Sunday, November 27, 2016

Eight Years and Counting!!

Today marks eight years I have been posting blog entries at "Looking Toward Portugal." I thank you for your support over the years . . . over a quarter of a million hits.

For those of you who have followed my blog postings I must apologize for my silence over the summer when I was taking a deep look inward.

But I am back to posting and i hope you will continue to read and support my blogspot.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Why I Write What I Write and When

Not long ago a friend and fellow blogger posted an interesting comment on Facebook – “Where I Get My Blog Post Ideas.”   So it got me to thinking.  Why do I write what I do and when?  It has never been that much of a problem.  Since I first began this blog eight years ago today, I have posted 381 times.  I have written about whatever strikes my fancy at any particular moment.  Sometimes it is something I read or heard.  Or perhaps a commentary on a recent road trip or some place I had visited.  A recollection of some event in my earlier life.  Maybe a response to something I ate or drank.  Or perhaps something purely whimsical.  Some posts were outlined before they were written; others have been raw and spontaneous.  This is what makes a blog so interesting and challenging.  You write what you want, when you want, and there is no editor to tell you "No thanks."   This is why, until now, I have called these postings "random notes from the edge of America."  I have always thought of the edge of America in geographical terms, writing as I am most of the time along the Eastern Seaboard of the United States.  I was always Looking Toward Portugal in the quest for something new and interesting to write about.

On rare occasions I have proffered a political or cultural commentary.  I have tried to steer clear of these as much as possible; I don’t expect my readers to believe what I believe or think what I think.  I simply want to expand civilized debate.  But every once in a blue moon I can’t help myself.   Something so egregious occurs that there is no place for debate.  Evil in every guise requires a full throated condemnation.  No mincing of words.

More recently these censures have addressed the growing attacks on free speech in Turkey where journalists and secular politicians have been jailed or worse.   Here at home there have been the broadening attacks on the LGBT community in North Carolina and elsewhere.  Many of you may have noticed a rather atypical silence during my long annual summer hiatus in Maine this year.  I took a deep look inward as I observed the vicious election rhetoric coupled with the rise of authoritarian populism (Fascism for a lack of a better term) and demagoguery throughout Europe, as well as here in the United States.  How am I to respond to these disturbing developments?  And should I do so here?

Perhaps this is no longer a time for random jottings about everything or nothing at all.  Times have become too uncertain . . . even dangerous . . . .to entertain whimsy.  And now, as I look at the turn of events in my own country following the recent election, I recognize the need to speak out clearly about injustices and cultural crimes emerging from the shadows here at home.  I wish this were not the case, but the future does not bode well for democracy in the American republic.  Now I suddenly find myself on the cultural and political fringes of my American homeland when my own rights, and those of many of my friends and colleagues, are being infringed upon and threatened from within.  

So I beg your patience if and when such polemics rise to the surface.  I will try to reign in my horses as best I can, but sometime things need to be said as directly and to the point as possible so that there is no confusion as to where I stand.  Again, I offer these to you only as food for thought.  Nothing more.  Take them for what they are worth.

As I noted in my Thanksgiving greetings yesterday, I shall continue to strive to share my impressions of those things that bind us in the American experience; places and events that exist regardless of one’s political sentiment.  We still have that in common . . . at least for now.  Let us pray no one tries to take this from us.  That is when we will man the barricades and the real revolution will begin!  

Check out the "Looking Toward Portugal" Facebook page for more information and photos.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Wishing Everyone a Blessed and Happy Thanksgiving

Today we gather together with family and friends to give thanks for the what we have, whether it be much or little.  Regardless of what you might think of Eckhart Tolle, the German-born spiritual thinker, I have to agree with him when he wrote in his 2005 book A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose: “Acknowledging the good that you already have in your life is the foundation for all abundance.”  Despite the uncertain times we live in, when it seems that we as a people are recklessly casting aside the gifts afforded us as Americans, let us be thankful for what we do have and pledge to ourselves that no person or group shall deprive us of what is fundamentally ours as sisters and brothers in the human community.

Today let us give thanks for what is still good and promising - those things that bind us in the American experience; people, places, and events that exist regardless of one’s political sentiment.  Let us build on our common bonds and renew our willingness to do everything in our power to insure that these are not usurped. 

So let us give thanks today for what we have and what we share.  “Hem your blessings with thankfulness so they don’t unravel.” 

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Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Donald Trump - Making the Know Nothings Great Again

I have long tried to steer clear of political subjects and partisan rhetoric.  But with this country and the rest of the world descending into insanity, I find it more and more difficult to get a grip on my horses.  I feel I must speak my mind on what I consider to be one of the gravest threats to the continuation of the Great American Experiment set in motion 240 years ago by our Founding Fathers.

I never thought I would see the United States of America descend into fascism.  I was wrong.  I am not the first person to coin the term “the American Mussolini.” That distinction belongs to Dana Milbank, a opinion writer for The Washington Post, who affixed the moniker to Donald Trump back in early December 2015 when he pointed out that the candidate was “pulling the party to the black-shirted right by playing on fears of foreigners and racial and religious minorities.”  He refers to Trump’s physical and behavioral similarities to the clownish and bullying former Italian dictator who coupled his own fate with that of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime in Germany . . . his “chin-out toughness, sweeping right-hand gestures,” his ego and his fondness for pointing out the stupidity of his opponents.  Some have been quick to compare Trump’s overt fascism to that of Adolf Hitler.  Having long been a student of fascism and that which results from it, I have been guilty of this myself.  But Hitler, despite his inherent evil, was no fool.  Mussolini was.  And so is Donald Trump.  He is a fool and a fascist.  Furthermore Milbank points out that Trump is quick to show contempt for facts while feeding on the “pervasive sense of fear and overwhelming crisis” of his followers who, in my own humble opinion, show their ignorance more than their apprehensions.  Trump, like Hitler and Mussolini, finds a scapegoat for all that is wrong in America . . . usually foreigners and Muslims both foreign and domestic.  I have to agree with Milbank.  It is “necessary to call Trump the racist, bigot and demagogue that he is.”  Milbank’s assessment was repeated a month later by Andrew Roberts in The Telegraph (UK) who claimed to be dumbfounded and embarrassed by Trump’s “egotistical vulgarity” and “obscene self-regard,” finding Mussolini as perhaps “Trump’s secret template.”  Their words, not mine.  But I can’t help but agree.

This is a sad day for American democracy and the fate of our republic.  America is no longer a beacon to the world.   The rest of the world is laughing at us.  None of us will be laughing for long.

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Sunday, April 24, 2016

East Germany Redux? - Boycott North Carolina !!

A couple days ago North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory announced the creation of a 24-hour “Offender Hotline” enabling individuals to report others whom they consider “gender suspicious” and possibly in violation of the provisions of the recently enacted HB2 - the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act” - which prohibits transgender individuals from using a public bathroom other than the one corresponding to the gender assigned to them at birth.  I recall living in Asheville, North Carolina in the early 1960s when visiting a public bathroom was determined by the color of one’s skin.  How can we step backwards now?  This new state law supercedes any local non-discrimination laws and ordinances to the contrary.  “We need our state to unite as one,” the governor’s office announced, “if we’re going to keep our children safe from all sexual predators and other aberrant behavior that is out there.”  The governor seems only interested in the “gender suspicious,” and those found in violation of this law, the foundation of which is hate and ignorance.  If they are, he assures them the will “see jail time.  What about the heterosexual pedophiles and rapists who are more likely to commit a crime in a public bathroom?  Why stigmatize and punish someone who simply wants to pee in private?

