Monday, December 1, 2014

The Road Not Taken - Part 3 of Memories from the Left Edge of America

On board the USS Ticonderoga (CV-14) at San Diego, California, July 1966 (I am third from the left).  Standing where a Japanese kamikaze plane struck in January 1945.
This is the third in a series of postings entitled “Memories from the Left Edge of America.”   Parts 1 and 2 were posted on October 20 and 22. 

The traveler in Frost’s well-known poem, “The Road Not Taken,” has arrived at an important, perhaps even a providential juncture on the road being traveled, or perhaps   an important crossroads in a life already lived, or one yet to be lived. But one will never know what life has in store until one of two pathways is chosen and followed.

            Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
            And sorry I could not travel both
            And be one traveler, long I stood
            And looked down one as far as I could
            To where it bent in the undergrowth;

            Then took the other, as just as fair,
            And having perhaps the better claim,
            Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
            Though as for that the passing there
            Had worn them really about the same,

            And both that morning equally lay
            In leaves no step had trodden black.
            Oh, I kept the first for another day!
            Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
            I doubted if I should ever come back.

            I shall be telling this with a sigh
            Somewhere ages and ages hence:
            Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -
            I took the one less traveled by,
            And that has made all the difference.   *

Two separate paths lie open and the traveler is sorry only one can be taken.  Both appear essentially the same, the only difference being where each will eventually lead.  Once down one path or the other, there is no going back, no do overs.  I arrived at just such a juncture in my own life during the summer of 1966, not long after I turned 15 years old.  Now you might think this is a very early age to arrive at such a momentous decision.  But I did.  I didn’t fully comprehend it then, but I can see it plainly now.

Ever since I was a young boy I have always been interested in history, especially military history.  Maybe this was a result of listening to my dad’s exploits while serving in General Patton’s Third Army as it advanced from the beachheads of Normandy to the Battle of the Bulge and across Germany to the eastern Czechoslovakia during the final year of World War II.  I thought I might be a soldier one day myself.  A lot of young boys do.  Mind you, Dad never glorified war or his role in it, nor did I realize or understand when I was young that there were so many terrible things he never told me about.  That would all come much later, when I better understood the history of that bitter conflict.  War would come to mean something completely different to a young boy who early on only saw the adventure and glory to be won.  But Dad did talk fondly about his comrades-in-arms, that band of brothers that faced death and adversity together, Some of them were lucky enough to survive to see the end of the war and to return home to their families and the lives they would lead after a victory won at such a terrible price. 

My own generation’s war had been brewing in French Indo-China since the early 1950s when American military advisors were sent to support the French, and later the government of an independent South Vietnam, in their efforts to stem the tide of communism in Southeast Asia.  Following the Gulf of Tonkin incident in early August 1964 during which North Vietnamese patrol boats allegedly attacked US Navy vessels, the US launched dozens of sorties against North Vietnamese bases and oil storage facilities.  It was not long before the United States began to ramp up its engagement in Vietnam.  It launched a large-scale bombing campaign, and began to commit regular combat troops in early 1965.  Over a quarter million ground troops were in country by the end of that year.  News from war zones became a constant diet on the evening news as American casualties began to mount.  Still, the war seemed far away and the idea of some sort of military service had not lost its appeal.  I joined the cadet program of the Wisconsin Wing of the Civil Air Patrol, a US Air Force Auxiliary, in 1964 and began to entertain thoughts of eventually attending the Air Force Academy so I could fly jets.  I did not really think about the likelihood that I would end up flying them over Southeast Asia.

I spent the summer of 1966 in San Diego where I was active in a local CAP squadron as part of the California Wing.  The Vietnam War suddenly seemed much closer during my time on the West Coast.   San Diego was full of military personnel on their way to, or returning from the war zone.  The skies were full of military aircraft operating out of Miramar Naval Air Station and other bases scattered across southern California.  Naval ships moved in and out of the harbor on a regular basis.  While I was in San Diego that summer I had an opportunity to tour the USS Ticonderoga (CV-14) with a group of visiting Royal New Zealand Air Force cadets.  One of 24 Essex-class aircraft carriers built during World War II, it served in several campaigns in the Pacific Theater of Operations, earning five battle stars during the last two years of the war and suffering severe damage as a result of a kamikaze assault in January 1945.  She was recommissioned shortly after the Korean War, and later earned several Naval Unit Commendations and 12 battle stars while operating off the coast of Vietnam.

When I boarded her at the North Island Naval Air Station, the Ticonderoga had recently returned home from her first six-month combat tour in the South China Sea and was being repaired and refitted for another tour.  We learned how the ship operated in combat, her air squadrons conducting bombing and reconnaissance sorties over Vietnam.  During its first deployment off Vietnam her air squadrons conducted over 10,000 combat sorties, with a loss of 16 planes, and five pilots.   We also learned it was aircraft from this carrier that engaged the North Vietnamese patrol boats during the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and along with aircraft from the USS Constellation, participated in the retaliatory raids on the North Vietnamese bases a few days later, receiving the first of its Naval Unit Commendations.  While walking on the busy flight deck we stood where the Japanese kamikaze plane struck and badly crippled the ship toward the end of World War II.  Shortly after my tour the USS Ticonderoga would put to sea in early July for training operations off the California coast.  It would return to Vietnam that October for the next of two more combat deployments until 1968 and the end of its active combat deployment.   It would subsequently recover the Apollo 16 and 17 moon mission capsules and astronauts in 1972, and the Skylab 2 astronauts near San Diego a year later.  The Ticonderoga was decommissioned in 1973 and sold for scrap in 1975).

Suddenly the war did not seem that far away.  It was all around me.  For the very first time I took a hard look at what a military career might mean and I had to ask myself whether I was committed to it.  By now I had my doubts.  With over a half million men and women deployed to Vietnam, the war continued to rage in Southeast Asia through my remaining years in high school.   I witnessed the anti-war protests along Michigan Avenue, in Grant and Lincoln Park and elsewhere throughout downtown Chicago, during the Democratic National Convention in the summer of 1968.  The war was going badly after the Tet Offensive earlier that year and the conflict was spreading throughout Southeast Asia.  The US began a secret bombing campaign over Cambodia and more than 11,000 US troops would be killed in action in 1969, the year I graduated.  By then I had scrapped any thoughts of attending a service academy or enlisting.  If the army wanted me they were going to have to come and get me.  That was a road I had no desire to take.
            Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
            I doubted if I should ever come back.


I registered with the Selective Service in 1969 when I turned 18.  It began a draft lottery in December 1969, and a second lottery drawing was held in July 1970 to determine the order in which men like me who were born in 1951 were to be called to report for induction into the military.  My birthday came up number 246.  The highest lottery number called for this group was 125.  All men assigned that lottery number or any lower number, and who were classified 1-A or 1-A-O (available for military service), were called to report for possible induction.  I was literally saved by the luck of the draw.  Lucky, too, that I had already been granted a temporary student deferment which would end either on my completion of a four-year degree or my 24th birthday in 1975, whichever came first.  Student deferments ended in 1971, yet the annual draft inductions never reached my high lottery number.  So many young men were called to serve.  I never was.

Although I was never seriously threatened by the draft, I attended Florida Southern College, a small liberal arts college which required two years of mandatory ROTC (Reserved Officers Training Corps) education.  One could then opt out or sign up for an additional two years after which one would be commissioned a second lieutenant in the US Army and required to serve at least two years of active service followed by a stint in the reserves.  I opted out in the fall of 1971 and traveled overseas to attend university in West Germany.   I had lost any and all interest in a military career.

            I shall be telling this with a sigh
            Somewhere ages and ages hence:
            Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
            I took the one less traveled by,
            And that has made all the difference.

I chose a civilian career as a historian charged with investigating the darkest corners of war, in this instance war crimes and crimes against humanity by the Nazis and their collaborators.  It has been a righteous endeavor.  There are no regrets, no sighs so many years after choosing one calling over another.

