being transported by its full crew of ten, all ranging in ages 20-27, from Kearney Army Air Field in central Nebraska to Dow Army Air Field (today Bangor International Airport) here in Maine.  From there it would have continued to Gander, Newfoundland, Greenland and Iceland before reaching Prestwick, Scotland.  It was slated to enter active service with the 8th US Army Air Force based in the English Midlands for operations in the European Theater following the D-Day invasion a month earlier.  Other flights of bombers and fighters were being ferried from airfields farther north in Maine, at Houlton and at Presque Isle. 

After departing its base in Nebraska, the aircraft encountered worsening weather and turbulence as it flew over the Appalachians of eastern Pennsylvania, and then over the  Catskills of upstate New York and the Green Mountains of central Vermont.  Shortly before 11am on July 11, while flying near Albany, New York some 60 miles north of its planned route, the crew established radio contact with Grenier Field (now the Boston-Manchester Regional Airport) in New Hampshire which recommended that the aircraft proceed directly to Dow Field.  Instead, it apparently got lost after changing course to avoid severe storms farther south and continued its flight path over the Green Mountains and into the White Mountains in far northern New Hampshire.  Grenier was the last radio contact with the aircraft.

Believing they were somewhere over the coastal plain of southern Maine, the pilot took his plane to a lower altitude to get below the weather and attempt to locate his position.  Witnesses claimed the bomber had circled the Rangeley area much farther to the north for an hour and a half before disappearing into the clouds.  At approximately 1:30pm the B-17 crashed into Deer Mountain about 500 feet below the 3,500-foot summit and wreckage was spread over an area 30 to 200 feet wide and 800 feet long.

Another bomber participating in a joint US-Canadian search effort discovered the crash site two days later, on July 13, and personnel from Dow Field and the air field at Presque Isle were immediately sent to the crash site to investigate the accident.  Investigators noted that severe thunderstorms were in the area and heavy clouds obscured the mountain at the time of the crash.   The bodies of the crew were removed to Bangor and returned to their families and later a bulldozer was brought in to salvage certain items from the crash site before burying the remaining wreckage which is still resting on the side of the mountain over 70 years later.

In 1999 efforts began to erect a memorial to the lost crew who never made it to the battlefields of Europe.  Money was raised and eventually a large memorial was transported on local logging roads to the very remote crash site.  The memorial was finally dedicated in July 2000, on the 56th anniversary of the tragic crash.

The second crash on July 11, 1944 - still the worst air disaster in Maine history - occurred near the Portland airport, some 125 miles south of the remote Deer Mountain crash site.  On that afternoon another Army bomber, this one an A-26B-5 Invader on a training flight from Louisiana and apparently attempting to land at the airport, appeared briefly out of the fog at an estimated altitude of 200 feet.  Climbing several hundred feet it disappeared again into the fog.  Shortly thereafter there was a loud explosion and flames were seen beyond the runway near Long Creek, a small tidal stream flowing into the Fore River near the Portland harbor.  Witnesses say the aircraft struck the ground and cartwheeled adjacent to the Westbrook Trailer Camp, a government housing facility for workers at the nearby New England Shipbuilding Corporation yards in South Portland and their families.  The two man crew was killed and the burning wreckage destroyed sixteen trailers and damaged a dozen others while taking the lives of 17 people on the ground, mostly all of them women and young children who could not escape the firestorm, and injuring many others.  The exact cause of the accident is still unknown.

What was left of the trailer camp no longer exists in what is today South Portland’s Red Bank neighborhood and Olde English Village along Westbrook Street near the Portland International Jetport.  A memorial to the Long Creek disaster was erected in 2010 in a small park near the crash site. 

How strange that two bombers apparently disoriented by inclement weather conditions would crash so close on the same day.

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Saturday, July 4, 2015

Celebrating American Independence - New Dispatches from Maine

This morning I once again participated in the annual reading of the Declaration of Independence at the New Gloucester (Maine) Historical Society’s History Barn located behind the Meeting House in the Lower Village.  As a regular summer visitor for over two decades, and now a summer resident for the past six seasons, I was honored to continue my participation in this fine tradition marking the day we celebrate our revocation of British tyranny. And as before, I read the section listing the numerous “injuries and usurpations” to the American Colonies by King George III.

The Declaration meant a great deal to the early citizens of New Gloucester.  In 1736, a group of citizens of Gloucester, Massachusetts petitioned the colonial governor to settle land near the coast in the Province of Maine (it would not become a state until 1822).  The petition was granted the following year, and in 1739 a group of settlers cut a road from Yarmouth, on Casco Bay north of what is now Portland, through the intervale to the headwaters of the Royal River at Sabbathday Lake where our summer cottage is located.  A blockhouse fortification and palisades were erected on the high ridge line of Gloucester Hill circa 1753-1754 during the French and Indian War.  The town of New Gloucester was eventually incorporated in 1774 at a time when the thirteen American colonies were organizing to express general dissatisfaction with their treatment by the British crown.  Upon incorporation the good people of New Gloucester made it known that it would gladly contribute to the common defense of the united colonies in support of full independence.  By the end of the Revolutionary War, 44 New Gloucestermen heeded this call to arms.

I think every American should read this document from time to time to remind ourselves of the promises we made as a nation and its citizenry 239 years ago.  I fear we have strayed far from many of the freedoms and rights granted to us by our forefathers.  It is time we reconnect with our honorable heritage and face the future with a renewed sense of patriotism as we honor the gifts our Founding Fathers presented to us.

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Friday, June 26, 2015

Grilling Red Snappers - New Dispatches from Maine

It has been said that you know you have crossed into Maine when you go to the local market and the hot dogs on display are a bright, almost neon red. They are not called hot dogs here.  They are red snappers, pure and simple.  Oh, you can get the regular hot dogs at grocery stores, but why when you can enjoy a red snapper instead?  Red because of their obvious hue, and snapper because of the sharp snap they make when you bite into one.  Some folks are turned off at first sight; I know I was just a little suspicious.  They just did not look real to me.  But this all changed when I first bit into one of these pork franks for the first time.  They are delicious!

