Tuesday, January 27, 2015

70 Years After Auschwitz

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp complex.  In April 2005, shortly after the 60th anniversary of the liberation, the United Nations General Assembly designated this date as International Holocaust Remembrance Day, urging each member state to regularly and properly honor the victims of the Nazi genocide . . . the approximately seven million Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, mentally and physically challenged individuals, and other opponents of the Nazi regime.  Over 1 million of these victims, most of them Jews, were murdered at Auschwitz.  Their fates should be remembered by all people for all time, knowing that what happened to the Jews could easily happen to the rest of us if we do not remain vigilant to the long specter of evil in this world.  A memorial to these Nazi crimes might prevent future genocides.  We can only hope and pray.

It is regrettable and not a little shameful that neither President Obama, Vice President Biden, nor Secretary of State Kerry are scheduled to attend the 70th anniversary commemoration in Poland tomorrow.  Instead, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew will lead the small US delegation.   Among those heads of state attending are French President Hollande, Austrian President Fischer, German President Gauck, Belgium King Philippe of Belgium, King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands and Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark, as well as the  leaders of many other nations.  After admitting it was a mistake and diplomatic fiasco for neither Mr. Obama nor Mr. Biden to attend the solidarity march against terrorism in Paris two weeks ago, the Administration has once again failed to recognize the symbolic importance of such a visit to Auschwitz.  Mr. Obama will spend today paying homage to the new Saudi king on his way home from India.  His time would be better spent in Poland among more steadfast allies.  Add to this that Mr. Obama joins Russian President Putin in choosing not to attend the commemoration at Auschwitz.  It was, after all the Soviet Red Army that liberated Auschwitz, but Mr. Putin claims his schedule is too busy to permit a trip to Poland.  The fact is, given the current geopolitical debacle in Ukraine, Mr. Putin is not the most popular person in Europe these days.  And now Mr. Obama is apparently too busy to attend.  Certainly such a comparison with his Russia counterpart is not something Mr. Obama would particularly cherish. 

As I raised these concerns it was suggested to me that American presidents seldom attend these anniversary events, and therefore there is no reason for Mr. Obama to attend this one. If there is some reason the President cannot attend, why did he not choose to send Mr. Biden or Mr. Kerry?  Is this yet one more example of American exceptionalism?  Heads of state and high-ranking leaders from dozens of countries find it important enough to go.  Yes, there have been other such commemorations in past years, so I was also asked why this particular anniversary is such a big deal? President Obama has visited other camps before.  Isn’t this commemoration nothing more than “just another photo op?”  Yes, a few months after his inauguration in 2009, Mr. Obama visited the former Buchenwald Concentration Camp.  The story is his great-uncle helped to liberate Ohrdruf, a subcamp in the Buchenwald camp complex.   If this is the case, how is it possible for the President not to see the significance of this year’s commemoration at Auschwitz?  My questioner rebutted.  “Anniversary ceremonies aren't meaningful . . . Why 70th? Why not 69th? It's just a number.”  I cannot disagree more strenuously.  This will be perhaps the last commemoration including camp survivors, who were not so numerous in the first place. About 300 survivors are expected to attend today’s ceremony, most of them well into their 90s or older.  If they have the courage to return to this place of personal horror, surely our leaders can find the time to share in this commemoration.  To call it a simple photo op is an insult; it diminishes the very memory of those who perished there . . . and those who were lucky enough to survive. Auschwitz is NEVER a photo op.

My father’s US Army unit played a role in the liberation of the Gusen subcamp of the Mauthausen Concentration Camp at the end of the war.  I spent over three decades of my professional career conducting historical research while investigating and participating in the prosecution of Nazi-era war criminals who escaped justice after the war.  The United States Government has stood at the forefront of the world community insuring that justice is meted out to the perpetrators of the Holocaust. I am left with the lamentable impression that the United States does not really understand history very well, or think it all together important to commemorate among the family of nations.  Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.  We have seen it happen.  It can happen again.

Can it possibly be time to stop remembering, to forget what happened at Auschwitz and at the numerous Nazi camps whose main gates were festooned with the most ironic of ironies . . . “Arbeit macht frei” [work will make you free]?  We must never forget, we must never stop commemorating what we know, what history has taught us.  “Wahrheit macht frei” . . . the truth shall set you free.

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Monday, January 26, 2015

I Can Still Taste Les Madeleines

A couple of days ago I was organizing and archiving the textual copies of the 300+ posting to this blogspot since late 2008.  They have accumulated to almost 600 single spaced pages collected into two large binders.  I commented to a good friend at the time that Marcel Proust would be proud of me and he suggested it might be time to break out the madeleine cakes to celebrate.  I had not thought about les madeleines in over forty years . . . certainly not in connection with Proust.  This gave me pause.

I think the first time I had a madeleine was in late 1971 during a visit to the Meuse Valley, in the Lorraine region of northeastern France.  I was there ostensibly to search out places where my dad’s US Army unit fought during the late months of 1944.  I found myself in Metz and wandering a back street one morning I chanced upon a small boulangerie with a rich variety of offerings.  I selected several madeleine cakes . . . cookies, actually . . . to go with my morning coffee.  They were quite unique in their shape and consistency, and they tasted wonderful.  I can still taste them even after all these years. 

The reason I tried them that morning, however, was because at that time I was reading  selections from Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu [In Search of Lost Time] in a French literature class at the German university I was attending.  Probably Proust’s most famous work (begun in 1909, and eventually published in several volumes between 1913 and 1927), it swelled to almost 3,200 pages.  We were reading selections from Du côté de chez Swann [Swann’s Way], the first volume published in 1913, including the section entitled “Combray” which concludes with the now famous madeleine episode  – its theme the existence of involuntary memory.  Returning home to the US, I finally had an opportunity to read the entire multi-volume English translation by Charles Scott Moncrieff to which he attached the rather obsequious title, Remembrance of Things Past (1922-1930).  The final volume of the translation was completed by "Stephen Hudson," (a pseudonym adopted by Proust's friend, Sydney Schiff), after Moncrieff’s death in 1930.   Reading the Combray episode:

 No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. ... Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? ... And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea. 


So, perhaps I was correct when I posited that Proust would be proud of me after assembling textual pages of these blogspot posting, which I have characterized from the outset as “Random Thoughts From the Edge of America.”  And my friend was also correct to suggest a celebration of this undertaking with the serving of madeleine cakes.  Eating them with his tea was, for Proust, an incident of involuntary memory triggered by sensory occurrences,  awakening still other memories and recollections, the “essence of the past” over which he had no conscious control over recollections of past people, places and events.

These postings really are random thoughts . . . involuntary memories triggered by something I have done, or seen, or heard, or read.  Yet, once triggered, I do try to think about then intelligently, and in depth.  I will do a little research to flesh them out before sharing them with my readers.

So let us dip our madeleines into our cups of tea and see what comes up.  I am sure there will always be something to dredge up and write about.

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Saturday, January 24, 2015

What Has Happened to America’s Moral Compass?

I have just read that President Obama, who arrived in India today on a planned visit, will shorten his trip in order to travel to Saudi Arabia next week to pay his respects to the newly appointed Saudi King Salman.  Vice President Biden was to join other world leaders in Riyadh today to honor Salman’s predecessor, who was buried yesterday, but once again American exceptionalism raises its ugly head and Obama will make a special appearance at the Saudi court.

Just recently the President was too busy to join other world leaders as they stood by France, our oldest ally, and marched through Paris in solidarity against terrorists who had murdered several writers and artists and other innocents.  Yet Obama does have time to visit the repressive Saudi kingdom which continues to persecute its own women, minorities, and the LGBT community.  I think the Vice President’s presence in Riyadh today would have been more than enough to honor protocol.  Why does Saudi Arabia, and not France, deserve an additional visit by the President?  Look to the Saudi oil fields for your answer.