*   Robert Frost. The Poetry of Robert Frost. Edited by Edward Connery Lathem. 1969.
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Thursday, November 27, 2014

A Very Special Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is a time to spend with family and friends.  That’s the way it always was when I was growing up; the thought of spending a Thanksgiving alone did not cross my mind when I was young.  I never missed a Thanksgiving with my family until I was twenty years old and attending university in Germany. 

The fourth Thursday of November (the 26th) in 1971 had no holiday importance in Freiburg. I attended my regular classes that day and in the afternoon walked to the local post office to place an overseas call hoping to catch my family celebrating Thanksgiving at home.  I waited for two hours to get a free line and no one answered when the phone finally rang back in Wisconsin.  The holiday and home seemed awfully far away as I walked back to my apartment that evening.  No turkey.  No stuffing with gravy.  No cranberry sauce.  No pumpkin pie.  I settled for a bowl of Hungarian goulash and a couple steins of beer at my favorite Stammtisch before hitting the books.

But all was not lost and I was not really alone.  Several other American students and I decided, if we could not be home for the holiday, we would at the very least celebrate Thanksgiving with each other on that Saturday (the 28th).  With the campus closed on the weekend we had made arrangements to use a meeting room with kitchen privileges.  Each of us was tasked with shopping trips and preparation assignments, and we each invited a German friend to share our very special thanksgiving with us.

I skipped the one class I had on Friday and a friend who had PX privileges and I made our way to the Freiburg Hauptbahnhof where we caught a train north to Karlsruhe. We changed to another train to the main station in Stuttgart, and from there we took a local train out to Vaihingen where we visited the US Army commissary at Patch Barracks.  We purchased two large (well, large for Germany) frozen turkeys, a few cans of cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie filling (at the time these items were nowhere to be found back in Freiburg), and a few other items that reminded us of home.  I took the opportunity to pick up several boxes of Aunt Jemima pancake mix and large bottles of Log Cabin syrup to stock my own larder.  Who knew when I would next make it back up to Stuttgart?  We were soon retracing our route back to Freiburg where we arrived late in the evening, the turkeys already beginning to thaw.

Early the next morning I brought the defrosted turkeys to our meeting room and all of us began our preparations for the feast to come.   Having been partially responsible for the acquisition of the turkeys, the task of cooking the birds also fell to me and I used my family’s rules of thumb - cook the stuffing separate from the birds and baste only at the very end of the roasting time.  Thankfully we had an oven large enough to accommodate the turkeys, a small ham, and the pans of stuffing.

Everything was ready by mid-afternoon when we sat down to eat.  I was given the honor of carving the birds and slicing the ham.  A short prayer of thanksgiving was offered up and we toasted our absent families and friends, as well as our new friends who had come to join us.   Better yet, a  gentle snow fell throughout the afternoon which helped us enjoy the holiday spirit.  We ate and drank until we could eat and drink no more, and it was late evening by the time I made my way back through the snow to my apartment and fell into bed.

The following day, the 29th, was Totensonntag, the last Sunday before the beginning of Advent.  A mostly German Protestant celebration for the deceased, it is similar to the Catholic celebration of Allerheiligen and Allerseelen (All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day) at the beginning of November.  It is normally a day of silence and churches forego music in their traditional liturgy.  The bells of the Lutheran church a block away from my apartment, which normally began to ring early each Sunday and went on for quite some time, did not ring that day.  Still, I managed to arise from bed without the aid of that cacophonous carillon, and after a few cups of coffee to declinate my internal compass and regain my orientation after a night of tryptophan-induced foodmares, I walked through the new fallen snow to the campus to clean up from the day before.  A few others also showed up and we warmed up the leftovers and had a second feast before putting everything back in order. 

That following Monday I returned to my classes and in the late afternoon I made my way again to the post office hoping I might reach my family.  I requested an overseas line, and after another long wait for a connection, I heard that familiar ring of an American telephone.  My dad was still at work, but I had a nice chat with my mother with whom I had not spoken for over three months.  She told me all about the first  holiday celebration I had missed at home, and I told her about my very special Thanksgiving, perhaps the first one when I fully understood the meaning of giving thanks for what I had long taken for granted.  Home suddenly didn’t seem all that far away.

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Saturday, November 22, 2014

I Remember It Like It Was Yesterday

November 22nd is a date that causes me to linger for a moment or two whenever I look at a calendar.   I think back to that Friday afternoon sitting in Mr. Ballard’s math class at David Millard Junior High School, in Asheville, North Carolina.   The principal came on the intercom and told us that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas.  The rumors and guessing began almost immediately. Was the story true? Had the President been wounded? Was he dead? We could not believe that the reports we were hearing were true. Soon enough we learned that they were. I was sitting in art class when the teacher left the room for a minute or two only to return with tears in her eyes. She did not have to tell us anything more.  The principal’s voice returned on the intercom and told us all to go home to be with our families.  All of this was difficult for a 12 year old boy to fathom. What happens now?

Commenting on a previous anniversary of that portentous event, Walter Shapiro reminded us that “memories of that terrible weekend are an inescapable part of who I am today.”  I look at the calendar today and I have to agree with him.  They are impossible memories to erase.  On that day 51 years ago the America we had come to know became a little less recognizable, and we are all the poorer for it.

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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

I Am One of Miss Dawn's Little Sponges - Part 2 of Memories from the Left Edge of America

This is the second of a four posting series, “Memories from the Left Edge of America” series.

I still have very vivid memories of living in Redondo Beach, in the South Bay area of greater Los Angeles, in the mid 1950s.  Back in April 2011 I posted some recollections of running the grunion with my folks and their friends along Redondo Beach - my most viewed post to date.  “I was a young buck then, the scourge of Miss Dawn’s nursery school, and surely I was making up the whole thing . After all, I used to stand in front of the picture window in our living room watching the nighttime glow of wildfires burning in Malibu and Topanga Canyon across the bay and thinking that China was on fire. What did I know?” [ ].

During a road trip through California last fall I returned to Redondo Beach to see if I could locate some places still seared into my memory so many decades later.  Driving around I got a sense of the place I once lived, but so much that was there in the 1950s is gone now.  The old apartment complex along Palos Verdes Boulevard where we lived has been replaced by a more modern collection of condominiums.  The view of the Pacific Ocean is still there, however, but there is a great deal of newer residential housing between there and the beach where we use to run the grunion.  The old Fisherman’s Wharf extending out from the beach is not how I remember it, and the Ralphs grocery store where my mom use to shop is gone although the tall Washingtonia palms still line much of Catalina Avenue.  I wandered down to 211 Avenue I where Miss Dawn’s School was situated a block east of South Catalina Avenue just a short distance from the Pacific Ocean.  The old pink cinder block building that was my school has been replaced by small shops along this commercial strip.  To quote Thomas Wolfe: “But why had he always felt so strongly the magnetic pull of home, why had he thought so much about it and remembered it with such blazing accuracy, if it did not matter, and if this little town, and the immortal hills around it, was not the only home he had on earth? He did not know. All that he knew was that the years flow by like water, and that one day men come home again.”  It did matter.  Gone were the swimming pool and the playground.  You can go home again, but there are no guarantees it will be how you remember it.

To avoid hitting the evening LA rush hour traffic back toward San Diego on the final leg of my road trip, I decided to stop for a bite to eat.  A nice looking sushi place on Avenue I was closed and so I asked around for a good seafood joint.  I was quickly directed to a fairly nondescript strip mall on Palos Verdes Boulevard just a few blocks away from my nostalgic wanderings.  Gina Lee’s Bistro (at #211 . . . happen chance? ) specializes in Asian fusion dishes and the menu is heavy on seafood.  Always a plus in my book although I was sad to see there was no offering of grunion . . . that would have been almost too much to hope for.  I arrived shortly after it opened and was able to get a table without a reservation.  I was lucky because the place quickly filled up.  Obviously this is a popular place despite its simple outward appearance wedged between a jeweler and a hair salon.  The restaurant itself was a large, open room with several tables and an open kitchen.  Always a nice touch although it can make for a lot of ambient noise and this was certainly the case here once the place filled up  The dishes were a bit pricey but I was told they were worth it.  In the end I had no complaint about the food or the service.  It was a decent meal.

