Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The Price of Silence? - Ignoring a Crime Against Humanity

Rob Rogers, former editorial cartoonist at the Pittsburgh Post Gacette
Note bene: Rob Rogers (no relation although I would be honored if he was), who drew the above cartoon, was fired last Thursday by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette where he had been an editorial cartoonist for 25 years.   It seems the editor of the paper took issue with Rogers’ frequent criticism of Trump and his administration. So much for free speech in Pittsburgh!!  

If you have been following the news over the past week or so you are by now well familiar with the growing outcry against the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their parents who have crossed the US-Mexican border illegally.  This goes hat in hand with the administration’s "zero tolerance" approach to illegal entry into the United States.  Adults who do so - once charged only with a misdemeanor for a first time offense - are now being criminally prosecuted.  Figures issued by the US Department of Homeland Security, which is responsible inter alia with border security, reports that almost 2,000 migrant children were separated from their families over six weeks between April 19 and May 31.  And this number continues to grow with each passing day as more migrants arrive at the border.

DHS has refused to provide the American people with any details on the age of these children.  Suffice it to say they are being classified as “unaccompanied minors” and therefore too young to be separated from their parents who brought them to the border and who are being charged with a crime and being detained in separate facilities..  Once they are processed by DHS, these children are transferred to Ben Carson’s US Department of Health and Human Services and incarcerated in US government detention facilities or assigned to foster care.  I should remind my readers that it was Ben Carson, who as a candidate for president, called for the use of military drone strikes to seal the Mexican border. 

Let all of this sink in.  Think about it.  US government agencies are separating children from parents; telling parents their children are being taken for baths and child care.  Children are not being returned and parents are not told where they are.  Instead they are concentrating and warehousing these children in camps and other detention facilities.  The obvious comparison to the train platforms at Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps is more than unsettling and troubling. Americans of every stripe should rise up in disgust against this policy. It is shameful and it is downright wrong! 

Thankfully some are speaking out.  The United Nations has called on the US to immediately halt the separations.  Yesterday the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights condemned this US policy; “the thought that any state would seek to deter parents by inflicting such abuse on children is unconscionable.”  So this afternoon the United States announced that it is withdrawing from the UN Human Rights Council, in part due to this condemnation of the “zero tolerance” policy.   No doubt this is the work of the nefarious John Bolton, Trump’s new National Security Advisor.  Former First Lady Laura Bush criticized this policy in an op-ed piece in yesterday’s Washington Post: “this zero-tolerance policy is cruel. It is immoral. And it breaks my heart . . . Our government should not be in the business of warehousing children . . . .”  Finally: “We pride ourselves on acceptance. If we are truly that country, then it is our obligation to reunite these detained children with their parents — and to stop separating parents and children in the first place."  Still, the Trump administration’s policy is supported by certain factions within the Republican Party while still others are expressing their misgiving and are uncomfortable with the tactics being enforced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the Department of Justice.  So why aren’t they doing anything about it beyond furrowing their brows and wringing their hands?

I am not the first, and I will certainly not be the last person to compare the Trump administration’s policy with that imposed by the Nazi’s in Germany.  Sessions has been quick to contradict such a comparison, stating last night during a Fox News interview that this is “a real exaggeration” and reminding the interviewer and the audience:  "In Nazi Germany, they would keep the Jews from leaving the country.”  Such an ignorant statement is beyond contempt.  CNN’s legal analyst Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor, perhaps said it best.  "When you have to explain to people why your policies aren't exactly like Nazi Germany, it's time to rethink your policies."

Sessions has compounded his ignorance by quoting a verse from St Paul's Letter to the Romans on obeying the laws of government:

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves [Romans 13: 1-2].

 He forgot to read on or ignored it intentionally.

Love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no harm to a neighbor.  Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law [Romans 13: 9-10].

And perhaps Sessions and other in this administration, if they really want to derive justification for their policies from the Bible, might want to look back to the Old Testament:

When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God [Leviticus 19: 33-34].

There is no justification for this despicable policy.  If these are not crimes against humanity I don’t know what are?   We have tried and sent men and women to the gallows for such actions.  We must speak out immediately and with loud voices and oppose what Trump is trying to do to America.  First he demonized the Mexicans as rapists and murderers, and then Muslims as terrorists.  Then he demonized the North Koreans (who now seem to be our new best friends).  He is accusing our allies of cheating and stealing from America, all the while getting cozy with thug dictators far and wide.  Now he is back casting dispersions on Mexicans and migrants from Central America which he claims are “infesting” America..  