Saudi Arabia is no true ally of the United States.  May I remind you that Osama bin Laden and most of the terrorists responsible for the September 11 atrocities were Saudis?  America supposedly cherishes personal freedoms, including the freedom of speech, and still we honor and support a country that ignores these as a matter of course.  At the moment the Saudi government is in the process of administering 1000 lashes of a cane to Raif Badawi, a young Saudi blogger, for criticizing Saudi Arabia’s powerful clerics.  His sentence also includes a fine and ten years in prison.  The blog has been shut down by the Saudi government and Badawi’s attorney has been jailed for fifteen years for “undermining regime officials,” for ‘’inciting public opinion,” and for “insulting the judiciary.”  Badawi’s wife and three young children are living in exile in Canada.  We have no time to stand by a traditional ally like France yet our president makes a special effort to stand by the Saudis?

Amnesty International has adopted Badawi as a prisoner of conscience and calls his cruel punishment “macabre and outrageous.”  Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, a member of the Jordanian royal family, has pointed out that “[s]uch punishment is prohibited under international human rights law, in particular the convention against torture, which Saudi Arabia has ratified” and he has appealed to the now deceased Saudi king to exercise his power to halt the public flogging.  So far the new King Salman has pledged continuity after his accession to the throne.  Our neighbors in Canada have described the flogging as “a violation of human dignity and freedom of expression”.  And still our President feels honor bound to pledge the United States’ continued support of Saudi Arabia and its repressive ruling family.

President-elect Obama:
When the United States stands up for human rights, by example at home and by effort abroad, we align ourselves with men and women around the world who struggle for the   right to speak their minds, to choose their leaders, and to be treated with dignity and respect. We also strengthen our security and well being, because the abuse of human rights can feed many of the global dangers that we confront -- from armed conflict and humanitarian crises, to corruption and the spread of ideologies that promote hatred and violence.

So why does he feel compelled to visit Saudi Arabia?  How soon we forget.  One again I feel like I am standing on the edge of America, scratching my head and wondering what has happened to America’s moral compass.  

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Monday, January 19, 2015

Memories of the Good Earth

Steve and Knight on the Back Forty, Autumn 1956
“I felt the old pull of the earth, the solemn magic that comes out of those fields at nightfall. I wished I could be a little boy again, and that my way could end there.”
Willa Cather, My Ántonia (1918)


I have written here several times about my grandparent’s farmstead in southwestern Michigan where I lived for a time back in the mid-1950s.  My parents were traveling for  my dad’s job and so I had a stable home as I started my school career at the one-room Acorn School just down the road from the farm.  Having lived in cities – Chicago, Detroit, Kansas City, and Los Angeles - during my earliest years, I found the farm to be a fascinating and mysterious place where I could free-range to my heart’s content . . . even as a five year old boy.   How many kids can say that today?

My days on the farmstead fell into a routine.  Life was much simpler back then.  After a morning of spelling, repetitions and ciphers I was happy to walk back to the farm for a few daylight hours of rambling through my grandparent’s fields and the woodlot beyond.  This afternoon time was usually my own after a few quick chores upon returning home from school.  After a cold glass of milk I would visit the chicken coop where it was my job to gather the eggs and bring water from the pump to fill their trough.  I would also bring cracked corn from the granary which I spread around the yard, the chickens pecking at my shoes.  My grandma was often busy with her own chores around the house and with the preparation of the evening meal while my granddad would be busy in the barn mucking out the stalls and tie-ups and laying in a fresh bedding of hay for the cows in preparation for the evening milking.  On weekends I would often follow my granddad around the farm, sometimes on foot and other times up in his lap as he navigated his red Farmall tractor from one task to another.  My uncles and neighboring farmers would come when it was time to cut and bale hay or harvest the field corn and asparagus.

Most of my explorations of the farm began in the large yard separating the farmhouse from the weather-burnished barn and the other out buildings.  It was shaded by a magnificent oak tree and I would go around picking up fallen acorns and collecting them in small paper bags which I then secreted high up in the corn crib.   I had no reason for doing this.  My faithful companion was Knight, a friendly and trustworthy border collie who, strangely enough, was my best friend during those months I spent at the farm with few, if any, children to play with.  A prodigious assembly of cousins had not yet arrived on the scene. 

In the summer the fields reaching from the barnyard to the distant woodlot were planted with alfalfa, asparagus (western Michigan is considered by some the asparagus capital of the United States), and field corn.  When the corn had grown above my head I would often go into the field and walk about, changing directions at will and wondering where I would be when I finally emerged into the open.  Browned and withered in the autumn after the harvest, the corn stalks would be cut and gathered into shocks dotting the field until they were ensiled as cattle fodder for the coming year.  A small creek ran through the woodlot and I always enjoyed walking along it looking for frogs and minnows.   Sometime I would take a small cane pole with me and fish for bream in the larger pools.  I had a fort, its walls marked out by cords of wood my granddad had cut.   Later in the autumn some of these logs would be sectioned and split and transported to the dooryard to feed the winter furnace in the farmhouse cellar.  These explorations of the farm fields and back woods were a special time, when my boyhood imagination would run wild with possibilities as I listened to the wind rustling trough the crops, the trees and branches scratching and creaking as evening approached.

One of my aunts or uncles would usually stop by in time to be invited to join us for dinner and we would all gather around the large dining room table for a bounteous feast of meat and potatoes.  A large picture window opening to a broad panorama of the farmyard and the fields beyond the barn and out buildings, the cows just beginning to arrive at the barnyard from their day grazing in the pasture.

In the early evening after dinner I would join my granddad in the barn and watch him milk each of his six cows in succession.  It was my job to retrieve pails full of corn meal from the granary which I mixed with a portion of ensilage (mostly green corn fodder) to which I added a generous dollop of black molasses.  The girls appeared to enjoy it well enough.  The milk from each cow was poured into large metal milk cans which were then submerged in a water cooler overnight, the morning milk added before the cans were rolled to the side of the road near the barn to be collected daily by the local dairy truck.  Except for weekends, I left the morning milking to my granddad who was up every morning at dawn.  On weekdays I had to eat breakfast before my walk back to Acorn School for the day’s lessons.

Willa Cather’s sentiment from the Great Plains almost a century ago still held true as I wandered my grandparents’ farm in the mid 1950s.  Its good earth was magical for this city boy.  Now, almost sixty years later, I still have fond memories of those days of innocence, wishing that my own could end like this.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Ice on the Potomac - Thirty Three Years After the Air Florida Crash


I was driving home from a poetry reading in Arlington, Virginia a couple of nights ago and I noticed that the Potomac River was completely iced over and reflecting the soft sheen of light from the Lincoln Memorial with the Washington Monument beyond.  We had a few days of uncharacteristic arctic temperatures and this was the first time I had seen the river covered in ice in quite a long time.  Despite the late hour and the cold temperatures I could not help but stop for a few minutes to enjoy the peaceful setting.  Washington really is a beautiful city, especially at night.

A few minutes later I was crossing the Fourteenth Street Bridge spanning the Potomac  between the Pentagon, on the Virginia shore, and the Jefferson Memorial and adjacent Tidal Basin on the Washington, DC side of the river.  One more time I was able to look down at the ice reflecting the city lights.  And, as it often does whenever I cross this bridge . . . even now thirty three years later . . . my memory flashes back to January 13, 1983.  A blizzard had descended on Washington that morning and commuters were beginning to head home early as the city slowly crept to a halt and the snows piled higher.  The roads leading out of the city and across the Potomac bridges were jammed with people trying desperately to get home safely.   National Airport, situated on the Virginia side of the river less than mile south of the Fourteenth Street Bridge, had closed earlier in the day during the heaviest part of the storm, but reopened around noon under very marginal conditions as the snowfall slackened.