This hotline also leaves it to an individual’s discretion to determine whether an individual is “gender suspicious.”  What are these snitches looking for in order to make a hotline report?   This is all strikingly reminiscent of life in the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany) where the Ministry for State Security, popularly known as the Stasi, relied on regular citizens turned "unofficial informants" [inoffizielle Mitarbeiter, or IMs) in order to protect its surveillance state and support the repression of the privacy and civil and humans rights of the citizens of the GDR.  Once denounced by an IM, whether the allegation or report was accurate or not, an individual would have a record that would follow her or him for the rest of their lives.  How is this different from what Governor McCrory is rationalizing with the passage of HB2 and the formation of a state sanctioned system of informing on the citizens of North Carolina?  And, in this instance, an individual will have been outed (whether she or he is actually a her or a him) in violation of their God-given right to privacy and security protected by US Constitution . . . the same rights the State of North Carolina claims it is protecting.  I don’t think so.

It is time to stand up and tell Governor McCrory and the state General Assembly and Senate that decent Americans will not tolerate this naked dispossession of an individual’s basic human and civil rights.  The citizens of East Germany stood up to repression and their state withered and collapsed.  The citizens of North Carolina must do the same.  Governor McCrory signed HB2 into law last month after it passed the General Assembly and state Senate which codified fear and ignorance by a vote of 82-24 and 32-0 respectively (the Democrats walked out refusing to vote in protest).  Since then thousands of jobs have moved out of state, and numerous companies - Facebook, Apple, and Paypal to name just a few - have warned that they intend to cancel plans to expand into the state.  Entertainers such as Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, Ringo Starr, Bryan Adams, and the Cirque du Soleil have also canceled their concerts and performances in North Carolina to boycott the law.  These boycotts have already cost the state upwards of $200 million dollars in revenue.  Keep the pressure on!  Money is the only thing these people understand.   It was a stupid thing to do, and more importantly, the new law is unconstitutional and violates the Bill of Rights as it deprives individuals of their blessings of liberty and their privacy and right to be left alone while impinging on their right to be “secure in their persons” while subjecting them to “unreasonable searches and seizures.”

The actions taken by the North Carolina governor and the state legislature have brought shame and ill repute not only on themselves as representatives of a pariah state, but also on the entire United States.  Our oldest and most loyal ally, the United Kingdom, has now issued travel warnings to its citizens, cautioning them about possible risks traveling to North Carolina and other southern states, including Mississippi where legislation adversely affecting the LGBTQ community will take effect in July.  (If it does, it will be time to boycott that state as well).  The director of Human Rights Campaign Global cautions that these discriminatory laws are “causing serious damage to our nation's reputation, and the perceived safety of LGBT people who travel here."   The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association highlights countries with legislation targeting the LGBTQ community.  The United States joins countries such as Turkmenistan, Pakistan, Nicaragua, much of northern Africa and the Middle East, some of which punish homosexuality with death.  Not very esteemed company for the land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.

This new law was passed and signed by a bigoted governor and legislature who are supposedly acting in the name of the people they represent.  It is time for the good people of North Carolina, like the East Germans before them, to stand up and take their state back.  If they do not, then they are equally culpable and should suffer the consequences of their inaction and silence.  Until this hateful and ignorant law is overturned, all people and organizations of good conscience should boycott North Carolina by refusing to visit or do business in the state.  If you have to drive through the state, gas up, eat, and lay in road snacks before you arrive.  Do not attend concerts or other events.  Don’t visit its beaches and mountains.  Quite simply, stay away and spend your dollars elsewhere.  Show North Carolina there is a price to pay for its intolerance.

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Saturday, April 23, 2016

Je Suis Erdoĝan? - Shame on Angela Merkel

Shame on German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Christian Democratic Union party for bowing to the pressure of the impervious and incredibly thin-skinned Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoĝan.  He has demanded that the German government, under an obscure German law, criminally prosecute Jan Böhmermanm, a German television satirist and comedian, for allegedly insulting him during a recent Zweite Deutsche Fernsehen (ZDF) broadcast.   Böhmermanm, jabbing at Erdoĝan’s authoritarian rule in Turkey while pressing the envelope of free speech in Germany, read a doggerel and sexually explicit poem in which the Turkish president was prominently featured.   It was more than Erdoĝan could tolerate.

This is not a strange demand coming from a man who oppresses his own people, stifling dissent whenever it surfaces, while throwing journalists in jail if they dare question him or his policies.  Almost 2000 cases have been filed in Turkey against citizens of that country who have in some way insulted their president.  The definition of what constitutes an insult remains unclear.   And not just in Turkey.  Erdoĝan’s security thugs roughed up protesters and journalists during a recent official visit to Washington, DC under the protection of diplomatic immunity.  On American soil!  It is one thing to stifle free speech and expression in Turkey, but now Erdoĝan wants the German government to assist him in his dirty work while chastising it for allowing these insults to occur in the first place.  The German ambassador in Ankara was called in for a harsh lecture in the wake of the Böhmermann affair, and an ARD (German public broadcasting) correspondent was taken into custody upon his arrival at the airport in Istanbul.

Article Five of the modern German constitution protects the freedom of speech.  Interestingly enough, Germany has an obscure and archaic lese-majeste law originally drawn-up to prevent the insulting of the reigning German monarch - now the revised Paragraph 103 of the federal penal code-making it a criminal offense to insult a foreign head of state, or a representative or organ of a foreign government, although the prosecution of such an offense must be supported by the current German government.  This law is popularly known Germany as the “Shah Law”, because the former Shah of Iran tried to bring a prosecution under it in 1967.  Erdoĝan has insisted that the Merkel government prosecute Böhmermann to the full extent of the law.  Given Erdoĝan’s record at home, the Chancellor and her government should have risen above the fray.  Instead, Frau Merkel granted the Turkish request, agreeing that the insult was clearly intentional and clearing the path for criminal proceedings in Germany.  The courts will be left to decide Böhmermann’s fate.  If convicted, he could face a prison sentence from three months to five years.  The courts should not be allowed to define free speech which is protected by the German constitution, and certainly not at the behest of a foreign government that does not honor nor protect free speech.  Böhmermann is now under German police protection should Erdoĝan’s thugs try to take justice into their own hands like they did in Washington, DC.

Granted, Böhrmann’s anti-Erdoĝan commentary and poem were puerile and obscene by American standards.  Still, the German government and its parties across the political spectrum have never seemed terribly insulted when they were the target of Böhmermann’s invectives and satire.  Yet the insulting of Erdoĝan has somehow ventured beyond the pale of what is acceptable.  How is this possible?  You do not have to agree with what Böhmermann said, or how he said it, but if freedom of speech and expression are to exist, he must be allow to say it without the threat of legal action and prison.  It is up to the Turks to decide what Erdoĝan can get away with in their own country, but Germany should not be playing Erdoĝan’s nasty little game.

