Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Halifax Explosion

Since my retirement just over two years ago several people have asked me when I plan to write the great American novel.  I guess everyone whose professional career involves research and writing (I worked as a historian for over 30 years) is expected to write a novel when they finally have the time to dedicate to the task.  I have kicked around the idea of a transition from non-fiction to fiction, but I always figured my time and attention would be better served with short stories, maybe even a novella.  I had not really considered a novel . . . not until this spring.  Why the change of heart?   

Last summer I visited Halifax, Nova Scotia for the first time. I returned there in January to further explore this fascinating city in Atlantic Canada.  I have already written about some of my initial impressions, but I have not fully investigated one of the more important events in Halifax’s history . . . one which very few people outside of Nova Scotia have ever heard about.  As I delved into the subject, and after reading a series of novels by the American writer Howard Norman (The Museum Guard, Devotion, and The Haunting of L.) which take place in Halifax, I have come up with what might be a great subject for an extended piece of fiction, perhaps even the next great American-Canadian novel?  

Halifax, the provincial capital of Nova Scotia and the largest Canadian city east of Montréal, has one of the largest, deepest and mostly ice-free natural harbors in the world which has made it an ideal British, then Canadian military base since the 18th century.  A permanent base, the Halifax Naval Yard, was established in 1759 to counter the French presence in the region during the Seven Years War, and it soon became the largest British naval base on the Atlantic coast of North America. Halifax played no significant role in the American Revolution far to the southwest although it became home to thousands of Loyalist refugees fleeing New York and Boston after they fell to the Continental Army.  The importance of the British naval presence in Halifax grew, however, throughout the Napoleonic Wars, and War of 1812 against the infant American republic when the naval yard became a major Royal Navy base for supplying and refitting the British fleet.  The invasion force, which attacked and burned Washington in August 1814, was assembled here and the city thrived as a result of the large numbers of  American ships captured by the British navy and allied privateers. The importance of Halifax and its naval yard diminished during the 19th century although it remained an important British overseas base.  Its fortunes as a merchant center increased during the American Civil War as a neutral port trading with both the Union and the Confederacy.

Following the establishment of the Canadian confederation in 1867, Halifax remained a major British military base until 1910 when the new Royal Canadian Navy took over the Naval Dockyard.  With the beginning of World War I, and as a result of its strategic location in the North Atlantic, Halifax would come into its own as an Allied naval base and commercial port and staging area for the convoys bringing Canadian troops and supplies to the Western Front in Europe.

This all ended on the morning of December 6, 1917, less than a year before the armistice ending the Great War, when the French munitions ship Mont-Blanc, which had recently arrived from New York loaded with over 2000 tons of piric acid, 200 tons of TNT and drums of high octane fuel, collided with the Norwegian ship Imo on its way to New York to collect relief supplies destined for war-ravaged Europe.  The collision occurred in the narrows separating the city’s main outer harbor, which opens to the North Atlantic, from the broad inland expanse of the Bedford Basin where ships normally anchored and where convoys assembled before their departure.  The resulting fire aboard the Mont-Blanc led to the largest man-made explosion before the first testing of an atomic bomb almost 27 years later.  It remains among the largest recorded non-nuclear man-made explosion.

This three kiloton explosion and the subsequent shock wave, which was felt over 200 miles away, decimated every building within a 500 acre strip of land along the harbor  in the Richmond neighborhood on the city’s north end.  Approximately 2000 of the city’s inhabitants were killed, many of them instantly, and the bodies of victims, many which could not be identified, were still being discovered two years after the disaster.  An additional 10000 people were injured and many thousands were left homeless as nearly every building in the city was adversely affected by the explosion. Dartmouth, on the opposite side of the harbor, was also heavily damaged by the explosion and the resulting tsunami as were numerous ships and vessels in the harbor.  Debris from the explosion landed over three miles away.  Miraculously, most of the crew of the two ships involved in the collision survived.  Rescue efforts from throughout Atlantic Canada and the northeastern United States were complicated the next day by a blizzard lasting six days which dumped an almost unprecedented accumulation of snow on the city.

I am not the first person to consider a fictional account of the Great Halifax Explosion - several Canadian writers have covered this ground to some degree - but I do have a different slant on the story from those previous told. I am also one of only a few American writers - John Irving touched on the story in his 2005 novel Until I Find You, and Anita Shreve used the events surrounding the explosion in A Wedding in December (2005) - who have investigated this event little known in the United States. And it is all shaping up quite nicely.            

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Some Small Place of Enchantment

Just a week ago I was passing through central Florida and I thought about my very first posting on this blogspot back on December 1, 2008.  I touched upon inter alia my visit to the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings home and farm at Cross Creek, Florida, a place she called “some small place of enchantment” with its dense hammocks of dark, rich soil, and its live oaks and palmettos.  Each time I return to Florida I try to make it back to that magical place. The narrow country roads still pass under canopies of live oak festooned with long gray beards of Spanish moss, and white herons and egrets wade in the sedgy marsh shallows looking for their next meal. “And after long years of spiritual homelessness, of nostalgia,” Rawlings writes, “here is that mystic loveliness of childhood again. Here is home.”  I know what she means, and even though I did not make it over to Cross Creek this time around, it was still on my mind.