This meal was special not for the food or the atmosphere; it was the serendipity of my coming to this place during my journey into my past.  One of the dishes on the menu was “Evelyn Dawn’s Potato-Crusted Salmon” which was served with sauteed vegetables and a dill cream sauce.  I inquired whether the woman for whom the dish was named might possibly be identical with Miss Dawn, one of my first teachers just a few blocks and so many years away.  In fact, they are the same.  The dish was named in honor of Miss Dawn, a regular patron, after her passing several years ago.  There is also a framed photograph of her hanging in the restaurant.  Perhaps my being directed here is what Thomas Wolfe called one of those "dark miracles of chance that make new magic in a dusty world.”

Just recently I was looking through an old family album for some old “Throw Back Thursday” photos of myself to post on Facebook when I came across two photographs taken on my fifth birthday, in March 1956, when I was attending Miss Dawn’s School.  I also found a progress report dating from January 1956 and signed by Evelyn Dawn, the school’s proprietor, and my teacher Zelma Seekford.  “He cooperates well in group play and is well liked by the other children,” wrote Ms. Seekford.  “He is willing to share the toys, and other equipment, and has quickly learned to be a part of all the activities.”  High praise for I am quite sure I could be quite the rapscallion some of my later teachers described to my parents.  Perhaps Ms. Seekford recognized my impishness with her antepenultimate praise of my “outstanding creative ability.”  Unfortunately it was not always used for good.  Thinking back on that time I grew curious about whatever happened to Miss Seekford and Miss Dawn, my very first teachers who played a major role in setting me on the path to my own adventures in education.  A couple quick “Google searches” and I discovered that both of these women had long, productive lives and careers in education.

Evelyn Dawn Thomas was born in Long Beach in 1907 and was raised in Glendale.  Educated at the University of California, she used "Miss Dawn" as her professional name throughout her career in education in the Los Angeles area.  She established her first school - “Miss Dawn’s School - in Manhattan Beach, California, and in 1953 she opened a second new preschool, which also included two swimming pools, on Avenue I in Redondo Beach.  Eventually, in 1961, she realized her vision of a primary school, establishing the Rolling Hills Country Day School on the nearby Palos Verdes peninsula.  By 1968 it included kindergarten through Grade 8.  Miss Dawn believed her little charges were “like little sponges ready to soak up everything."  By the time I left the pre-school at age five I could already read and was beginning to write in cursive.  I was sad to learn that Miss Dawn passed away in 2000 at the age of 93.

Zelma Seekford was originally from west-central Ohio, where she was born in June 1912.  She attended Wittenberg University in nearby Springfield where she received her teaching certificate before moving to the Los Angeles area where her husband worked as a mortician in Santa Monica and she taught at Miss Dawn’s School in Redondo Beach.  She and her husband eventually returned to Ohio where she continued to teach elementary school until her retirement.  She passed away in 2007 at the age of 95.

My Google searches also took me to an interesting reference to the salmon dish I enjoyed at Gina Lee’s Bistro at 211 Palos Verdes Boulevard nearly a year ago.  Scott and Gina Lee, the proprietors, said of the salmon dish: “This is a crowd favorite. Lots of people remember ‘Miss Dawn’ . . . She came in the restaurant nearly daily and always had the salmon professing that the omega 3 fatty acids kept her going at top speed. We’ve had former students and teachers come in and marvel that she lives on our menu.”  So it was indeed serendipity that I happened to have dinner there during my search for an old childhood haunt.

I hope that Miss Dawn and Miss Seekford are looking down with smiles on their faces and secure in the knowledge that the short time I spent in their care paid off in the long run.  "Teachers teach because they care,” wrote the education reformer Horace Mann. “Teaching young people is what they do best. It requires long hours, patience, and care."  I am certain I benefited from my time at Miss Dawn’s School.  "The dream begins, most of the time,” say Dan Rather, “with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you on to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called truth."   I am thankful for the careful prodding of Evelyn Dawn and Zelma Seekford.

My fifth birthday, March 1956, Redondo Beach, California

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Monday, October 20, 2014

Tail o’ the Pup May Live Again - Part 1 of Memories from the Left Edge of America

Photo by Gary Leonard, Los Angeles Public Library Collection
Dad and Me at Kiddieland, 1956
This is the first of four postings of my “Memories from the Left Edge of America” series.

I just read that the family of Eddie Blake, the last owner of Tail o’ the Pup, the iconic Los Angeles hotdog stand, is selling the trademark, recipes and the newly renovated facade, with bids starting at $200,000.  A pretty sweet deal, if you ask me.  The story also refreshed some very distant memories that flooded back to me a year ago during a trip through California.  But I am getting ahead of myself.

The 17-foot wiener-in-a-bun hotdog facade was designed by the architect Milton J. Black in 1938, and the stand was opened in 1946 on North LaCienega Boulevard, in West Hollywood.  That was the boondocks back then.  During its early years the Tail o’ the Pup was located adjacent to Beverly Park and Playland (aka Kiddieland), a small amusement park on an acre of land leased from a local oil company at the corner of Beverly and LaCienega and opened around the same time.  Kiddieland had all the standard rides of the era and was a precursor to Disneyland which opened in nearby Anaheim in the summer of 1955.

Eddie Blake purchased the stand in the early 1970s from its original owners and it continued to operate at the LaCienega address until 1986.  With the closing of Beverley Park and Kiddieland in 1974, and the opening of the new Beverley Center Mall on the site in the early 1980s, Blake and his son Dennis were forced to move their stand a very short distance to North San Vincente Boulevard and small piece of land leased from the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center which opened at this location in 1955 and where countless Hollywood and recording legends breathed their last.  The Tail o’ the Pup’s star-studded reopening in 1986 was emceed by Jay Leno (before his Tonight Show days).  Despite it iconic status and its popularity with the known and the unknown - it is rumored that Barbara Streisand and many other celebrities were dedicated fans and the stand has been a location in a few Hollywood films - and regardless of its designation as a cultural landmark by the City of Los Angeles,

the Tail o’ the Pup finally closed in 2005 when a developer purchased the property where the stand was last located.  Since closing, the familiar wiener and bun facade has been gathering dust in a suburban warehouse.  Dennis Blake planned to reopen once a suitable new location could be found in Westwood Village, but his vision never materialized.  Now, almost a decade later, the stand remains in mothballs and its future is as yet unknown.  Dennis passed away in late 2013 and a new owner is being sought by the Blake family with a promise to bring the Tail o’ the Pup back to life at a yet to be determined new location . . . hopefully in or around LA. 

It would be nice to see the Tail o’ the Pup come back to life somewhere close to where it once stood as a familiar and treasured landmark for six decades.  I visited Los Angeles last November and tried to locate it not knowing it had closed in 2005 (I had last eaten there in 1974 shortly before Kiddieland closed).  The area is totally unrecognizable now to anyone who knew it back in the 1950s and 1960s when it was fairly undeveloped and covered with hundreds of oil wells.  Today it is the almost boundless urban sprawl that is greater Los Angeles, the underground wells still pumping under the modern Beverly Center complex at LaCienega and Beverley Boulevard.

I have spent very little time in LA since moving away in the summer of 1956, but I still have distant and fuzzy memories of Kiddieland and the Tail o’ the Pup.  There were occasional weekend outings from our home in Redondo Beach near the Pacific Palisades.  Disneyland had recently opened but it was a bit pricey compared to Kiddieland.  The original Disney main
gate admission price was one dollar, but that just got you
inside.  Once there you had to pay an additional 10-15 cent entrance fee at each individual attraction in the park.  (Just so you know, the current daily entrance fee is $96 per person! . . . plus $17 to park.)  It was new and always crowded on the weekends.   Kiddieland was about the same distance from where we lived and without the long lines.  There were plenty of rides, cotton candy and other snacks.  There were also ponies to ride, and of course, there was Tail o’ the Pup nearby for hotdogs.   I can still taste them fifty-six years later . . . and this is why I went looking for the place on my last visit to LA only to find it and Kiddieland long gone.  I was not terribly surprised.  Nothing seems to last forever.