The price of silence?  They came for the Jews.  We said nothing.  They came for the gays.  We said nothing.  They came for the Muslims.  We said nothing.  They came for the blacks.  We said nothing.  Then they came for us and there was no one left to say anything.

Don’t be silent!  Speak out against Trump’s racist, nativist and xenophobic policies!  


Monday, June 18, 2018

i'm Back and the Pot is Bubbling Over

A Hemingway Reflection - Port Clyde, Maine
I have been on a somewhat forced hiatus for the past three months while I addressed some pressing health concerns.  Fortunately things are returning to normal although slower that I had hoped.

But all is not lost.  I have used this time to catch up on my reading.  I focused most of that attention on Hemingway’s oeuvre, both his own works in addition to important secondary works on a variety of related topics, including but not limited to his fishing and hunting, his activities during both world wars, and his reportage during the Spanish Civil War.  I even read a book on the various alcohol concoctions that appear throughout his work . . . an tried a couple to keep it real.  I want to view and comprehend his terroir, the flavors and smells of the regions he wrote about - Michigan, Paris and France, Italy, Spain, Key West, Cuba, and Wyoming.   Hard to believe that when Hemingway was my age he had been dead for five years!  A sobering thought.

I also worked through two more drafts of my own novel-in-progress. I’m finally seeing light at the end of the tunnel.  (My reading of Hemingway has facilitated this undertaking)  As a result, however, this blog, despite my best intentions, has taken a back seat to other projects and life’s necessities.  But I am back now, the pot is bubbling over and about to spill forth on a host of topics as we prepare to head north again for our annual summer respite at the lake in Maine.   I hope to find plenty of time there to catch up on so many projects and plans, including new postings here.  So stay tuned.  More is on the way!

Friday, May 4, 2018


To the followers of my two blogspots . . . I apologize for my long absence, but I am dealing with some nagging health issues that have dominated my time, wrecked my routine, zapped my energy levels, and distracted me from my thoughts and my ability to express them as I would like. I look forward to a quick recovery from what I hope is only a temporary yet exasperating set of circumstances.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

A Lake For All Seasons

The following is the text of a guest blog posted today at Coös Networks, – www.groupsite.com – a community website serving the far northern precincts of New Hampshire. Coös Networks has become an important meeting place for the exchanging ideas, sharing information, while "deepening relationships across disciplines and geography, and building regional vitality." I thank Coös Networks for giving me an opportunity to contribute this guest blog.
In the 1989 film "Field of Dreams," a disconnected voice instructs an Iowa farmer played by Kevin Costner to mow down part of his corn crop and construct a baseball diamond. "If you build it, he will come." I won’t spoil the film for any of you who may not have seen it yet (you should). Suffice it to say, he does . . . . and he does. The film’s tag line states it plainly. "All his life, Ray Kinsella was searching for his dreams. Then one day, his dreams come looking for him. Like Kinsella, I went looking for a dream on my first visit to northern New Hampshire over twenty years ago. I was not sure I knew what I was looking for, but I knew I would know it if and when I found it. And I did. This dream came to me in the form of a small 231-acre lake nestled just below Prospect Hill and the height of land that forms the headwaters of the mighty Connecticut River and demarcates the US-Canadian (Québec) border. 

On that first trip to northern New Hampshire in early 1994 I drove the 18 miles of macadam that is US Highway 3 as it bisects northern Coös County between Colebrook and the peaceful hamlet of Pittsburg where Lake Francis is impounded behind the 117-foot earthen Murphy Dam built in 1940 as part of a flood control project. From there for a distance of 14 miles I continued to follow the forest-fringed highway roughly paralleling the Upper Connecticut River and the three Connecticut Lakes.

First Connecticut Lake (ca. 3,000 acres at 1,638 feet above sea level) and Second Connecticut (ca. 1,100 acres at 1,866 feet above sea level) two miles upstream are also both impounded behind large concrete dams with flood gates. The Connecticut River connecting these two lakes and Lake Francis is considered some of the best trout and landlocked salmon waters in New England, if not the United States. The river narrows the farther north one travels and it is fed by several small tributaries. Five miles above Second Lake, and just north of a marshy area known as the Moose Flowage, is Third Connecticut Lake (2,188 feet above sea level), the lake of my dreams. One mile beyond that lake is the international border and the terminus of US Highway 3.  