I returned home to find Sally Ann reading the late Al Burt’s The Tropic of Cracker (2009), a collection of his Florida columns written for The Miami Herald.  One of these focuses on Norton S. Baskin, Rawlings’ second husband whom she met in 1933, some five years after her arrival at Cross Creek, and whom she married in 1941.  Over the years she and Baskin entertained numerous famous visitors at the farm, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Mitchell, Robert Frost, Dylan Thomas, Gregory Peck, Ernest Hemingway and Max Perkins, her and Hemingway’s editor at Scribner’s. And, as it turns out, there were two other famous visitors to Cross Creek that I was not previously aware of.

Rawlings’ first novel, The Yearling (1938), was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1939 and Scribner’s chose to publish a newly illustrated second edition with original artwork by famed illustrator N. C. Wyeth. This edition remained on the best-seller list for almost two years and sold almost a quarter of a million copies. What I didn’t know was that Wyeth and his 21 year old son Andrew traveled to Florida for the first time in early 1939, when Andrew was still actively studying with and doing some illustration work for his father, and both were guests at Baskin’s hotel in nearby Ocala for three weeks while they traveled around Cross Creek and the Big Scrub doing sketches and painting.

Jake (J.T.) Glisson, one of Rawlings’ young neighbors at Cross Creek, describes in his 1993 memoir, The Creek, which includes many of his own fine sketches of life at Cross Creek, how N.C. Wyeth talked to him about painting while the eleven year old boy watched him sketch a tall palmetto at the edge of a hummock. “The drawing that materialized while I watched was more wonderful than anything I could imagine . . . he did it so easily and the result was better than the drawings in Mrs. Rawlings’s magazines.”  Glisson then paid the elder Wyeth perhaps the supreme compliment.  “It was the Creek, and better than the real thing.”

Andrew Wyeth, Florida, 1939
According to Baskin, he took N.C. to various sites connected with the novel while Andrew remained behind at Cross Creek to paint.  Baskin mentions a certain watercolor of a meandering Cross Creek with Orange Lake in the background that Rawlings was particularly fond of.  In a February 22, 1939 letter to Perkins, Rawlings wrote how the “Young Wyeth did some stunning water colors while he was here with his father.”  She noted that Andrew, who two years prior to his visit had his first one-man exhibition of watercolors at the Macbeth Gallery, in New York City, “works very fast, direct from the landscape, without sketching, and does not work on the pieces again. He has the genius to get away with it.”  Rawlings had hoped she might purchase one of the young artist’s watercolors, a marsh scene he did just up the road from her farmhouse, but she could not afford the $150 asking price.  More precisely, “The Scotch in me rebelled against that price for an hour’s work from a twenty-one year-old boy, which is an asinine way to look at it.”

I have been to many museums and galleries exhibiting Andrew Wyeth’s paintings and sketches and I have never seen anything done during his visit to Florida.  Nor have I found any significant references to his Florida visit and work in any published biography of profile.  I did, however, manage to locate a citation to one such painting which upon viewing certainly looks like it could have been painted at Cross Creek.  Too bad Rawlings did not snap up that painting she mentioned when she had the chance.  I can easily imagine the selling price today would go high into six figures.

Anyway, I missed a visit to the Creek, but I did learn something new about that “small place of enchantment.”

Monday, May 28, 2012

Driving Ms. Clover

“What I need is for somebody to drive my mother around.”
                    - Boolie Werthan, in Driving Miss Daisy (1989)

The aging Daisy Werthan (the late Jessica Tandy) crashes her new Chrysler and is no longer able to get driver’s insurance in postwar World War II Atlanta.  Her son Boolie
(Dan Akeroyd) asks Hoke Colburn (Morgan Freeman) to serve as his mother’s chauffeur.  “Well, if you don' mind my askin', sir,” Hoke inquires. “How come she's not hirin' for herself?”  Boolie scratches his head.  “See, it's kind of a delicate situation.”  Hoke nods.  “Oh, yessir, yessir. Done gone around the bend a little bit. Well, now, that'll happen as they get old.”  Boolie smiles faintly and shakes his head.  “Oh, no, she's all there. Too-much-there is the problem!”

This past week I drove my 87-year old mother from Florida’s Gulf Coast to her new home just outside of Columbus, Ohio.  She has been living in Florida off and on for almost  thirty years following my dad’s retirement save for a brief time in the mid 1990s, when they lived in central Ohio.  They eventually went their separate ways, although they both ended up back in Florida.  Dad is gone now, and many of her Florida friends and neighbors have passed on, so Mom decided she wanted to be closer to my sister and her family, as well as to the Ohio friends she had left behind when she returned to Florida.  She will also be nearer her family in her native Michigan.  Not that she could not have made this trip on her own; she is an excellent driver and fully capable and up to the task.  But I offered to drive her north; I just thought it would be a nice chance for the two of us to spend some time together.  And you can’t get much closer together than the front seat of a car. I was actually looking forward to this trip; a chance to travel roads my family once took from our homes in the Midwest to Florida for vacation.  I later drove these same routes to and from college in the Sunshine State, and it has been close to 40 years since I have visited some of these areas.  A lot has changed in the meantime.      

