Monday, April 29, 2013

A Flâneur in Washington, DC

Please check out my blogspot, A Flâneur in Washington, DC, as I explore the neighborhoods, streets, and various haunts and hangouts in our Nation's Capital.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013


“I don't go looking for trouble. Trouble usually finds me.”  -- J.K Rowling
Oh trouble can't you see
You're eating my heart away
And there's nothing much left of me.

I have had a variety of pets over the years, but few have resulted in a long or an endearing relationship.

There were goldfish and tropical fish, but you can’t play with them or take them on walks through the neighborhood, and so my affinity with these was as short lived as the fish themselves.  I did have a piranha for a time when I was in high school, but even it lost its attraction after awhile.  You can only watch so many goldfish devoured before it cuts into your dating time.  My girlfriend ultimately carried the day.  I had a pet chicken, consequences of an Easter chick that grew up too fast.  We finally found it a good home on a farm outside of town where I doubt it lived a full and rewarding life.  There was a frog I raised . . . from a tadpole at school which I brought home at the end of the year.  It never made it through the summer.  There was a chameleon or two.  A cute bunny that grew into a rabbit who liked to bite.  I discovered I liked Hasenpfeffer (and still do).

Cats seemed to fare better and I actually developed a good relationship with a couple over the years.  There was a white Persian named Romeo whom I really liked. For some reason my dad and Romeo did not get along and a new home was found.  I remember crying as I watched him disappear down the street while sitting up in the back window of our car.  Shortly after my wife and I moved into our first apartment here in Maryland we adopted a black and white kitten which we named Gretchen.  We had her for several years and she was truly a part of our family.  We watched her have kittens of her own and mourned her when she was hit and killed by a car.  We still think of her when we drive down that stretch of highway. 

I had two dogs . . . a beagle and a golden retriever . . . but they came along at a time when I really did not have the time to give them the love and attention they deserved.  I like dogs, and given the right circumstances, I think I would enjoy having one again.  But maybe not.  My wife grew up on ranches with dogs, and a few years after we were married (and after the sad loss of Gretchen) we became the owners of a beautiful Australian Shepherd puppy named Tara, and she was also a member of our family for several years.  It was a present for my wife and she and our young son developed a very close bond with her.  She would have been an ideal pet and companion had she not hated the very sight and sound of me.  We never figured out why.  For most of her life she refused to be in the same room with me, and as much as I tried, I could not get her to like me.  In her later years she tolerated me, I think, but that was it.  There was never really any love lost between us.  Still, I will admit I shed a few tears the day I had to drive her to the vet to have her put down.  So I think you are probably getting the point I am driving at here.  I am basically not a pet person.  Most of these pets were long ago forgotten. Except for one.

One autumn in the mid 1950s I had a pet raccoon named Trouble.  It was not the name I gave it.  Rather my grandmother christened him with this more than appropriate moniker because that was what he was from the day he became a temporary resident of my grandparents’ Michigan farmstead.  But what city kid would not be fascinated with the idea of having a pet raccoon?  I was.  He was not really my pet, such as it was, for very long, but I still think back over the decades to that crisp autumn when Trouble descended on an otherwise peaceful farm.

Trouble was just a tyke when tragedy struck his own family.  His mother was leading him and a couple of his sibling kits across the road in front of my grandparent’s farmhouse when they were run down by a speeding truck.  Only Trouble, although this was not yet his name, survived the incident.  My granddad found an old crate which he wrapped with chicken wire and this became the little racoon’s home.  My grandmother fixed a bottle used to feed young calves and nourished Trouble until he was fully weaned and began to take a real interest in solid food . . . mostly table scraps but also the ubiquitous acorns produced that autumn by a gigantic oak tree between the farmhouse and the chicken coop.  I would gather these by the pail full and delighted in pushing them through the wire cage while watching as Trouble doused each nut in his water bowl as he chewed his way to the meat inside.  Trouble ate just about anything you put in front of him.  Samuel I. Zeveloff, in his book Raccoons: A Natural History, says that raccoons "may well be one of the world's most omnivorous animals."  Trouble certainly proved him correct.

Unfortunately, the older Trouble got, the more he lived up to his name.  He would frequently escape, but knowing what a good thing he had going, he never wandered very far.  My granddad would always manage to find him nearby and capture him or coax him back to his cage.   More of a nuisance than trouble.  The older and larger he got, however, the more unpredictable he became and I was warned in no uncertain terms to keep my hands and fingers out of the cage when I fed him.