Recent German polls show that only 28%, mostly fellow members of Merkel’s CDU, support her decision to permit the prosecution of Böhmermann under the archaic provision of German law.  Opposition from the Social Democrats (SPD), her coalition partner, also threatens the stability of her government.  Frank-Walter Steinmeier (SPD), the foreign minister, held a press conference opposing Merkel’s decision, and Heiko Maas (SPD), the justice minister, has now  drawn up legislation to immediately repeal Article 103 which he plans to quickly put before the Bundestag, the German parliament.  Frau Merkel’s decision is hard to decipher when one considers that her government continues to chide the Turkish government to respect free speech and judicial independence and had already announced plans to scrap Article 103 before this recent flap with Erdoĝan.  So why would the Germans choose to enforce it now?  Even if the German legislation passes, Böhmermann will remain in Erdoĝan’s cross-hairs.  The Turkish leader has also filed a private defamation complaint in the German courts. 

Frau Merkel’s once impressive personal approval rating is also declining, due in large part to the growing unpopularity of her open door policy toward the massive influx of refugees into Germany and the surging political power of the extreme right wing.  It is therefore strange that Frau Merkel would take the side of an oppressive regime in Ankara over the basic rights of a German citizen.  Why?

The answer is simple.  Germany needs Turkey as a partner in order to stem the tide of refugees and other migrants escaping from Syria via Turkey and entering the European Union in Greece.  Freedom of speech is no longer on the table when negotiating with the despot in Ankara to protect the European Union’s migrant deal in which Turkey has agreed to allow Syrian refugees to remain in Turkey while taking back many now housed in transit camps in Greece.  Some might recall how the United States tried to prevent the filming of Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” in 1938 when Nazi Germany threatened economic sanctions.  Political and economic realities often trump the preservation of civil and human rights.  Others have even compared Merkel’s decision to the appeasement offered up to Hitler to spare Europe from war.  We all know how well that worked out.

Frau Merkel, in the face of this growing opposition at home while watching her popularity decline, has now admitted that errors were made; it was a mistake to characterize Böhmermann’s poem as “intentionally insulting” [ "bewusst verletzend"].  Yet she stands by her decision to allow the investigation and possible prosecution against Böhmermann to continue.  This seems a high price for Merkel and Germany to pay to prop up the autocratic Erdoĝan who now seems unsatisfied only to hush opposition at home.  There are a number of reports circulating that Turkish diplomatic posts are searching social media for items appearing to insult Erdoĝan.  What next?  

I guess I am safe here in the United States where one of the leading presidential candidates has insulted just about every foreign leader he can name.  I am not taking any chances of visiting Istanbul any time soon.  I saw “Midnight Express” and I am quite certain the Turkish penal system has not improved under this new Sultan of Kasimpaşa.   

Shame on Frau Merkel for taking the easy low road.  She was once in the front ranks of world leaders marching in solidarity through the streets of Paris decrying terrorism aimed at the free expression of idea in the wake of the Charlie Hedbo massacre.  Much of the civilized world was crying out “Je suis Charlie Hedbo.”  Free speech, for which so many died in the offices of Charlie Hedbo, has fallen victim once again a pawn where despots call the shots.     

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Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Sunrise Over Chesapeake Bay

Sunrise over Chesapeake Bay this morning.  I can hear the oysters settling into the silt as the blue crabs scurry over the sea grasses.   And there are rockfish out there wondering "Where is he?" Patience.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Down to the River We Did Ride

Photo by SallyAnn Rogers
                                      Down to the river
                                      my baby and I
                                     Oh down to the river we ride

                                                     - Bruce Springsteen, “The River”

Last month SallyAnn and I took a quick road trip to Cleveland, Ohio to see Bruce Springsteen in concert . . . again!  We attended our first Springsteen concert back on August 15, 1978, when the Boss and his E Street Band came to the old Capital Center outside Washington, DC while touring in support of the Darkness on the Edge of Town album.  Since then we have seem him at several venues in and around Washington, and we have travel to Philadelphia, New Jersey, and even west to Columbus, Ohio, to catch up with Bruce and the band and to share a little of that spirit in the night.  I am guessing that we have probably seen them in concert a couple dozen times over the years.

This current tour, which commenced in January in Pittsburgh, celebrates the 35th anniversary of the release of Springsteen’s 20-song double album The River, in October 1980.  This fifth studio album has long been considered his right of passage record - “where I was trying to find my way inside” at age 30 . . . beyond the boardwalk and the clubs in Asbury Park, New Jersey. “I wanted the record to contain fun, dancing, jokes, good comradeship, love, faith, sex, lonely nights, and of course, tears,” he confessed as he introduced the set in Cleveland.  “And I figured if I could make a record that was big enough to contain all those things, maybe I'd get a little closer to the home I was searching for.”   It was the album that would launch him into the stratosphere of rock stardom where he remains to this day more than a generation later.  So there was no way in hell we were going to pass up this tour after having witnessed Springsteen’s return to the Capital Center on November 23, 1980 during the original tour supporting The River.  We stood ready to buy tickets as soon as they went on sale back in December. 

I think back fondly to those early days when there was no problem scoring tickets to a Springsteen concert, if you were willing to stand in line at the ticket office when they went on sale.  There were even some record stores that a few of us knew about where one could purchase tickets without standing in line.  The ticket price for the original tour was $12.50, tax included.   Then Ticketmaster (fie on it and all of its spawn) too over and tickets seemed as rare as hen’s teeth.  One would go online the moment they went on sale and within seconds the concerts . . . at least those at DC venues . . . were sold out or available only through scalpers at many times their face value.   Now tickets cost $150 plus a rather exorbitant “courtesy fee” IF one is lucky enough to find one for sale.

We were therefore forced to look farther afield to find tickets, if we ever hoped to see Bruce in concert again.  Such was the case this time when we were able to find available tickets at the QuickenLoan Arena - “the Q” - just a hop, skip and a jump from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on Cleveland’s lakefront.  I won’t travel so far for just anyone.  But Springsteen is a different matter all together.  If you have been to one of his concerts, you know what I am talking about.  If you have not, then you need to get yourself to a Springsteen concert before you die.  Then you will understand.

In fact, this was our first return to Cleveland since late February 2010 when we traveled there to see the special Springsteen exhibit at the museum.  It seemed appropriate as the Boss has always had a strong connection with his fans in the former rust belt of northeast Ohio.  He paid tribute in his elegiac 1995 song “Youngstown,” a paean to that nearby hardscrabble town and its “smokestacks reachin’ like the arms of God / Into a beautiful sky of soot and clay.”  Being a native Midwesterner, having grown up in many of its cities - my hometown of Chicago, Detroit, Toledo, Cincinnati - I feel a strong affinity for Cleveland even though I have never lived here.  It looks likes the places where I grew up.  Home.