So imagine my pleasure to learn that Tail o’ the Pup still exists and is only looking for a new owner and a new home.  Perhaps I will once again have an opportunity to trip down memory lane on my next visit to LA.  I can smell and taste one of those dogs as I write this.  It will be well worth the wait.  

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Friday, October 10, 2014

Autumn Coming and Going and Coming Again

“These golden weakes that do lye between the thunderous heates of summer and the windy gloomes of winter.”   – Anonymous

I agree with the American naturalist and photographer Edwin Way Teale.  “Nowhere in the world is autumn more beautiful than in America.  I can never write enough good things about autumn; it is my favorite season of the year.”  Mine, too.  There is really no competition on this score.

Donald Hall, who has spent a great many of his eighty-plus years on a farm in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, has written eloquently on its seasons, describing autumn in northern New England as both “gorgeous and ominous.”  The brilliant flaring fall colors “prophesy white frozen winter” which is only a few short weeks in the future.  To put it more succinctly, “[w]e inhabit the landscape’s brightest and briefest flesh . . . the pomp is brief, abrupt, and poignant.  But Autumn is always poignant.”

I am always keeping my eyes open for that first suggestion of autumn.  I spend my summers in Maine, and come August, just three short months after the trees begin to leaf out in spring, there are always a few maples with branch tips beginning to flare red.  It seems a bit curious to be swimming in a small lake while trees bordering its shores are already exhibiting the first flashes of color bespeaking the colder temperatures and cooling waters that can’t be that far off. 

September is the month when one feels what Truman Capote called the “first ripple chills of autumn,” when the fall colors arrive in earnest in northern New England.  The first to turn are the swampmaples and popple in low wet areas.  Then come the various shades of reds, oranges and russet among the red and sugar maples, scarlet oak, and sumac; the ash trees’ deep purple; the yellows among the popple, birch and willows; and finally the more subtle tans and browns among the oak, beech, and sycamore.  With these early chills the color increases almost daily in its proportions and brilliance. The leaf peepers also arrive around mid-month; they come, they look, and they are gone again by mid-October.  They have little understanding of the full evolution of a northern New England autumn.  It’s too bad they are unable or unwilling to experience its entire range and spectrum, from the onset of color as well as its evanescence.  I honestly believe that autumn is no more colorful, nor more awe-inspiring, than it is in these northern climes.  For this reason alone I always try to postpone my annual trip south until after the autumn colors have reached their zenith. 

With the onset of the killing frosts of October the season is better disposed to the arrival of winter.  Cold rains will mute the colors, and as they fade, the leaves will quickly forsake the trees and fall to the ground much too soon.  Not all of the leaves will fall, however.  A few drained of their color will continue to flutter through the stiffening gusts of winter.  No surrender.

It is not uncommon for snow to fall by Halloween, first at the higher latitudes and elevations, but quickly enough snow is common place when November arrives.  The leaves are raked against foundations for insulation as houses and out buildings are tucked up for the winter.  The calendar may say it's still autumn, but our senses tell us something different.  Truly a touching end to the briefest and most poignant of seasons.

A couple of years ago I was able to enjoy an extended autumn season, watching as it  arrived in many diverse locales stretching from the Canadian Maritimes to Florida’s Gulf Coast.  I saw the first golden leaves of autumn in stands of birch as I crossed the Cobequid Hills in western Nova Scotia in the early days of August.  Later that month, and into the early days of September I watched the autumn hues intensify throughout the mountains of northern New Hampshire and western Maine while the woodlands around our summer cottage on Sabbathday Lake, in southern Maine, were just beginning to turn.  The autumn foliage had reached peak color there by the time I departed in the early days of October to drive home to Maryland.  But autumn’s colors were not yet over.  In fact, they had hardly begun for much of the United States.

The variety of colors and their intensities ebbed the farther south I drove through Massachusetts and into Connecticut.   There was some color here and there as I passed around New York City and ventured further south into New Jersey, but by the time I reached Delaware and Maryland, the greens of spring and summer had faded somewhat, and in some places had begun to yellow.  Autumn had not yet arrived in earnest.   A short time later I drove along the Eastern Seaboard to northern Florida and there was hardly a trace of autumn to be seen anywhere.  When I returned to Maryland in late October, however, I began to see colors turning deeper and more brilliant the farther north I drove.  Once again this year I have seen the peak colors of a New England autumn only to return to Maryland to watch as they arrive again.  What more can one ask for during his favorite season of the year?

I have been lucky enough to see autumn come and go and come again.  Stay in one place, however, and Hall’s dictum proves correct every time.  The flash and fury of autumn is far too brief.  But always poignant as I fend off those “windy gloomes of winter.”

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Thursday, October 9, 2014

Trying to Remember Crabby Appleton

I recently read Barbara Kingsolver’s essay, “Hide Tide in Tucson,” in which she describes, among other things, how a hermit crab came to reside in her home in the Arizona desert.  Disappointed that her young daughter had not accompanied her on a trip to the Bahamas where she would have certainly enjoyed the varied seascapes, Kingsolver decided to do what her daughter would have done had she come . . . she collected sea shells to show her when she returned home.  Unbeknownst to her, a hermit crab stowed away in a whelk shell and announced its presence when Kingsolver arrayed the shells over her  dining room table when she returned home.  Deciding they would keep it, and unable to determine its gender let alone locate and inspect its genitalia, they named it Buster and housed it in a terrarium fitted out with clean gravel and a variety of shells from which Buster could select a new redoubt once he/she had outgrown the old one.

Reading this essay, I dredged up some memories almost forty years old, recollecting the time when SallyAnn and I shared our own Tucson apartment with a hermit crab named Crabby Appleton.  Certainly a more androgynous moniker than Buster.  Any of you who watched “Tom Terrific” cartoons on Saturday morning back in the day will understand where the name came from.  It seemed clever at the time although our hermit crab was in no way “rotten to the core.”  It was a crab, after all, and it liked to eat pieces of apple proffered to it.  In fact, it seemed to eat just about anything you put in front of it.  We could have named him/her Manfred the Wonder Crab, but that would not have made any sense would it?

We came by our hermit crab in a far more pedestrian manner than finding it on a beach in the Bahamas.  Ours came from a pet store in suburban Milwaukee where we had gone to spend the Christmas holidays in 1975 and to celebrate our first anniversary.  I can no longer recall why we decided to purchase a hermit crab or the circumstances by which the transaction was completed.  Suffice it to say that only two of us flew from Tucson to Milwaukee while three of us made the return trip (with a few days in Tulsa, Oklahoma along the way) early in the new year.  Once we were back home we purchased a small terrarium which would be Crabby’s home for the six more months we lived in Tucson.

Like Buster, Crabby was “quiet, entertaining, and willing to eat up the trash.”  He fell into his own daily routines, and like Kingsolver, SallyAnn and I moved about our own without ever wondering how our little friend might be faring in his/her strange surroundings.  Crabby was a hermit crab pure and simple; mucking about the terrarium, moving things here and there, or retreating into his/her shell for long periods of time and doing and thinking whatever hermit crabs do and think.

Not that long after we brought Crabby to Arizona to live with us we took on two more boarders . . . gerbils we named Sundance and Moonshadow . . . in our shoebox-sized apartment barely large enough to accommodate our own modest belongings let alone a terrarium and gerbil habitat.  I am not sure what we were thinking, but this is all water long under the bridge.   Unlike Crabby, the boys (I think they were males) were by their very nature more energetic and had distinct personalities, and we found ourselves more interested in their activities while Crabby sulked (I can only imagine that is what he/she was doing) in his/her glass enclosed home.  The gerbils would scamper around their cage and run the wheels for what seemed like hours on end.  Such was the Rogers household in Tucson in the spring and early summer of 1976.