That afternoon Air Florida Flight 90 was rolling away from the terminal after being de-iced prior to departure following a delay in its scheduled take-off for Tampa and Fort Lauderdale when the airport was once again closed due to heavy snow.  It was still snowing hard as the aircraft waited on the taxi-way for over 45 minutes before it was eventually cleared for take off shortly before 4pm.  It would never reach its intended destinations.  It remained in the air for only a few seconds before it stalled and dropped toward the icy river below.  It struck the northbound span of the Fourteenth Street Bridge crushing six cars and a truck halted in the massive traffic backup traffic on the bridge and killing four.  It tore away almost 100 feet of the bridge before plunging into the ice between the two spans of the bridge some 200 feet from the Virginia shore.  The wreckage quickly sank, only the tail section rising from the icy waters.  Four of the five crew members were killed along with 70 of 74 passengers, many of whom survived the initial crash but were unable to escape the sunken wreckage.  Rescue operations were hampered by the worsening weather, ice in the river, and difficulty reaching the crash site by land and water.  Still, there were several instances of heroism to save those who had managed to escape the wreckage.

A half hour after the plane crash the early rush hour sent thousands of commuters underground into Metro subway system in order to get out of the city that was quicky shutting down.   A second tragedy struck just a short distance from the plane crash site when a single Metro train derailed beneath the National Mall between the Federal Triangle and Smithsonian stations.  Three passengers were killed and two dozen injured while others were stranded in the tunnel darkness for hours.  Rescue efforts here were compounded by the fact that much of the area’s emergency equipment was responding to the Air Florida crash site.  This was the Metro system’s first fatal accident since it opened six years earlier. 

I was one of the Washington workers trying to get home that afternoon.  I came to work as expected like many others despite the weather forecast.   I though I could stick it out as the snowfall lessened throughout the morning.  But the heavy snow squalls returned in the afternoon and with early dismissal for federal workers, I walked to my car parked a short distance away for what is under normal conditions a 20 minute drive home.  Living in Maryland, I did not have to take a bridge and my escape from the city offered various options.  Listening to the car radio for traffic reports and traveling plowed back streets as much as possible, I was able to gradually make my way home although the 20-minute drive took me over three hours to complete.  As I drove I also listened to the first reports of the plane crash and Metro accident, both less than a mile from where I worked.  The entire afternoon was a surreal blur, and that night, as I sat safe, warm and alone at home, I watched the story of the afternoon’s events unfold on television.

There were countless stories about the victims, the survivors, and those who put their own lives in danger to assist in rescue efforts.  One story, however, kept resonating with me that evening and in the days that followed the tragedy.  Priscilla Tirado, her husband, José, and their two-month-old son Jason were flying home to Florida.  Immediately after the crash witnesses recalled Priscilla thrashing in the water and screaming for her baby, too weak to grab the line lowered from a circling helicopter.  Lenny Skutnik, a young federal worker trying to get home, jumped into the icy waters and pulled her to safety.  Her husband and son perished; the infant’s body the last to be recovered almost two weeks after the crash.  There was one thing I could not get out of my mind as I watched this tragedy unfold.  A few days later my wife and my own two month old son would be flying home on Air Florida.  They say that lightning does not strike twice.  I wanted desperately to believe this was true.

So this is why I think about that day in January 1982 each time I drive across that bridge, especially when the ice is on the Potomac reflecting the lights of a now peaceful city.

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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Je Suis Charlie!

The terrorist attacks in Paris last week are just the latest attempts to stifle free speech and thought.  It is a time to stand together and show the world that we will not be intimidated and silenced . . . that the pen will always remain mightier than the sword.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

A New Year At the Lake

Photo: Dave Breton
This past weekend one of our summer neighbors in New Gloucester, Maine, visited our adjacent cottages on True’s Point, on Sabbathday Lake, where the ice is just beginning to take hold along the shoreline after a fairly warm winter thus far.  The ice on other sections of the lake was up to three inches thick and already there were a few brave souls venturing out on the dangerously thin ice to tempt fate and go ice fishing. Much of the lake is either still open water or only transparent thin ice, but that is not enough deterrent for anglers who have been waiting patiently since the open
Photo: Dave Breton
water fishing season closed at the end of September to wet a hook.  Things are looking up, however, and the temperature began to drop later in the weekend and a passing winter storm dropped a few inches of new snow.  So winter may have finally arrived.  Perhaps.  It is even snowing here in Washington, DC this morning . . . these four inches are the first real measurable snowfall of the season.  it might be all we get.

And so here we are starting out fresh in a new year and it is time once again to begin looking toward to those summer months (and they will be here before we know it) and a return to the lake in June.   I look at the barren deck and the quiet lake beyond in these photographs and it is not difficult to envision the deck tables and the festive rainbow-hued umbrella . . . the grill standing ready.  I recall all of those stunning summer sunsets, each one different from the ones before.  It is thoughts like these that help me get through these gray and damp months of winter.

If all goes as planned I will take my annual winter trip to northern New England in the next few weeks, and if I do, I will certainly make my own outing to True’s Point and Sabbathday Lake to have a look at the cottage and the lake at the height of winter.  I am sure I will find it much changed from its appearance in these early days of January.  It has always been a bit of a treacherous go as I managed to navigate the icy and snowbound two-track that leads from the main road back to the lake.  I am only able to get as far as the top of the hill behind the cottage where I abandon any attempt of going farther.  The rest of the drive is buried under several feet of snow.  From there I could look down to the cottage with snow drifted high against it exterior walls, an ice fisherman’s bobhouse positioned on the ice in the spot where we swim and fish in the summer.   There is no fear of thin ice.

Looking at these recent photographs of the cottage and lake, and thinking back to my previous winter visits, I can’t help but see myself sitting under the umbrella on a warm summer’s day.   It won’t be long.  I can take comfort in that.


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Monday, December 1, 2014

The Road Not Taken - Part 3 of Memories from the Left Edge of America

On board the USS Ticonderoga (CV-14) at San Diego, California, July 1966 (I am third from the left).  Standing where a Japanese kamikaze plane struck in January 1945.
This is the third in a series of postings entitled “Memories from the Left Edge of America.”   Parts 1 and 2 were posted on October 20 and 22. 

The traveler in Frost’s well-known poem, “The Road Not Taken,” has arrived at an important, perhaps even a providential juncture on the road being traveled, or perhaps   an important crossroads in a life already lived, or one yet to be lived. But one will never know what life has in store until one of two pathways is chosen and followed.

            Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
            And sorry I could not travel both
            And be one traveler, long I stood
            And looked down one as far as I could
            To where it bent in the undergrowth;

            Then took the other, as just as fair,
            And having perhaps the better claim,
            Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
            Though as for that the passing there
            Had worn them really about the same,

            And both that morning equally lay
            In leaves no step had trodden black.
            Oh, I kept the first for another day!
            Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
            I doubted if I should ever come back.

            I shall be telling this with a sigh
            Somewhere ages and ages hence:
            Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -
            I took the one less traveled by,
            And that has made all the difference.   *


Two separate paths lie open and the traveler is sorry only one can be taken.  Both appear essentially the same, the only difference being where each will eventually lead.  Once down one path or the other, there is no going back, no do overs.  I arrived at just such a juncture in my own life during the summer of 1966, not long after I turned 15 years old.  Now you might think this is a very early age to arrive at such a momentous decision.  But I did.  I didn’t fully comprehend it then, but I can see it plainly now.

Ever since I was a young boy I have always been interested in history, especially military history.  Maybe this was a result of listening to my dad’s exploits while serving in General Patton’s Third Army as it advanced from the beachheads of Normandy to the Battle of the Bulge and across Germany to the eastern Czechoslovakia during the final year of World War II.  I thought I might be a soldier one day myself.  A lot of young boys do.  Mind you, Dad never glorified war or his role in it, nor did I realize or understand when I was young that there were so many terrible things he never told me about.  That would all come much later, when I better understood the history of that bitter conflict.  War would come to mean something completely different to a young boy who early on only saw the adventure and glory to be won.  But Dad did talk fondly about his comrades-in-arms, that band of brothers that faced death and adversity together, Some of them were lucky enough to survive to see the end of the war and to return home to their families and the lives they would lead after a victory won at such a terrible price. 