So how was the concert you ask?  There was magic in the night to be sure.  The band opened with “Meet Me in the City,” one of a couple dozen songs written and recorded for inclusion on The River, but never released until the Springsteen box set that arrived in stores late last year.  I have to admit I was happy to see the E Street Band stripped down to its earlier configuration, without all of the back-up singers and horn section.  They worked with his more recent albums, but The River is simple and raw and there was no need for all the extras.  Nils Lofgrin was not around back in 1980, but he joined the band shortly thereafter and his signature guitar work compliments that of Springsteen and Little Steven van Zandt.   Add to the mix Soozie Tyrell with her acoustic guitar and fiddle and what more do you need?  Sadly, there were some missing faces from the early years . . . the Big Man, Clarence Clemmons, who passed away in 2011, and whose place has been admirably filled by his nephew Jake Clemmons; and Danny Federici, who died in 2008.  Wife Patti Scialfa, who has ducked out of a few dates on this tour, was also MIA in Cleveland and bassist Gary Tallent had a rare opportunity to move front stage.

Bruce and the band played for a solid three and a half hours to a packed house without a break.  Approaching age 67 he has amazing energy and drive, and his sheer joy in what he does shows through from start to finish.  I have never known Bruce to disappoint an audience and that evening in Cleveland proved to be everything we hoped it would be . . . and more.  At most of his concerts you never know what he will play.  They are always a mixture of old favorites and new tunes along with unexpected covers of iconic songs.  He even takes audience requests.  Such is not the case with this tour.  We knew what to expect going in . . . an in-sequence, complete performance of The River ending with the plaintive “Wreck on the Highway.”

Sometimes I sit up in the darkness
And I watch my baby as she sleeps
Then I climb in bed and I hold her tight
I just lay there awake in the middle of the night
Thinking 'bout the wreck on the highway.

Bruce paused at the end, smiled and announced “that was The River.”  And so it was.  It was what we came to hear and no one would go home unsatisfied.  Without taking a break, he switched guitars and added: “I’m gonna carry on for awhile” as he and the band launched into a lengthy encore during which they played a number of the favorite Springsteen classics . . . and it was not difficult to think back to those early concert tours when he played upwards of four hours.  The concert was full of fun, dancing, jokes, comradeship, love, faith, and a good deal more . . . an impressive performance from a man now in his 67th year.  And there is no end in sight.

Check out the "Looking Toward Portugal" Facebook page for more information and photos.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Maine Dreaming

Photo by Dave Breton
Spring has sprung here in Washington, DC and the cherry blossoms are popping out all around the Tidal Basin and throughout Potomac Park.  The flowers and the forsythia in our yard are all in bloom.   I would enjoy it far more if spring did not also bring with it the dreaded tree pollen that clogs my respiratory system come March.  It was hard to shake off winter this year.   There were early hints of sprint but these were followed by brief bouts of snow and cold, blustery days.  Hopefully those are all finally behind us.

With the arrival of spring, I begin to think forward to our annual summer hiatus at the lake cottage in Maine.   It won’t be long before we return to the shores of Sabbathday Lake where we shall remain through September and the onset of colder weather forcing us southward one again.  Spring has not arrived there yet.  It was an easy winter in Maine relatively speaking; there has been little snow and the ice on the lake has been too thin for ice-fishing.  Our summer neighbor took the above photograph of our cottage and the lake.  Normally snow would be piled up half way up the outer walls and the lake would be dappled with ice shanties.  Not this year.  Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote that in Maine they do not have a summer, but just a thaw.   That’s not really true at all.  Summers in Maine are beautiful.  Don’t let anyone tell you differently.

"Maine is a joy in the summer,” wrote Paul Theroux.  “But the soul of Maine is more apparent in the winter."   Maybe this is true, maybe not.   Still, winter has not yet let go in the Pine Tree State and today some snow and freezing rain continue to belie its continuing grip on northern New England.   Spring will come soon enough . . . it always does . . . and the detritus of winter will be swept away.  The ice will melt and docks will go back into the water.  The resident loons will return along with us summer people from away.

So I sit here on this pleasant spring day in Washington and dream of summer in Maine . . . “an' the livin' is easy.”    It will be here soon enough and the dream that sustains me through the winter will come true.  

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Wednesday, March 23, 2016

We Mourn in Paris and Brussels . . . But What About the Rest of the World?

Terrorism Strikes Again
In January 2015, over a dozen innocent civilians were murdered in a terrorist attack on the offices of the Charlie Hedbo magazine and elsewhere in Paris.  Government leaders and others from France and beyond marched through the streets of the French capital to demonstrate their solidarity.  The western world stood together through commercial and social media in solidarity against terrorism.  Last November terrorists struck again in Paris, murdering over 130 innocents and once again western governments and peoples stood together in solidarity against terrorism.

Yesterday morning dozens were murdered in two separate terrorist attacks in Brussels, not only the capital city of Belgium, but the administrative seat of the European Union.  Since these attacks the western world has come together again in solidarity against terrorism.  French President Hollande, no stranger to the deplorable aftermaths of terrorist attacks, perhaps said it best . . . this was not an attack only against Belgium, but against all of Europe . . . the world.

Not just the western world.  The entire civilized world.  Western Europeans are getting into the unfortunate habit of assembling at the sites of unspeakable carnage, to light candles and to spread flowers, all the while promising they will win in the battle to defeat terrorism.  Iconic structures throughout Europe are illuminated in the national colors of the latest country to fall victim.  And yet the terrorist attacks continue at a time and place chosen by any number of terrorist cells operating with almost impunity across the continent. 

European diplomats continue to meet and pass treaties in the hopes of stemming the tide of terrorism.  National representatives met to sign the Additional Protocol to the Council of Europe Convention on the Prevention of Terrorism, which was adopted last October in Riga, Latvia.  Its purpose is to supplement the provisions of the original Convention adopted by the Council in 2005, codifying the criminalization of any  participation in an association or group for the purpose of terrorism, the traveling abroad for the purpose of terrorism, participation in a terrorist offence, receiving training for terrorism, organizing or otherwise facilitating foreign travel for the purpose of terrorism, or the funding of foreign travel for the purpose of terrorism.  So far
26 countries have signed the Convention over the past decade.  Still terrorism continues, and since many of the acts are the result of suicide bombings, almost no one has been tried and punished for these heinous acts of terrorism.

But terrorism is not confined to Europe; it knows no boundaries.  There are terrorist acts being committed across the globe yet only a few, mostly those occurring in North America and Europe, seem to generate international solidarity much less interest or coverage in the western media.  Why weren’t the national colors of Mali (20 killed), Tunisia (13 killed), Burkino Faso (30 killed), Cote d’Ivoire [Ivory Coast] (16 killed), Somalia (15 killed), or Indonesia (8 killed), illuminating the Eiffel Tower or Brandenburg Gate in the wake of recent terrorist bombings in these African and Asia countries?  I suspect the answer lies in the fact that these countries are in Africa and Asia.  Do the lives of the victims of these recent terrorist attacks mean any less than those who were murdered in Paris or Brussels?   They were, in most cases, victims of the same terrorist organizations responsible for the attacks in Europe.  These victims should matter just as much.  But they don’t.  Not where we live.