On that first visit I pulled off the highway at the small gravel boat landing - the only mark of man on the entire lake - and
parked in the shade of two ancient trees near the water’s edge. From there I could survey almost the entire surface of the lake and the surrounding hills. Somewhere just below the height of land beyond the far shoreline is a small two acre pond - Fourth Connecticut Lake - the actual headwaters of the Connecticut River situated at 2,670 feet above sea level. I was the only one there and I felt that in some small way I had arrived at a place I had to share with no one. The lake was quiet. Just a couple of loons out in the middle minding their own business. The only sound was the wind rustling the leaves as I watched clouds scud over the distant ridge line. This was the spot I hoped and dreamed I would find.

I have returned to this spot dozens of times over the intervening years. At all hours of the day and night and during every season. I would go there to just be alone with my thoughts. I have sat there and watched storms brew with lightning stabbing the roiling lake as thunder echoed through the hills. I have gone there to revel in the myriad autumn colors as I fished for lake trout. I have parked my car above the lake in the dead of winter when the ice is thick and snow covered as are the surrounding forests; my car buffeted by the wind as snow dervishes terpsichored across the ice, or as a blizzard slowly arrived over the ridge line from Canada. I have returned at the height of spring which comes late in this northern country. The winter ice rotten and soon to sink to the depths of the lake. The loons had returned and it was time to dream of a quiet evening fishing for trout.

All of my life I had searched for just such a special place. I can’t help but think this lake was created solely for my enjoyment and peace of mind as I always enjoy it in solitude. It is the only way I can imagine it, either when I am there or when I dream about it and wonder what I will see and feel upon my next visit. A disconnected voice comes to me. "If it is there, you will come." I always do. I always will.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Marjory Stoneman Douglas – More Than a High School Atrocity

The February 21, 2018 edition of the New York Times ran an interesting essay by Mary Lou Foy of The Miami Herald via Reuters on the woman for whom the high school in Parkland, Florida is named.  I am guessing those who never spent much time in Florida have ever heard the name Marjory Stoneman Douglas (1890-1998) until it was connected to the second most lethal school shooting in US history on February 14.

Despite many visits to Florida over the years, including the three years I spent there as an undergraduate in college, I am sad to admit that I had never heard of her either until the spring of 1994 when I presented a paper at the annual meeting of the Florida Historical Society in Fort Myers.  Sitting in a beach tiki bar one evening a colleague who was an authority on Ms. Douglas brought me up to snuff on this fascinating woman.  I don’t want her name to only be associated with a needless and senseless atrocity, one more in a long string of school shootings which our leaders, our government, wants to do nothing about as it would interdict the ready and steady flow of cash flowing into their coffers from the National Rifle Association.  I am proud to see and hear the surviving students in Parkland, and others joining them around the United States, learning an important lesson in activism from Ms. Douglas.   That is perhaps a greater tribute to her memory than any other than can be afforded her. 
Marjory Stoneman was born in 1890 in Minnesota where she was raised.  Her father was a judge and her mother a concert violinist.   She went East in 1908 and graduated from Wellesley College, near Boston, in 1912.   She married Kenneth Douglas, a local newspaper journalist, in 1914 but she soon realized this was a mistake and in the autumn of 1915 an uncle encouraged her to make the move south to Miami where fewer than 5,000 people lived there.   She joined her father Frank Stoneman, who in 1903 became the first publisher of the Miami Evening Record, the newspaper that would in 1910 become The Miami Herald.  Marjory worked for a time as a reporter for the paper before going overseas during World War I, serving with the American Red Cross in France, Belgium, Italy and in the Balkans.  She returned to the paper after the war and worked for a time as an assistant editor. She eventually left the paper in 1923.

During her early years in South Florida, Douglas took up the activist cause of responsible urban planning as the population grew by more than 100,000 inhabitants over the course of a single decade.  She opposed the policy instituted by Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, the former Florida governor (1905-1909), to drain the Everglades in order to reclaim land for agricultural cultivation in South Florida.  This advocacy would continue long after she gave up newspaper journalism.

From 1920 until her centenary in 1990, she wrote and published dozens of articles, young adult fiction stories, and numerous book reviews.  The natural South Florida landscape, especially the Everglades, and its animal inhabitants were recurring themes in her fictional stories while she continued to write on environmental issues and in support of the women’s suffrage movement, civil rights and the revocation of Prohibition.  She served on the editorial board of the new University of Miami Press, and supported the Junior Museum of Miami and slum clearance in Coconut Grove where she lived in an English-styled cottage from 1926 until the end of her life.