This is not to say these tasty wieners can’t be found elsewhere, although you might have to look near and far to find them in the grocery store.  I have seen them for sale in Massachusetts, but not on the scale they can be found here.  In Maine they are a staple anywhere you look, due in large part to the fact that the largest manufacturer of red snappers is Bangor-based W.A. Bean & Sons who have been turning them out since 1918 (founded in 1860, five generations of Beans have been running the company since then).  It claims it is the only source of red snappers in Maine and produces over 4 million of the red tube steaks annually.

They are tasty whether served in a split-top frankfurter roll, which is not the same thing as the standard hot dog bun found elsewhere in the USA (see photo above), or by themselves on a plate.  Just add a healthy squirt of mustard - I prefer Dijon or a mustard-horseradish confusion - and they are ready to eat washed down with a bottle of Moxie or cold beer. 

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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

A Special Kind of Soldier - New Dispatches from Maine

                L'audace, l'audace, toujours l'audace!
                 – General George S. Patton quoting Frederick the Great

I thought about posting this a few days ago, on Father’s Day, but decided to wait until today which would have been my dad’s 91st birthday.  I have posted about him in the past, but being in Maine, I thought I would touch on his short time here, about the only thing I knew about the Pine Tree State until my first visit in 1988.  I have been a regular visitor, and now part time resident, ever since.

Dad was drafted into the US Army in April 1943, just a couple months shy of his 19th birthday. He left his native Michigan, having never traveled farther than northern Ohio, and completed his basic training at Fort Jackson, in Columbia, South Carolina.  From there he was sent to the University of Maine, in Orono, as part of the Army Specialized Training Program.  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.  The two-company detachment of over 500 soldiers assigned to the University of Maine in the summer of 1943 was designated as a “pre-radar” group to study electrical and civil engineering and other related disciplines that would be required for the eventual invasion of Japan.  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 training program was intense.  The ASTP soldiers wore their uniforms bearing the ASTP patch emblazoned with the “Sword of Valor and the Lamp of Knowledge” and maintained strict military discipline while attending university courses.   They stood early morning reveille and marched to classes and the dining hall.  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.”  Still, they knew they were fortunate to attend college and I recall Dad telling me how much he enjoyed his time in Orono; the war was far away and life was good, even during the winter with all the snow and the sub-zero temperatures.

    Some Mothers have sons in the Army,
    Some Mothers have sons on the Sea,
    Take down your service flag, Mother,
    Your son's in the ASTP.

Unfortunately, it would not last.  In February 1944, during the third term of the ASTP at Orono, many of the soldiers enrolled in the basic part of the program, including my dad, were recalled to active combat duty.  Casualties were mounting rapidly and the entire ASTP was abandoned that March when the advanced OCS students were also recalled to active duty.  They did not realize the Sword of Valor would come so quickly.  The Army decided its need for infantry replacements was more pressing than the need for technical specialties.  The early group 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 never came back.

Thirty-four of the former ASTP soldiers at the University of Maine – their own special band of brothers – returned to Orono in September 2001 for a first reunion sponsored by the College of Engineering.  They returned not so much because of the short time they spent on campus, but because all of them were thrown into the war together.  These “special soldiers” came together again to honor the 52 members – 10% – of the ASTP detachment at the University of Maine who were killed in action during World War II and to place a bronze plaque inscribed with their names.  Since the university did not maintain records for the ASTP detachment assigned there, it is difficult to say if many more died during the war. Those who could be located and who attended the reunion believed there were many more.  Without original records, no one can be certain.  As many as 75% of the ASTP detachment was wounded in combat in northern France and across Germany in the final months of the war.  The plaque also includes the names of two soldiers who died in a dormitory fire on campus in February 1944.  I remember my dad telling me about the fire.  He was housed there and was lucky to get out.   Since this reunion, surviving ASTP members have located the names of several additional members who were killed in World War II and their names appear on a second plaque which hangs along side the first in the Class of 1944 Hall in the hope that those special student soldiers who died will not be forgotten again.

Dad did not attend the reunion; I doubt he even knew about it at the time.  He visited me here in Maine several years ago and I am quite certain it was his first time back since he left in 1944 on his way to Tennessee and the battlefields of Europe.  I asked him if he planned to go back to Orono to see if it had changed much.  He never did.  He pretty much put the war behind him when he returned home when so many did not.

If I have a chance, I hope to visit Orono this summer to have a look around and think of Dad and the good times he spent there as one of the US Army’s special kind of soldiers.

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Sunday, June 21, 2015

Subaru War Horse - New Dispatches from Maine

Allons! whoever you are come travel with me!
Traveling with me you find what never tires
     – Walt Whitman, “Song of the Open Road”

Our 2005 Subaru Legacy wagon crossed the 200,000 mile threshold yesterday morning on my way home from the post office, the most miles we have ever put on a car.  That averages out to 20,000 mile a year and I can believe it.  That is over two-thirds the distance from the earth to the moon!  Our car is a war horse if ever there was one.

Purchased in early January 2005 when we drove it off the dealership lot in suburban northern Virginia, it is our fourth consecutive Subaru since we bought the first one - our first new car - in 1978.  Now, over ten years later, it is still a smooth and enjoyable drive.  And like all the Subarus that preceded it, it has been extremely reliable and durable after numerous fully loaded trips to and from Florida and Maine, as well as the  shorter road trip to hither and yon.  And the old girl still gets incredibly good mileage.  

Most of the miles are the routine daily local trips.  Driving in and around the Washington, DC metropolitan area takes a heavy toll on any car.  The streets are rough and full of potholes.  Add to these conditions the cold and damp winters and the hot and steamy humid summers which also exact their heavy toll.  The war horse goes where we point it and brings us back again.

We crossed the 100,000 mile mark in Florida in March 2010, and now we are in Maine and another summer during which we will rack up several thousands of miles of back road driving.  We take good care of her and she treats us well in return as we continue to explore the edges of America.  I’ll never tire of the old gal.

I wonder where we will be when we reach 300,000?