I left home outside of Washington, DC early on a chilly, rainy morning and flew from Baltimore to Tampa which was sunny and in the low 80s when I arrived there mid-morning.  Mom met me at the airport and we immediately set off for points north, stopping briefly to visit my dad’s grave at the Florida National Cemetery near Bushnell, and sharing a nice lunch with my mother-in-law, in Gainesville. Soon we passed from Florida into Georgia, severing my immediate family’s last tangible link with the Sunshine State.

We spent a night in central Georgia, near Macon, and the next morning I navigated the rush-hour traffic around Ms. Daisy’s Atlanta.  The city has certainly grown since my folks lived here when Dad was at Georgia Tech (they moved to Chicago shortly before I was born).  We stopped to visit some of their oldest friends whom I had not seen since my wedding almost 38 years ago.  From there we headed into the North Georgia hill country where my own family spent vacations before we started going to Maine. Later we passed through Chattanooga and Knoxville, in Tennessee, before spending a second night on the road in southern Kentucky.

From there it was a foggy drive up through the Kentucky mountains between Corbin and Berea until we broke back into the sunlight in the bluegrass and horse country  around Lexington.  What a treat to travel through this area on an interstate with very little traffic.  I recall the days when we traveled the narrow, two-lane blue highways behind a caravan of slow moving trucks.  And then there was that one memorable winter trip when we were stranded in Renfro Valley here during a blizzard!  Don’t get me wrong!  I like to drive the back roads, but when you are on a strict time schedule, one doesn’t always have the luxury to do this.  From Lexington it was a quick trip up to and through Cincinnati and on to Columbus, Ohio, our final destination.  I love driving through the cornfields of Middle America and it looks like the corn will definitely be “knee high by the Fourth of July.”  
All in all, it was a nice trip, and Mom and I had a chance to talk about and catch up on a lot of things.  She was naturally flustered with the move to Ohio.  A long distance change or residence is never easy, and I have to hand it to her . . . she handled it all despite numerous changes of plans and schedules.  And she was anxious to see her new place, and to be back among friends she has not seen for a while.  Add to this the fact - and she freely admits it - that she is a very nervous passenger.  I was happy to do the driving, and although I have been driving for over 40 years and consider myself a safe and cautious driver, I am certain Mom preferred to be behind the wheel, and said so on more than one occasion.  But we made it to Ohio safely, in good time, and still speaking to one another.  That said, I think we were BOTH happy to have the trip behind us. To quote Boolie to Daisy: “You’re a doodle mama!”  But I love her just the same.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Cottage Cheese Memories

What a delight to harken back to some iridescent childhood memories.  What triggered these memories dating back over 50 years in some instances?   It was during a recent visit to my sister’s place near Columbus, Ohio that I had an unexpected opportunity to sample one of the favorite comfort foods of my early youth.  

Michigan Brand Cottage Cheese was developed in 1921 by Henry Wolters, a German immigrant who first worked for a creamery in Detroit.  He later moved to Otsego, near Kalamazoo, Michigan, because of the abundance of dairy farms in the area, where he produced what he called "old fashioned" or "farmers" cottage cheese with not less than 4% milk fat.  It is extremely with very small curds - much like ricotta cheese - which gives it a longer shelf life than other, more creamy cottage cheeses.  This is unlike any cottage cheese I have ever found anywhere other than during my visits to my grandparents’ farmstead near Kalamazoo, in southwestern Michigan, and it was always recognizable by its dark blue and white container with the red State of Michigan trademark.

 For the most part, this brand of cottage cheese is only found in Michigan and northern Indiana markets, yet my sister had recently found it in her local supermarket outside Columbus.  So when I visited her this past week we savored this wonderful treat together and I was able to reflect back on my many childhood memories at my grandparents’ farm when I ate it almost daily.  It is the first cottage cheese I recall eating, and one by which I rate all others.  I have yet to find one that measures up; none have been even close!  

A plate of Michigan Cottage Cheese was always on the table at each and every meal on the farm, even breakfast when it could be spread on toast much like one would serve cream cheese and bagels.  I liked it plain; still do . . . just a couple generous scoops on a plate and seasoned with a little salt and pepper - nothing more, nothing less.  Nothing tasted better than a bowl of cottage cheese for lunch while sitting on the side stoop in the shade of a gigantic oak tree and watching the cows in the pasture and the chickens pecking around the nearby coop.  Dinner was the big meal each day and it seemed there was always a visitor or two around the table.  And there was that big bowl of cottage cheese which went with anything that was being served that day.  I recall on a Christmas visit to the farm when I was laid up with the flu and croup and exiled to an upstairs bedroom.  My grandmother would bring me a big bowl of cottage cheese which I would eat while sitting up in bed and staring out at the snowbound fields and pastures of southern Michigan.  It worked better than any medicine the doctor could prescribe, or so I seem to recall.