Soon came the time, however, when we had to make preparations for a transcontinental move from Arizona to the environs of Washington, DC.  In the scramble to tie loose ends in Tucson, we never came to terms with the future disposition of our house mates.  Were they going to Maryland with us?  I can no longer recall whether we actually tried to find new homes for them or not.  I do remember that once the movers had left in the late afternoon to begin their eastward trek with almost all of our worldly possessions, there was a terrarium and a gerbil cage wedged into the back seat of our ‘72 Chevy Vega (remember those?) along with what we would need for our own slow journey across the country with a few stops along the way.  The sun was setting in Tucson and the temperature was still over 100F, and there was SallyAnn using her plant sprayer to keep the guys cool as we headed toward Albuquerque on the first leg of our trip.

Kingsolver never said what eventually became of Buster; the hermit crab found in the Bahamas and brought to Arizona would serve as a metaphor for her own move from her native Kentucky to Arizona.  I wish there is more I can say about the saga of Crabby Appleton; the months in Arizona and his/her new Maryland home, one perhaps closer to the ocean yet still too far to away to encourage an escape to a more familiar habitat (crabitat?).  Any recollections are now hopelessly blurred by almost four decades.  At some point soon after settling in Maryland Crabby, Sundance and Moonshadow shed this mortal coil.  Yes, distant and faded memories only now dredged up for contemplation . . . and I am not really sure why, but there you have it.  I have searched for my own metaphor to assign to a long forgotten hermit crab but I just can’t seem to dredge up anything significant.  Crabby was briefly a part of our lives and then he wasn’t.  So perhaps he/she was a metaphor for the transitory nature of existence?  Yeah, that’s the ticket.

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Saturday, October 4, 2014

Blessed by the Spirit of the Lake - Dispatches from Maine

We have once again been touched by the spirit of Sabbathday Lake, having been summoned back here annually for almost three decades.  There is something magical about this place.  We are truly blessed by the spirit of the lake.

This year we arrived in the waning days of June.  Summer had just begun and the lake was ringed by trees in various shades of green.  Tomorrow we depart for our other home in Maryland and many of those same trees are now a rich palette of golds, reds and yellows.  Autumn has always been my favorite season and I am fortunate when I have the opportunity to enjoy it here on the shores of Sabbathday Lake.  We are truly blessed by the spirit of the lake.

Sabbathday Lake and New Gloucester, Maine have become our home away from home.  The time we spend here is not a vacation in the traditional sense of the word; we are simply living here much as we live in Maryland.  We have become a part of the community here.  We are truly blessed by the spirit of the lake.

It is sad to say farewell to our friends and neighbors in Maine, most of whom we will not see again until next June when we once again head to these northern climes.  We will cherish their friendship throughout the year and we will look forward to seeing them again when we return to this special place.  We are truly blessed by the spirit of the lake.

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Monday, September 29, 2014

Unexpected Treats - Dispatches from Maine

One of the things I enjoy about my regular trips to northern New England is the access to foods that are not readily available back home in Maryland, or have been so adulterated by local variations that they neither taste nor look like what I have come to expect up here. Add to this the fact that more often than not the local bastardizations are significantly more expensive.

Of course there is the ubiquitous Maine lobster which is always easy to find here in Maine and relatively inexpensive, if you buy it direct from a lobster pound along the coast (and for a few dollars more most of them will cook it for you along with a side of steamed clams and an ear of fresh Maine farm corn).  Then there are your lobster rolls, lobster stew, lobster bisque, lobster salad . . . you get the idea.  The indigenous soft-shelled clams referred to almost universally as “steamers” are normally plentiful and inexpensive during the summer months and can be a meal unto themselves.  There are  local mussels, but not to be missed are the large, sea-tangy oysters harvested from several Mid-Coast tidal rivers and estuaries.  I come from Maryland where we have long taken pride in our Chesapeake Bay oysters, but I will be the first to admit that they do not hold a candle lit on both ends to those taken from the Damariscotta River.  Finally, let us not forget Maine blueberry cobbler, early summer strawberries dipped in chocolate, and the omnipresent Whoopie Pies for dessert.  And you can wash everything down with a wide variety of local micro-brewed beers, or if you so prefer, a bottle or can of Moxie.

There are a few other unexpected treats, non-indigenous foods found from time to time in northern New England which are rare if not all together unavailable elsewhere in the United States.  One of the most common is the Québécois dish known as poutine [poo-TIN].  Regular readers of this blog have been treated to a number of postings about my particular affinity for this concoction of fried potatoes covered with melted cheese curds and thick beef gravy.  You can find genuine poutine (it must use cheese curds) in many restaurants, especially those close to the Québec border, or in areas in New England where Québec visitors tend to congregate (Old Orchard Beach, in Maine, and New Hampshire’s Hampton Beach come immediately to mind).  Cheese curds can also be found in many grocery stores so that you can make it at home.  More recently poutine has taken on a certain cachet and one can now find it elsewhere in Canada and the United States.  Québec also offers us Chinese pie (also know as pâté au chinois here in Maine and simply pâté chinois in Québec), a meat pie similar to shepherd’s pie that is often found here in our area of Maine where Quebeckers settled to work in the now defunct textile mills along the Androscoggin and Saco rivers.  Tourtières, a pork pie from Québec traditionally served around Christmas and the New Year, can also be found in the Franco-American communities in Maine and elsewhere in northern New England.  Another Québécois dish in this tradition is cretons [crew-TŌN], a pork pâté similar to the French rillette made from pork scraps left over from butchering which are then cooked in water or milk and mixed with soy, salt and pepper, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, allspice, onion and garlic (similar to the spice mix used in tourtières). Served cold and spread over toast or an English muffin, it is a popular breakfast dish throughout La Belle Province, and if one searches in earnest, it can be found in Maine and New Hampshire.

Another treat you don’t necessarily have to cross the border for is the smoked meats often associated with, but in no way limited to, the established Jewish and Eastern European communities in Montréal, just a very few hours northwest of us here on Sabbathday Lake.  It is not uncommon to find these smoked meats in grocery stores and markets in this part of Maine with its multi-generation Franco-American communities.  I will admit that these smoked meats always taste better when acquired warm and fresh from a Montréal delicatessen, but you should not be fussy if you can find them on this side of the border.   You just have to keep your eyes peeled.  One cannot fathom the excitement when I discover a new meat emporium regardless of where it is located.

This past week I discovered two of them in the Midcoast region here in Maine, both of them less than an hour’s drive from the lake.  Talked about unexpected treats!  The first is Morse’s Kraut Haus, on State Route 220 in rural North Nobleboro; the other is Maurice Bonneau’s Sausage Kitchen on Main Street In Lisbon Falls.  Morse’s has been around for almost a century, while the Sausage Kitchen was established in 1995.,
The former is a product of the central and east European settlements in Lincoln County during the 19th century; the latter inspired by Bonneau whose parents emigrated from Québec in the 1930s just a few years before he was born in Lewiston and where he was raised to become a prominent meatcutter working along side his father.

Virgil Morse began producing and selling sauerkraut in and around Waldoboro in the years leading up to the First World War, and he established Morse’s Sauerkraut, in 1918.  The operation has been in a barn at its current location just up the road in Nobleboro since 1953.  The present owners took over the business in 2000, using the Morse family recipe for sauerkraut while beginning to produce sour garlic and sour mustard pickles.  A small European-style restaurant with five high-back booths and featuring fresh-made perogies, Sauerbraten, cabbage rolls, Späetzle, schnitzels, borscht, and their signature Reuben was added in 2002.  A specialty market and delicatessen were added a year later and it sells a wide variety of cheeses and meats, local artisan breads, mustards, canned and pickled fish, and a cornucopia of spices and seasonings.  Of course, there is also their fresh homemade sauerkraut and pickles.  After lunch (a selection of wurst served on a bed of piping hot slow-cooked sauerkraut flecked with bacon, onions and juniper berries, I wandered through the market eyeing the mouth-watering display of sausages and meats.  It was a minor disappointment to learn that the charcuterie is not local; it is produced by Schaller & Weber in New York City’s Yorkville neighborhood.  Still, I had to remind myself that these first-rate meats are available in a rural barn in Maine.  Beggars need not be picky.