Douglas continued to oppose the draining of the Everglades while advocating for its preservation.  She lead the campaign
to have the central core of the Everglades preserved as a national park in 1947, the same year her seminal book, The Everglades: River of Grass, was published by Rinehart & Company as part of a book series focusing on US rivers.  It remains in print 70 years after its publication and it has become a classic treatise on the importance of US wetlands; the Everglades being the largest.  They are not useless swamps, but rather a complex system of tenuous ecosystems.  The Everglades is actually no swamp at all, but a 60 mile wide, 100 mile long shallow river running from Lake Okeechobee in the north to Florida Bay in the south.  Even today the Everglades are continually subjected to over-drainage, pollution from adjacent agriculture, and the encroachment of urban sprawl along its eastern margins.  The population of what is now the Miami metropolitan area has grown from 100,000 to over six million in the past century roughly coinciding with Ms. Douglas’ lifetime.  Who can deny the Everglades are under assault and require protection?  I saw this damage up close during my own first visit to the Everglades in 2010.  Ms. Douglas understood this threat perhaps better than anyone.  I read her book while I was there.  The first sentence says it all.  ''There are no other Everglades in the world.''

Douglas was one of the founders of the Friends of the Everglades in 1969 and today it has over 5,000 members . . . the population of Miami when she first arrived there.  The organization has at its goal that this “vast, magnificent, subtle and unique region of the Everglades may not be utterly lost.''  She continued to speak out against those who plundered the Everglades wishing that one day the message would get through to those who refused to recognize the importance of this valuable and irreplaceable ecosystem.  ''I am neither an optimist nor a pessimist. I say it's got to be done.''

In the mid-1990s the Clinton administration endorsed efforts during Douglas’ lifetime to stop this plunder and to restore the Everglades’ natural water flow.  Naturally this was opposed by agribusiness, especially the sugar industry, which claimed that the damage to the Everglades was the result of urban sprawl.  The battle continues to this very day.

During the 2016 election campaign our current president [#NotMyPresident] stated that, if elected, his administration would cooperate in efforts “to restore and protect the beautiful Everglades.”  During a campaign visit to South Florida he flew over the Everglades; “ let me tell you when you fly over the Everglades and you look at those gators and you look at those water moccasins, you say, I better have a good helicopter.”   Sure, that’s what’s most important.  His well being and not that of the Everglades.  He promised to “help you upgrade water and wastewater — and you know you have a huge problem with wastewater — so that the Florida aquifer is pure and safe from pollution. We have to do it.”  Unfortunately these claims and promises have proven to be typical Trump claptrap.  He has also made it clear he plans to gut the Environmental Protection Agency and scale back environmental regulations which would protect the Everglades.  Florida Senator Bill Nelson points to Trump’s appointments, including Scott Pruitt at EPA.  “You can tell a lot about a fella by the company he keeps and you can tell a lot about a president by the appointment that he makes, and here’s a good example.”  Some battles have been won over the years, but the war to save the Everglades still wages at the state and federal levels.  Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ vision is still alive and cannot be ignored or forgotten. 

Ms. Douglas’ name has become synonymous with environmentalism and efforts to protect Florida’s Everglades.  In May 1998, following her death at age 108, her ashes were scattered over the portion of Everglades National Park that bears her name.  The building in Tallahassee, the state capital, that houses the state Department of Environmental Protection is named in her honor as is a nature center on Key Biscayne, near Miami.  Several parks and schools throughout the state bear her name, including the high school where the recent atrocity took place.  The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was established in Parkland, east of Pompano Beach, in 1990 to commemorate her centenary.  Ironically, Parkland is a relatively newer community in the ever-expanding urban sprawl fast encroaching on the Everglades from the east. 

Her name has been associated with environmental activism throughout the 20th century and beyond, yet it is now unfortunately married to one of the most deadly school shootings in US history.   The people of Florida have long known the name of Marjory Stoneman Douglas and what it has come to represent. Everyone should know.  If you have never read her book, you should take the time to do so.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Mighty Fine Victuals - In Search of Cracker Cuisine - A Final Dispatch from the Sunshine State

What a shame that our month long mid-winter sojourn in the Sunshine State is quickly coming to an end. The weather has been gorgeous since our arrival as the last winter cold snap was coming to a quick and decisive end here in North Florida; temperatures in the 70s and 80s during the day and down into the mid 60s at night. It has been a time of rest and relaxation . . . time to catch up on my reading and to work on several writing projects, including a few posted here and on my literary blogspot - www.ruesansregret.blogspot.com - over the past weeks. It has also been an opportunity to touch base with friends and family scattered hither and yon across the state. And I always enjoy my explorations of the back roads as evidenced in my previous posting - http://lookingtowardportugal.blogspot.com/2018/02/leaving-highway-dispatch-from-sunshine.html.