Now I have returned home to Maryland and to the creamy cottage cheese I have learned to eat in lieu of the dry small curd variety I came to love and expect as a kid.  To be honest, I seriously considered bring a couple cartons of Michigan Cottage Cheese home with me; I hoped to extend this effusion of nostalgia a few more days.  Alas, the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) have mandated that cottage cheese (dry or otherwise) is a proscribed material which cannot be transported in carry-on luggage.  And though I seriously considered it, there was no room in my luggage.  Life is full of disappointments, and I will learn to live with this one.  But I can still taste it.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Remember Our Troops and Veterans!

As we approach the Memorial Day weekend let us not forget our fathers and mothers and other family and friends, and all the men and women who have served our nation in uniform.  They deserve our sincerest thanks and deepest gratitude for their service and their sacrifices. And take a moment to reflect on those who paid a last full measure of devotion.  Our country celebrates our soldiers and veterans. I only wish it took better care of them.  Let’s hope they are all home safe and sound . . . and soon!!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

50,000 Hits As of Today!!!

Thank you to everyone worldwide who has visited Looking Toward Portugal since December 2008. I hope you will continue to look in from time to time.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Seeing the Elephant

At Dunkard Church - Antietam
My wife has long been after me to read Tony Horowitz’s Confederates in the Attic (1998), and only before a planned visit to the Civil War battlefields at Sharpsburg (Antietam), in Maryland, and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania last fall, did I finally accept her challenge.  I don’t know why it took me so long to read, but it did, and reading it caused me to reflect again on this lamentable chapter in American history.

So you may ask - what does the title of this posting have to do with the Civil War?  Actually, it is 19th century American slang for encountering the unknown with a sense of anxiety and desolation.  Civil War soldiers often “saw the elephant” upon entering combat for the very first time; their eyes opened wide to the very real horrors and blood lust on the field of battle.  I have visited many Civil War battlefields over the years, but two battles - Antietam, fought in and around Sharpsburg, in northern Maryland, and Gettysburg, not far away in southern Pennsylvania - stand out in my memory.  I have wandered both of these battlefields in different seasons and under different circumstances, and I am always struck by their bucolic serenity, which make the past horrors all the more inconceivable.  Yet it was during visits to these particular battlefields in particular, that in some small way, I was perhaps able to see the elephant for the first time.  My eyes were truly opened to the carnage that occurred there so long ago.

The Battle of Antietam, on September 17, 1862, finally spelled defeat for General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia during its Maryland Campaign of 1862, its  first major invasion of Union territory.   Following his victory at Second Manassas, in northern Virginia, in the closing days of August 1862, Lee and his army crossed the Potomac River with the hope that the Confederacy might convince Britain and France to grant it diplomatic recognition.  Lee also thought that by subduing Maryland, which still sanctioned slavery, and taking the war north and out of Virginia, Maryland might finally throw its support to the Confederacy.  During the first two weeks of September, Lee divided his army which advanced against Federal strongholds at Harpers Ferry, Hagerstown and in the gaps of South Mountain.  The Army of the Potomac chased after the invaders and caught up with them at South Mountain, west of Frederick.  Unable to hold off the Federal counteroffensive there, Lee and his army fell back to the small town of Sharpsburg to take a stand among the swales and valleys along the banks of Antietam Creek. The Army of the Potomac caught up with Lee there on September 15.  Both armies maneuvered into position, and on the morning of the 17th, the bloodshed began.  By the end of the day, both armies had suffered a total of 23,000 casualties, making this battle the bloodiest single day of combat in American history.  The Army of Northern Virginia was forced to retreat across the nearby Potomac River into the Shenandoah Valley of central Virginia to lick its wounds and regroup.  The war would continue to rage in Virginia for another eight months before Lee was able to bring the war once agin to the north.

In June 1863 Lee and his army crossed the Potomac River near Sharpsburg and Williamsport, in Maryland, and advanced north through Hagerstown to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.  Here Lee divided his army with the intention of destroying the key railroad bridge across the Susquehanna River, at Harrisburg, while combing southern Pennsylvania for much need supplies before turning his attention toward Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington.  The Army of the Potomac, now under the command of General George Meade, left Virginia and gave chase, catching up with Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863.  Lee consolidated his forces here and took his stand.  These two great armies would do battle in and around the town for the next three days.  More men (over 172,000) fought here, and there were  more casualties (over 51,000) than in any other battle before or since on North American soil.  The Army of Northern Virginia was forced to abandon its second invasion of the north and it retreated south into Virginia.  Gettysburg would mark the high water mark of the Confederacy.  Still, the war would rage for another two years and countless men - Union and Confederate - would see the elephant before it was all over.  For far too many it was perhaps the last thing they ever saw on this good earth.