And what about the spate of deadly bombings in Turkey?  Yes, it is a predominantly Muslim country, but it has been a long-standing ally of the United States and much of Europe as a member of NATO and other international organizations.  Turkey has been the victim of seven deadly bombings over the past year.  They are becoming an increasingly common tragedy.  On June 5, 2015, there were bombings in Diyarbakir, a town in southeastern Turkey, during an election rally.  Four were killed and over 100 injured.  ISIS is believed to have been responsible.   A few weeks later, on July 25, another ISIS bombing occurred near a cultural center in Suruç, another southeastern town, killing 33 and injuring over 100.  In October over 100 were killed during a peace rally outside the central railway station in Ankara, the nation’s capital.  This neighborhood is the home to several government ministries, a court and a police station. Over 400 others were injured making it the deadliest terror attack in Turkey’s recent history.  Once again ISIS was the suspected perpetrator.  An ISIS  suicide bomber attacked Istanbul’s Sultanahmet Square in the fashionable Beyoglu district on January 12, killing 13 and injuring more than a dozen.  Most of the victims were foreign, including several Germans.  A car bomb was detonated in Ankara on February 17, killing 29 and injuring 60.  A month later, on March 13 (just ten days ago!), another car bomb was detonated in Ankara’s Kizilay district near a major transit bus hub and not far from the central railway station, killing 37 and injuring hundreds of others.  Another ISIS suicide bombing occurred along Istanbul’s busy Istiklal Avenue on March 19 - just four days before the Brussels attacks yesterday - killing five and injuring approximately 40 more.  The street is often clogged with tourists and the victims were mostly foreign nationals, including two holding US citizenship.  In the light of these attacks Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made a rather prescient comment shortly after the March 13 bombing in his capital.  “There is no reason why the bomb that exploded in Ankara could not explode in Brussels, or in any other European city . . .  The snakes you are sleeping with can bite you at any time."  I don’t often agree with much that Erdogan has to say.  But this time he is correct.   And I don’t believe it is over.

 Governments have responded to the attacks in Africa, Asia, and Turkey with quotidian words of condolence and promises of support.  There was limited media coverage, but nothing like what we saw in the aftermath of the massacres in Paris and Brussels.  Where was the popular solidarity?  The lighting of candles and citizen assemblies bearing witness to their solidarity with the other victims of terror?  My Facebook time line is full of calls for solidarity with our European friends.  “Je suis Charlie Hedbo.”  “Je suis Paris.” “Je suis Bruxelles /  Ik ben Brussels.”  It was full of commentaries mixed with calls for prayers for the victims and the survivors.  I don’t recall seeing any of the other “Je suis . . . . ” shown in the cartoon above in which Brussels asks whether there might be a small place for it among that crowd.  I did not see one reference on my time line to any of the Turkish bombings even though some of them were just as deadly as those in Paris and Brussels. 

I am not saying we should not mourn the victims in France and Belgium.  But what about the rest of the world?   Its time to realize that the life of a murdered victim of terror in Africa, Asia, and Turkey is just as valuable as an American or a European victim.  No single act of terror is more loathsome than another.   Terrorists don’t ask names, religions or national identities before they detonate their bombs.   Life does not matter to them.  But it does for the rest of us.  All lives matter!

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Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Still More Pondering . . . .

Today I am beginning the rest of my life . . . now as a card-carrying senior citizen.  I rise out of bed early each morning, brew a pot of coffee, and stare out the kitchen window considering the weather and what I really need to accomplish before I pull the plug on yet another building block in the evolving edifice that is my past.

I am going through old files, keeping a few and dumping a lot (many of them I have not looked at in this millennium); drafting a couple new blog postings and making up for the unusual silence since the New Year; watching German television news about another terrorist act, this time in Belgium; writing a few letters; reading and taking notes; beginning to work on the taxes; mapping out some research projects I must deal with in the coming days; eyeing a possible trip to Florida this spring to meet up with college chums I have not seen in over 40 years; or, perhaps, a return to the western North Carolina mountains of my childhood to attend a literary conference and renew old personal and professional acquaintances; and, finally, champing at the bit to get back up to the lake cottage in Maine and put some physical and psychic distance from the routines of the rest of the year and the growing insanity surrounding this year’s election cycle.

Just pondering in general.   Life is full of random impulses to do this and that.  I wake up each morning and see what the day will bring.  As a friend in Berlin wrote to me this morning in the wake of the terrorist onslaught in Brussels . . . “we go on living. That is where the strength is.”  I could not agree more.

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Monday, March 21, 2016

Still Raising a Joyful Noise . . . .

65 years ago today this quiet edifice - Holy Cross Hospital on Chicago's South Side -  came alive with the cries of a bouncing baby boy.  And he is still raising a joyful noise . . . and a little hell when he has the energy.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Pondering . . . and Begging Your Pardon

I have not posted anything here in almost three months.  This is not for a lack of interest, or an inability to come up with something worthwhile to share.  It is all very simple; 2016 has been a very busy year so far what with working on a novella and a novel, doing some traveling, and dealing with a sudden onslaught of freelance research projects at the National Archives.  Add to this mix a bad bout with the flu and the garden variety of aches and pains that come with advancing years (I turn 65 tomorrow).  Still I manage to get up every morning and face the new day with a stiff upper lip.  I am happy to get as much done as I do.   So I am sorry if I have not been looking toward Portugal recently.  I have wanted to, but there are just so many hours in a day.  I beg your patience and pardon for my extended silence.

But this is all going to change.  I have been pondering . . . and I have a lot of ideas I want to play around with in the coming weeks and months.   Friedrich Hölderlin, one of my favorite German poets, said it best.  “Man is a god when he dreams, and a beggar when he ponders.”  I have been pondering long enough, and now it is time to give flight to the ideas that have been crowding my dreams long enough.

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Saturday, January 16, 2016

Thank You Readers!

200,000 hits and counting!  Thank you for checking out my blog and for your many fine comments.  Stay tuned for more postings throughout 2016.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Hope for a Just, Equitable and Peaceful New Year 2016

May the radiance of the Red Rose bring new hope for justice, equality and peace in the new year . . . a fresh wind to dispel an oppressive and divisive air that has settled over our land. 
Hope is a state of mind, not of the world. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good.
               - Vaclav Havel, former President of the Czech Republic (1993-2003)

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Swamp Food and Back Roads Florida - Notes from the Sunshine State

My family and I have been enjoying several days in north Florida over the holidays.  We have spent most of the time in Gainesville, but we have taken a few trips into the beautiful pine hammock ranch- and farmland.  This is the Florida landscape I love best.

A couple days before Christmas my son and I took a road trip into the scrub country of Sumter and Citrus counties southwest of Ocala and its chain of lakes and wetlands that are part of the Withlacoochee and the Chassahowitzka river basins.  This is real back roads country; two-lane blue highways bordered by live oak festooned with Spanish moss as they meander pass cattle and horse ranches.  This area has not changed much since I first visited it over forty years ago.  Cars (trucks more likely) are few and far between here and settlements, if they even have names, are mostly just wide spots in the road.  Roll down the windows and let the breezes flow.

We stopped in Floral City with its roughly 5,000 souls.  Situated on US Route 41, the town well deserves its name and is popular with bikers of the motorized and non-motorized variety.  We sat at the bar at the Shamrock Inn and shared a tasty back country sampler - cheese sticks, corn fritters, hush puppies, Cajun fries . . . all washed down with a couple mugs of cold beer.  I have eaten here a number of times over the years.  It is your typical small town pub and grill but run by a German couple who serve a variety of Southern, Irish and German dishes . . . great food and good service at a decent price.  Popular with locals and travelers alike, it is nothing fancy yet everyone is made to feel welcomed.  One of the reasons I keep coming back . . . and I wanted to share it with my son who had never been there before.