I remember it was a snowy morning when my grandfather returned from the milking barn cussing under his breath.  Trouble had escaped again and this time he found the chicken coop.  Need I say more?  Trouble had finally become trouble with a capital T.   I did not realize this until that afternoon, having returned from school to find Trouble’s cage empty again.  I took my pail and filled it with what acorns I could find under the snow, all the while looking for Trouble.  He was nowhere to be found.  I asked my grandmother and she told me to be patient; he would come back when he got hungry.  She reminded me that although I thought of him as a pet, he was a wild animal and belonged in the wild.  The next morning, before heading off to school, I checked the cage to see if Trouble had come home during the night.  The cage was gone.  And, as I left for school I saw my granddad walking up the hill from the chicken coop with his .22 rifle over his shoulder.  I never saw Trouble again.

Oh trouble move away
I have seen your face
and it's too much for me today.

[*] “Trouble” lyrics by Cat Stevens.  Check out the "Looking Toward Portugal" Facebook page for more information and photos.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

My Obession With Bacon

I have written about my bacon obsession before, and those who know me know that I hold all things bacon in the highest regard.  Some might think it a joke, but I am really quite serious.  It is Ur-Food in my book!

Returning home from Ohio recently, we stopped for breakfast near Zanesville.  The choices at this particular interstate exit did not offer up a lot of possibilities and so we ended up at Denny’s Classic Diner.  Generally, the food at Denny’s is not that bad, and for those of us in the 55 and older set, the menu selections and prices make for little complaint. This restaurant chain has been around for sixty years, starting out as Denny’s Donuts in California in 1953.  The name changed to simply Denny’s in 1959, and since 1997 several of the franchises throughout the country have changed their look and now bill themselves as “Classic Diners.”  Different look, same food.  I first stopped at one of these diners last spring when I was stranded in a snow storm outside of Minneapolis.  I had a great breakfast there and so we decided to give the one near Zanesville a chance.  Little did I know that Denny’s shares and celebrates my bacon obsession. 

Sitting at the counter, our very pleasant waitress offered us the standard menu as well as the special “Baconalia” menu, a limited time offering with which our visit had a most pleasant nexus.  I am use to ordering breakfast while asking for an extra rasher of bacon.  Not necessary this time around!  I ordered the “Ultimate Bacon Breakfast” which proffered not just a side of bacon, but a “Baconalia side of bacon” - six hickory-smoked slices!! - served with two eggs any style, crispy hash browns, and a pile of buttered toast.  And all for just six bucks!  And you know what?  One could add two extra strips of bacon to anything on the menu for an additional 99¢ . . . or four for $1.98.   OMG!

What else, you may ask?   There were choices to be had.  There was the “Pepper Bacon & Eggs” which included a regular serving of bacon rubbed with black pepper.  Looked good, but I was more interested in the quantity of bacon and not the manner in which it is prepared and served.  Still, a pretty good deal at $5.49.  There is a “Pepper Bacon Avocado Omelette” described as another “bacon-inspired dream come true” . . . a three-egg omelette with diced pepper bacon joined with fresh avocado, roasted peppers, onions, mushrooms, pico de gallo and cheese.  It was tempting.  Then there is  “French Toast Stuffed With Carmel Bacon” . . . two slices of toast enclosing a layer of bacon and a white chocolate spread doused with a caramel sauce and covered with bacon bits.  Add a couple of eggs and two more slices of bacon and anyone with a sweet tooth has a pretty good bargain at eight bucks.  Too sweet for me, but hey! 

Had we stuck around for lunch, we would have had a choice among the “Ultimate BLT” with its four slices of pepper bacon; the “Spicy Pepper Bacon Jack Burger” topped with slices of bacon and all the usual fixings coupled with sliced jalapeños and a chipotle sauce; and the “Bacon Pepper Jack Tilapia” with sauteed spinach, diced bacon and pico de gallo with jack cheese.  The bacon sounds good . . . but tilapia?  I’m sorry, but I view this species as just one small step above carp.  A nice haddock, even catfish, is preferable as an affordable and tasty white fish.  Yet, if you cover it with bacon . . . maybe.