After reading Horwitz’s book, I decided it was time for me to revisit these two battlefields with eyes wide open . . . perhaps seeing the elephant for myself for the very first time.  What I know about these battles has been learned from reading history books.  Fact and figures.  It was time to have another look.  So how did I plan to look at the Battle of Antietam and the Battle of Gettysburg with new eyes?.  It would help if I considered what others saw during and in the aftermath of these two great battles.  There are two iconic photographs, what Tony Horwitz properly characterizes as “still deaths,” one from each of these battles, which have come to represent, at least for me, the sad tragedy of the Civil War.  I returned to these battlefields last fall armed with these photographs in an attempt to understand what they show us, what they tell us.

The first of these photographs was taken in the aftermath of the  confrontation in the forest and farmland along the banks of Antietam Creek, in the immediate vicinity of the small German Baptist Brethren, or Dunkard church, on the Hagerstown Pike.  It shows the bloated corpses of the battle dead scattered across a stubbled cornfield near the church. The eve of the battle found Confederate infantry and artillery positioned here.  The next morning  the church served as the focal point of several Federal assaults against Lee’s left flank by General Joe Hooker’s troops.  During the battle, the Dunkard church was used as a Confederate field hospital, and later as a Federal embalming station when the armies gathered to bury their dead.   It is ironic that a church belonging to a congregation that opposed all wars, would become a symbol of the slaughter on this killing field in northern Maryland.

Glass plate photography, which was first introduced in the United States in 1856, quickly replaced the older tintype and daguerreotype silvered copper plate methods.
One of the first American photographers to employ this process was Alexander Gardner, a protégée of Mathew Brady, who operated a studio in Washington, DC and who became well-known for documenting wartime life in and around the capital.  Gardner and his assistant hurried to Sharpsburg with their equipment and arrived in time to make a photographic documentary of the battlefield.  It was this photograph taken near the Dunkard church, and others like it taken in the days immediately after the battle, that brought home to the general public, both North and South, the graphic realities and horrors of the war.  They are the ghost images of the battle, reminding us that battlegrounds are not scenic landscapes scattered with monuments to the units that fought there, that the sole purpose of the weapons on display in museums was to kill and maim.  Casualties were no longer a toting up of nameless numbers in newspaper reports, figures often fudged downward by commanders.  Antietam was the first battlefield to be photographed before the dead could be buried.    

The second photograph, also taken by Alexander Gardner, is perhaps one of the best known images from the Battle of Gettysburg . . and one that has been steeped in controversy since the day it was taken over 148 years ago. My introduction to this image was during my first visit to the Gettysburg battlefield in the summer of 1965, when I became fascinated with Devil’s Den, an aggregation of huge granite boulders at the base of Little Round Top which marked the southernmost extension of the battle lines during the second and third days of the battle, on July 2-3, 1863.  While climbing around these boulders, as a young energetic boy is wont to do, I came across a stone wall erected in a crevice between two boulders.  Nearby was a plaque describing how Devil’s Den had been a Confederate redoubt during the battle and from where Southern sharpshooters picked off Federal soldiers ensconced along the summit of Little Round Top.  And there was the photograph of a dead young sharpshooter crumbled behind that very same wall.  It haunts me to this very day; amidst the wholesale slaughter of that battle, here a single soldier fought and died alone.

After the battle, a Federal artillery commander on Little Round Top rode through Devil’s Den and reported a dead Confederate soldier lying on his back behind a makeshift stone wall.  The story goes that the young lad did not have any visible wounds having probably been killed by the concussion of an artillery shell landing near his position.  Around this time Alexander Gardner and his assistant arrived in Gettysburg to photograph the aftermath of the battle much as he had done some months before at Fredericksburg and at Antietam.  Gardner later claimed in his Sketch Book (1866) that while accompanying a burial party scouting the southern end of the battlefield, he chanced across that dead Confederate soldier who became the subject of "Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter," one of his most famous and enduring images.

Returning to Gettysburg in November 1863 to record the dedication of the national cemetery, Gardner recalled his subsequent visit to Devil’s Den only to discover the bleaching skeleton of the dead sharpshooter.  Some historians have taken Gardner to task for allegedly staging the photograph for dramatic effect, claiming that he had taken another photograph of the same body in a different location before dragging the corpse to the stone wall in Devil’s Den to create a better composition. If true, Gardner was not the first or last photographer to do this.  Still, the image, staged or not, is a haunting one of a young soldier who died alone and ostensibly forgotten. 

Strange how today we are spared the images of death and destruction in Afghanistan, and Iraq where brave young soldiers are seeing their own elephants.  Yet there are very few ghost images of the battles fought in these distant lands; nothing to really show and tell us about the men and women who are fighting and dying there.  They are faceless wars; we have returned to the day when casualties are once again simple statistics.  How easy it is to lose sight of the horror of war.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Ning Dreams of Rockfish

给一个人一条鱼 你可以喂他一天。教人以渔 你可以喂他一辈子
[ Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.]