We continued up Route 41 to Inverness and Hernando, the former home of Major League hitting champ Ted Williams in his later years and the original site of a museum in his honor until it was relocated to Tropicana Field, in St. Petersburg.  From there it was only a few miles to where State Route 200 crosses the Withlachoochee River where it gently flows past Stumpknockers Restaurant.  We were in search of some genuine Florida swamp food and this place looked more than promising.  Neither of us had been here before and were not sure what to expect.  We were not disappointed!  Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, this quaint restaurant named after the spotted sunfish that lives among the cypress knees found along the banks of Florida’s rivers, has low ceilings and a rustic, dark wood interior and offers a great view of the river along with a fine selection of sea and swamp food . . . grouper, Gulf shrimp, sea scallops, frog legs, gator tail and steaks, and a variety of other traditional dishes.  We both opted for the gator steak which was lightly panned fried and served over yellow rice and smothered in a sweet and spicy slurry of onions, green peppers and tomatoes.  And what better way to wash it all down than with a couple pints of Stumpknocker Ale brewed up in Gainesville.  We had to loosen our belts for the ride back.

When visiting the Gainesville area, it has been our practice to take at least one ride over to Cross Creek located roughly 20 mile southeast beyond the Paynes Prairie preserve.  This tiny hamlet situated on a narrow isthmus between Orange Lake and Lake Laloosa was made famous by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings who came to the area in 1928 and bought a small farm and citrus grove.  It was here that she wrote most of her beloved novels.  As fate would have it, my first blog posting back in December 2008 was the result of a visit to the Rawlings farm.

Two days after Christmas my wife and I returned to Cross Creek after a drive through the pine hammock country east of Gainesville.  We had decided we would celebrate our 41st anniversary with a meal at The Yearling Restaurant, named in honor of Rawling’s celebrated 1929 novel.  We have been eating there over the past four decades, except for a few years when it was closed, and we are happy that it is open again and serving traditional north Florida cracker cuisine.  And I wanted at least one more helping of swamp food before we headed home to Maryland.  The menu is not extensive, but they serve what I came for. I feasted on a sampler of cracker offerings - frog legs, gator tail, catfish, soft-shell crab, fried green tomatoes and pickles, and hushpuppies.  Again I washed everything down with very cold Siren ale, another local beer brewed in Gainesville.

Despite the logo on the servers’ shirts urging one to “Eat Mo Cooter” (soft-shell freshwater turtle), The Yearling only rarely serves this delicious swamp delicacy. I was hoping I might get lucky this time but it was not to be.  I asked our server who told me the story I had heard before.  Cooter is still protected as an endangered species by US Fish and Wildlife, and well it should be.  It is probably endangered because it tastes so damned good!  Almost all privately farmed cooter currently harvested in Florida is sent to Japan where it demands a premium price.  As fine as this meal turned out, I was sorry I was not able to enjoy a fine piece of cooter pie.  I looked to the east and shook my fist.

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Sunday, December 27, 2015

41 Years and Counting - Notes from the Sunshine State

Photograph by Spencer Stewart
Today my wife SallyAnn and I celebrate our 41st anniversary.  When we first dated in college, I used to write her poems and tack them to a bulletin board in the theater's green room.  She responded with a pen and ink drawing.  I'm still writing and now she paints.  This poem is for her.

           - For SallyAnn

            in these most foiling of times
            when I find myself at odds
            with friends and foe alike
            I think of you as my Abigail
            my rock   my wife   but most of all
            my friend   my best of friends
            without whom I am nothing
            but a tattered banner flying
            in the weakest of winds
            you are the mast to which I
            tether my greatest hopes and ambitions
            if I do not tell you this enough
            it is only a weakness in my character
            you are my country   its hope
            its flag   its sweetest anthem
            I can say no more than this
            you are its tallest shadow
            when the sun shines its brightest

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Wishing Everyone a Very Festive Holiday Season - Notes from the Sunshine State

We are enjoying a quiet Christmas in Florida away from the hustle and bustle back home in Maryland.  Wishing everyone a happy and healthy holiday season wherever you happen to be.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Feats of Daring and Endurance - The Battle of the Bulge

I am reminded that 71 years ago, on December 16, 1944, the gigantic struggle that would come to be known as the Battle of the Bulge, one of the bloodiest and largest land battles ever fought by the armed forces of the United States, commenced in the Ardennes Forest of eastern Belgium and Luxembourg.  Before it ended in late January 1945 over 600,000 American troops would be committed to combat against the final offensive of Hitler’s Third Reich.  Almost 20,000 Americans were killed in action along with over 70,000 other casualties.  The heroism of the men who died and survived will never be forgotten.  One of the lucky ones was my dad who served in the 104th Infantry Regiment of General George S Patton, Jr.’s Third Army.

During the early morning hours of December 16, the Germans launched a surprise major counteroffensive through the Ardennes of Luxembourg and eastern Belgium in a last ditch effort to divide American and British forces advancing toward Germany. The Germans quickly advanced westward creating a large “bulge” in the Allied lines while never actually breaking out. Third Army was forced to suspend its offensive in the Saar Basin and reposition its forces in order to address the new German offensive. All units of Third Army would be thrown against the southern shoulder of the bulge. On the eve of battle, General Patton told General Omar Bradley: “My three best divisions are the 4th Armored, the 80th and the 26th. I’ll concentrate the 4th Armored at Longwy beginning tonight, I’ll start the 80th on Luxembourg tomorrow morning, and I’ll alert the 26th to be ready to move.”  III Corps, including the 26th Infantry Division, was transported from Metz to the vicinity of Arlon, in southeastern Belgium, on December 19. The division found itself at Eischen, Luxembourg on December 21.

III Corps launched an assault northward through western Luxembourg the following day to help relieve American forces under siege at Bastogne, Belgium. Not knowing for certain where it would encounter the German salient, the 26th Infantry Division, with the 104th on its right flank, first encountered German resistance near Rambrouch some 16 miles north Arlon and Eischen. By December 23 the 104th was advancing through the hills and gorges of the Ardennes toward the Sûre (Saar) River north of Grobus where the Germans had counterattacked. III Corps met heavy Germany resistance throughout December 24 and Christmas day as it continued to advance northward. There was intense combat on Christmas morning in Eschdorf which fell to the 104th on December 26. Still on the division’s right flank, the 104th then moved up to Esch-sur-Sûre to establish important bridgeheads over the Sûre on the 27th. While the 104th secured the bridgehead, the remainder of the division continued its northward advance on the Wiltz River, in northern Luxembourg, in the closing days of 1944 in an effort to break the German siege of Bastogne. Dad and his unit remained in Esc-sur-Sûre for several day securing the regimental headquarters in the Hotel Ardennes. It was here that he won his Bronze Star.

By early January 1945 III Corps and the 26th Infantry Division had reached a virtual standstill just south of the Wiltz River. Heavy snow and German resistance stalled the drive to reinforce American forces that had finally broken the siege of Bastogne. The 104th was positioned north of Nothum and on the high ground above the river in the vicinity of Mon Schumann. The division would remained in this general vicinity until January 20 when the German offensive had all but collapsed.  The division finally crossed the river on January 21 and secured the town of Wiltz.  By January 25 the German offensive in the bulge was over and Third Army resumed its eastward advance from northern Luxembourg into Germany proper.