My visit has also afforded me the opportunity to enjoy the local swamp/cracker cuisine of North Florida which is abundant and tasty but often difficult to find anywhere else. So one has to take advantage and strike while the iron is hot. Some folks down here don’t like the term "Cracker," considering it pejorative; they equate it with being an ignorant redneck. But nothing is further from the truth; authentic Crackers consider the label a badge of honor. It bonds them to their native earth. My late father-in-law was a Cracker with a capital "C." Born, raised, lived and died here. No finer man breathed air. He had a college degree, was a naval aviator in the Pacific during World War II, rode a horse and ran Florida cattle. He took care of his family and made sure his only daughter married a fine and upstanding Yankee lad. A few hours with him and I sounded like I grew up in a cypress marsh wraslin’ gators. No shame to be a Cracker! Not in my book!

But back to the food . . . to wit, I have sampled some of the freshest and flakiest catfish fillets. Granted, it is an ugly fish to look at and it is a trial to properly clean. I have endured great pain and shed a lot of blood over the years trying. But once cleaned, and properly prepared, a catfish fillet is about as good a piece of fish as you will ever taste. I have also enjoyed a pile of smaller river catfish (served on the bone) on the banks of the St. Johns River, Florida’s longest.

I have enjoyed a basket of tenderly fried conch fritters (sea snails from the Florida Keys), several helpings of succulent gator tail, and who can forget the fall-off-the bone frog legs. These were the real things; caught and served right here in Florida despite the efforts by China and Vietnam to make inroads in the American frog leg market. We have awesome ribbeters right here in Florida and don’t need any imports, thank you.

Once again I was disappointed not to find cooter (soft-shell river turtle) on the menu anywhere. Just hard to come by commercially these days. Still, ain’t no better eatin’ than a heap of local marsh critters.

Add to all of this largesse, side servings of fried green tomatoes and pickles, swamp cabbage, hush puppies, tater tots, and cheese grits (my wife handles those thankfully . . . I’m still a bluebelly by birth), all washed down with a few pints of Stumpknocker lager, and you’ll wonder how the South lost the war.

So today I had one more mission before we set our course for home in Maryland (which has its own fine local cuisine).
Not exactly Cracker cuisine per se, but North Florida offerings just the same and something one must avail one’s self of if ever in the area. I’m referring to the local seafood. To accomplish this goal I drove over to Cedar Key, on the Gulf of Mexico. I have been there several times and fell in love with the ramshackle streets and waterfront that strikes me as a smaller and certainly more sedate version of Key West.

I had one thing on my mind; the sweet-tasting little neck clams from the local aquaculture beds surrounding the island. I could almost taste them on the hour or so drive from Gainesville. Over twenty years ago the State of Florida banned commercial gill netting in state waters effectively putting many coastal fishermen out of business, including many based on and around Cedar Key. To compensate them the state offered training to convert their fishing operation to aquaculture, including the commercial farming of littleneck clams. Over the intervening years Cedar Key has become home to some of the largest producers of farm-raised clams in the United States.

As bent as I was on eating clams, my mind and taste buds suddenly shifted gears as I rolled into town. Succulent stone crab claws are also in season (usually October to May) although they are often hard to find in markets and restaurants even then. And when you do find them, they can be prohibitively expensive. But how often do I come to Florida? Steamed and cracked stone crab claws served with the traditional horseradish mustard, and all washed down with cold beer. Not only is the claw meat exquisite, but only legal size claws are harvested while the crab is returned to the water where they regenerate new (and equally tasty) claws. A truly sustainable seafood industry.

Unfortunately life is full of disappointment. No stone crabs were available during my visit to Cedar Key. But no cause for alarm. There were plenty of Cedar Key clams available and I
was soon belly up to a table in a local clam bar where I enjoyed a large bowl of steamed clams served in garlic and wine while slurping down an icy tray arrayed with the local Pelican Reef (Eastern) oysters on a half shell. They remind me of some of my favorites found in the Damariscotta River, on Mid-Coast Maine. I’ll be back there soon enough.

North Florida offers so much more than plentiful sunshine, a peaceful landscape and stunning scenery. I’ll miss the Cracker cuisine and will look forward to a return in the very near future.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Called By No Name Except Deportees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                             – Woody Guthrie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 9, 2018

Corporal Harry E. Kirby - A Brother in Arms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Speak Out Against Fascism!

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

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Turkey’s Olive Branch??

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 15, 2018

I’m Sorry - An Apology, Not an Apologia

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

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

Part Three of Six

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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