Saturday, March 31, 2012

Digging Dandelions

The dandelions are coming up fast and furious in these early ddays of spring. One day nothing is there to suggest their imminent arrival. The next day the lawn is covered with small, yellow flowers. Lots of them! Everywhere!

I am sitting here at the kitchen counter watching my next door neighbor down on his hands and knees carefully trying to dig out each plant in turn and I am reminded that digging dandelions was one of my regular chores each spring. Whenever they appeared on our lawn I was sent forth with a plastic bucket, a garden trowel and an old kitchen knife with directions to dig them out and to make sure I got the entire root. At the time it seemed like a lot of hard work for my weekly allowance. A senseless act since dandelions are virtually impossible to eradicate. If you dig them, you must get the entire root or else they will quickly return; and you have to get them before the yellow flower turns into its familiar white seed-head which can happen while your head is turned. There is an old superstition - if you blow all of the seeds off the dandelion in one breath, your wish will be granted. Well, only if you wish for more dandelions in your yard tomorrow.

Back in the day dandelions were, for me, a source of lucre. In addition to earning my allowance digging then out of our yard, I also attempted to find a more commercial use for them. As a kid I picked them from the lawns surrounding our apartment in Cincinnati, gathered them into bouquets secured by a rubber band, and went door to door through the complex selling them for a nickel each. As I recall, my mom and my second grade teacher, who lived next door, were only too happy to purchase one. Other neighbors were not similarly impressed with my entrepreneurial spirit, frowning as I offered these lovely bouquets for sale. I even had a door or two slammed in my face. One man’s flower is still another man’s weed.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Cats, Democrats, and Miscellaneous Facts

The third time was a charm. Recently I finally accomplished a quest begun almost two years ago - a visit to Poplar Island, in the Chesapeake Bay just a short distance off the Bay Hundred section of the Tilghman peninsula on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. I have been reading about Poplar Island since I first fell in love with this region upon moving to Maryland in 1976. Regulars readers of this blog are already familiar with my strong affinity for islands of any size, and Poplar Island fits the bill. There is something about an island, especially one so close to the mainland, that calls to me. So I have long dreamed of exploring Poplar Island at my first opportunity. I have been patient; I knew I would get out there one of these days. There was only one problem. The island was quickly disappearing, the victim of water and wind erosion. At one time the island covered nearly 1500 acres, yet by the mid 1970s its land mass had been reduced to a collection of small islets measuring 3-5 acres. If I waited too long, Poplar Island would disappear altogether and there would be nothing left to explore. As luck would have, the island has not disappeared and is now rising anew from the waters of Chesapeake Bay. So, after two aborted attempts to visit the island, the third attempt went off without a hitch.

For such a small island, it has a long and fascinating history. The Spanish may have discovered the island in the late 16th century, and John Smith is known to have been in these waters in the early years of the 17th century. The island was surveyed in 1627 by William Clairborne, of nearby Kent Island (the first permanent English settlement in what is now Maryland), and christened Popeley’s Island in honor of Lieutenant Richard Popeley, one of Clairborne’s associates who had come with several men from Elizabeth Citie, Virginia to help defend the early settlement. Clairborne also named a nearby island, later known as Sharp’s Island, after himself. There is evidence that a herd of pigs called the island home in 1632, and these two islands were the first to be cleared and planted in 1634, the same year Lord Baltimore and the founders of the Maryland colony sailed up the Chesapeake Bay.

Ownership of Popeley Island later passed to Richard Thompson who developed an extensive plantation raising corn, tobacco and other crops, as well as livestock. In the summer of 1637, Thompson returned from a trading expedition only to find wife, children and servants massacred by the local Nanticoke indians. Thompson abandoned the island and established a plantation on Kent Island where he remained for the rest of his life. By the mid 17th century a new plantation was established on the island by Thomas Hawkins thereby severing the last connection with Clairborne. It was also around this time that the island came to be known as Poplar Island.

We don’t know much more about the island’s history until the early 19th century when it served as a British base during the Chesapeake campaign in the War of 1812 while the Royal Navy was conducting naval operations farther up the Bay and around Baltimore in 1813-1814. The British found a protected harbor and food for their sailors and troops. By 1815 they had withdrawn from the Eastern Shore although naval squadrons continued to operate throughout the Bay.