 An annual rite of spring is to meet friends on Tilghman Island, on Maryland’s Eastern shore, and set out in search of trophy rockfish (striped bass) on the Chesapeake Bay.  I was under the weather and missed last year’s outing, so I was looking forward to this trip with great anticipation.

We boarded the Nancy Ellen, a 46-footer, at Knapps Narrow Marina and by 6:15am Captain Bill Fish was motoring our party into the Bay and setting a course for a fishing  grounds known as “The Gooses” some 25 miles to the south.  It was a beautiful morning - blue skies and blue water - and the day promised only to get better.

Joining us on this trip was Ning, a lovely 78 year old gentleman from the Hunan province of southeastern China.  He and his wife have been visiting one of our party on the final leg of their first and probably only trip outside of China.  Ning had never been on a fishing trip like this before and we all hoped we could give him an up close and personal encounter with a magnificent trophy rockfish.

Unfortunately, Ning does not speak a word of English nor do any of us know any Chinese, yet we conversed with our smiles and with several ‘thumbs up” and other universal hand gestures.  How I wished I had a chance to ask him about his life in China.  Just imagine the history he has seen in his lifetime.  The beginning of the Chinese republic under Sun Yat-sen and the Kuomintang; Mao’s Long March from Hunan and the long Japanese occupation before and during World War II; the years of xenophobic communism with its Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and the Red Guard; and finally the gradual opening to the West and its evolution into an economic powerhouse with the onset of market socialism.  I was satisfied just to watch him as he scanned the Bay and the distant shoreline . . . and dreamed of rockfish. 

It was a slow day for fishing; we have had early spells of warm weather this spring and it has interrupted the normal biorhythms of the fish.  They have not been seen where they are suppose to be and in the normally expected numbers.  We tracked several balls of baitfish, mostly menhaden, but the rockfish were few and far between.  Trolling several lines at depths of 25 to 40 feet, we watched and waited for the telltale clicks announcing a fish on the line.  Ning’s eyes seldom left the water save for a short snooze and dreams of a big fish. Watching him made the entire trip worthwhile.

Ning will soon return to China and the life he has always known.  He will probably never return to America, but he will always have some cherished memories of a foreign land, and a day spent on Chesapeake Bay with a bunch of guys who will try again next year.  When we do, we will recall that beautiful day when Ning shared our dream of rockfish.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Our Big Old Buick

I think I have reached that age when nostalgia becomes a chronic condition

In “My Hometown,” Bruce Springsteen sings about sitting on his old man’s lap behind the wheel in his family’s “big old buick and steer as we drove through town.”  Springsteen and I are pretty close in age and so I like to think that he is  singing about a Buick Special which was an extremely popular and big-selling car back in the mid-1950s.  Our first new family car, at least the first one I can remember, was also a big old Buick Special, specifically a brand-new 1954 gray and Tahitian coral (we called it pink) two-tone, four-door sedan my folks bought  as we prepared to move to the Los Angeles area. 

Thinking back on that old car, I did a little digging to find out what I could about the 1954 Buick Special.  Buicks constituted approximately 10% of all automobiles sold in the United States that year, and the Special was one of its more popular models with its V-8 engine, four-barrel carburetor and Dynaflow automatic transmission.  It was a pretty sporty looking car for its day, with lots of chrome trim on the front grill and the front and rear bumpers with their bullet-shaped guards, and the trademark Vent-Ports on the front fenders.  And the Buick Special was reasonably priced at around $2200 (that would be approximately $17,000 in today’s dollars).

My memories of that cross-country trip, my first real road trip of any duration or distance, are spotty, yet there are some that remain quite vivid.  Dad in the driver’s seat and Mom riding shotgun next to him, and I had the back seat all to myself (my sister would not arrive on the scene for another three years).  My folks bought the car in Michigan before we set off from my grandparents’ farm in the southwestern corner of the state (where the above photographs were taken).  Our travel gear was stowed in the trunk and in a makeshift rooftop carrier one of my uncles welded together out in the barn.

Then it was off to the bright city lights of LA.  I am able to cobble together our general route by looking at old family photograph albums with plenty of black and white shots of me standing in front of numerous “Welcome To” signs en route - Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California.  I don’t recall many details except the blistering heat as we drove across the desert.  That big old Buick did not have air conditioning, and the air streaming through the front and rear vent windows (remember them?) did not do the trick.  I recall, too, the canvas water bags attached to the rear bumper - to quench our thirst and for topping off the radiator.  We also traveled at night and during the early morning hours, spending our days in an air-conditioned motel room and the pool.   And then there was the orange crayon that melted all over the shelf below the rear window which remained an indelible reminder of that hot trip.  Stevie wasn’t very popular that day! 

 My folks remained loyal Buick drivers through the late 1970s, but the one I remember best and most fondly was that pink and gray Buick Special with its orange accent.  Now that was a car!.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Boys of Summer

Writing about baseball is not as much fun as watching baseball. For one thing, you can't write with a dog in one hand and a beer in the other.