My own generation’s war had been brewing in French Indo-China since the early 1950s when American military advisors were sent to support the French, and later the government of an independent South Vietnam, in their efforts to stem the tide of communism in Southeast Asia.  Following the Gulf of Tonkin incident in early August 1964 during which North Vietnamese patrol boats allegedly attacked US Navy vessels, the US launched dozens of sorties against North Vietnamese bases and oil storage facilities.  It was not long before the United States began to ramp up its engagement in Vietnam.  It launched a large-scale bombing campaign, and began to commit regular combat troops in early 1965.  Over a quarter million ground troops were in country by the end of that year.  News from war zones became a constant diet on the evening news as American casualties began to mount.  Still, the war seemed far away and the idea of some sort of military service had not lost its appeal.  I joined the cadet program of the Wisconsin Wing of the Civil Air Patrol, a US Air Force Auxiliary, in 1964 and began to entertain thoughts of eventually attending the Air Force Academy so I could fly jets.  I did not really think about the likelihood that I would end up flying them over Southeast Asia.

I spent the summer of 1966 in San Diego where I was active in a local CAP squadron as part of the California Wing.  The Vietnam War suddenly seemed much closer during my time on the West Coast.   San Diego was full of military personnel on their way to, or returning from the war zone.  The skies were full of military aircraft operating out of Miramar Naval Air Station and other bases scattered across southern California.  Naval ships moved in and out of the harbor on a regular basis.  While I was in San Diego that summer I had an opportunity to tour the USS Ticonderoga (CV-14) with a group of visiting Royal New Zealand Air Force cadets.  One of 24 Essex-class aircraft carriers built during World War II, it served in several campaigns in the Pacific Theater of Operations, earning five battle stars during the last two years of the war and suffering severe damage as a result of a kamikaze assault in January 1945.  She was recommissioned shortly after the Korean War, and later earned several Naval Unit Commendations and 12 battle stars while operating off the coast of Vietnam.

When I boarded her at the North Island Naval Air Station, the Ticonderoga had recently returned home from her first six-month combat tour in the South China Sea and was being repaired and refitted for another tour.  We learned how the ship operated in combat, her air squadrons conducting bombing and reconnaissance sorties over Vietnam.  During its first deployment off Vietnam her air squadrons conducted over 10,000 combat sorties, with a loss of 16 planes, and five pilots.   We also learned it was aircraft from this carrier that engaged the North Vietnamese patrol boats during the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and along with aircraft from the USS Constellation, participated in the retaliatory raids on the North Vietnamese bases a few days later, receiving the first of its Naval Unit Commendations.  While walking on the busy flight deck we stood where the Japanese kamikaze plane struck and badly crippled the ship toward the end of World War II.  Shortly after my tour the USS Ticonderoga would put to sea in early July for training operations off the California coast.  It would return to Vietnam that October for the next of two more combat deployments until 1968 and the end of its active combat deployment.   It would subsequently recover the Apollo 16 and 17 moon mission capsules and astronauts in 1972, and the Skylab 2 astronauts near San Diego a year later.  The Ticonderoga was decommissioned in 1973 and sold for scrap in 1975).

Suddenly the war did not seem that far away.  It was all around me.  For the very first time I took a hard look at what a military career might mean and I had to ask myself whether I was committed to it.  By now I had my doubts.  With over a half million men and women deployed to Vietnam, the war continued to rage in Southeast Asia through my remaining years in high school.   I witnessed the anti-war protests along Michigan Avenue, in Grant and Lincoln Park and elsewhere throughout downtown Chicago, during the Democratic National Convention in the summer of 1968.  The war was going badly after the Tet Offensive earlier that year and the conflict was spreading throughout Southeast Asia.  The US began a secret bombing campaign over Cambodia and more than 11,000 US troops would be killed in action in 1969, the year I graduated.  By then I had scrapped any thoughts of attending a service academy or enlisting.  If the army wanted me they were going to have to come and get me.  That was a road I had no desire to take.
 
            Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
            I doubted if I should ever come back.

 

I registered with the Selective Service in 1969 when I turned 18.  It began a draft lottery in December 1969, and a second lottery drawing was held in July 1970 to determine the order in which men like me who were born in 1951 were to be called to report for induction into the military.  My birthday came up number 246.  The highest lottery number called for this group was 125.  All men assigned that lottery number or any lower number, and who were classified 1-A or 1-A-O (available for military service), were called to report for possible induction.  I was literally saved by the luck of the draw.  Lucky, too, that I had already been granted a temporary student deferment which would end either on my completion of a four-year degree or my 24th birthday in 1975, whichever came first.  Student deferments ended in 1971, yet the annual draft inductions never reached my high lottery number.  So many young men were called to serve.  I never was.

Although I was never seriously threatened by the draft, I attended Florida Southern College, a small liberal arts college which required two years of mandatory ROTC (Reserved Officers Training Corps) education.  One could then opt out or sign up for an additional two years after which one would be commissioned a second lieutenant in the US Army and required to serve at least two years of active service followed by a stint in the reserves.  I opted out in the fall of 1971 and traveled overseas to attend university in West Germany.   I had lost any and all interest in a military career.

            I shall be telling this with a sigh
            Somewhere ages and ages hence:
            Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
            I took the one less traveled by,
            And that has made all the difference.
           


I chose a civilian career as a historian charged with investigating the darkest corners of war, in this instance war crimes and crimes against humanity by the Nazis and their collaborators.  It has been a righteous endeavor.  There are no regrets, no sighs so many years after choosing one calling over another.

*   Robert Frost. The Poetry of Robert Frost. Edited by Edward Connery Lathem. 1969.
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Thursday, November 27, 2014

A Very Special Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is a time to spend with family and friends.  That’s the way it always was when I was growing up; the thought of spending a Thanksgiving alone did not cross my mind when I was young.  I never missed a Thanksgiving with my family until I was twenty years old and attending university in Germany. 

The fourth Thursday of November (the 26th) in 1971 had no holiday importance in Freiburg. I attended my regular classes that day and in the afternoon walked to the local post office to place an overseas call hoping to catch my family celebrating Thanksgiving at home.  I waited for two hours to get a free line and no one answered when the phone finally rang back in Wisconsin.  The holiday and home seemed awfully far away as I walked back to my apartment that evening.  No turkey.  No stuffing with gravy.  No cranberry sauce.  No pumpkin pie.  I settled for a bowl of Hungarian goulash and a couple steins of beer at my favorite Stammtisch before hitting the books.

But all was not lost and I was not really alone.  Several other American students and I decided, if we could not be home for the holiday, we would at the very least celebrate Thanksgiving with each other on that Saturday (the 28th).  With the campus closed on the weekend we had made arrangements to use a meeting room with kitchen privileges.  Each of us was tasked with shopping trips and preparation assignments, and we each invited a German friend to share our very special thanksgiving with us.

I skipped the one class I had on Friday and a friend who had PX privileges and I made our way to the Freiburg Hauptbahnhof where we caught a train north to Karlsruhe. We changed to another train to the main station in Stuttgart, and from there we took a local train out to Vaihingen where we visited the US Army commissary at Patch Barracks.  We purchased two large (well, large for Germany) frozen turkeys, a few cans of cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie filling (at the time these items were nowhere to be found back in Freiburg), and a few other items that reminded us of home.  I took the opportunity to pick up several boxes of Aunt Jemima pancake mix and large bottles of Log Cabin syrup to stock my own larder.  Who knew when I would next make it back up to Stuttgart?  We were soon retracing our route back to Freiburg where we arrived late in the evening, the turkeys already beginning to thaw.

Early the next morning I brought the defrosted turkeys to our meeting room and all of us began our preparations for the feast to come.   Having been partially responsible for the acquisition of the turkeys, the task of cooking the birds also fell to me and I used my family’s rules of thumb - cook the stuffing separate from the birds and baste only at the very end of the roasting time.  Thankfully we had an oven large enough to accommodate the turkeys, a small ham, and the pans of stuffing.