For those with lighter appetites, there are the “BBQ Bacon Mac ‘n Cheese Bites” served with BBQ sauce and warm pepper jack cheese and topped with bacon bits, or the “Bacon Cheddar Red-Skinned Potatoes” which give the phrase “meat and potatoes” a whole new meaning. 

So you see where I am going with this.  Bacon give a wonderful flavor boost to anything and everything.  A case in point.  How about a “Maple Bacon Milk Shake” or a “Maple Bacon Sundae”?  They are both on the menu.  Vanilla ice cream with maple-flavored syrup (I would have sprung for the real thing) and bits and chunks of hickory-smoked bacon.  Our waitress told us they are both “divine.”  As much as I like bacon, I personally think this is pushing the envelope a bit, especially mixing the hickory and maple flavorings.  But maybe it’s just me.  Finally, a “Salted Caramel Brownie Sundae With Bacon” (also available without bacon).  Nope.  That IS going too far!

My wife had a waffle . . . she always goes for the waffle.   Did it come with bacon?  No, it did not.  If it had, maybe I would have had the waffle.  True, I could have had the special bacon side order, but that’s not the point.  But I am not complaining.  It was a great breakfast and soon we were headed down and bound for Wheeling and points east with visions of bacon dancing in my head.  

[*] I have received neither enticements nor compensation of any kind from Denny’s . . . although our nice waitress was kind enough to give me a copy of the “Baconalia” menu for my collection.  Check out the "Looking Toward Portugal" Facebook page for more information and photos.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

A Common Field

It looks like so many other fields scattered throughout the rolling hills of southwestern Pennsylvania.  But this field has become a solemn place and so it will always remain.  It was here, on the morning of September 11, 2001, that a commercial jet - United Flight 93 from Newark to San Francisco - fell out of a clear and quiet autumn sky killing its 33  passengers and seven crew.  Also killed were the four young men who had hijacked the plane as it passed over northeastern Ohio, turning it in the direction of Washington, DC.

No one of a certain age who was alive on that September morning will ever forget the images of the two commercial jets flying wanton into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, in New York City, or the thick pall of black smoke rising from the Pentagon after a third airliner flew into its western elevation.  But few seem to remember the fourth jet, the one that never reached its destination or its intended target.  I hope I can rectify that overnight.

Personally, I will never forget the fate of United Flight 93, and for over a decade I have wanted to visit this solemn place near rural Shanksville, Pennsylvania.  The reason for this being the fact that had it made its way to its intended target, which was rumored to have been either the White House or the Capitol Building, I might not be sitting here writing this today.  That fateful morning I was at my desk  just three short blocks from the White House.  Despite the fear in Washington that day, I did not, at the time, consider myself in imminent danger.  I joined my colleagues as we followed the unfolding of those tragic events and the confusion that ensued.  We heard reports that other jets were headed our way.  There were reports of fires and explosions throughout the city, none of which turned out to be true.  Finally, I joined thousands of others as we crowded the streets and sidewalks and made our way out of the city on foot, the smoke of the burning Pentagon profaning what was otherwise a cloudless, robin egg blue sky.  It was not until I watched the unfolding news reports at home that afternoon that I heard for the first time the fate of the fourth jet that crashed before it reached Washington.  It was only then that I realized my day could have ended very differently than it did. 

We will never know with absolute certainty what happened on board United Flight 93 on that tragic morning. It departed from Newark at 8:42am, almost 25 minutes late due to heavy traffic in the area that morning.  Four minutes after it took off American Flight 11 crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center.  Seventeen minutes later United Flight 175 struck the south tower.  Roughly a half hour after that, at 9:37am, American Flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon.  Following the first three hijackings, the FAA and individual airlines began to warn their planes in flight to be aware of possible “cockpit intrusions” while the FAA ordered all civilian aircraft in American skies - approximately 45,000 planes - to land immediately, the first and only time that this has occurred in US aviation history.  United 93 received the cockpit intrusion warning at 9:24am, just four minutes before the hijackers went into action and the flight deck declared a “Mayday” distress call as the plane was approaching Cleveland.  In the background air traffic controllers could hear the sounds of a physical struggle in the cockpit as the crew repeatedly said “get out of here.”   Four minutes later the hijackers informed the passengers, who had been moved to the rear of the cabin, that they had a bomb and that the plane was returning to Newark.  Some of the passengers contacted family and friends by phone.  Thirteen passengers placed a total of 37 separate calls, describing what was happening, telling that the hijackers were armed with knives and claimed to have a bomb, and that some of the crew might already be dead.  The passengers also learned for the first time that three jets had already crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.  They quickly realized that their plane was also destined for an unknown target.  They were doomed unless they decided to act and take control of their own fate.