There is something to be said about retirement and being able to sit in a ballpark on a weekday afternoon.  I recently attended a couple early season baseball games . . . the hometown Washington Nationals’ final pre-season game against the Red Sox (there is something to be said about retirement and being able to sit in a ballpark on a weekday afternoon) followed by a regular season game in the home opener series against the Cincinnati Reds.  The Nats won 4-1 behind a brilliant two-hitter by Edwin Jackson.  So the season is off to a pretty good start for the Nats ( I only wish I could say the same for Boston).  The “Boys of Summer” have returned to their respective hometown ballparks for another long slog till October.

This boy has been around for a few years and has cheered along various crews as whim and fancy dictated.  Of course, there are my hometown favorites - the Cubbies at Wrigley Field, on the North Side, since 1916, and the White Sox, at Comiskey Park, on the South Side (1910-1990 at the original stadium, and at its replacement since then).  As a kid, even though I was born on the South Side, and lived briefly as a tyke on the North Side, I was too young to really give a hoot which of the local teams won.  I wasn’t really into baseball yet.  There has always been a crosstown rivalry even though the teams are in different leagues and rarely play one another.  Between the teams meeting in the 1906 World Series, which the White Sox won, and the beginning of inter-league play in 1997, the Cubbies and Sox routinely meet during spring training, and during exhibition games.  These games - usually dubbed the “Windy City Showdown” - do not count except for local bragging rights.  Since inter-league play began, however, the local teams have met annually for six games, two three-game series played at Wrigley Field and at Comiskey. The Sox currently lead this series.  If you ask me, I will admit I favor the Cubbies when push comes to shove.  

I grew up hearing my dad tell of when he and my uncle took me to a game at the old Comiskey Park, in the summer of 1952 (you do the math), but I must confess that I have no memory of who played the Sox and who won.  Dad and my uncle are gone now and so this will remain a mystery.  I do remember Dad telling me the game went into several extra innings and my Mom was beside herself with worry when we finally arrived home.  No cell phones back then.

I guess the first team I really rooted for was the Detroit Tigers.  In the mid 1950s I was living with my grandparents on their farm in southwestern Michigan.  I became a Detroit fan almost by osmosis; just about everyone in Michigan supported the Tigers back in those days. Add to this the fact that my folks and I lived briefly off Six Mile Road, in Detroit, when I was a wee tyke. The Tigers are a venerable charter American League franchise, one of eight major league teams. Tiger Stadium, its home turf, was opened in 1912 and would host the team until its final season there, in 1999 (at that time tied with Fenway Park, which opened the same day, as the oldest major league ballpark).  I saw my only Tigers game in 1958, when Dad and I drove from Toledo, Ohio, where we were living at the time, to the original Tiger Stadium to watch the hometown boys play the New York Yankees. You know, I can’t remember who won that game, but I do remember Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford each hitting homers, and Al Kaline putting one out of the park over the distant left field fence.  Regardless of the intervening years and occasional shifting alliances as I moved around the country, the Tigers have always had a soft spot in my heart.

One of these alliance shifts was to the Milwaukee Braves when we were living in southern Wisconsin in 1956-1957 (see the above photo).  The Braves, who moved from Boston to Milwaukee in 1953, won the 1957 National League pennant against the Cardinals (I was at that game), and went on to beat the Yankees in seven games in the World Series that year.  The Braves won the pennant again in 1958, but this time around the Yankees bested them in the World Series.  I cheered for the Braves and players like Eddie Matthews, Hank Aaron, and Warren Spahn, and my family attended a few games at nearby County Stadium.  Even after we moved to northern Ohio (and closer to Detroit), I was still pulling for the Braves, in the National League, while never truly abandoning the Tigers and American League baseball.   And the Tigers’ Smokey Maxwell remained one of my all time favorite players as he lead the American League in fielding percentages in 1957 and again in 1960, when he made only one error in each of those seasons.

When we moved to Cincinnati in late 1958, my fealty to the Braves quickly faded and I became a big fan of the National League’s Cincinnati Reds and would remain so through most of the 1960s.  I was really into baseball back then as were most of my buddies. After our dads got home from work we would frequently walk up to the nearby Cincinnati Gardens to catch a bus down to Crosley Field to watch the Reds and some of my earliest sports heroes - Roy McMillan, Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson, Smoky Burgess, Orlando Pena and so many others - play ball. In fact, some of the Reds resided in Swifton Village, the same apartment complex where my family lived, and I would occasionally see one or the other during our playtime forays throughout the neighborhood.  We later lived in nearby Richmond, Indiana, in 1966-1967, and I managed to see a few Reds games.  The names of the players had changed, but they were still my team.