Already in the mid 19th century Poplar Island was suffering from serious erosion and was actually three separate islands - Poplar, Cobbler’s Neck and Coaches Neck - although still known collectively as Poplar Island, or the Poplar Islands. It was around 1840 that ownership of the islands passed to the grandson of Charles Carroll, the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence who died at age 95 in 1832. Learning that there was a demand for black cat fur in China, the younger Carroll established a fur farm on the island, importing hundreds of cats and contracting with local waterman to supply them with fish. There are very few reliable details about this endeavor, but the legend has it that one winter the Bay froze over and the waterman could not supply the necessary fish to feed the cats. So they struck out across the ice and dispersed throughout the surrounding farms and plantations.

In the 1880s, the Poplar Islands had a population numbering 70-100 people. A small community known as Valliant, named after one of the local families, included a post office, a school (which also served as a church), a general store, and a sawmill (which may have led to the erosion of the islands through the cutting down of the island’s trees). The islanders continued to fish and grow crops which were sold on the mainland, yet by the early years of the 20th century the population had dwindled as families moved to the mainland and the school was finally closed in 1918. Although still privately owned, what remained of the islands was left to Mother Nature and the elements.

New life came to the islands in the 1920s and early 1930s. Bootleggers used the islands during Prohibition, and in 1929 they attracted a group of prominent Democrats from Washington who were looking for privacy and solitude to escape the rigors of the nation’s capital. Coaches retained its present owner while the Democrats purchased Poplar Island and Cobbler’s Neck, which was subsequently renamed Jefferson Island by the Maryland legislature in honor of the first President to break with the Federalist traditions of his predecessors. It was here they constructed a lodge - the very exclusive and males only Jefferson Islands Club founded in January 1931 - which became a favorite wartime getaway for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Vice President John Nance Gardner, members of the FDR cabinet, and other political leaders and industrialists of the day. Here they enjoyed the privacy they sought while taking part in local fishing and hunting opportunities. The club’s glory days were numbered, however, and the main lodge burned down in March 1946. Only the chimney and the front porch, including the concrete ramp constructed to accommodate FDR’s wheelchair remained, and the Democrats left for good.

The two islands were purchased by the club’s former caretaker and his wife, who moved their family from Wickwire, Maryland to the islands in 1948 and built a hunting and fishing operation - the Poplar Island Lodge - on the ruins of the old clubhouse on Jefferson Island. The islands continued to erode. Poplar Island measured approximately 200 acres of trees and marsh while Jefferson Island was around 40 acres and Coaches was 90 acres. The natural harbor formed by the three islands, known locally as “The Pot,” was frequently an anchorage for the large skipjack fleet still operating over the nearby oyster beds (more on this in an upcoming post). This rebirth was short-lived when the lodge closed in 1953 and the owners returned to the mainland.

The islands passed through several owners in the following decades but remained uninhabited as the Bay’s waters continued to wash them away. By the early 1990s only Coaches remained; the other two had dwindled to four remnant islands with a total area of 3-4 acres. They could very well have disappeared forever, the fate of other Bay islands, had it not been for a rather creative effort by the State of Maryland, the Maryland Port Authority, and the United States Army Corps of Engineers to find a productive - in fact a constructive - use for the silt and mud dredged annually from the shipping channel leading to and from Baltimore. For years such dredging material was disposed of at nearby Hart-Miller Island or subtlety dumped in open water around the Bay. Perhaps with Hart-Miller island reaching capacity and simple dumping being an ineffective manner of disposal, the disappearing Polar Island might offer a new possibility?

This is why I finally traveled to Poplar Island. It was a cool and misty morning as I arrived at Knapps Narrows, separating Tilghman Island from the mainland, to board the Terrapin, the utility boat operated by the Maryland Environmental Services which is overseeing the restoration of Poplar Island. Established back in the 1970s, MES is now an independent and not-for-profit state agency responsible for managing Maryland’s numerous land, water, and air resources projects, including the use and management of dredge material as a natural resource. The trip from Tilghman Island took about twenty minutes, passing close to Coaches and Jefferson islands, before we stepped ashore at the Paul S. Sarbanes (in honor of the former US Senator from Maryland) Ecosystem Restoration Project on Poplar Island. Jefferson Island, which still has a scattering of buildings among the trees, and the wooded Coaches Island, are privately owned and not part of the project although they are certainly benefiting from the protection from further erosion offered by Poplar Island.