Everything was ready by mid-afternoon when we sat down to eat.  I was given the honor of carving the birds and slicing the ham.  A short prayer of thanksgiving was offered up and we toasted our absent families and friends, as well as our new friends who had come to join us.   Better yet, a  gentle snow fell throughout the afternoon which helped us enjoy the holiday spirit.  We ate and drank until we could eat and drink no more, and it was late evening by the time I made my way back through the snow to my apartment and fell into bed.

The following day, the 29th, was Totensonntag, the last Sunday before the beginning of Advent.  A mostly German Protestant celebration for the deceased, it is similar to the Catholic celebration of Allerheiligen and Allerseelen (All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day) at the beginning of November.  It is normally a day of silence and churches forego music in their traditional liturgy.  The bells of the Lutheran church a block away from my apartment, which normally began to ring early each Sunday and went on for quite some time, did not ring that day.  Still, I managed to arise from bed without the aid of that cacophonous carillon, and after a few cups of coffee to declinate my internal compass and regain my orientation after a night of tryptophan-induced foodmares, I walked through the new fallen snow to the campus to clean up from the day before.  A few others also showed up and we warmed up the leftovers and had a second feast before putting everything back in order. 

That following Monday I returned to my classes and in the late afternoon I made my way again to the post office hoping I might reach my family.  I requested an overseas line, and after another long wait for a connection, I heard that familiar ring of an American telephone.  My dad was still at work, but I had a nice chat with my mother with whom I had not spoken for over three months.  She told me all about the first  holiday celebration I had missed at home, and I told her about my very special Thanksgiving, perhaps the first one when I fully understood the meaning of giving thanks for what I had long taken for granted.  Home suddenly didn’t seem all that far away.

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Saturday, November 22, 2014

I Remember It Like It Was Yesterday

November 22nd is a date that causes me to linger for a moment or two whenever I look at a calendar.   I think back to that Friday afternoon sitting in Mr. Ballard’s math class at David Millard Junior High School, in Asheville, North Carolina.   The principal came on the intercom and told us that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas.  The rumors and guessing began almost immediately. Was the story true? Had the President been wounded? Was he dead? We could not believe that the reports we were hearing were true. Soon enough we learned that they were. I was sitting in art class when the teacher left the room for a minute or two only to return with tears in her eyes. She did not have to tell us anything more.  The principal’s voice returned on the intercom and told us all to go home to be with our families.  All of this was difficult for a 12 year old boy to fathom. What happens now?

Commenting on a previous anniversary of that portentous event, Walter Shapiro reminded us that “memories of that terrible weekend are an inescapable part of who I am today.”  I look at the calendar today and I have to agree with him.  They are impossible memories to erase.  On that day 51 years ago the America we had come to know became a little less recognizable, and we are all the poorer for it.

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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

I Am One of Miss Dawn's Little Sponges - Part 2 of Memories from the Left Edge of America



This is the second of a four posting series, “Memories from the Left Edge of America” series.

I still have very vivid memories of living in Redondo Beach, in the South Bay area of greater Los Angeles, in the mid 1950s.  Back in April 2011 I posted some recollections of running the grunion with my folks and their friends along Redondo Beach - my most viewed post to date.  “I was a young buck then, the scourge of Miss Dawn’s nursery school, and surely I was making up the whole thing . After all, I used to stand in front of the picture window in our living room watching the nighttime glow of wildfires burning in Malibu and Topanga Canyon across the bay and thinking that China was on fire. What did I know?” [http://lookingtowardportugal.blogspot.com/2011/04/running-grunion.html ].

During a road trip through California last fall I returned to Redondo Beach to see if I could locate some places still seared into my memory so many decades later.  Driving around I got a sense of the place I once lived, but so much that was there in the 1950s is gone now.  The old apartment complex along Palos Verdes Boulevard where we lived has been replaced by a more modern collection of condominiums.  The view of the Pacific Ocean is still there, however, but there is a great deal of newer residential housing between there and the beach where we use to run the grunion.  The old Fisherman’s Wharf extending out from the beach is not how I remember it, and the Ralphs grocery store where my mom use to shop is gone although the tall Washingtonia palms still line much of Catalina Avenue.  I wandered down to 211 Avenue I where Miss Dawn’s School was situated a block east of South Catalina Avenue just a short distance from the Pacific Ocean.  The old pink cinder block building that was my school has been replaced by small shops along this commercial strip.  To quote Thomas Wolfe: “But why had he always felt so strongly the magnetic pull of home, why had he thought so much about it and remembered it with such blazing accuracy, if it did not matter, and if this little town, and the immortal hills around it, was not the only home he had on earth? He did not know. All that he knew was that the years flow by like water, and that one day men come home again.”  It did matter.  Gone were the swimming pool and the playground.  You can go home again, but there are no guarantees it will be how you remember it.

To avoid hitting the evening LA rush hour traffic back toward San Diego on the final leg of my road trip, I decided to stop for a bite to eat.  A nice looking sushi place on Avenue I was closed and so I asked around for a good seafood joint.  I was quickly directed to a fairly nondescript strip mall on Palos Verdes Boulevard just a few blocks away from my nostalgic wanderings.  Gina Lee’s Bistro (at #211 . . . happen chance? ) specializes in Asian fusion dishes and the menu is heavy on seafood.  Always a plus in my book although I was sad to see there was no offering of grunion . . . that would have been almost too much to hope for.  I arrived shortly after it opened and was able to get a table without a reservation.  I was lucky because the place quickly filled up.  Obviously this is a popular place despite its simple outward appearance wedged between a jeweler and a hair salon.  The restaurant itself was a large, open room with several tables and an open kitchen.  Always a nice touch although it can make for a lot of ambient noise and this was certainly the case here once the place filled up  The dishes were a bit pricey but I was told they were worth it.  In the end I had no complaint about the food or the service.  It was a decent meal.

This meal was special not for the food or the atmosphere; it was the serendipity of my coming to this place during my journey into my past.  One of the dishes on the menu was “Evelyn Dawn’s Potato-Crusted Salmon” which was served with sauteed vegetables and a dill cream sauce.  I inquired whether the woman for whom the dish was named might possibly be identical with Miss Dawn, one of my first teachers just a few blocks and so many years away.  In fact, they are the same.  The dish was named in honor of Miss Dawn, a regular patron, after her passing several years ago.  There is also a framed photograph of her hanging in the restaurant.  Perhaps my being directed here is what Thomas Wolfe called one of those "dark miracles of chance that make new magic in a dusty world.”

Just recently I was looking through an old family album for some old “Throw Back Thursday” photos of myself to post on Facebook when I came across two photographs taken on my fifth birthday, in March 1956, when I was attending Miss Dawn’s School.  I also found a progress report dating from January 1956 and signed by Evelyn Dawn, the school’s proprietor, and my teacher Zelma Seekford.  “He cooperates well in group play and is well liked by the other children,” wrote Ms. Seekford.  “He is willing to share the toys, and other equipment, and has quickly learned to be a part of all the activities.”  High praise for I am quite sure I could be quite the rapscallion some of my later teachers described to my parents.  Perhaps Ms. Seekford recognized my impishness with her antepenultimate praise of my “outstanding creative ability.”  Unfortunately it was not always used for good.  Thinking back on that time I grew curious about whatever happened to Miss Seekford and Miss Dawn, my very first teachers who played a major role in setting me on the path to my own adventures in education.  A couple quick “Google searches” and I discovered that both of these women had long, productive lives and careers in education.