In his end of battle commendation letter to his division on February 1, 1945m, Major General Willard S. Paul told his troops: "When you initially attacked for seven days and nights without halting for rest, you met and defeated twice your own number. Your advance required the enemy to turn fresh divisions against you, and you in turn hacked them to pieces as you ruthlessly cut your way deep into the flank of the "bulge." Your feats of daring and endurance in the sub-freezing weather and snow-clad mountains and gorges of Luxembourg are legion; your contribution to the relief of Bastogne was immeasurable. It was particularly fitting that the elimination of the "bulge" should find the Yankee Division seizing and holding firmly on the same line held by our own forces prior to the breakthrough. I am proud of this feat by you as well as those you performed earlier. We shall advance on Berlin together."

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Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Fifty Years of ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’

Fifty years ago this evening CBS aired A Charlie Brown Christmas for the first time and ever since it has been a staple television offering during the holiday season.  And to think it came close to never airing at all.  In 1965, producer Lee Mendelson teamed up “Peanuts” creator Charles M. Schulz and animator Bill Melendez to put together a half-hour animated special featuring Charlie Brown and all of the familiar “Peanuts” characters of that era . . . all on a budget of less than $100,000 through the sponsorship of the Coca-Cola Company.

Upon viewing the finished project, some CBS executives were uncomfortable with its underlying religious message . . . something that would never fly today when most networks fear even mentioning the word “Christmas” less they offend some person or group.   Yet the show was aired and has survived intact all these years.  Perhaps they were also uncomfortable with its condemnation of the crass commercialization of Christmas.  “Look, Charlie Brown,” Lucy confesses.  “We all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket. It’s run by a big eastern syndicate, you know.”  Maybe it hit just a little too close to home.  Schultz and Mendelson also bucked conventional wisdom, using children for the voice overs and jettisoning the laugh track which was a standard of that time.

The special aired on Thursday evening, December 9, 1965 . . . preceded and followed by episodes of The Munsters and My Three Sons, and going up against The Donna Reed Show and Daniel Boone on ABC and NBC.  The corporate and network powers did not expect the show to be a success, yet this melancholy tale garnered almost half the viewing public that evening; over 15 million households tuned in.  It all seemed genuine and sincere.  It has been a staple of holiday viewing ever since despite many dated cultural references.  It reminds us of what now seems like a time of innocence when the world was less complicated.  CBS continued the annual broadcast through 2000 after which the rights were sold to the Disney-owned ABC network which aired it for the first time in 2001, a year after Charles Schulz died. 

I watch almost no network television; there is very little that appeals to me as programming becomes increasingly trivial and tiresome.  This year, however, we thought we would tune in for the 50th anniversary broadcast aired on ABC last week.  It would be fun to think back over the years; to briefly retreat from the over commercialization of the holiday season and to remind ourselves of what Christmas is all about.  No such luck. I could barely make it half way through the two-hour program before I had to turn it off.  Instead of a fond remembrances of things past we were treated to a display of the same commercialization of Christmas Charlie Brown and his friend Linus tried to transcend while all around them had forgotten its true meaning.  Charlie Brown’s sister Sally dictates a long list of presents she wants. “All I want is what is coming to me.  All I want is my fair share.”  Lucy prefers real estate and wants to be Christmas Queen.  Snoopy eats and is only interested in winning the Christmas lights contest.  When Lucy threatens to slug her little brother Linus come to the realization that “Christmas is not only getting too commercial, it's getting too dangerous." Charlie Brown cries out, “Doesn’t anyone know what Christmas is all about?”  It is only thoughtful Linus who can answer as he recites Chapter 2, verses 6-14 from the Gospel According to Luke.  The message is simple.  One should not be afraid, for there was “tidings of great joy which will be to all people” . . . something that would change the world forever.  “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

 ABC seemed to forget this when it aired its anniversary special last week.  It was not so much a celebration of the original show, but rather a two-hour extravaganza featuring current A-list celebrities such as Kristin Chenoweth and Matthew Morrison reading what someone else had written and singing songs that had absolutely nothing to do with Schultz’s and Mendelson’s original creation.  I turned it off once it became clear to me what ABC had in mind . . . just one more wave in the endless tide of holiday commercialization that has now eclipsed even Thanksgiving. 

I have watched the special almost every year since it first aired.  Oh, I missed a year here and there when I was in college and studying for end of the semester exams, or when I was a student in Europe and did not have a television.  With the advent of the VHS version, followed by a digitally re-mastered DVD, I am no longer forced to watch it whenever ABC chooses to fit it into its December line-up.  I can watch it any time I want and without commercials.  I now look forward to each Christmas Eve when my family and I sit together and watch A Charlie Brown Christmas.  We “never thought it was such a bad little tree. It's not bad at all, really. Maybe it just needs a little love.”  I think this is why we really watch it.  In an ever more dangerous and complicated world, all we are really looking for is a little love.  Merry Christmas Charlie Brown! 

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Monday, December 7, 2015

Infamy - Rememebering Pearl Harbor

When I was living in Tucson during graduate school in the early 1970s, I used to join USS Arizona survivors and others on the campus of the University of Arizona on December 7th to listen to the ringing of the ship's bell hanging in the Student Union's tower. One of the bells of the ill-fated battleship hung there . . . the other at the memorial in Pearl Harbor erected over the sunken hulk of that noble dreadnaught . . . a tomb to the 1,177 sailors who died that Sunday morning 74 years ago today.  There were several survivors left back then in Tucson. Only a couple this year.  Next year perhaps they will all be gone.  History marches on.

I first became aware of Pearl Harbor when I was living in Asheville, North Carolina in the early 1960s.  Our neighbors were a lovely elderly couple and they would frequently invite me inside for milk and cookies (they still did that back then).  She was always in the kitchen making something, and he would sit in his study in the afternoons reading.  His study was floor to ceiling books.  It did not register with me then, but how wonderful that room must have been for him . . . a place where he could retreat to read and mediate.  Even now I dream of such a place.  I would bring my milk and cookies into his study and we would sit there and he would talk to me and ask me what I was learning in school.  He had a wonderful old desk covered with books and sheaves of papers.  I loved those afternoons we spent together.  

I recall two photographs hinged in a frame sitting on one of the bookcases near his desk.  I had seen them many times during my visits; two black and white photographs of towheaded boys in white sailor uniforms sitting in front of an American flag.  One had a devilish smile and the other only a blank countenance, as if he was staring at something a thousand miles away.  I asked my neighbor who these boys were.  And they were boys.  They wore uniforms, but they were just boys.

My neighbor told me they were his sons and he was very proud of them.  He smiled and then fumbled with a book at his desk.  I smiled, too.  They were handsome boys.  “Are they still in the navy?” I asked.  He smiled at me again and looked out the window.  “No,” he said.  “They are both dead.”  He was no longer smiling.  And neither was I.  A sadness fell over that sunlit room full of books.

I did not learn the full story of what happened to my neighbor’s sons until some time later.  One son was stationed on the USS Oklahoma and was killed in action on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.  His parents, my neighbors, were able to bury him in Arlington National Cemetery.  The other son served on the USS Arizona.  He died the same day as his brother and is entombed along with 1,176 of his shipmates in the wreck of his ship resting at the bottom of Pearl Harbor.