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Saturday, June 20, 2015

It's Time to Take It Down - New Dispatches from Maine

The recent murderous rampage in Charleston, South Carolina by yet another misguided and foolish person saddens and sickens me.   How many more of these  monstrous acts of violence must we endure before our leaders show the courage necessary to end this scourge?  Promises were made after the Newtown massacre almost three years ago and they still remain only promises.  People who should never have a gun can still get them.  And now, in the wake of this latest slaughter, people seem to be more interested in symbols than the weapon that killed nine innocent people in a historic black church in Charleston.  Many seem to believe that this madness will stop if we finally ban the display of the Confederate battle flag.  I feel they are somehow missing the point. 

I agree with those who think the flag should be taken down . . . from where it flies on the grounds of the South Carolina capitol in Columbia and elsewhere.  Those who tell you that it is a symbol of “heritage and not hate” are kidding themselves.  Just take a look at the above photograph.  Who wants to claim that as their heritage?  Lindsey Graham, who represents South Carolina in the United States Senate, and who almost three weeks ago announced his candidacy for President of the United States, would have us believe that the Confederate battle flag (different from the national flag of the Confederacy) is a "part of who we are."  Really?  It is certainly not a part of who I am.  And I would go so far as to suggest that it has nothing to do with anyone alive today regardless of where they were born or live.  A part of who we are as Americans?  Does this mean that modern Germans should fly the Nazi banner from their homes and government buildings because it is a part of who they are?  I don’t think so.  Today one often sees the Confederate flag flying alongside the Nazi banner at Klan rallies and other white supremacist gatherings.  The Confederate battle flag, regardless of what it represented a century and a half ago, has become inflammatory while representing an unfortunate chapter in this nation's history, one that could possibly have been avoided if our Founding Fathers had done the right thing when they had the chance.

Taking this symbol down will not end the racism it has long represented nor will it stop the endless and senseless gun violence that plagues this nation.  These problems are far too complex, and our leaders appear hesitant to address them in any sensible way.   Let's keep our eye on the ball, folks!  It is high time we start considering the very real problems we will continue to face as long as nobody has the courage to act.  We need to start somewhere.  Taking down that flag is only the first small step on the long road to doing what is necessary and right.

Symbolism only goes so far, but yes, it is time to take that flag down.  A first step, a small step, a symbolic step.  But we can’t stop there!  We need to roll up our sleeves and get to work doing what needs to be done.  And soon.  No more talking about it.  It’s time to act.  And if our leaders are not willing to do what we elected them to do, for whatever reason, then they need to step aside and get out of the way of those who can and will.

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Friday, June 19, 2015

Red Flannel Hash - New Dispatches from Maine

Someone yells “hash is ready” and I am usually the first to sit down at the table.  I love hash.  Corned beef hash, roast beef hash . . . call it hash and I am there.  But I never heard of red flannel hash until I first came to Maine almost three decades ago.  But I am glad I did, and despite some initial reservations about this local variant, I still come running. 

The etymology of the term “hash” goes back to the French “hacher” . . . to chop.  Like any good hash, it tastes best when made from leftovers and whatever else you might have handy.  In this instance, it is a motley of onion, diced potato, corned beef, with some salt and pepper to taste.  The “red flannel” come with the addition of chopped beets.  Top it off with a couple fried or poached eggs and you are done.  I am not a big fan of beets, mind you, but it works here and I am not exactly sure why.  It tastes good and so I don’t ask too many questions.

I have heard a couple tales on the origins of the name.  Some say it goes back to Vermont’s Green Mountain Boys during the American Revolution.  Supposedly they were so hungry one winter that they chopped up their red flannels to add to their scarce potatoes.  I guess hunger trumped warmth.  Another tale tells how a cook in a mining camp, suspecting her husband was stepping out on her, ground up his red flannel long johns and added them to the morning hash.   It turned out he and the others liked the stuff so much they asked to have the bright red hash every morning.  Having dispatched her errant husband’s only red flannels, she substituted beets after that.  I wonder whether he ever questioned the disappearance of his skivvies?  A good hash can make one forget his or her woes.  That must be it.  These make for entertaining tales, but the origins of Red Flannel Hash is, I am sorry to say, far more pedestrian.

Apparently The New York Times published a recipe for Red Flannel Hash in its October 25, 1943 edition under the title “Dish of Infinite Variety.”  It almost immediately drew fire from some of its readers.  One complained that the war would surely be lost “if the noble American dish of red flannel hash be fallen to the low estate set forth by your editorial . . .”, adding that the dish originated with the “never-to-be-forgotten institution, the New England Boiled Dinner!”   The ingredients were simple; one took the boiled dinner left-overs – “potatoes opalescently colored and lusciously flavored by a mixture of juices; beets, red and enticing; and a few golden carrots” – and chopped them up (but not too fine) “and warm them to a turn with a discreet use of the pot liquor.”  Another reader wondered “in what isolated corner of New England did you find the recipe published for red flannel hash?  Or were you simply fishing for the real recipe to replace the parody you gave?”  The dish was once again attributed to a boiled dinner – “corned beef and cabbage to New Yorkers” – and included “beets, carrots, turnip, cabbage and potatoes with the corned beef. The hash is the clean-up meal. It is correctly made of 50 per cent potatoes, 25 per cent corned beef and 25 per cent beets.”
Once chopped everything was fried in bacon fat in an iron skillet “and you have a dish for the gods, whether it be served for breakfast, lunch, dinner or supper.”
As fussy as Mainiacs are about their Italian Sandwiches (see my June 17, 2015 posting), the same goes for their Red Flannel Hash.  Some say it is only for breakfast and must be served with a fried or poached egg.  Others will insist it is a supper dish served with a side dish such as cole slaw, baked beans, or cornbread.  Still others will insist it can be served anywhere and at any time.  I tend to side with the latter.  And whereas Worcestershire sauce is frequently added to American Chop Suey (see my June 18 posting), Red Flannel Hash can be enhanced with a splash of apple cider vinegar.  Some will fry it in oil or bacon fat while others will add a dollop of sour cream just as you would to a bowl of borscht (beet soup).  Some like it soft and mushy and others fried crispy.

Strictly speaking, Red Flannel Hash is not unique to Maine; you can find it just about anywhere in northern New England.  But it was here in Maine where I first encountered it and so I consider it local fare.  My nose tends to go up when beets are offered to me; I would almost prefer my flannel long johns to beets.  Still, they work well in hash for some reason.  And I do love borscht, so what can I tell you?   The mysteries of life.