The restoration of the island began in 1998 when rip-rap dikes were constructed, much like the edge of a jigsaw puzzle, following the original shoreline. After that, a number of additional dikes were erected separating the island into individuals sections, or “cells” - the pieces of the puzzle which also incorporate the last vestiges of the remnant islands - which are now receiving the dredge material. This is collected in large clamshell scoops during the annual dredging season between November and March when traffic and other activities in the shipping channels are at a minimum, and then loaded on barges for the roughly forty mile trip down the Bay to the island. Once it arrives in slurry form, it is piped to one of the cells to a prescribed depth and allowed to dry, what is known as “crust management.” Channels and creeks are also developed to permit the Bay’s water to enter the cells at high tide to create low marshland while the high marsh is planted with grasses to create new wildlife and bird habitat, including diamondback terrapins as well as ospreys, herons, terns, and many other bird species. Old Christmas trees have also been collected and scattered around the island to provide protected nesting areas. Eventually almost 20 million cubic yards of dredge material will be shipped to the island by 2029 when the restoration of the island will be completed; although much work will still be needed before the habitats are finished in 2039.

I returned to Tilghman Island with a good feeling about government and the private sector working together to protect rather than rape our environment. The restoration of Poplar Island is a success story and one can only hope that the lessons learned here will be put to good use in the future. Many of Chesapeake Bay’s islands are quickly disappearing and there is a chance that they, too, can be saved, and with them the endangered wildlife, bird and fish and shellfish habitats they afford.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Spring Has Spring!

We are a few days into spring and this is one of the warmest in memory. Sally Ann spent this past Monday down on the Tidal Basin with friends and enjoyed the cherry blossoms at their peak. With all the warm weather we have been having, the National Park Service had to keep updating when the peak would arrive. Your government in action; it hit the nail right on the head (too bad the rest of the government doesn't work that way)! I spent that same afternoon in a meeting on a 12th floor outdoor terrace on Pennsylvania Avenue and was able to take in the entire vista, from the Jefferson Memorial and the Tidal Basin all the way to the Kennedy Center and Georgetown beyond, with the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial and the White House (just a couple blocks away) in between. Days like this remind me why I love living in the Washington area.

This past week we had days when the temperature reached into the mid 80s! . . . in March!! Just this past Friday we spent a leisurely evening with some of our oldest and closest friends in a backyard on Capitol Hill enjoying good food and drink and trying to remember when we had a spring like this one. We just hope it is not a harbinger of a terribly hot summer. Sally Ann and I are not too worried as we will be heading to the lake in Maine in late June and will stay there until the beginning of October.

The flowers are all up, the grass is green and growing (we have already mowed the yard), and the trees are leafing out more every day. Soon I will be sitting in the ballpark watching a preseason game between my Boston Red Sox and the Washington Nationals (I like living near Washington but I'm still a citizen of the Red Sox Nation) as well as an early season game between the Nats and the Cincinnati Red (OK, I will pull for the Nats in that one). Spring training will be over and the Boys of Summer will be back in town.

So Spring has definitely sprung. Wherever you happen to live, here's wishing you a delightful seasonal rebirth. Let's hope it is here to stay.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A Joyful Noise!

61 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.

I have mixed feelings about this personal benchmark, but I take comfort in my many friends and loving family. It has been a good life so far, and I look forward to many more years in your good company.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

In keeping with the spirit of the day, I would like to share a poem I wrote forty years ago.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Everything But the Oink

Dateline: Keysers Ridge, Maryland
A steady rain was falling when I arose this morning around 5:30am outside Columbus, Ohio. A quick cup of coffee and I was on the road before 7am and drove through the rain until Cambridge, in eastern Ohio. Near Zanesville I was treated to a beautiful sunrise sandwiched between the rolling hills and the slate gray overcast at the leading edge of the bad weather. When the rain stopped, I pulled off the highway for some more coffee, and by the time I resumed my trip the rain had caught up with me and continued as a steady drizzle until I drove out of it as I crossed the Ohio River at Wheeling, West Virginia.

From Wheeling I retraced my route through the Laurel Highlands of southwestern Pennsylvania on US Route 40 - the National Road - which I am now following all the way to its eastern terminus, in Cumberland, Maryland, where construction on this first US federal highway began in 1811. I have stopped here in Keysers Ridge, in far western corner of Maryland, for a late breakfast. I know I am getting close to home when I can find scrapple on the menu.