What goes around, comes around, and in 1967, my family moved back to the Chicago area during my last two years of high school.  Once again I found myself cheering for Ernie Banks and the Cubbies.  Having neither an interest in the White Sox nor a desire to make the longer trip to the South Side and Comiskey Park, I instead frequented the friendly confines of Wrigley Field over the next couple of seasons, sitting in the bleachers beyond the ivy-covered outfield wall and below one of the last hand-turned scoreboards.  No Jumbo-Trons in those days.  Nor were there stadium lights, which were not installed for another twenty years, in 1988.  Games were still called on account of darkness . . . just like the old days!  So my Cubs games were limited to Saturdays and Sundays . . . and an occasional late spring weekday.

Many of you are probably familiar with the iconic 1986 film “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” in which a young Matthew Broderick, in the title role, masterminds a day on which he and two friends skip classes at their suburban high school and head for a day of sun and fun in downtown Chicago, including a Cub’s game at Wrigley Field.  Ferris and company sit in the outfield stands and cheer the home team (“Heeeeeey batter, batter, batter . . . soo-wing batter!”), and being that everything seems to go right for Ferris on his day off, he even catches a foul ball sent his way.  Perhaps my most memorable Cub games are the few I attended in the spring of 1969 when I skipped classes just days before my own graduation from high school.  I never caught a foul ball, nor was my name flashed across the big red marquee which has hung over the main entrance since 1934.  Otherwise, my days at Wrigley watching the Cubs play the Braves and the Reds were very much like Mr. Bueller’s.  And the Cubs were doing well that season, leading their division until they choked in September and came in second, eight games behind the Mets.

I attended college in Lakeland, Florida in the early 1970s and at that time there were no major league teams in the Sunshine State.  In the meantime, my family had left Chicago for Milwaukee where I would spend my holidays and summer vacations.  Being the fickle fan that I am, my baseball allegiance shifted once again to Milwaukee and the Brewers (even though the Tigers held spring training in Lakeland).  Gone were the Braves who fled to Atlanta for the 1965 season and beyond.  I never forgave the Braves for abandoning a great sports town and leaving its fans with no heroes for whom to cheer.  The Brewers, on the other hand, played the 1969 season as the Seattle Pilots before going into bankruptcy and moving to Milwaukee where the American League franchise was christened the Brewers for the 1970 season.  Unfortunately they were cellar dwellers for most of the 1970s, but baseball had returned to Milwaukee, and the fans returned to County Stadium to cheer on their new boys of summer.  My visits home provided ample opportunity to take in a few games, watching Bernie the Brewer decked out in lederhosen slide down into a large beer stein below the scoreboard every time a Brewer hit a dinger.  Oh yeah, and don’t forget “Beer in a Bucket” sold during the game!   And then there were the tailgaters before and after the games.

Tucson was home in the mid-1970s when I was attending graduate school at the University of Arizona.  The Diamondbacks had yet to arrive in Phoenix and so I continued to pull for the Brewers.  They became a respectable team with a winning record, in 1978, and in 1982, despite a slow start, they ended the season with the best record (95-67) and in first place in their division.  They went on to beat the Angels in the American League Championship Series and defeat the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games in the World Series.  They looked good again in the 1983, but faded late in the season.

Having resided in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC since 1976, it only makes sense that my team allegiance would gradually shift to the Baltimore Orioles.  Washington had been without a team since the Senators left town, first to Minnesota in 1961 to become the Twins, and again in 1971, when the expansion franchise that replaced the original team moved to Texas to become the Rangers.  Since I was a kid I had always hated the Senators.  I can’t tell you why for certain; I just didn’t like them.  Senator baseball cards are what I attached to the spokes of my Schwinn with clothespins to make it sound like a motorcycle when I cruised the neighborhood streets.  The fact that Washington had no team did not bother me much.  Besides, the O’s and Memorial Stadium were just a short drive away, and once the team moved to the new stadium at Camden Yards, not far from Babe Ruth’s birthplace in the Pigtown neighborhood, there was regular light rail service to watch the Birds play.  Not that many folks missed the Senators.  I, for one, was happy to go the extra distance.  Orioles games also introduced my son Ian to baseball and he got into the spirit of it all, even in 1988 when the Os hit bottom and went 0-21 at the beginning of the season and fans were wearing bags on their heads.  But Baltimore backed its Birds until management showed more interest in a buck than the game.  There have been many long, dry seasons over the past two decades.
The Nationals brought baseball back to Washington in 2005 after the franchise left Montréal where it had played since 1969 and took a new name.  But like the Senators before them, I have never developed a strong feeling for them.  I still favored the American League.  It was also around this time that I finally lost interest in the Orioles.  It was no longer the hometown team it use to be.  Cal Ripken and all the familiar names were gone or leaving, replaced by a string of unknown and unimpressive players and countless losing seasons. 

Today my team allegiance has fallen to the Red Sox.  I can’t really explain why, but when I go to a Sox game I feel like I use to when the game really meant something.  Still, I go to Nats games when I can, especially when the Red Sox come to town.  There is something about sitting in the stands on a summer day, a beer in one hand and a dog in the other, and watching the Boys of Summer remind us of our love of the game.