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Thursday, June 18, 2015

American Chop Suey - New Dispatches from Maine

Since I am on a local cuisine streak at the moment, allow me to wax poetic about a dish I first discovered at the Cole Farms Restaurant, an institution in nearby Gray, Maine since 1952.  I had no idea what to expect when I first came across American Chop Suey on the menu.

For me, chop suey conjures up the absolutely horrid Chun King “Chinese” food (and I use that term with great reservation) my mom occasionally served when I was growing up.  It was a congeries of chopped celery, tiny shrimp, chicken or beef mixed with a slurry of flaccid stir-fried mixed vegetables and some frightful mystery sauce that may have been soy sauce but I would not bet my life on it.  It came in a can, was heated, and then served over dried noodles.  I shudder to even think about it.  It has been decades since I last ate the stuff and I can still taste it.  It will never cross my lips again.  In fact, it was this concoction that scared me away from trying genuine Chinese cuisine until I was living on my own in college. 

So, when I saw “American Chop Suey” on the menu at Cole Farms, described as an “Old time New England favorite made with fresh tomato, bell pepper and sweet onion,” it immediately evoked those grim childhood memories of that mockery of Chinese food and I never gave it a second thought . . . not until I saw someone at a neighboring table being served a steaming bowl of what I have always referred to as goulash, which I adore, and I told my waitress that I did not see it on the menu.  She open it and pointed to “American Chop Suey.”  Imagine my surprise.  Goulash has nothing to do with Chinese cuisine and vice versa.  I had already ordered but made a mental note to try it the next time I returned. 

And I did.  Perhaps if the menu had noted that there was ground beef, and that it and the vegetables were served as a sauce over elbow macaroni, I would have realized that this was not the repugnant chop suey of old.  You live and learn.  Apparently a classic “chop suey” is a hodge-podge of ingredients served as a stew.  One source states that “chop suey” is a transcription of “tsa tsui,” the Mandarin Chinese for “a little of this and that.”  At long last, the mystery was solved.  American Chop Suey is a traditional comfort food here in northern New England, and like the Italian Sandwich, attributed to Italian immigrants to the region.  I have certainly never encountered it by this name anywhere else.  Growing up in the American Midwest, we simply called it goulash and usually associated it with the Hungarians, not the Italians, who brought the recipe with them when they immigrated to America.  I have been eating and enjoying it since I was a kid.   And in the Mid-Atlantic states, where I now live part of the year, this concoction is referred to as a “Chili Mac.”  Goulash or Chili Mac by any other name would smell (and taste) as sweet.

I was recently reading Tom Seymour’s Maine, a part of the “Off the Beaten Path” series describing unique places to visit in various states.  Seymour, a popular columnist and outdoor writer, tells how he likes to eat at “ma and pa” joints when traveling around the Pine Tree State.  The kind of places where the locals prefer to eat.  He calls American Chop Suey “Maine’s answer to authentic Italian cuisine.”  According to, “the Oxford Companion to Food and Drink traces American Chop Suey's etymological origins to the 1916 Manual for Army Cooks, “an urtext for many institutional foods of the twentieth century.”  The manual called for beef round or pork shoulder, mixed with beef stock, barbecue sauce, and salt and served over white rice.  A 1932 Navy cookbook suggested the addition of cabbage and green peppers. Practical Home Economics (1919) includes a recipe that adds tomatoes and parsley while omitting the onions and cabbage.  Eventually the rice was replaced by elbow macaroni and somewhere along the line grated cheese was added.    This led me to wonder just how “authentic Italian” this stuff really is.  And around these parts you don’t serve it unless there is a bottle of Worcestershire (what’s this here)  sauce on the table.

It has been suggested that American Chop Suey is no longer as popular up here as it once was.  Perhaps this might be true in some places for it is not de rigeur on every menu.  Yet I have eaten at a lot of places and looked at a lot of menus here in Maine and I seldom have any problem finding it.  Now that I finally know what it is, I will order it when I am in need of, or nostalgic for, a genuine comfort food.  I am still not big on the name, but it sure does hit the spot!

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Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Italian Sandwich - New Dispatches from Maine

I have previously written lovingly of the “Cubano,” the popular Cuban sandwich which I always associate with visits to Florida, although it is beginning to show up on menus all over the USA.  So I think it is time to turn my attention to another favorite sandwich that has its origins right here in Maine.

I have been told that Portland, Maine is considered to be the birthplace of the Italian Sandwich.  Some even consider it to be Maine’s signature sandwich known simply as an “Italian” to those in the know.  Its origins can be traced back to the early 20th century when Italians were immigrating to New England in large numbers and settling into cities where they found ready work.  Many of them settled near Portland’s waterfront, and it was here that Giovanni Amato sold fresh baked rolls from a pushcart on the city wharves.  Around 1902 he eventually began to add meat, cheese, fresh vegetables, and a variety of condiments and his rolls became Italians.  Amato abandoned his cart for a storefront sandwich shop on India Street sometime in the 1920s, and by the 1950s the shop was making around 5,000 daily.   There is still an Amato’s at 71 India Street although there are now almost two dozen branch stores throughout Maine, with a few others in New Hampshire, Vermont and New York where you can still get close to one of Giovanni’s original Italians.  Amato’s also operates the oldest bakery in Maine in suburban Westbrook.  This is not to say that Amato’s has sole claim to the Italian, but its founder certainly set the standard high.  Now almost every corner grocery store and gas station shop here in southern Maine produce and sell unique versions of this tasty sandwich.  I had my first genuine Maine Italian at Sam’s, on Main Street in Lewiston after giving a lecture at nearby Bates College. It was a treat to behold.  Those who have grown up with a particular version tend to stay loyal to it for life, at times even having them Fed-Exed to wherever they might happen to be.  I don’t know if they are on Craig’s List or E-Bay, but I would not be a bit surprised.