I never heard of scrapple until I moved to Maryland in 1976, but I have come to enjoy it as much, if not more, than those here in the Mid-Atlantic states, some of whom have been raised on it all their lives. You might not share my taste for it, if you knew what it is and how it is made, but I can assure you it tastes better than it sounds. Scrapple is simple enough - a mixture of pork offal - scraps and trimmings . . . "everything but the oink" - combined with flour or cornmeal (I prefer the latter) and formed into a grayish loaf and refrigerated. Sliced thin or thick, it is fried in just a little bacon grease until the outside is a golden brown while the insides remain soft and juicy. It is frequently served with eggs as a breakfast meat in lieu of bacon or sausage, but I prefer it by itself, drizzled with some local Maryland maple syrup. It doesn't get much better than this.

Well fed, gassed up and in no particular hurry, I will continue east on the National Road through Grantsville, Frostburg, to Cumberland. I should be home in late afternoon, hopefully before the Washington rush hour begins in earnest. Fourteen days on the road and 3200 miles clicked off on the odometer. I never tire of a good road trip.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Going Home

Dateline: Richmond, Indiana
Today my travels have taken me across the Midwest, from Madison, Wisconsin to my day's final destination on the near east side of Columbus, Ohio, where I plan to spend a day of R&R visiting with my sister and her family. It will give me an opportunity to take a breather for a day before I drive the last leg of my trip home to Maryland.

This morning, before departing Madison where I spent the night, I drove around the city and Maple Bluff, the forested enclave on the western shore of Lake Mendota which I called home in the mid-1960s. I drove by our old house on Harbort Drive, on the edge of Burrows Park in the Fuller Woods neighborhood of Maple Bluff. Nearby is Tenney Park where I ice-skated on the lagoon during the winter (there is still some thin ice on it today) and where I fished on the nearby breakwater and at the locks serving the canal that allows boats to transit from Mendota to Lake Monona. I retraced the the streets I covered on my bicycle when I delivered The Capital Times, and I passed by the houses where my friends use to live and the local country club where I caddied and shagged golf balls one summer. It all looks the same.

I stopped and walked around the nearby junior high school where I completed my freshman year of high school (9th grade was still considered middle school back then). Originally a joint elementary school/junior high school named after Roger Sherman, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, the latter retains its original name while the elementary school is now known as the Malcolm Shabazz City High School, in honor of the man we have come to know as Malcolm X and created as "a harassment-free/anti discriminatory learning environment where all people, regardless of previous academic performance, family background, social-economic status, beliefs, abilities, appearance, race, gender identity, gender expression, or sexual orientation are respected." I was attending this school when Malcolm was assassinated in February 1965. Time changes things.

I stood on the athletic field where I ran cross-country back then, and where I watched Siri, my first real girlfriend, captain the cheerleading squad. Last night I learned that Siri passed away in the summer of 2010 at age 59. I knew her a long time ago, but I guess you never forget your first love. While in Madison I also made a meager attempt to determine whether other old friends were in the area. I only found one - my best friend during 9th grade. Ike and I rode our bikes together and hung out at the lake when the weather was nice. He also caddied with me that one summer. After I moved away we lost touch with one another, but I later learned that he had dropped out of school a year after I left, and a few years later ended up on the FBI's list of most wanted fugitives after he and his brother blew up a building on the University of Wisconsin campus in 1970. He was on the lam for several years until he was apprehended in Toronto and extradited back to the United States where he served several years in federal prison. Released, he returned home to Madison where he drove a taxi and owned a delicatessen near campus. He died of lung cancer a couple months before Siri passed away in the summer of 2010.

Leaving Madison, I drove east toward Milwaukee, jumping off the interstate at Lake Mills to make a quick swing past the school where I attended kindergarten and first grade, as well as the hulking Queen Anne-style apartment house on Mulberry Street, and the smaller duplex on Milton Street, where we lived in the late 1950s. They are exactly as I remember them and a flood of memories came back to me.

I also drove through the many familiar haunts along the western edge of Milwaukee, which I considered my home base when I was attending college in Florida. My family moved to this area right after I graduated from high school, and this is where I returned during the holidays and on summer breaks. I passed by our house in Brookfield, and walked through the old nearby cemetery where many of the original settlers to this area - mostly Irish immigrant farmers from County Sligo, are buried. It was during a walk in this cemetery in the spring of 1973 that I asked Sally Ann to marry me. How romantic is that?

Turning south at Milwaukee, I drove down to Chicago on a route I could almost drive blind-folded back in the early 1970s when I often made the trek south to visit high school friends. I swung through suburban Park Ridge, where I graduated from Maine Township High School in 1969 (check out my posting from October 2009 where I discuss my return for my 40th high school reunion: ). I also passed through the neighborhood off Division Street at Humboldt Park, on the near North Side, and the West Englewood section on the city's South Side (not far from President Obama's old neighborhood) where my parents lived when I was just a small tyke. I don't get back to Chicago nearly enough. It really is a wonderful city and I am proud to call it my hometown. I have lived many places, but Chicago is where I come from.