It was also during these phone conversation that people on the ground learned that the passengers had discussed and voted on whether to rush the hijackers in an attempt to regain control of the plane. They decided, and acted, and shortly before 10 am, a half hour after the hijacking and as the plane passed near the Pittsburgh airport, a group of passengers rushed the front of the cabin.  The air traffic controllers in Cleveland heard, and the cockpit recorder picked up, the sounds of the struggle, a series of loud thumps, crashes, shouts, and breaking glasses and plates as the passengers and hijackers fought and the hijacker pilot pitched and rolled the aircraft in an attempt to knock the  passengers off their feet.  The sounds of fighting continued outside the cockpit until the very end.  Realizing that they were losing control of the aircraft, one of the hijackers asked, “Is that it? I mean, shall we put it down?”   Another answered, “Yes, put it in it, and pull it down.”  Shortly after 10am, as the struggle for control of the aircraft continued, the hijackers rolled the plane on it back.  Again a hijacker ordered, “Put it down.”  That was it.  United Flight 93 plowed into an empty field 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh and 124 miles from Washington, DC . . . just 20 minutes’ flying time from the target in Washington it never reached.  It was traveling 580 miles per hour at the time of impact and left a crater almost ten feet deep and 30 to 50 feet wide and surrounded by an extensive 70-acre debris field.  All 40 passengers and crew, as well as the four hijackers, were killed instantly.  The four hijacked aircraft strikes killed nearly 3000 people that morning, the deadliest foreign attack on American soil. 

The destruction of the two airplanes in New York, and the aftermath of the Pentagon attack, are well-documented in photographs and film footage.  The crash of United Flight 93, however, had few witnesses.  People on the ground observed the plane flying very low and fast and moving about erratically. Shortly before impact, a number of residents in the small hamlet of Lambertsville, just northwest of the crash site, witnessed the plane’s final moments.  One told of a “horrific” and “deafening” noise as it passed overhead.  Others told how their houses and windows vibrated violently.  They ran outside to watch the inverted plane disappear over a ridge to the southeast, there was a huge explosion, and a mushrooming fireball rose into the sky followed by a thick cloud  of black smoke glittering with the metallic debris reflecting the morning sunlight.  One of the residents took a photograph of the smoke as it rose over the crash site.

The first responders arrived approximately fifteen minutes after the crash but there was nothing they could do.  All they found was a smoldering crater, some burning trees, and a broad expanse of largely unrecognizable debris.  A very small section of the fuselage was the only evidence that a plane had crashed, while some debris was found as far as eight miles from the crash site.  There was nothing else.  Much of the aftermath and clean-up was completed far from the prying eyes of the public and the media, all of which added to the legend surrounding the fate of the jet and those who died.  The FBI launched the largest investigation in its history as the site, thanks to its isolated setting, was the only one of the three that day that would offer up valuable evidence as to who planned and executed the attack.

A week ago my wife and I traveled to Columbus, Ohio to visit family, and on the return trip to Maryland we took a slight detour off the Pennsylvania Turnpike to visit this common field that will forever be a memorial to those who died here on September 11, 2001.  There are small memorials to United Flight 93 located at the turnpike rest stops near the Somerset exit, but I wanted to visit the actual site which is located 18 miles from Somerset, near rural hamlets of Shanksville and Lambertsville.

The area was first settled in the late 18th century.  Then it was mostly wooded with a scattering of small farms and their cultivated fields and pastures.  Surface strip mining for coal began to transform this landscape in the 1950s, a practice which lasted into the mid-1990s.  Abandoned mining machinery still litters the area.  Events on that September morning almost twelve years ago have forever changed this area as it has been seared into the American conscience. This common field will tell the lasting and compelling story of courage.

There were a number of makeshift memorials to United Flight 93 in the early years after the tragedy.  Even while the FBI was conducting its investigation, there was a long row of hay bales festooned with signs, flags, balloons, stuffed animals and other memorabilia.   Congress designated the site a National Memorial, in 2002, and since then there has been an ongoing effort to restore the area by reforestation and the planting of memorial groves of trees and wild flowers, as well as to design and construct a lasting memorial to the brave crew and passengers who stood up to terrorism the only way they could . . . by standing together. 