A couple days later we were driving through nearby Lisbon Falls when I spied Maurice  Bonneau’s Sausage Kitchen.  I drive this stretch of Main Street every summer, but this is the first time I recall seeing it.  I had to stop, and I was not disappointed.  The meat counter was loaded with packages of uncooked sausages and other meat products, including ham, bacon, and Québécois-style pork pies - tourtières which are made year round but are much in demand during the Christmas season - made fresh on site by Bonneau and two of his sons.  The Sausage Kitchen is obviously proud of the quality of their meat products, using only all-natural meats (no growth hormones or antibiotics) which are vegetarian-fed and humanely raised and slaughtered.  “My Wurst is Best” claims the sign near the entrance to the shop.  There is a virtual United Nations of sausages to choose from – German Bratwurst and Mettwurst, Cajun andouille, chorizo, Spanish-Creole chaurice, Greek loukaniko, Polish kielbasa, Potuguese linguica, English bangers and so much more.  Happily I noted that Bonneau’s Québec roots are evident in his meat counter.  There are packages of Canadian-style pork breakfast link  sausage flavored with salt, white pepper, ground and rubbed sage, ginger, nutmeg, allspice, thyme, cayenne pepper and parsley with natural maple sugar added for that special flavor.  My happiest discovery was cretons; this is the first place I have found it in Maine in a long time.  Bonneau has polished up the recipe, using only lean, ground pork shoulder instead of scraps. I left the shop with some, as well as a package of trail sticks (they look like Slim Jims but taste oh so much better!), and a hunk of Landjäger (a German MRE), most of which was gone by the end of the day.

I look forward to returning to both of these establishments when we return to Maine next summer.  Thankfully Bonneau’s is not far away and I plan to visit there again next week before we head back to Maryland.  I may just take some of these unexpected treats home with me.

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Thursday, September 25, 2014

“Get Busy Living or Get Busy Dying”: Witnessing Redemption at a Modern Day Shawshank - Dispatches from Maine

Tim Robbins, in The Shawshank Redemption

For several summer we have driven US Route One up the coast of Maine from Kittery to the Canadian border.  This is a heavily traveled corridor, and although it has its moments of breathtaking beauty, for the most part it is a series of small and larger towns with their traffic lights, strip malls, auto dealerships, tourist clap-trap and the like.  In other words, mostly forgettable.  It is a shame, but that is the truth of the matter.  It is way to get where you need to go and not much more.

One notable exception was always the town of Thomaston near where the St. George River flows into the Gulf of Maine.  It has a pleasant little downtown with red brick buildings, stately Victorian homes and lots of trees.  What caught your attention, however, or at least until 2002, was a large and imposing stone edifice standing along US Route 1 on the edge of downtown - the Maine State Prison.  It was in 2002 when it  was closed and demolished after the prison population had been transferred a few miles away to a modern larger facility in Warren.  In a day and age when so many would be happy not to have a maximum security correctional facility in their backyard, the state prison had long been synonymous with Thomaston and many of the townspeople were sorry to see it leave.    

The prison was originally constructed in Thomaston in 1824, just four years after Maine separated from Massachusetts to become a state of its own.  Built on what was then called Limestone Hill, many of the inmates worked in the adjacent quarries and on area farms.  The original prison burned in 1923 and was replaced by that imposing structure I came to recognize on frequent trips through Thomaston.  But now it too is gone; an ever distant memory.  Today the site of the old prison is a large, grassy field, but a corner of the original outer wall has been preserved to remind people what once stood there in the heart of Thomaston . . . that and the Maine Prison Store and Showroom on Main Street adjacent to the site of the old prison. 

Our visits to Thomaston over the years have usually included a stop at the Prison Store where we marvel at a large selection of wooden boxes of all sizes and shapes, cutting boards and other kitchen items, cribbage boards, toys and various wooden products, including tables, chairs, and other furniture items crafted by the inmates in the prison workshops.  Simple in design, most everything evidences quality workmanship . . . at very reasonable prices.  The store is run by Department of Corrections officers assisted by inmate trustees who carefully wrap and bag each purchase.  I am always struck by how friendly, polite and personable each of the CO’s and inmates are.  When my son was much younger he was fascinated by the inmates working in the store, often admiring their evocative tattoos.  These men are clearly proud of the workmanship of the items for sale and their opportunities to interact with the customers.  I have always come away with a good feeling that those who find themselves incarcerated, for whatever reason, are being trained with marketable skills and able to feel that, when the time comes, they will be able to enjoy useful and productive lives and careers on the outside.

I freely admit that these frequent yet brief visits to the Prison Store in Thomaston have been my only exposure to the Maine State Prison system.  Well, that is not completely true.  I have also seen the 1994 Frank Darabont film, The Shawshank Redemption, based of Stephen King’s novella, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption (1982).
The film tells the story of Andy Dufresne, a banker from Maine played by Tim Robbins, who is convicted of a double murder in 1947 and sentenced to life in the fictional Shawshank Prison (references to this prison are found in several of King's fictional works).  There he meets Red, another lifer played by Morgan Freeman, and they form an odd yet interesting alliance as they both try to cope with their incarceration in different ways.  There is, however, a major difference between them besides the color of their skin.  Andy believes he is innocent and falsely imprisoned.  Red knows he is guilty of the crime for which he was convicted yet continues to tell the parole board to no avail that he has been rehabilitated knowing full well it is probably not true.  Red paints for Andy a rather hopeless future for the inmates of Shawshank; “when they put you in that cell . . . and those bars slam home . . . that’s when you know it’s for real.  A whole life blown away in the blink of an eye.  Nothing left but all the time in the world to think about it.”  But Andy, despite his pleas of innocence, refuses to give up hope (the subtitle of the novella is “Hope Springs Eternal”).  “Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”  If you are able to keep hope alive, even while incarcerated with little chance of parole, there is a small piece of freedom no one can ever take away from you.  Andy establishes a prison library and helps other inmates get their high school diplomas.  This is Andy’s redemption; he is able to preserve his integrity and self-worth when confronted by what almost anyone would believe to be a hopeless situation.  Perhaps in his own way Red see the wisdom in this.  “Like I said, a man will do anything to keep his mind occupied.” 

A couple days ago I had my own personal Shawshank moment, a chance to see beyond the walls of the new Maine State Prison in Warren.  A good friend of mine and fellow historian who teaches at the University of Maine at Augusta, and who for the past three years has taught classes in the Maine State Prison College Program administered by the University College of Rockland, invited me to speak to his class in Holocaust studies.  Over the years I have spoken to other classes he has taught elsewhere and I was more than happy to oblige a good friend.  A two-hour drive from our summer place on the lake, I was up at the crack of dawn for that very familiar drive up US Route One.  I was able to enjoy a palette of autumn colors once the sun rose above the Gulf of Maine before I arrived at the new prison facility in Warren.

There was no doubt I was in a maximum security prison.  I was limited as far as what I could take in with me, I was issued a visitor’s identity card and a “man down device,” a personal safety alarm I could use if I ever felt my safety had been compromised.  We were escorted through a series of secure doors having to sign in each time.  Once in the interior courtyard ringed with high fences topped with coils of razor-sharp concertina wire, we were escorted to the nearby education building.  Inside it looked like many schools I have walked through in my time . . . offices, classrooms, a gymnasium.   Still, there was no forgetting where I was.  All one had to do was look through any window at the high fences and concertina wire.