And now I have driven across Indiana to Richmond, hard on the border with Ohio. My family lived here for a year when I was in high school and before we returned to the Chicago area. It was just a short blip on the radar screen of my personal history, but I have fond memories of the time I spent here and the people I came to know. So I have taken a short detour to look at our old house and the my high school. The town has not really changed all that much and I take some comfort in this.

I still have roughly one hundred miles to go before I reach my sister's place outside of Columbus. The sun is setting over the route I have traveled and the many places I have visited today . . . the many places I have called home over the years. I have miles to go before I sleep and I guess it is time to hit the road.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Some Kind of Minnesota Heaven

Dateline: Alexandria, Minnesota
Here I am in Lake Wobegon Country, in central Minnesota about 100 miles northwest of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, the state capital. I left Grand Forks, North Dakota this morning and drove south across the flat, snowy, wind-swept landscape to Fargo before turning southeast and crossing the Red River of the North for the last time on my long journey homeward. The unbroken prairie quickly gave way to rolling hills and rich, black earth farmland and pastures and I lost count of the bison herds I passed. It is going to be hard to leave all this behind.

Before I do, however, it would be a crime not to search out a friendly fish-on-the-wall restaurant that serves a nice, succulent walleye fillet. I fished for them regularly when I was a young boy growing up here in the upper Midwest, but it has been several years - not since I visited a similar establishment in the Sand Hills of northern Nebraska a few year ago - that I have tasted a good piece of walleye. What better place than central Minnesota? The walleye is the state fish both here and in South Dakota, and more walleye are eaten in Minnesota than in any other state in the union..

I found just such an establishment in the small town of Alexandria, Minnesota where there seems to be more lakes than dry land. I knew I was in the right place as soon as I walked through the door and found several curling snapshots of smiling people holding very large fish, most of them walleye. And sure enough, there are several fish, including a record-setting walleye caught in nearby Lake Darling last Fourth of July, mounted on the wall. I figured I did not have to ask whether it is on the menu. And there it is . . . offered as one of the Lenten specials.

My server is a typical lass one would expect to find in this region - blonde, attractive, corn-fed and presumably strong if one is to believe Garrison Keillor - and after bringing me a locally-brewed beer in a wide-mouth Ball jar, we were soon sharing some fishing tales in which walleye figured rather prominently. I enjoyed my beer and it was not long before a sizzling walleye fillet topped off with lemon slices and fresh cilantro was placed in front of me! I am in some kind of heaven!

It is just a shame I do not have room for some of the local homemade bread pudding for dessert. It looks good but I really can't eat another bite. Besides, I still have several miles to drive today and I must keep my wits about me.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

A Visit to Whitey's Wonderbar

Dateline: East Grand Forks, Minnesota
During my week here in Grand Forks, North Dakota I have had an opportunity to do a little poking around, and this exploration has led me across the Red River of the North to the smaller neighboring town of East Grand Forks, Minnesota (population 8600). You can throw a fairly good size rock across the river here, yet there is a different feel when you cross the short bridge linking the town with neighboring Grand Forks. Both of these communities were virtually destroyed during a major flood in the spring of 1997. The river runs north, and an early spring that year in the Dakotas and Minnesota sent a rush of snow melt toward Canada where the river was still clogged with ice. These communities have rebuilt and a new system of flood walls, levees and dikes line both sides of the river to prevent future flooding. One of the wonders of survival in East Grand Forks is Whitey’s Wonderbar, which was first constructed near the river in 1925, and became the home of the original stainless steel horseshoe bar, the first ever constructed in the United States.

I stopped in this afternoon when there were very few people around and bellied up to the horseshoe bar and enjoyed a 24 ounce Bud Lite draft for $2.50 while the bartender shared with me a little history of the place. Apparently East Grand Forks was a wide open town back in the early 1920. North Dakota was dry, but Minnesota was not and so the town was home to a number of taverns and casinos where local farmers and lumbermen came “for fun and frolic.” East Grand Forks and Moorhead, across the river from Fargo eighty miles south of here, and other border towns thrived on the nightlife they could offer. Dozens of nightclubs and restaurants lined DeMers Avenue and made East Grand Forks famous throughout the Great Plains as "Little Chicago."