Evelyn Dawn Thomas was born in Long Beach in 1907 and was raised in Glendale.  Educated at the University of California, she used "Miss Dawn" as her professional name throughout her career in education in the Los Angeles area.  She established her first school - “Miss Dawn’s School - in Manhattan Beach, California, and in 1953 she opened a second new preschool, which also included two swimming pools, on Avenue I in Redondo Beach.  Eventually, in 1961, she realized her vision of a primary school, establishing the Rolling Hills Country Day School on the nearby Palos Verdes peninsula.  By 1968 it included kindergarten through Grade 8.  Miss Dawn believed her little charges were “like little sponges ready to soak up everything."  By the time I left the pre-school at age five I could already read and was beginning to write in cursive.  I was sad to learn that Miss Dawn passed away in 2000 at the age of 93.

Zelma Seekford was originally from west-central Ohio, where she was born in June 1912.  She attended Wittenberg University in nearby Springfield where she received her teaching certificate before moving to the Los Angeles area where her husband worked as a mortician in Santa Monica and she taught at Miss Dawn’s School in Redondo Beach.  She and her husband eventually returned to Ohio where she continued to teach elementary school until her retirement.  She passed away in 2007 at the age of 95.

My Google searches also took me to an interesting reference to the salmon dish I enjoyed at Gina Lee’s Bistro at 211 Palos Verdes Boulevard nearly a year ago.  Scott and Gina Lee, the proprietors, said of the salmon dish: “This is a crowd favorite. Lots of people remember ‘Miss Dawn’ . . . She came in the restaurant nearly daily and always had the salmon professing that the omega 3 fatty acids kept her going at top speed. We’ve had former students and teachers come in and marvel that she lives on our menu.”  So it was indeed serendipity that I happened to have dinner there during my search for an old childhood haunt.

I hope that Miss Dawn and Miss Seekford are looking down with smiles on their faces and secure in the knowledge that the short time I spent in their care paid off in the long run.  "Teachers teach because they care,” wrote the education reformer Horace Mann. “Teaching young people is what they do best. It requires long hours, patience, and care."  I am certain I benefited from my time at Miss Dawn’s School.  "The dream begins, most of the time,” say Dan Rather, “with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you on to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called truth."   I am thankful for the careful prodding of Evelyn Dawn and Zelma Seekford.

My fifth birthday, March 1956, Redondo Beach, California

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Monday, October 20, 2014

Tail o’ the Pup May Live Again - Part 1 of Memories from the Left Edge of America


Photo by Gary Leonard, Los Angeles Public Library Collection
Dad and Me at Kiddieland, 1956
This is the first of four postings of my “Memories from the Left Edge of America” series.

I just read that the family of Eddie Blake, the last owner of Tail o’ the Pup, the iconic Los Angeles hotdog stand, is selling the trademark, recipes and the newly renovated facade, with bids starting at $200,000.  A pretty sweet deal, if you ask me.  The story also refreshed some very distant memories that flooded back to me a year ago during a trip through California.  But I am getting ahead of myself.

The 17-foot wiener-in-a-bun hotdog facade was designed by the architect Milton J. Black in 1938, and the stand was opened in 1946 on North LaCienega Boulevard, in West Hollywood.  That was the boondocks back then.  During its early years the Tail o’ the Pup was located adjacent to Beverly Park and Playland (aka Kiddieland), a small amusement park on an acre of land leased from a local oil company at the corner of Beverly and LaCienega and opened around the same time.  Kiddieland had all the standard rides of the era and was a precursor to Disneyland which opened in nearby Anaheim in the summer of 1955.

Eddie Blake purchased the stand in the early 1970s from its original owners and it continued to operate at the LaCienega address until 1986.  With the closing of Beverley Park and Kiddieland in 1974, and the opening of the new Beverley Center Mall on the site in the early 1980s, Blake and his son Dennis were forced to move their stand a very short distance to North San Vincente Boulevard and small piece of land leased from the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center which opened at this location in 1955 and where countless Hollywood and recording legends breathed their last.  The Tail o’ the Pup’s star-studded reopening in 1986 was emceed by Jay Leno (before his Tonight Show days).  Despite it iconic status and its popularity with the known and the unknown - it is rumored that Barbara Streisand and many other celebrities were dedicated fans and the stand has been a location in a few Hollywood films - and regardless of its designation as a cultural landmark by the City of Los Angeles,

the Tail o’ the Pup finally closed in 2005 when a developer purchased the property where the stand was last located.  Since closing, the familiar wiener and bun facade has been gathering dust in a suburban warehouse.  Dennis Blake planned to reopen once a suitable new location could be found in Westwood Village, but his vision never materialized.  Now, almost a decade later, the stand remains in mothballs and its future is as yet unknown.  Dennis passed away in late 2013 and a new owner is being sought by the Blake family with a promise to bring the Tail o’ the Pup back to life at a yet to be determined new location . . . hopefully in or around LA. 

It would be nice to see the Tail o’ the Pup come back to life somewhere close to where it once stood as a familiar and treasured landmark for six decades.  I visited Los Angeles last November and tried to locate it not knowing it had closed in 2005 (I had last eaten there in 1974 shortly before Kiddieland closed).  The area is totally unrecognizable now to anyone who knew it back in the 1950s and 1960s when it was fairly undeveloped and covered with hundreds of oil wells.  Today it is the almost boundless urban sprawl that is greater Los Angeles, the underground wells still pumping under the modern Beverly Center complex at LaCienega and Beverley Boulevard.

I have spent very little time in LA since moving away in the summer of 1956, but I still have distant and fuzzy memories of Kiddieland and the Tail o’ the Pup.  There were occasional weekend outings from our home in Redondo Beach near the Pacific Palisades.  Disneyland had recently opened but it was a bit pricey compared to Kiddieland.  The original Disney main
gate admission price was one dollar, but that just got you
inside.  Once there you had to pay an additional 10-15 cent entrance fee at each individual attraction in the park.  (Just so you know, the current daily entrance fee is $96 per person! . . . plus $17 to park.)  It was new and always crowded on the weekends.   Kiddieland was about the same distance from where we lived and without the long lines.  There were plenty of rides, cotton candy and other snacks.  There were also ponies to ride, and of course, there was Tail o’ the Pup nearby for hotdogs.   I can still taste them fifty-six years later . . . and this is why I went looking for the place on my last visit to LA only to find it and Kiddieland long gone.  I was not terribly surprised.  Nothing seems to last forever.

So imagine my pleasure to learn that Tail o’ the Pup still exists and is only looking for a new owner and a new home.  Perhaps I will once again have an opportunity to trip down memory lane on my next visit to LA.  I can smell and taste one of those dogs as I write this.  It will be well worth the wait.  

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Friday, October 10, 2014

Autumn Coming and Going and Coming Again

“These golden weakes that do lye between the thunderous heates of summer and the windy gloomes of winter.”   – Anonymous

I agree with the American naturalist and photographer Edwin Way Teale.  “Nowhere in the world is autumn more beautiful than in America.  I can never write enough good things about autumn; it is my favorite season of the year.”  Mine, too.  There is really no competition on this score.

Donald Hall, who has spent a great many of his eighty-plus years on a farm in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, has written eloquently on its seasons, describing autumn in northern New England as both “gorgeous and ominous.”  The brilliant flaring fall colors “prophesy white frozen winter” which is only a few short weeks in the future.  To put it more succinctly, “[w]e inhabit the landscape’s brightest and briefest flesh . . . the pomp is brief, abrupt, and poignant.  But Autumn is always poignant.”

I am always keeping my eyes open for that first suggestion of autumn.  I spend my summers in Maine, and come August, just three short months after the trees begin to leaf out in spring, there are always a few maples with branch tips beginning to flare red.  It seems a bit curious to be swimming in a small lake while trees bordering its shores are already exhibiting the first flashes of color bespeaking the colder temperatures and cooling waters that can’t be that far off. 