Ask anyone who grew up or now lives for any length of time in Maine and all will pretty much agree on what constitutes an honest to God Italian Sandwich.  The sandwich got its name because its originator was Italian.  It has nothing to do with the ingredients.   Some might want to compare it to a muffuletta, a Sicilian-style sandwich popular in New Orleans.  I have had both and there is no comparison in my book.  For a classic Italian, you start with a one-foot-long soft roll . . . not the hard roll you get with a typical sub, hero, wedge, hoagie or grinder.  In fact, a good Italian in its current guise is as different from them as night is from day.  There is nothing really Italian but the bread or the fixings. The roll is sliced 2/3 of the way through lengthwise like you would a hot dog bun, and to  this you add a slice of American cheese (preferably the kind individually wrapped in plastic), slices of boiled ham, chopped onions, tomatoes, green peppers, sour pickles (although I add dills instead because I am not a native Maniac), a few olives (I prefer green or Greek), and a splash of extra virgin olive oil.  I also like to sprinkle on some oregano and a little salt and pepper, but like I said, I’m not from around here.  One thing you don’t include is lettuce (although many do), mayonnaise or mustard.  Why make it fancier than it needs to be?  And never, ever heat them up.  They are fine just the way they are.  Once finished with the ingredients, you wrap that baby up is some waxed paper (or whatever you have handy).  Unwrap one end and eat it directly from the wrap.  It can get a little messy, but what the hell.  Behold and enjoy . . . you don’t need no stinkin’ plate.

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Monday, June 8, 2015


Photo by Dave Benton
Yes, it is that time of year again.  Time to pack up, load up, and head up the familiar highways to Sabbathday Lake, in New Gloucester, Maine.  This will be our 28th consecutive summer in the Pine Tree State.  The thought of it rests gentle on my mind.

It was a long, hard winter, both in New England and here in the Mid-Atlantic states, with lots of snow and bitterly cold temperatures; pretty much what the weather pundits were saying last fall when we began to batten down the hatches while making ourselves ready to weather the storms to come.   But spring finally arrived, slowly but surely, and before I knew it the temperatures were beginning to creep up into the 80s, and even the low 90s, as Washington’s pervading humidity laid its heavy hand upon us. 

I have been following the weather reports from Maine for months, since we departed the lake for home in the early days of October.  The autumn colors were resplendent as we departed, but it was not long before the first flurries of snow were in the air.  Ice bound the lake tight by Christmas and then the snows came and piled up ever higher.  Ice out came in mid-April as the last vestiges of snow finally disappeared from the shadows.  A new Vacationland season was beginning.

So it is time to look northward, to the quiet and peaceful summer days along the shores of Sabbathday Lake, to the gentle breezes off the lake, and to the star-filled nights and the sound of the loons calling from the near distance.  It is a finestkind summer hiatus and it always arrives none to soon.

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Friday, June 5, 2015

Waiting for Godot

Photo by James Patterson
A literary evening in Washington, DC.  I am joined by poet and longtime dear friend Miles David Moore and Katherine Young, a gifted Russian translator and another good friend, at the after party following the Politics & Prose book launch for the Richard Peabody Reader released this year by Alan Squire Publishing.  Rick, who by the way is exactly one week older than me, is a razor-sharp (and frequently quirky) poet and writer who also edits and publishes Gargoyle, the seminal DC-based magazine founded in 1976 that may be one of  the finest literary journals in the United States. There are not too many writers in and around DC who have not been published by Rick and Gargoyle.  He published some of my early literary criticism and for that I will always be thankful. 

Thursday, June 4, 2015

And the Hits Just Keep Coming . . . .

Thanks to everyone who has checked out the 330+ postings appearing here since late 2008 . . . the 175,000 who have been counted since May 27, 2012, when the counter went online, as well as the uncounted thousands who visited this site before then.  I hope ALL of you will continue to visit as I share more random notes from the edge of America.  To paraphrase the great American patriot John Paul Jones - I have not yet begun to write.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

He Did Go Home Again - Searching for Conrad Richter

Along Tulpehocken Street, Pine Grove, PA - Photo by Carl Mydans
Back in January I was reading David McCullough’s Brave Companions: Portraits in History (1991), a collection of essays, including his 1977 "Cross the Blue Mountain," a description of a visit the author made to the small central Pennsylvania town of Pine Grove and the home of Conrad Richter in the summer of 1963.  A fellow Pulitzer Prize winner, McCullough met and befriended Richter in the 1960s and has called the novelist "an American master," praising The Waters of Kronos (1960) as "his most beautiful book."

McCullough visited Richter at his home on 11 Maple Street, near the intersection with Mifflin Street where Richter was born 72 years earlier.  He described Richter as “authentic and exceeding modest American artist about whom too little has been said.”  When they first met Richter was working on his final novel, The Aristocrat (1968).  McCullough intended to write an article about Richter but it was never realized.  Instead a close friendship blossomed in the final years of Richter’s life.  McCullough would return to Pine Grove several times over the next five years, and Richter would visit him briefly on Martha’s Vineyard although he seemed anxious to return home to Pennsylvania.  It seems he always wanted to go home again.  The two men would correspond until Richter’s death on May 30, 1968.  After reading McCullough’s essay I thought it might be fun to make my own pilgrimage to Pine Grove to gain a better understanding of Richter’s life and writings.  I have read some of his books, but it was quite a long time ago.

I had been looking forward for quite some time to getting back out on the blue highways again with a good buddy; it had been a while since our last road trip together.  So why not Pine Grove?  Plans were set for an excursion into central Pennsylvania in late January.  Unfortunately, a major nor’easter brought with it a heavy snow storm which forced us to postpone our trip.  More storms and general inclement late winter weather, both in Pennsylvania and here in Maryland, kept us home bound forcing us to push the trip deeper into February, and then into March, and finally it just fell off the calendar for good.  I better understood why McCullough chose to make his first trip to Pine Grove at the height of summer.  My own first visit to Pine Grove finally happened this past week.  It was not a planned outing so much as pure serendipity.