It opened to the public last year and it is still very much a work in progress.  There is a small visitors shelter adjacent the parking area which sits atop a broad, wind-swept hill offering a broad panorama of the surrounding Laurel Highlands of southwestern Pennsylvania.  A permanent visitors center is in the works.  After viewing a number of information panels telling the story of September 11 and United Flight 93, one walks along a long sloping black wall which demarcates the northern edge of the debris field which is closed to the public.  Following the completion of the lengthy FBI investigation, the Somerset County coroner, who along with the FBI was able to positively identify all of the victims, ordered the site filled in and it now constitutes the final resting place of the 40 passengers and crew who died here. The identifiable remains of the hijackers were removed and turned over to the FBI.  Across this field, along the southern edge of the crash site, is a stand of hemlock partially destroyed by fire.  There is a single large boulder which now marks where the impact occurred.  At the end of the long walkway is the Wall of Names, a series of 40 white marble panels, each inscribed with the name of one of the passengers and crew.  

It was a difficult, emotional and sobering moment for me to stand there alone.   Had these brave women and men not banded together in a final moment of courage before they died, I could have very well been one of the thousands who were killed and wounded on that otherwise peaceful late summer morning.  Blessed be their memories.  I, for one, will never forget them.

[*] The information on the actual hijacking and crash of United Flight 93 is a summary of what appears in the official 9/11 Commission Report - Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States - released on July 22, 2004 following a two year investigation of all available data. Check out the "Looking Toward Portugal" Facebook page for more photos.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Three More Strangers and the Thunderbolt of the Confederacy

A couple years ago I posted a short piece on my discovery of an unknown Confederate soldier buried not far from where we spend our summers in Maine – Just recently I chanced upon the graves of three more Confederate “strangers” buried far from home.

I never quite know what I am going to chance upon when I embark on a road trip.  This past week we drove to Ohio to visit family near Columbus.  On the return trip we jumped off Interstate 70 for breakfast near Zanesville, and afterwards we left the interstate to the trucks and the through traffic, choosing to continue our eastward journey along US 40 - the National Road - through Concord and Cambridge to Old Washington before rejoining the interstate. For awhile we seemed to have the highway to ourselves.

We made an unexpected stop in Old Washington.  It was platted in 1805 as “New Washington,” making it the oldest permanent settlement in Guernsey County.  It was incorporated as “Washington,” in 1829, and by mid-century it was known formally as “Old Washington.”  As we passed through this small town I noticed the familiar silhouette of a historic marker high atop a hill and I wondered what made this quiet hamlet historic?  I made a detour to the hilltop to discover that we had arrived at the site of the northernmost exchange of hostile fire between Union and Confederate troops during the Civil War.  This was news to me; I had grown up in the belief that the Battle of Gettysburg, on July 1-3, 1863, was the geographic highwater mark of the Confederacy.  Apparently not, as Old Washington is approximately ten miles further north in latitude than Gettysburg.   Confederate raiders appeared in several Guernsey County villages, including Old Washington, where they wreaked havoc before being caught by Union cavalry. The three unknown Confederate troops killed at Old Washington are buried in the hilltop cemetery near the graves of two Union soldiers (local soldiers who were not killed here) and adjacent the historical marker.  The town erected a tombstone in 1847 bearing the inscription "Here was laid to rest by the citizens of Washington under public authority, the bodies of three confederate cavalrymen killed during the battle of Washington July 24, 1863, when a force in command of Confederate General John Morgan, was overtaken and defeated by Federal cavalrymen in command of General James M. Shackelford."  So when I got home I looked into this little known chapter of Civil War history.

At the same time Robert E. Lee was leading his army into southern Pennsylvania in his second invasion of the North (the first coming the previous September when he was defeated at Antietam/Sharpsburg), a regimental force of approximately 2500 calvary troops under the command of Brigadier General John Hunt Morgan was conducting a separate campaign of hit and run raids throughout Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio.  This following Brigadier General Henry Heth’s earlier unsuccessful attempt to capture Cincinnati only to be turned back by redoubtable Union fortifications south of the Ohio River in Kentucky.  “Morgan’s Raiders,” as they came to be known, spread a long swath of destruction in their wake during their raids of July 1863.