September is the month when one feels what Truman Capote called the “first ripple chills of autumn,” when the fall colors arrive in earnest in northern New England.  The first to turn are the swampmaples and popple in low wet areas.  Then come the various shades of reds, oranges and russet among the red and sugar maples, scarlet oak, and sumac; the ash trees’ deep purple; the yellows among the popple, birch and willows; and finally the more subtle tans and browns among the oak, beech, and sycamore.  With these early chills the color increases almost daily in its proportions and brilliance. The leaf peepers also arrive around mid-month; they come, they look, and they are gone again by mid-October.  They have little understanding of the full evolution of a northern New England autumn.  It’s too bad they are unable or unwilling to experience its entire range and spectrum, from the onset of color as well as its evanescence.  I honestly believe that autumn is no more colorful, nor more awe-inspiring, than it is in these northern climes.  For this reason alone I always try to postpone my annual trip south until after the autumn colors have reached their zenith. 

With the onset of the killing frosts of October the season is better disposed to the arrival of winter.  Cold rains will mute the colors, and as they fade, the leaves will quickly forsake the trees and fall to the ground much too soon.  Not all of the leaves will fall, however.  A few drained of their color will continue to flutter through the stiffening gusts of winter.  No surrender.


It is not uncommon for snow to fall by Halloween, first at the higher latitudes and elevations, but quickly enough snow is common place when November arrives.  The leaves are raked against foundations for insulation as houses and out buildings are tucked up for the winter.  The calendar may say it's still autumn, but our senses tell us something different.  Truly a touching end to the briefest and most poignant of seasons.

A couple of years ago I was able to enjoy an extended autumn season, watching as it  arrived in many diverse locales stretching from the Canadian Maritimes to Florida’s Gulf Coast.  I saw the first golden leaves of autumn in stands of birch as I crossed the Cobequid Hills in western Nova Scotia in the early days of August.  Later that month, and into the early days of September I watched the autumn hues intensify throughout the mountains of northern New Hampshire and western Maine while the woodlands around our summer cottage on Sabbathday Lake, in southern Maine, were just beginning to turn.  The autumn foliage had reached peak color there by the time I departed in the early days of October to drive home to Maryland.  But autumn’s colors were not yet over.  In fact, they had hardly begun for much of the United States.

The variety of colors and their intensities ebbed the farther south I drove through Massachusetts and into Connecticut.   There was some color here and there as I passed around New York City and ventured further south into New Jersey, but by the time I reached Delaware and Maryland, the greens of spring and summer had faded somewhat, and in some places had begun to yellow.  Autumn had not yet arrived in earnest.   A short time later I drove along the Eastern Seaboard to northern Florida and there was hardly a trace of autumn to be seen anywhere.  When I returned to Maryland in late October, however, I began to see colors turning deeper and more brilliant the farther north I drove.  Once again this year I have seen the peak colors of a New England autumn only to return to Maryland to watch as they arrive again.  What more can one ask for during his favorite season of the year?

I have been lucky enough to see autumn come and go and come again.  Stay in one place, however, and Hall’s dictum proves correct every time.  The flash and fury of autumn is far too brief.  But always poignant as I fend off those “windy gloomes of winter.”

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Thursday, October 9, 2014

Trying to Remember Crabby Appleton

I recently read Barbara Kingsolver’s essay, “Hide Tide in Tucson,” in which she describes, among other things, how a hermit crab came to reside in her home in the Arizona desert.  Disappointed that her young daughter had not accompanied her on a trip to the Bahamas where she would have certainly enjoyed the varied seascapes, Kingsolver decided to do what her daughter would have done had she come . . . she collected sea shells to show her when she returned home.  Unbeknownst to her, a hermit crab stowed away in a whelk shell and announced its presence when Kingsolver arrayed the shells over her  dining room table when she returned home.  Deciding they would keep it, and unable to determine its gender let alone locate and inspect its genitalia, they named it Buster and housed it in a terrarium fitted out with clean gravel and a variety of shells from which Buster could select a new redoubt once he/she had outgrown the old one.

Reading this essay, I dredged up some memories almost forty years old, recollecting the time when SallyAnn and I shared our own Tucson apartment with a hermit crab named Crabby Appleton.  Certainly a more androgynous moniker than Buster.  Any of you who watched “Tom Terrific” cartoons on Saturday morning back in the day will understand where the name came from.  It seemed clever at the time although our hermit crab was in no way “rotten to the core.”  It was a crab, after all, and it liked to eat pieces of apple proffered to it.  In fact, it seemed to eat just about anything you put in front of it.  We could have named him/her Manfred the Wonder Crab, but that would not have made any sense would it?

We came by our hermit crab in a far more pedestrian manner than finding it on a beach in the Bahamas.  Ours came from a pet store in suburban Milwaukee where we had gone to spend the Christmas holidays in 1975 and to celebrate our first anniversary.  I can no longer recall why we decided to purchase a hermit crab or the circumstances by which the transaction was completed.  Suffice it to say that only two of us flew from Tucson to Milwaukee while three of us made the return trip (with a few days in Tulsa, Oklahoma along the way) early in the new year.  Once we were back home we purchased a small terrarium which would be Crabby’s home for the six more months we lived in Tucson.

Like Buster, Crabby was “quiet, entertaining, and willing to eat up the trash.”  He fell into his own daily routines, and like Kingsolver, SallyAnn and I moved about our own without ever wondering how our little friend might be faring in his/her strange surroundings.  Crabby was a hermit crab pure and simple; mucking about the terrarium, moving things here and there, or retreating into his/her shell for long periods of time and doing and thinking whatever hermit crabs do and think.

Not that long after we brought Crabby to Arizona to live with us we took on two more boarders . . . gerbils we named Sundance and Moonshadow . . . in our shoebox-sized apartment barely large enough to accommodate our own modest belongings let alone a terrarium and gerbil habitat.  I am not sure what we were thinking, but this is all water long under the bridge.   Unlike Crabby, the boys (I think they were males) were by their very nature more energetic and had distinct personalities, and we found ourselves more interested in their activities while Crabby sulked (I can only imagine that is what he/she was doing) in his/her glass enclosed home.  The gerbils would scamper around their cage and run the wheels for what seemed like hours on end.  Such was the Rogers household in Tucson in the spring and early summer of 1976.

Soon came the time, however, when we had to make preparations for a transcontinental move from Arizona to the environs of Washington, DC.  In the scramble to tie loose ends in Tucson, we never came to terms with the future disposition of our house mates.  Were they going to Maryland with us?  I can no longer recall whether we actually tried to find new homes for them or not.  I do remember that once the movers had left in the late afternoon to begin their eastward trek with almost all of our worldly possessions, there was a terrarium and a gerbil cage wedged into the back seat of our ‘72 Chevy Vega (remember those?) along with what we would need for our own slow journey across the country with a few stops along the way.  The sun was setting in Tucson and the temperature was still over 100F, and there was SallyAnn using her plant sprayer to keep the guys cool as we headed toward Albuquerque on the first leg of our trip.

Kingsolver never said what eventually became of Buster; the hermit crab found in the Bahamas and brought to Arizona would serve as a metaphor for her own move from her native Kentucky to Arizona.  I wish there is more I can say about the saga of Crabby Appleton; the months in Arizona and his/her new Maryland home, one perhaps closer to the ocean yet still too far to away to encourage an escape to a more familiar habitat (crabitat?).  Any recollections are now hopelessly blurred by almost four decades.  At some point soon after settling in Maryland Crabby, Sundance and Moonshadow shed this mortal coil.  Yes, distant and faded memories only now dredged up for contemplation . . . and I am not really sure why, but there you have it.  I have searched for my own metaphor to assign to a long forgotten hermit crab but I just can’t seem to dredge up anything significant.  Crabby was briefly a part of our lives and then he wasn’t.  So perhaps he/she was a metaphor for the transitory nature of existence?  Yeah, that’s the ticket.

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Saturday, October 4, 2014

Blessed by the Spirit of the Lake - Dispatches from Maine

We have once again been touched by the spirit of Sabbathday Lake, having been summoned back here annually for almost three decades.  There is something magical about this place.  We are truly blessed by the spirit of the lake.