Driving northeast of Harrisburg on my way to a literary gathering in Albany, New York, I passed an exit on Interstate 81 for Pine Grove.  I had not really studied the map beforehand and had not realized how close I would be to Richter’s hometown.  Unfortunately I did not have time to detour; I still had several hours to drive that day.  Instead I pledged to stop on my return trip.  It looked like I was finally going to have an opportunity to visit Richter’s native earth.
Born in Pine Grove, Conrad Richter (1890-1968) was the son of a Lutheran minister and he and his family moved around to several small central Pennsylvania mining towns in the coal region northeast of Harrisburg.  He eventually graduated from Tremont High School, ten miles north of Pine Grove, in 1906.  That would be the end of his formal education at age fifteen; he had to go to work to earn money to help support his family.  He worked for a spell as a teamster, a clerk, a farm worker, a timberman, a bank teller, and a salesman. In 1909, he took a job as a cub reporter for the Courier, a weekly magazine in Patton, near Johnstown, Pennsylvania.  He later sought out editing jobs on the Johnstown Journal and Leader and the Pittsburgh Dispatch.  Apparently he had the journalist’s touch and was told, “Boy, you’ll go far!”

Moving to Cleveland, Ohio in 1911 to serve as a private secretary for a wealthy industrialist, Richter would remain for the next thirteen years and it was there he took up his pen to write fiction.  Having married in 1915, with a child born the following year, Richter grew frustrated that his writing career could not support his family.  Returning to a high valley farm outside of Harrisburg in central Pennsylvania in 1924, his first story collection, Brothers of No Kin and Other Stories, was published in Philadelphia that same year.  Richter opened a publishing firm in Reading while pursuing his own writing,  eventually publishing stories in Ladies' Home Journal, American, and the Saturday Evening Post.

Due to his wife’s tuberculosis and deteriorating health, they eventually relocated to Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1928, and later to Arizona where Richter published a great deal of pulp fiction during the 1930s – mainly for the Saturday Evening Post – while developing an intense interest in frontier life in the American Southwest.  This interest is reflected in his collection, Early Americana and Other Stories, published in 1936.  His writing achieved a major success the following year as he was approaching age fifty with the publication of The Sea of Grass (1937), a best-selling novel about farming and ranch life in New Mexico which was awarded the National Book Award.  Southwestern frontier life was also the subject of his subsequent novels Tacey Cromwell (1942), Always Young and Fair (1947), and The Lady (1957).  The characters of the stories are an intricate element of the landscapes they inhabit.  Richter, much like other writers of the period, also worked briefly as a screenwriter for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios in Hollywood in the late 1930s. 

Even while living in the Southwest Richter never forgot his Pennsylvania roots and between 1940 and 1950, when he returned to Pine Grove, he penned and published his Ohio trilogy.  The first volume, The Trees, was published in 1940 and won the Pulitizer Prize.  It was followed by The Fields (1946) and The Town (1950), which also won the Pulitizer Prize in 1951.  McCullough calls the trilogy “an American masterpiece, as vivid and as moving an account as we have of pioneer life.”  This still holds true.  The trilogy tells the story of a pioneer family’s roots in Pennsylvania after the American Revolution, its eventual migration into the primordial forests of southeastern Ohio, and the conquering of this vast wilderness.  The books were followed by The Light in the Forest (1953), also set in late eighteenth century Pennsylvania and Ohio.

The pull of native soil was strong, and Richter and his wife returned to his hometown of Pine Grove to live in 1950, settling into a stately house at 11 Maple Street where they would remain until Richter’s death in 1968, only occasionally escaping for a few weeks to the Gulf Coast of Florida, or to Pawcatuck, Connecticut or the Mount Desert Island, in Maine, where he would continue to write.  During this time Richter produced eight more novels, a novelette, and several short stories and magazine articles.  But it was two autobiographical novels – The Waters of Kronos (1960), which won the National Book Award in 1961, and A Simple Honorable Man (1962), that climaxed his writing career.  The Ohio trilogy was also republished as a single volume - The Awakening Land - in 1966 as The New York Times heralded Richter as a “modest giant” among American writers.

These two late novels grew out of Richter’s family life during his youth in Pine Grove.  In the latter, a “prequel” of sorts to The Waters of Kronos, Harry Donner, the narrator’s father, leave a storekeeper job to enter into the Lutheran church and to minister to the needy and the poor in fictional rural coal-mining communities in Pennsylvania.  This difficult, some time violent, and often thankless task takes a heavy toll on Harry and his entire family as they struggle to keep the family intact as they move from place to place.  The story continues in The Waters of Kronos.  The narrator, John Donner, is Harry’s son and a well-known writer and the author of a book of about his hometown of Unionville, Pennsylvania (a fictional version of Pine Grove).  He returns home from the West to find the town flooded following the construction of a nearby hydroelectric dam.  There John Donner ponders the fates of his family and the rest of the townspeople and the despoiling of the American landscape, a favorite topic in Richter’s writings.  The novel raises questions about its autobiographical elements and the extent it reflects nostalgically on childhood scenes and key events in Richter's own family life.  It addresses the age old question whether it is possible to go home again. 

But Richter did go home again, and he wrote passionately about the past.  “I don’t believe he much cared for history in the conventional sense,” McCullough wrote in his essay.  “As some people are born with perfect pitch, he had a perfect sense of time past.”  It was as if he had lived in the past and now came home “to tell his stories.”  Not stories of great historical figures, but the stories of the common man and his fate in America.  “You could say,” McCullough added, “that he was a patriot in the largest, best meaning of the word.”  Richter valued what he called “the old verities” of “courage, respect for one’s fellow man, self-reliance, courtesy, devotion to truth, a loathing of hypocrisy, the power of simple goodness” which he sensed was quickly disappearing from the American scene.
Conrad Richter suffered a heart attack and passed away on October 30, 1968 in nearby Pottsville at the age of 78.  He is buried close to his parents on Cemetery Hill not far from his home on Maple Street and the St. John’s Lutheran Church where his father once preached.  Two short story collections – Brothers of No Kin and Other Stories (1973) and The Rawhide Knot and Other Stories (1985) – were published posthumously and most of his books are still in print.