Soon the inmates/students arrived in the classroom, most of them with smiles on their faces.  They seemed to be very happy to be there.  Many of them walked right up to me and shook my hand and told me how glad they were that I had come to speak to their class.  They took their seats, opened up their notebooks, and waited for me to say something.  They had come to learn.  They all had read a couple of my articles given to them earlier in the course, and after I spoke off the cuff for an hour or so I open the floor to questions.  Unlike many classrooms I have sat in front of where the students looked at their feet, or out the window, or worse yet, at me with vacant stares, these men came loaded for bear.  I was peppered with intelligent, well-formulated questions for the next hour or so . . . and it could have easily gone on for another hour or more.  As they filed out of classroom at the end of our session just about every one of them came up to me again to shake my hand and to thank me for coming.  I could honestly tell them that the pleasure was entirely mine.

My return to the outside world followed my entry in reverse.  Once again the fences and the concertina wire reminded me where I was.  I would be returning to my car and my trip back down US Route One to the lake.  The men with whom I had shared a fascinating and educating morning (for me as much as for them) would be returning to their cells.  At the end of the day there is no escaping the reality of their situation.

After we left the prison my friend and I shared lunch nearby and he told me a little more about the education program at the prison which offers a high school completion program and various vocational options, as well as a college program leading to Associates and Bachelors degrees in Liberal Studies granted by the University of Maine at Augusta.  The latter program is fully funded  through the Sunshine Lady Foundation established in 1996 by Doris Buffett, the sister of billionaire Warren Buffett, who is a strong believer in education as a means of reducing and eliminating recidivism.  The Maine State Prison is one of four maximum security prisons in the nation with full-tuition college programs funded by the Foundation; it does not cost the Maine taxpayer a single cent.  My friend also told me that those who have completed the college program in Warren and who were finally released have stayed on the outside.  It appears the program is working just fine.  The inmates chosen for the program undergo a rigorous selection process.  They learn because they want to learn.  Not to my surprise, my friend added that his students in the program are perhaps the finest and most motivated he has ever taught.  High praise indeed. 

Many of these men will remain incarcerated for a long time as they repay a debt to society whose laws they chose to violate.  And there is no doubt that many of them will face a rough road once they do get out.  There will always be those on the outside who will think these men are no better now than they were when they went in.  But they will know better.  Unlike Red in the film, they will realize their entire lives have not been blown away in the wink of an eye.  They will respect their self-worth and will know they have the education and the tools to make a go of it on the outside.  Better yet, they will do whatever it takes to make certain they never go back to the dead end that prison has meant for so many like Red who came before them who did not have the opportunities offered to them.

Perhaps it is too easy for those incarcerated to think they are lost.  Many remain angry men believing they have been locked away and forgotten, that there is no chance for any sort of redemption.  The men I met and talked with have made another choice, and probably the more difficult one.  They have taken a negative and are turning it into a positive.  Prison is not the end of the road, but the beginning of a new one.  In The Shawshank Redemption, Red tells Andy he doesn’t think he can ever make it on the outside.  But Andy knows better when faced with prison or freedom: “I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really. Get busy living or get busy dying.”  I had the honor of sharing a morning with a few men who have made that choice.  I wish each and every one of them all the success in the world when they rejoin it.

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Monday, September 22, 2014

300 Posts Since November 2008

Yesterday's posting of "Why I Am Boycotting Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer" marks the 300th posting to this blogspot since it inauguration on November 25, 2008.  I never in my wildest dreams thought I would still be doing this almost six years later.  I have been pleased with the results and to date there have been approximately 147,000 hits from 136 countries and territories on six continents.

If you are new to this blogspot, please take a few moments to check it out.  I post fairly regularly, and you might find some interesting links, photos, and other marginalia in the sidebar on the left.

Once again I wish to thank everyone who has visited my blogspot over the past six years and I hope you will continue to drop by to check out my latest random notes from the edge of America.  I think I am just getting started.

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Sunday, September 21, 2014

Why I Am Boycotting Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer - Dispatches from Maine

A couple of nights ago I stopped by Cloutier’s quick stop market in New Gloucester’s  Upper Village to pick up a couple 24 ounce  Pabst Blue Ribbon tall silos.  Regular readers of this blog may recall an earlier posting [“Living in the Past - Retro Beers,” August 13, 2010] in which I designated PBR as “my official ‘Beer of Summer.’”  To the chagrin of many, including my own son, I have always liked PBR, the “American Style Premium Lager,” long before it became hip and cool in more recent years.  I cut my beer drinking teeth on the stuff so many decades ago when both PBR and I both resided in Milwaukee.  And I have been drinking it ever since, even after both of us had departed the Cream City for warmer climes.  PBR and I go way back!

Yet something strange happened when I stopped to buy beer the other night.  I had already taken two PBR tall silos out of the beer cave when I suddenly returned them and retrieved another brand.  I am not really sure why, but I did.  The next day I read for the first time that Oasis Beverages, Russia’s largest “independent” international beverage producer, had announced the previous day that it had acquired Pabst Brewing Company from its Los-Angeles based owner for a reported $750 million dollars.  Although the exact details of the purchase have not yet been revealed, the previous owner in LA is making a nice half billion dollar profit on a four year investment. Included in the deal, along with PBR, are other well-known American brands - Lone Star, Schiltz, Old Milwaukee, Blatz, Rainier, Olympia, Old Style, Strohs, and Colt 45.  Christ, even Natty Bo and Schmidt’s are part of the deal!  Isn’t capitalism grand?  So perhaps it was kismet that I put those PBR tall silos back in the beer cave.  There was a change in the Force. 

In announcing the purchase, the chairman of Oasis Beverages called PBR “the quintessential American brand — it represents individualism, egalitarianism and freedom of expression — all the things that make this country [the USA] great.”  He added that “the opportunity to work with the company’s treasure trove of iconic brands . . . is a dream come true.”  Too bad there is so little individualism, egalitarianism and freedom of expression left in Putin’s Russia.  That dream died as he guides Russia back to one-man rule and its old expansionist ways.  Just ask the good people of Ukraine and the Crimea. 

Oasis Beverages was founded in Russia  in 2008, and it operates six breweries and soft drink plants there, as well as in Kazakhstan, Belarus, Ukraine, and throughout Eastern Europe.  The company produces several of its own brands of beers, juice and an energy drink, and it imports brands into Russia, including Heineken, Chimay and Perrier.  Oasis has promised that production will remain in Los Angeles.  “It will be an honor to work with Pabst’s dedicated employees and partner distributors as we continue to build the business.”  Maybe so, but PBR and the others included in the deal are no longer American beers in my book no matter how you look at them.  Even if they are brewed in the USA, buy one of them and the profits eventually go to Putin’s gang in Moscow.  I seldom if ever drink most of these beers, but I have been a faithful drinker of PBR over four decades . . . even when it moved out of Milwaukee . . . and believe me, that was bad enough.

Sorry to say but I will not drink another drop of this tainted brew.  Perhaps there is a silver lining in this dark cloud, however.  At least my son will no longer look at me with disappointment in his eye while questioning my taste in beer.

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Saturday, September 20, 2014

Watching George Watch Us - Dispatches from Maine

We have had a new neighbor this summer on True’s Point.  Actually he may have been here before but somehow he escaped our attention.  No longer; there is no way to miss him this year.  I am not speaking of someone residing in one of the handful of seasonal cottages here on the eastern shoreline of Sabbathday Lake.  I am talking about George, an Eastern chipmunk, who has taken up residence under our main deck with a series of nearby satellite burrows.  There are a lot of chipmunks around here, but George seems to have taken a particular interest in us.

We have another neighbor or visitor although we have never seen it and are not quite certain what it is; it will from time to time announce its presence with a night deposit of scat on the deck.  I’m quite certain that it is not George, but if it is, he needs some serious fiber . . . I’m talking major, serious fiber . . . in his regular diet of acorns and other edible detritus he is finding scattered around the cottage (the acorns have been falling for weeks and sound like gunfire when they hit the roof).  George will, however, leave partially chewed nuts and shell fragments on the deck for us to clean up.  I think he does it out of spite.  For the past couple of weeks we have had a small pumpkin sitting on our front stoop and I am surprised George hasn’t found it yet.  Then again, he would never be able to fit it into one of his cheek pouches which can expand to three times the size of his head.  Still, he continues to fill them to almost bursting as he stocks his larder for the coming winter when all of this will be under several inches of snow and ice for several months.  There he will sleep and eat until spring returns.