December 7, 1941 will be a date that will always live in infamy.  It may be a dark shadow on most peoples’ calendar, but I will never forget it.  Each year on this date I think back to that day in my neighbor’s study when he stared into the distance and told me about his two sons who died so close together and so far away.

This is why I went to listen to the ringing of the ship’s bell in Tucson, thinking back to that hinged frame with two photographs of young boys who will always remain young boys.  I was lucky I was able to grow up and have a son of my own.  I can’t even imagine the pain of losing one son.  But to lose two . . . on the same day?  Those photographs of a half century ago haunt me to this day.  They will always haunt me.  I will always hear that bell ringing each December 7, a day that will forever live in infamy.

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Friday, November 27, 2015

Retribution: The Bombing of Freiburg - Postcard from Germany

In Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany

Staring out the bathroom window of the building where I first lived in Freiburg, Germany in the early 1970s, I could see the intricately ornate 380-foot spire of the city’s famous Minster.  Although this cathedral has been the seat of the Archdiocese of Freiburg since the early 19th century, it has always belonged to the people of Freiburg and they are rightfully proud of its beauty and significance.  Often called one of the most beautiful churches in the world, it was partly for this reason that I climbed up into the 700 year old spire on one of my first days after arriving in Freiburg in the autumn of 1971.  I did not realize at that time how privileged I was to have this opportunity.  But for the grace of God this magnificent structure almost perished from the face of the earth just 27 years earlier.  It had survived wars and catastrophes throughout its long history, a history that came close to its end on the night of November 27, 1944 when some 300 Royal Air Force bombers laid the city in ruins, killing almost 3000 civilians and injuring 10,000 more.

This was not the first raid on Freiburg during the war.  Ironically, the first bombs to fall on the city were German.  Writing in his Berlin Diary (1941), the Germany-based American correspondent William Shirer noted that "three Allied planes dropped bombs in the middle of Freiburg on May 10, 1940, killing 24 civilians" (German claims were nearly triple that number).  The Nazi propaganda machine quickly seized the attack for its own purposes, claiming first that the enemy aircraft were French before later blaming the RAF.  It also reported that over half of the victims were children.  It was not until 1956 when the German military historian Anton Hoch described how the bombs that fell on Freiburg in May 1940, killing nearly 60, actually came from German Luftwaffe bombers on a raid to Dijon, France.  Somehow they had lost their bearing in bad weather.

Freiburg never possessed significant strategic or military importance to the Reich during the early years of the war and the skies over Freiburg remained relatively quiet.
In fact, German refugees from other cities targeted by the Allies fled to the relative peace and quiet of southwestern Germany.  This tranquility lasted until early October 1943 when a few  American bombers attacked local rail facilities followed by some hit and run strafing attacks in September and October 1944.  There were also minor bombing runs on rail facilities and a nearby Luftwaffe base in early November 1944 prior to the catastrophic raid on the city later that month.

With the Allied armies advancing across France and drawing ever closer to the German frontier along the Rhine River only a few miles west of Freiburg, the city took on new importance to German military planning and future troop deployments to the approaching front lines.  These developments also made it a target for Allied strategic and saturation bombing operations against German cities.  The major raid on Freiburg - Operation Tigerfish - would not only target rail and industrial facilities, but also the Minster and civilian areas as a means for breaking the German morale and as retribution for German raids on British cities during the Blitz four years earlier.  This included the devastating attack on Coventry during the evening of November 14, 1940 carried out by over 500 Luftwaffe bombers which virtually leveled that city’s storied cathedral.

Without any warning issued by air raid sirens the attack commenced shortly before 8pm and continued for just over an hour as the RAF bombers dropped thousands of high explosive and incendiary bombs on central Freiburg.  The casualty count would have been much higher had there not been a most unusual warning of the impending onslaught.  A drake living in the municipal park in the center of the city raised such a ruckus that many residents headed to the air raid shelters just before the raid commenced.  The duck did not survive the raid, but its clarion call saved the lives of countless Freiburgers. 

The fires burned throughout the night, and when dawn broke the following day a thick pall of smoke blanketed the city and the surrounding hills.  Much of the Old City surrounding the Minster had been leveled and numerous historic buildings dating back to as early as the 15th century had been partially or completely destroyed.  By some miracle of chance (or perhaps something more than that?), the Minster remained standing among the ruins (see the above photo) having sustained only minor cosmetic damage.  The building two blocks away where I would later live also remained standing.  The thousands who perished lay buried in the rubble.

The air raid also disturbed the sleep of Freiburg’s dead, including those interred in five separate burial grounds situated near the Minster.  The bomb damage would necessitate the removal of these burial vaults to the city’s main cemetery where they were place around the Einsegnungshalle [consecration hall].   A wooden cross was erected on the site on the first anniversary of the raid.

By the time I arrived in Freiburg in the autumn of 1971 the city had been rebuilt.  The Old City appeared much as it did before the bombs destroyed it.   Reconstruction included several memorials to those who had perished.  Today, in the middle of the main cemetery, there is a granite cross inaugurated in 1951 along with a female figure, Die Trauernde [The Mourners] by Richard Engelmann (1868-1966).  Before the consecration hall there is a  monument to the victims of the November 1944 air raid interred nearby.  On the keystone of the west tower of the Minster, near the entrance, there is now a plaque dedicated in 1994 - the fiftieth anniversary of the raid - commemorating the victims of each of the air raids on Freiburg, including the victims of the mistaken bombing by German aircraft in May 1940.  Ironically the plaque’s poem by the Freiburg poet Reinhold Schneider (1903-1958) was written ten months before the November 1944 air raid.  The city did not forget the heroic drake who warned of the impending attack, erecting a small statue created by Richard Bampi in the nearby municipal park on the anniversary of the raid in 1953.  A footbridge connecting the park with the prominent Schlossberg overlooking the city now includes several concrete reliefs completed by the artist Emil Wachter (1921-2012) in 1979 and representing the destruction of the city.  One of these motifs make reference to the German bombing of Coventry.

During my early months in Freiburg I heard a number of stories about the November 27, 1944 air raid on Freiburg.  Walking through the Old City at night I would occasionally look up into the sky and try to imagine what it must have been like . . . and shudder at the thought.   I read in the Badische Zeitung that there would be a wreath laying ceremony in front of the Minster on that anniversary of the raid.  I attended and it was a sobering experience as I listen to the prayers offered as the Minster’s bells peeled in memory of those lost.  The crowd included many who were fortunate to have survived.  I could always hear the bells from my nearby room, but that night their tone and spectral quality took on a new meaning.  As chance would have it, the following day I joined several other Americans studying in Freiburg for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner.   There was much indeed to be thankful for.  We were joined by several of our German colleagues, no longer sworn enemies but the best of friends.

I visited Freiburg again in November 1984, and one again I attended the wreath-laying commemorating the 40th anniversary of the air raid.  And once again I listened to the tolling of the Minster bells and gave thanks.   Last month I returned to Freiburg, now almost 71 years after that fateful night.   There are few alive today who remember the air raid.  The stories have now become distant history.   There is a lesson in all of this . . . we should never forget the horrors of war. 

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