On July 8, 1863, Morgan led his troops across the Ohio River near Brandenburg, Kentucky despite specific orders not to do so. Morgan’s intention was to draw the attention of thousands of Union troops away from their normal duties, including support of the Union defenses farther east in Pennsylvania, and to strike fear among the civilian population in the north. They swept across southeastern Indiana in less than a week, procuring horses and provisions while the Indiana militia tried to organize defenses until Union reinforcement could arrive.  Morgan and his troops entered Ohio just north of Cincinnati on July 13 thereby flanking the Union fortifications south of that city.  The Ohio governor called out his own state militia on July 12, and Major General Ambrose Burnside, commander of the Department of the Ohio with headquarters in Cincinnati, quickly organized Union regulars and the Ohio militia in an attempt to protect the southern part of the state from Morgan and to cut off his escape across the Ohio River.  But not before Morgan and his cavalry advanced across southern Ohio, torching fields and farms and bridges as they made their way east toward the Ohio River and the West Virginia border.  Morgan had hoped to cross back into Kentucky but the river crossings were fortified by Union garrisons.

Morgan arrived at the river on the evening of July 18, but decided not to attempt a crossing that night.  On the following day, Union troops under Brigadier-General E.H. Hobson, who had been pursuing Morgan since shortly after he entered Ohio, finally caught up with the Confederate raiders at Buffington Island, near Ravenswood, West Virginia where Morgan hoped to cross the swollen Ohio River.  Morgan succeeded in getting a small number of his men across the river before Union gunboats arrived to block this route of escape.  Union cavalry with a two-to-one superior force attacked the Confederates before most could cross, however, and in a very short period of time Morgan lost between 800 and 1200 men, nearly all of whom were captured. Such as it was, this “battle” was the largest fought on Ohio territory during the war.

Licking their wounds, Morgan and his remaining raiders turned north having broken through the Union lines. They eventually found an unguarded ford where some 300   Confederates succeeded in crossing while many others drowned before Union gunboats arrived.  Morgan and what remained of his men then turned northwest feigning an advance in the direction of Athens and Columbus before turning northeast in the general direction of Zanesville and Cambridge.  Union Brigadier General James M. Shackelford and elements of the 1st and 3rd Kentucky and the 14th Illinois followed in hot pursuit.  On July 22 Morgan and his men forded the Muskingum River south of Zanesville before turning northward into Guernsey County near Cumberland.

This ragtag band of soldiers wanted to get across the Ohio River and return home.  They stole horses and other provisions while burning bridges to slow down their Union pursuers.  Still they had one more fight left in them.  Morgan and his men reached Old Washington on the morning of July 24.  They rested and sought food and new provisions in town until the early afternoon when there were reports that the Union calvary was approaching from the south. The Confederates prepared to flee and many had already left town when Shackelford’s troops gathered at the top of Cemetery Hill and open fired on the Confederates still in town.  They returned fire and three Confederate soldiers were killed while several others were captured. A skirmish more than a battle.  Those that escaped headed farther north, still hoping to find a way across the Ohio River. 

Morgan and his troops lasted two more days, until Union cavalry under the command of Major W.B. Way and Major G.W. Rue finally surrounded them.  They surrendered on July 26 near West Point, Ohio, in Columbiana County not far from the Pennsylvania border and  some 100 miles northeast of Old Washington. Morgan and several of his officers were sent to the Ohio Penitentiary, in Columbus. Many of the enlisted men were confined in the Camp Chase Confederate prison camp west of there (where today almost 2300 Confederate dead are buried far from their homes) while others ended up in the Camp Douglas stockade in Chicago.

The story of Morgan Raider’s - the “Thunderbolt of the Confederacy - ends with an interesting footnote.  After arriving at the penitentiary on October 1, 1863, Morgan and several of his men planned an escape, seven of them eventually tunneling their way to freedom on November 27.  Using money smuggled to him in prison, Morgan purchased a train ticket to Cincinnati where he escaped across the Ohio River into Kentucky, something he and his men were unable to do during their three-week raid across Ohio.  He returned to the war but was killed in action on September 4, 1864 at Greenville, Tennessee.

So now I know the rest of the story.

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Monday, April 8, 2013

Fishing With Volmar

I first introduced my grandfather Volmar Miller (1902-1987) in my September 20, 2009 posting, “The Old Swimming Hole” - - a description of some fond yet ever more distant memories of my youth.  Here is more of the story . . . .