Not much is said about Richter today two generations after his death and I was curious what evidence I might find of his life in Pine Grove.  Back in 1963 McCullough had driven from New York and approached the town from the southeast having crossed over Blue Mountain that demarcates the eastern margin of the Appalachian range where it abuts the Lehigh Valley.  The Appalachian Trail runs along its crest.  I approached from the north on Route 125, happy to abandon the traffic-addled Interstate 81 for the back roads.  Upon arrival I found it little changed from the time he last walked these quiet, tree-lined streets almost fifty years earlier.  A very typical small American town with a population hovering around 2000, I discovered it celebrating Memorial Day in typical small town fashion.   Flags and banners hung from the streetlights and adorned several buildings along Tulpehocken Street, the main north-south drag, and Mill Street, the east-west axis.  I had seen photographs of these streets taken when Richter lived here and they appeared not to have changed very much.  Young boys were fishing along the banks of the Swatara Creek as it coursed through town while others flocked to a small pond in the town park and to the local swimming pool.

Most of the existing town, founded in 1830, dates from the 19th and early 20th centuries and it is now a National Register Historic District (as is Mount Rainier, Maryland where I have resided for the past 33 years).  There is a short street named in Richter’s honor in the middle of town, and I quickly found Richter’s last home at 11 Maple Street.  It looked just the way McCullough described it in his 1977 essay.   “The house, a white stucco on Maple Street, was the largest I had seen while driving into the town.  There was a neat front walk, a small front porch with columns, a large screened porch over to one side.  Everything – house, walk, me – was bathed in cool green light under the shade trees.”  Other than that, I found little outward evidence of Richter’s years here in a town that clearly meant the world to him.  I drove over to the Lutheran cemetery where he is buried but chose to honor the “No Trespassing” signs posted at the entrance.  Besides, it would have been difficult to find his final resting place and to read his own epitaph:
                        Little grasses, I have come among you.
                        Little grasses, you are taller now than I.

Richter was popular but never fashionable.  There were no best sellers among his many books even if they were critical successes.  Having now visited Pine Grove - the model for Conrad Richter’s fictional Unionville - I have decided I must read his novel, The Waters of Kronos.  Perhaps then I will more fully understand the importance of Pine Grove, Pennsylvania to the man and his writing.

In the meantime, I left Pine Grove behind, to cross the Blue mountain just as David McCullough did on his trip of discovery.  After all, I too had to come home again.

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Monday, May 25, 2015

Memorial Day

Remembering my Dad and all of his brothers and sisters in arms from all of this country's wars - both the righteous ones and the ones we had no business fighting in the first place - and especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice in the defense of their country.  They should never be forgotten.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Friday, May 8, 2015

The Liberation of Czechoslovakia - Victory in Europe 70 Years Later

Three days ago I posted a short piece commemorating the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Gusen Concentration Camp on May 5, 1945, explaining the role my Dad’s unit - the US Army’s 26th Infantry Division - played in that historic event.

Later that same day, Dad’s division, commanded by Major General Willard S. Paul, began advancing northward into western Czechoslovakia as part of Third Army’s XII Corps, commanded by Lieutenant General LeRoy Irwin.  It was one of only two American corps, along with V Corps, to serve in Czechoslovakia during the war.  After slugging its way across northern France, Luxembourg, Belgium, and central Germany since the late summer of 1944, the 26th Infantry Division drove deep into the National Redoubt area in Bavaria, and into Austria in late April 1945.  Moving into Czechoslovakia, on May 6, Third Army fielded 18 divisions and over 540,000 men, making it the largest field army assembled by the United States.  General George Patton went a step further, calling his command “probably one of the most powerful armies ever assembled in the history of war . . . .  ”  For the next three days infantry and armored units of V and XII Corps conducted a major offensive against the German Wehrmacht’s Seventh Army,  liberating over 3.400 square miles of the Sudetenland and Bohemia, in western Czechoslovakia, and taking tens of thousands of German prisoners.  On May 7, the 26th accepted the surrender of the remnants of the 11th Panzer Division, much of which had already surrendered to the 90th Infantry Division in Austria three days earlier to avoid moving northeast to battle the Red Army near Prague.  It was against this same division that Dad’s 104th Infantry Regiment had its baptism of fire in the Moncourt Woods, in northern France, the previous October. 

Third Army quickly held a line running from Ceské Budejovice (Budweis) to Plzen (Pilsen) to Karlovy Vary (Carlsbad).   Patton was eager to continue east toward Prague but General Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied commander, ordered the Americans to hold their present line.  Prague was finally occupied by the Soviet Red Army on May 9 after several days of intense combat with its German defenders. Dad’s unit ended up in Ceské Budejovice on May 8 and advanced no further.  It was V-E Day; the war in Europe was over.  Forward elements of the Red Army arrived in Ceské Budejovice on May 9.

My dad and his 26th Infantry Division remained in western Czechoslovakia until early June 1945, then returned to Austria to assume occupation duties there and to train near Linz for possible deployment to the Pacific Theater where the war would rage on for another three months.  Thankfully, V-E Day was the end of the war for Dad as V-J Day, on September 2, 1945, came before he could be shipped out to the Pacific.

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Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Death of the Lusitania - May 7, 1915

Track of the Lusitania - William Lionel Wyllie
May 7, 1915 was a beautiful, warm spring day along the southern coast of Ireland.  The skies were clear and blue. The seas were calm.  Standing on Old Kinsale Head, near Cork, one could observe a large passenger liner sailing eastward along the horizon.  Nearly 800 feet long and crowned with four large funnels, the British liner Lusitania was easy to recognize.  A dozen miles offshore that afternoon, it departed New York City six days earlier and was on the final leg of its voyage to Liverpool.  Only 250 miles to go through a war zone in which Germany had declared unrestricted submarine warfare and where it had recently sunk a number of hostile and neutral merchant ships.  Passenger liners were considered off limits . . . until that day.

At approximately 2:10pm local time, a torpedo fired from a German U-boat struck the Lusitania on its forward starboard side and almost immediately it began to list heavily, going down by the head.   Less than 20 minutes later it disappeared beneath the waves, the smoke from its funnels drifting away as squadrons of gulls circled the spot where it went down.  The seas were littered with flotsam and bodies.  Of its 1,959 passengers and crew, 1,198 perished that afternoon.  Some 800 victims were never found.   Many of the bodies recovered were buried in a mass grave in Queenstown  while others continue to washed up along the Irish coast in the coming weeks.