In 1925 a young fellow named Edwin "Whitey" Larson, not yet 20 years old, opened the Coney Island Lunch Room a couple blocks off the DeMers strip. It featured bootleg alcohol, unrestricted slot machines and other types of gambling, and Coney Island hot dogs. Chicago gangsters, including Al Capone, are alleged to have frequented Whitey’s back in the day. Even Clark Gable stopped by, or so the local legend goes. A few years later Whitey moved his establishment to the former home of the Duluth Brewing Company, on the DeMers strip, and built his now famous horseshoe bar in 1930. The tavern was later featured in the Saturday Evening Post and Time Magazine. In 1942 a fire damaged the building, but it was soon reopened as Whitey's Café and Lounge, with a new facade and with a more legitimate clientele. A wise move since gambling was outlawed in 1947, and the local authorities began to clean up the town. Most of the bars closed down yet Whitey's managed to survive the winds of change that blew across the prairie in the latter half of the 20th century. It was a landmark restaurant in the 1970s featuring three bars and a nightclub.

Whitey's had been in business in the same location in downtown East Grand Forks from 1933 to April 1997, when flood waters inundated the building in which it was located. After the flood, the owners salvaged what they could from the 1933 building, including the horseshoe bar and some other Art Deco furnishings, and everything was stored off site until a new building could be found. There was some talk it would move across the river to Grand Forks when the original building was torn down to make way for the new flood wall on the Minnesota side of the Red River. Once the flood barrier had been constructed, however, a building just east of the original building in East Grand Forks became available and Whitey's reopened in September, 1998. The following year the new building was extended westward towards the river with an entrance on the new boardwalk.

Whitey's eventually changed hands, the new owners quickly defaulted and the restaurant closed in February 2011. After being closed for nearly nine months, and sold at auction that May, the new owners of Whitey's Wonderbar reopened in October 2011 with the hope of taking the iconic establishment in a new direction. They have added a separate evening dining area off the original bar area and facing the boardwalk patio and the Red River. As a result, the entire establishment has been given an incredible facelift and almost everything has been replaced and upgraded except for the famous horseshoe bar. New walls were erected and given a fresh coat of paint in addition to other more modern touches. East Grand Forks, which has seen some rough times since the 1997 flood, is happy to see this piece of the city's history kept alive and thriving. And so am I!

I sit here and try to imagine what the place must have looked like back in its heyday when this was still a rough and ready frontier area. My waitress has just pulled another tall draft and a delicious looking meat and cheese plate which will be my light dinner this evening. It would be nice to walk along the boardwalk while there is still some daylight, but the temperature is hovering near 20F and there is a stiff wind blowing down from Manitoba, only a few miles north of here. I am happy to stay right where I am.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012


Dateline: Grand Forks, North Dakota
"Legendary" . . . that is what the "welcome to" signs declare when you cross the border. A North Dakota pundit once declared that there is nothing to see in North Dakota, and nothing to keep you from seeing it. There is some truth in this, yet there is far more to North Dakota than first meets the eye.

I have been calling Grand Forks home for almost a week. It has a population hovering around 56,000 (including the personnel at the nearby Air Force base and the student body of the University of North Dakota) and is the third largest city in the state after Fargo, almost 80 miles to the south, and Bismarck, the state capital. Still, looking out over the landscape surrounding Grand Forks, especially at this time of year, one can look east and almost see yesterday, and turning west, tomorrow is just barely over the horizon. Still, I like Grand Forks. It is a town where one can easily feel at home.

I am presently serving as the visiting spring fellow at the University of North Dakota's Center for Human Rights and Genocide Studies. There have been several days of speeches, radio and television interviews, and classroom visits in conjunction with a visiting exhibit from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on the subject of persecution of Germany's homosexual community during the Nazi regime, 1933-1945. It has been both a fascinating and rewarding experience for me and I am sad to say that I will be leaving in a couple of days for my return trip home to Maryland. Everyone has made me feel at home here and I hate to leave.

During my visit I have had an opportunity to reacquaint myself with an area I first visited briefly in the summer of 1970. I do not remember much of what I saw back then, and so this visit comes as a revelation. I was also in North Dakota in the spring of 2007, traveling the same route I took across the state on my first trip so many years ago, but I did not make it up to this area. Despite my busy schedule and the winter weather that still grips the area, I have done a little exploring here and beyond the Red River of the North, in Minnesota. My visit here has been far too short; North Dakota has a lot to offer, and I look forward to returning again soon. There is much of the legend that still needs to be told.