My grandfather, who grew up on Granly Farm in rural Almena, Michigan, was quite the outdoors man who would later serve on the Michigan State Waterways Commission in the 1960s under then Governor George Romney.  It was at Blocker’s Pond, situated on the edge of Granly Farm and which most of the locals referred to as "Miller Pond," that Volmar first taught me the ways of the angler.  He had also built two small fish ponds on his property just downstream from Miller Pond and stocked them with brook trout from the local hatchery. These ponds were fed by the stream flowing out of the Miller Pond, a small wooden waterwheel on to which old coffee cans had been fastened ladling stream water onto a wooden flume running down to the small fish ponds. 

I was five years old when Volmar first started me out with a simple cane pole, a length of fishing line, and a red and white bobber below which a juicy nightcrawler hung suspended to entice a fat bluegill to the invisible hook.  I eventually move up to a small spin-cast outfit and a variety of wooden and metal jigs and poppers.  I finally graduated to a fly rod and reel and the mysteries of artificial flies crafted from thread and feathers, many of which Volmar tied himself.

I always looked forward to the quiet walk along the stream and up through the woods to Miller Pond. The Blockers had a small rowboat and from time to time I would see someone fishing from it along the opposite bank. I asked Volmar if we might not catch more fish from a boat. He impressed upon me the importance of patience when fishing, like so many other of life’s adventures. Patience, and the proper presentation of the bait whether it be a worm or an artificial lure or fly.  Give the fish what it seeks and where it expects to find it. It could care less whether the angler was standing on the bank or sitting in a boat. There was truth in this.  A string of bluegills would frequently find its way into a iron skillet sizzling with lard.  Fishing for the beautifully-speckled brookies in the small trout ponds was a special treat.  How to trick an Argus-eyed trout by presenting a fly that closely resemble its favorite meal.  The brookies were fun to catch and we would always release them after finessing them to the net.  We were tempted to keep a couple for a shore lunch because they taste so damn good when they go straight from the water into the frying pan.  But we didn’t.  They are too damn beautiful not to return to the water and watch that flash of color as they sound into the depths.

I visited these ponds less frequently as I grew older and eventually I moved beyond my own Midwestern roots once I entered college in Florida. I stopped to visit Volmar in January 1971, on my way home from New York City and Toronto where I had spent part of my holiday semester break.  Miller Pond and the smaller trout ponds were covered with thick ice and snow drifted deep in the woods around the house. Volmar invited me to stay and do some ice fishing, but I was in a hurry to visit my girlfriend who attended college a few miles away. I stopped by again a few months later, on my way home for the summer break. This time Volmar and I tossed some flies and small poppers to the bluegills in Miller Pond. One last time we brought back a stringer of fish for lunch. Little did I know that this would be my last fishing trip to these ponds of my youth. 

But this was not the end of my fishing adventures with Volmar.  He would spend his winters along Florida’s Gulf coast and from time to time I would drive over on a weekend break from my studies to wet a line together.  He had a nice little place directly on the Anclote River only a mile of two from where it flows into the Gulf at Tarpon Springs.  We fished shrimp and crab right off his dock and were rewarded with sheepshead, redfish (channel bass), ladyfish (often called the poor man’s tarpon) and catfish.  We would also boat out to the local mangrove flats where we tossed flies to cruising redfish after which we would return to the dock for “Miller Time” . . . a couple bottles of beer while Volmar filleted our catch (he also taught me the proper way to fillet fish).  If time and weather permitted, we would take his boat, a Boston Whaler, out into the open Gulf to jig pinfish for grouper that populated the reefs and wrecks farther out.  He loved to get out on the open water where he could open up the throttle and let fly.

It has been forty years since the last time Volmar and I fished together and a quarter century since he passed away there on the banks of the Anclote River, his beloved boat moored nearby.  I still think back fondly on those times we shared on the banks of those  small Michigan ponds and along the Gulf coast.  And I thank him for teaching me the proper way to fish and for the right reasons.  Never keep anything you don’t plan to eat.  I have never lost my love of fishing and do it as often as I can.  Volmar is always in my thoughts whenever I find myself on or near the water.  Even when the fish aren’t biting, a day with a fishing pole in your hands is better than so many alternatives.