There are special times when a person chances upon a place one had no idea existed until it is suddenly discovered.  How is it I never knew such places existed?  And afterwards I wonder how I am ever going to forget them.  Some of these moments might be more significant than others; some stick in your memory better than others.  Yet one can never forget them entirely.  I could make it my life’s work to write about all of them. 

The fact that today marks the centenary of the sinking of the Lusitania perhaps explains how one of these obscure memories rose to the surface; one of these sudden discoveries made over three decades ago, in May 1981, when my wife and I were making a circuitous bicycle ramble along the coast of Ireland.  We had begun our journey in Shannon, traveling first along the southwestern coastline to the Dingle Peninsula and the Ring of Kerry.  Soon we found ourselves in Cork in order to visit the nearby Blarney Castle.  I was oblivious to the discovery awaiting me.

It was a beautiful spring day when we decided to bike down from Cork to the village of Kinsale. A distance of ten miles or so.  During our visit to that village we chanced upon the medieval Saint Multose Churchyard, and given our affinity for old graveyards, we wandered among the crowded stones dating from the 16th to 19th centuries and encircled by an old stone wall.  The old Norman church dates from the late 12th century, possibly the site of an earlier 6th century monastery.  A place of history.  It was here in 1649 that Prince Rupert, whose fleet was anchored in the Kinsale harbor, proclaimed Charles II the new King of England after his uncle was executed in London by Oliver Cromwell. 

History returned to this old church in 1915 after bodies from the Lusitania - some later identified and others not - washed ashore nearby and were buried in the churchyard.  I had not expected to find these graves having not realized that the ship had gone down off the nearby coast 65 years earlier.  As we walked around the town afterwards we came across more references to the sinking and the role the town played in the recovery of survivors and victims and the subsequent inquest on the bodies recovered which was held in the town's courthouse.

The following day, as we continued eastward along the coast toward Waterford, we passed through Cobh (known as Queenstown in 1915), and saw the Lusitania memorial in Casement Square, and the mass graves containing almost 200 of the victims, many of them unidentified.  I was reminded of this day almost 31 years later, when I visited the Fairview Cemetery, in Halifax, Nova Scotia.  It was another one of those moments of unexpected discovery.  Toward the rear of the cemetery, on a hillside overlooking a large rail yard, is a plot where 121 victims of the April 1912 sinking of the RMS Titanic are interred under rows of gray memorial stones (29 other victims are buried elsewhere in Halifax).  Many of these victims were also never identified yet they are not forgotten there among those who shared their fate.  I was totally unaware of Halifax’s association with the Titanic disaster until that day.  A special day.  A special connection with the past.

I think of the Lusitania victims again today . . . one hundred years later.  We must never forget what happened on that fateful day so long ago.  To forget the past is to necessarily forgive what happened there.  To forget means the victims died in vain.  Let us never forget.

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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Into the Realm of History - The Liberation of the Gusen Concentration Camp, May 5, 1945

Flags of the US Army Divisions of Liberation

Today is the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Gusen concentration camp.  Only a fast dwindling number of survivors and liberators are still alive to tell the story.  Soon it will be cast fully into the realm of history.

In several postings here I have mentioned my dad’s wartime service in the 26th Infantry - Yankee - Division, in General George Patton’s Third Army during the northern European campaign of World War II, in 1944-1945.  The division was so nicknamed as it was created during World War I from National Guard units from the six New England states and deployed as part of the Allied Expeditionary Force in France.  It has had a long and distinguished history.  My dad bragged about his wartime unit, and rightly so.  As a kid he told me many stories about the war and the men he served with him in the 104th Infantry Regiment.  But he did not tell me everything.  I would not discover until a year after his death in 2009 that he had been awarded the Bronze Star for bravery in combat.  It is not among the medals he left to me.  Although I did not hear about it at the time, and Dad never said anything to me about it, the 26th Infantry Division was recognized as a liberating unit by the US Army's Center of Military History and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in 2002.

Third Army’s XII Corps, including the 26th Infantry Division, was tasked with the pacification of eastern Bavaria, in Germany, and it quickly advanced southward toward the Danube River and the Austro-German border near Passau.  The division moved into Austria in early May 1945 and elements of the division took Linz on May 4.  On the following day divisional units along with those of the 11th Armored Divsion liberated the Gusen concentration camp, built in 1940 and since 1944 a part of the Mauthausen camp complex, east of Linz.  It was there the American liberators discovered an elaborate tunnel system constructed with forced labor and housing underground aircraft production facilities employing inmates from the camp.  The SS had planned to demolish the tunnels with the prisoners inside, but thankfully the arrival of the 26th Infantry and 11th Armored divisions prevented this.  On May 6 the 26th Infantry Division continued north across the Vlatava River into Czechoslovakia. Third Army had moved farther east than any other American unit in the European theater.

The 26th Infantry’s divisional colors are now displayed in a place of honor in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, DC.  Each time I pass them I cannot help but reflect on the countless victims of the Nazi extermination program and those lucky enough (if it is even possible to call it this) to survive until their liberators arrived.  Most of these survivors were so weak and sick that they did not fully comprehend what liberation meant.  I also think of the men who liberated the camps 70 years ago; not just Gusen, but all of the camps that are now etched into our conscience and history.  I think about these men who had spent the previous year slugging their way across Europe, they who were lucky enough to survive protracted combat only to discover at the end the utter depravity of the regime they fought and died to destroy.  They are all victims, the survivors and the liberators.

I can understand why Dad would not have told me about Gusen when I was a kid; I would have never understood what he and his brothers-in-arms saw and experienced there.  Yet later in life, after I had become a German historian investigating and prosecuting individuals who assisted the Nazis in their programs of murder and persecution, Dad still withheld from me what must have been a very painful chapter of his life, taking it to his grave.  I just wish I had known.  If anyone would have understood, it would have been me.  And I would have wanted to tell him yet again how proud I was of him and all who fought the war that was to end all wars.

Keep all of our veterans in your thoughts and prayers today.  We cannot imagine the price they have paid to keep us free.           

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