Chipmunks are constant neighbors and we are always hearing them clicking and  chattering with each other as they scamper about while going about their important business.  But George frequently takes time out of his busy schedule to tell us just what he thinks about us as neighbors.  I will often find him on the deck looking at us with disapproval as we go about our own business.  Until our arrival here in late June he had the whole place to himself and was not used to the clumping of human footsteps above his burrow.  We try to be good neighbors, but he will frequently get aggravated with us and will run off to a safe distance where he will go up on his hind legs and “chit . . . chit . . . chit” at us and let us know exactly what he thinks of this unacceptable situation.

Most of the time, however, we watch George as he power shops for his winter larder where he will cache his booty in his multi-chambered underground burrow and tunnel system accessed by a series of small holes I am finding everywhere around the cottage.  We will leave the lake in two weeks and George will once again have the place to himself.  I doubt he will miss us, but I will miss watching him watching us.

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Friday, September 19, 2014

Lincoln Logs Come to Maine - Dispatches from Maine

One of my favorite playthings when I was young was a set of Lincoln Logs.  They came in a long, round tube with a metal bottom and a pry-off lid and the contents gave me hours of enjoyment when I was growing up.  There were various sizes of notched redwood logs and other pieces, some painted green for the roof, and always a bright red block for the chimney.  And one could always buy more if something larger than a simple log cabin was intended.

Lincoln Logs © was the brain child of John Lloyd Wright (1892-1972), the estranged second son of Frank Lloyd Wright.  Himself an architect of some note, John Lloyd came up with the idea for the toy while working with his father on the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo.  He launched the Red Square Toy Company (later J.L. Wright Manufacturing) when he returned home to the United States.  The Lincoln Log concept dates from 1916, and production began two years later.  Wright received a patent in 1920 which he later sold.  The production of wooden pieces continued into the 1970s when the misguided decision to make the pieces out of plastic was a complete and utter failure.  One wonders if the young Abraham Lincoln’s father sat him on his knee one day and looked him in the eye: “I want to say one word to you.  Just one word . . . are you listening?  Plastics.  There is a great future in plastics.”  No, I don’t think so.  You can’t make a log cabin out of plastic.  So production of Lincoln Logs once again relied on wood, and after almost a century of production it entered the National Toy Hall of Fame in 1999. 

A couple of days ago K’NEX of Hatfield, Pennsylvania, the company that currently manufactures and distributes Lincoln Logs under license from the Rhode Island based toy company Hasbro, announced that it was happily moving production from China back to the United States and to the State of Maine.  The governor (he who shall not be named), who likes to tell everyone that “Maine is Open for Business,” was quick to announce the move and welcome Lincoln Logs to the Pine Tree State where local wood will be used in the production (there are no redwoods here . . . and who wants to cut down a redwood in the first place?).

Pride Manufacturing, a wood manufacturing company in the Waldo County hamlet of  Burnham, which employs around 130 souls and until now was known primarily for its wooden golf tees and cigar tips, will produce the wood pieces which will then be sent to K’NEX, in Pennsylvania (they also manufacture Tinkertoys), for painting, packaging, and distribution.  Production is ramping up in Burnham and should be going full tilt by November, adding between five and ten new employees at the Burnham plant.

I can see why the governor is so excited.

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Monday, September 15, 2014

Drinking Cowboy Coffee - Dispatches from Maine

I like strong coffee.  Strong, black coffee.  The stronger the better; the kind in which the spoon stands up on its own if it doesn’t dissolve completely.  You get the idea.

At home I usually brew my mugs in a coffee maker, for heavy duty mornings, but otherwise I make it a mug (a big mug) at a time, pouring hot water through rough-ground coffee in a filter.  In either case, it seems too much trouble for a cuppa. 

I wonder why I just don’t make it “cowboy style.”  It is as simple as throwing coffee grounds loose into a coffee pot and letting it boil to the proper strength.  Throw in some egg shells to help settle the grounds to the bottom and you are ready to go in a very few minutes.  And it usually tastes better than coffee brewed with a lot more hoopla than is really necessary.  Unfortunately one does have to make more coffee than one might normally drink as cowboy coffee is not “good to the last drop” . . . unless one likes to chew the last few gulps.  Even some of the earlier servings may be a bit silted at the bottom of the cup.

So this morning I eschewed the filter and treated myself to a couple salubrious cups of joe sans filter.  Talk about a wake-up call!  It is not something I would do every morning, but variety is the spice of life.  Now if I can only get down off the ceiling.

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Sunday, September 14, 2014

Get Off My Damn Bumper Redux - Dispatches from Maine

We have been in Maine almost three months and I feel the need to redux this posting from about this time last year. I love Maine, but cannot fathom the local sport of tailgating.

“The way life should be” . . . that is what the welcome signs say when you enter the State of Maine.  I have always agreed with this sentiment; it is the reason we have been coming back here regularly for the past quarter of a century, and Maine has been our default summer residence since 2010.  I like it here!  And why not?  The people are friendly, even to those of us “from away.”  The pace of life is good.

With the exception of the Maine Turnpike (Interstate 95) from the New Hampshire border to Portland (a distance of roughly 50 miles), or the mostly two-lane US Route One running along the entire coast of Maine, there is very little traffic on the roads and nobody seems to be in a terrible hurry to get wherever they are going.  Coming from the environs of a Type A city like Washington, DC, this is a noticeable and welcome respite from the hurry up and wait traffic clogging its streets.

That said, what is with this local obsession with tailgating . . . driving so close to the rear end of a vehicle that the driver of said vehicle cannot see the bumper, sometimes even the headlights of the tailgater?  What’s the big rush?  Where’s the fire?   Slow down and back off and enjoy the way life ought to be before it ends prematurely for both of us.

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Thursday, September 11, 2014

We Were All Americans Then - Dispatches from Maine

This morning I feel far removed from that day none of us will ever forget.  Whereas the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 made the United States one with a world already at war for over two years, the attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001 made the world one with the United States.  And for a brief moment there an empathetic spirit of world-wide solidarity as the French newspaper Le Monde ran a headline, “We are all Americans now.”  It is a shame it was so short-lived.   Where is that solidarity now when the world needs it most?

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Monday, September 1, 2014

What a Summer It Has Been So Far - Dispatches from Maine

We have been in Maine for nine weeks so far and oh, and what a summer it has been.  I have read 26 books; organized and given two lectures - on the Holocaust, delivered in Augusta, and on the Indian Stream Republic, delivered in Colebrook, New Hampshire; drafted two more lectures to give in September - on war crimes prosecutions, at the Maine State Prison in Warren, and on the American Revolution in Maine before our local historical society here in New Gloucester; worked on the drafts of two novellas and read from one at the Monhegan Island library (and I will read again at our local library this month); drafted an outline for a short story; written 25 letters and several postcards; driven roughly 4500 miles since leaving home in June, exploring the back roads of Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, with a quick weekend trip to northern New Jersey and back for a wedding; taken roughly four thousand photographs; met a very famous artist (Jamie Wyeth) and hob-nobbed with others; eaten several lobsters and dozens of clams . . . and a few Whoopie Pies, but who is counting?; had dinner a couple tables away from the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court; seen two moose and lots of other wildlife; spent another week on Monhegan Island (our 15th year to do so); had friends and neighbors from home stop to visit while others stayed for a few days to share our tranquility here on Sabbathday Lake. And still, there have been long periods of quiet and solitude.

Better yet, we still have five weeks to go before we must return home to Maryland.  My mom will visit for a week (her fifth summer to do so), and we plan to return to Monhegan Island for the annual “Trap Day,” when the local lobstermen set their traps for their winter fishing season.  We look forward to more peace and tranquility as we watch autumn arrive in Maine.  People always asks me why we return to Maine every summer - this is our 27th year here.  Now you know why.

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