This year we arrived in the waning days of June.  Summer had just begun and the lake was ringed by trees in various shades of green.  Tomorrow we depart for our other home in Maryland and many of those same trees are now a rich palette of golds, reds and yellows.  Autumn has always been my favorite season and I am fortunate when I have the opportunity to enjoy it here on the shores of Sabbathday Lake.  We are truly blessed by the spirit of the lake.

Sabbathday Lake and New Gloucester, Maine have become our home away from home.  The time we spend here is not a vacation in the traditional sense of the word; we are simply living here much as we live in Maryland.  We have become a part of the community here.  We are truly blessed by the spirit of the lake.

It is sad to say farewell to our friends and neighbors in Maine, most of whom we will not see again until next June when we once again head to these northern climes.  We will cherish their friendship throughout the year and we will look forward to seeing them again when we return to this special place.  We are truly blessed by the spirit of the lake.

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Monday, September 29, 2014

Unexpected Treats - Dispatches from Maine

One of the things I enjoy about my regular trips to northern New England is the access to foods that are not readily available back home in Maryland, or have been so adulterated by local variations that they neither taste nor look like what I have come to expect up here. Add to this the fact that more often than not the local bastardizations are significantly more expensive.

Of course there is the ubiquitous Maine lobster which is always easy to find here in Maine and relatively inexpensive, if you buy it direct from a lobster pound along the coast (and for a few dollars more most of them will cook it for you along with a side of steamed clams and an ear of fresh Maine farm corn).  Then there are your lobster rolls, lobster stew, lobster bisque, lobster salad . . . you get the idea.  The indigenous soft-shelled clams referred to almost universally as “steamers” are normally plentiful and inexpensive during the summer months and can be a meal unto themselves.  There are  local mussels, but not to be missed are the large, sea-tangy oysters harvested from several Mid-Coast tidal rivers and estuaries.  I come from Maryland where we have long taken pride in our Chesapeake Bay oysters, but I will be the first to admit that they do not hold a candle lit on both ends to those taken from the Damariscotta River.  Finally, let us not forget Maine blueberry cobbler, early summer strawberries dipped in chocolate, and the omnipresent Whoopie Pies for dessert.  And you can wash everything down with a wide variety of local micro-brewed beers, or if you so prefer, a bottle or can of Moxie.

There are a few other unexpected treats, non-indigenous foods found from time to time in northern New England which are rare if not all together unavailable elsewhere in the United States.  One of the most common is the Québécois dish known as poutine [poo-TIN].  Regular readers of this blog have been treated to a number of postings about my particular affinity for this concoction of fried potatoes covered with melted cheese curds and thick beef gravy.  You can find genuine poutine (it must use cheese curds) in many restaurants, especially those close to the Québec border, or in areas in New England where Québec visitors tend to congregate (Old Orchard Beach, in Maine, and New Hampshire’s Hampton Beach come immediately to mind).  Cheese curds can also be found in many grocery stores so that you can make it at home.  More recently poutine has taken on a certain cachet and one can now find it elsewhere in Canada and the United States.  Québec also offers us Chinese pie (also know as pâté au chinois here in Maine and simply pâté chinois in Québec), a meat pie similar to shepherd’s pie that is often found here in our area of Maine where Quebeckers settled to work in the now defunct textile mills along the Androscoggin and Saco rivers.  Tourtières, a pork pie from Québec traditionally served around Christmas and the New Year, can also be found in the Franco-American communities in Maine and elsewhere in northern New England.  Another Québécois dish in this tradition is cretons [crew-TŌN], a pork pâté similar to the French rillette made from pork scraps left over from butchering which are then cooked in water or milk and mixed with soy, salt and pepper, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, allspice, onion and garlic (similar to the spice mix used in tourtières). Served cold and spread over toast or an English muffin, it is a popular breakfast dish throughout La Belle Province, and if one searches in earnest, it can be found in Maine and New Hampshire.

Another treat you don’t necessarily have to cross the border for is the smoked meats often associated with, but in no way limited to, the established Jewish and Eastern European communities in Montréal, just a very few hours northwest of us here on Sabbathday Lake.  It is not uncommon to find these smoked meats in grocery stores and markets in this part of Maine with its multi-generation Franco-American communities.  I will admit that these smoked meats always taste better when acquired warm and fresh from a Montréal delicatessen, but you should not be fussy if you can find them on this side of the border.   You just have to keep your eyes peeled.  One cannot fathom the excitement when I discover a new meat emporium regardless of where it is located.

This past week I discovered two of them in the Midcoast region here in Maine, both of them less than an hour’s drive from the lake.  Talked about unexpected treats!  The first is Morse’s Kraut Haus, on State Route 220 in rural North Nobleboro; the other is Maurice Bonneau’s Sausage Kitchen on Main Street In Lisbon Falls.  Morse’s has been around for almost a century, while the Sausage Kitchen was established in 1995.,
The former is a product of the central and east European settlements in Lincoln County during the 19th century; the latter inspired by Bonneau whose parents emigrated from Québec in the 1930s just a few years before he was born in Lewiston and where he was raised to become a prominent meatcutter working along side his father.

Virgil Morse began producing and selling sauerkraut in and around Waldoboro in the years leading up to the First World War, and he established Morse’s Sauerkraut, in 1918.  The operation has been in a barn at its current location just up the road in Nobleboro since 1953.  The present owners took over the business in 2000, using the Morse family recipe for sauerkraut while beginning to produce sour garlic and sour mustard pickles.  A small European-style restaurant with five high-back booths and featuring fresh-made perogies, Sauerbraten, cabbage rolls, Späetzle, schnitzels, borscht, and their signature Reuben was added in 2002.  A specialty market and delicatessen were added a year later and it sells a wide variety of cheeses and meats, local artisan breads, mustards, canned and pickled fish, and a cornucopia of spices and seasonings.  Of course, there is also their fresh homemade sauerkraut and pickles.  After lunch (a selection of wurst served on a bed of piping hot slow-cooked sauerkraut flecked with bacon, onions and juniper berries, I wandered through the market eyeing the mouth-watering display of sausages and meats.  It was a minor disappointment to learn that the charcuterie is not local; it is produced by Schaller & Weber in New York City’s Yorkville neighborhood.  Still, I had to remind myself that these first-rate meats are available in a rural barn in Maine.  Beggars need not be picky.

A couple days later we were driving through nearby Lisbon Falls when I spied Maurice  Bonneau’s Sausage Kitchen.  I drive this stretch of Main Street every summer, but this is the first time I recall seeing it.  I had to stop, and I was not disappointed.  The meat counter was loaded with packages of uncooked sausages and other meat products, including ham, bacon, and Québécois-style pork pies - tourtières which are made year round but are much in demand during the Christmas season - made fresh on site by Bonneau and two of his sons.  The Sausage Kitchen is obviously proud of the quality of their meat products, using only all-natural meats (no growth hormones or antibiotics) which are vegetarian-fed and humanely raised and slaughtered.  “My Wurst is Best” claims the sign near the entrance to the shop.  There is a virtual United Nations of sausages to choose from – German Bratwurst and Mettwurst, Cajun andouille, chorizo, Spanish-Creole chaurice, Greek loukaniko, Polish kielbasa, Potuguese linguica, English bangers and so much more.  Happily I noted that Bonneau’s Québec roots are evident in his meat counter.  There are packages of Canadian-style pork breakfast link  sausage flavored with salt, white pepper, ground and rubbed sage, ginger, nutmeg, allspice, thyme, cayenne pepper and parsley with natural maple sugar added for that special flavor.  My happiest discovery was cretons; this is the first place I have found it in Maine in a long time.  Bonneau has polished up the recipe, using only lean, ground pork shoulder instead of scraps. I left the shop with some, as well as a package of trail sticks (they look like Slim Jims but taste oh so much better!), and a hunk of Landjäger (a German MRE), most of which was gone by the end of the day.

I look forward to returning to both of these establishments when we return to Maine next summer.  Thankfully Bonneau’s is not far away and I plan to visit there again next week before we head back to Maryland.  I may just take some of these unexpected treats home with me.

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