Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Swamp Food and Back Roads Florida - Notes from the Sunshine State

My family and I have been enjoying several days in north Florida over the holidays.  We have spent most of the time in Gainesville, but we have taken a few trips into the beautiful pine hammock ranch- and farmland.  This is the Florida landscape I love best.

A couple days before Christmas my son and I took a road trip into the scrub country of Sumter and Citrus counties southwest of Ocala and its chain of lakes and wetlands that are part of the Withlacoochee and the Chassahowitzka river basins.  This is real back roads country; two-lane blue highways bordered by live oak festooned with Spanish moss as they meander pass cattle and horse ranches.  This area has not changed much since I first visited it over forty years ago.  Cars (trucks more likely) are few and far between here and settlements, if they even have names, are mostly just wide spots in the road.  Roll down the windows and let the breezes flow.

We stopped in Floral City with its roughly 5,000 souls.  Situated on US Route 41, the town well deserves its name and is popular with bikers of the motorized and non-motorized variety.  We sat at the bar at the Shamrock Inn and shared a tasty back country sampler - cheese sticks, corn fritters, hush puppies, Cajun fries . . . all washed down with a couple mugs of cold beer.  I have eaten here a number of times over the years.  It is your typical small town pub and grill but run by a German couple who serve a variety of Southern, Irish and German dishes . . . great food and good service at a decent price.  Popular with locals and travelers alike, it is nothing fancy yet everyone is made to feel welcomed.  One of the reasons I keep coming back . . . and I wanted to share it with my son who had never been there before.

We continued up Route 41 to Inverness and Hernando, the former home of Major League hitting champ Ted Williams in his later years and the original site of a museum in his honor until it was relocated to Tropicana Field, in St. Petersburg.  From there it was only a few miles to where State Route 200 crosses the Withlachoochee River where it gently flows past Stumpknockers Restaurant.  We were in search of some genuine Florida swamp food and this place looked more than promising.  Neither of us had been here before and were not sure what to expect.  We were not disappointed!  Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, this quaint restaurant named after the spotted sunfish that lives among the cypress knees found along the banks of Florida’s rivers, has low ceilings and a rustic, dark wood interior and offers a great view of the river along with a fine selection of sea and swamp food . . . grouper, Gulf shrimp, sea scallops, frog legs, gator tail and steaks, and a variety of other traditional dishes.  We both opted for the gator steak which was lightly panned fried and served over yellow rice and smothered in a sweet and spicy slurry of onions, green peppers and tomatoes.  And what better way to wash it all down than with a couple pints of Stumpknocker Ale brewed up in Gainesville.  We had to loosen our belts for the ride back.

When visiting the Gainesville area, it has been our practice to take at least one ride over to Cross Creek located roughly 20 mile southeast beyond the Paynes Prairie preserve.  This tiny hamlet situated on a narrow isthmus between Orange Lake and Lake Laloosa was made famous by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings who came to the area in 1928 and bought a small farm and citrus grove.  It was here that she wrote most of her beloved novels.  As fate would have it, my first blog posting back in December 2008 was the result of a visit to the Rawlings farm.

Two days after Christmas my wife and I returned to Cross Creek after a drive through the pine hammock country east of Gainesville.  We had decided we would celebrate our 41st anniversary with a meal at The Yearling Restaurant, named in honor of Rawling’s celebrated 1929 novel.  We have been eating there over the past four decades, except for a few years when it was closed, and we are happy that it is open again and serving traditional north Florida cracker cuisine.  And I wanted at least one more helping of swamp food before we headed home to Maryland.  The menu is not extensive, but they serve what I came for. I feasted on a sampler of cracker offerings - frog legs, gator tail, catfish, soft-shell crab, fried green tomatoes and pickles, and hushpuppies.  Again I washed everything down with very cold Siren ale, another local beer brewed in Gainesville.

Despite the logo on the servers’ shirts urging one to “Eat Mo Cooter” (soft-shell freshwater turtle), The Yearling only rarely serves this delicious swamp delicacy. I was hoping I might get lucky this time but it was not to be.  I asked our server who told me the story I had heard before.  Cooter is still protected as an endangered species by US Fish and Wildlife, and well it should be.  It is probably endangered because it tastes so damned good!  Almost all privately farmed cooter currently harvested in Florida is sent to Japan where it demands a premium price.  As fine as this meal turned out, I was sorry I was not able to enjoy a fine piece of cooter pie.  I looked to the east and shook my fist.

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Sunday, December 27, 2015

41 Years and Counting - Notes from the Sunshine State

Photograph by Spencer Stewart
Today my wife SallyAnn and I celebrate our 41st anniversary.  When we first dated in college, I used to write her poems and tack them to a bulletin board in the theater's green room.  She responded with a pen and ink drawing.  I'm still writing and now she paints.  This poem is for her.

           - For SallyAnn

            in these most foiling of times
            when I find myself at odds
            with friends and foe alike
            I think of you as my Abigail
            my rock   my wife   but most of all
            my friend   my best of friends
            without whom I am nothing
            but a tattered banner flying
            in the weakest of winds
            you are the mast to which I
            tether my greatest hopes and ambitions
            if I do not tell you this enough
            it is only a weakness in my character
            you are my country   its hope
            its flag   its sweetest anthem
            I can say no more than this
            you are its tallest shadow
            when the sun shines its brightest

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Wishing Everyone a Very Festive Holiday Season - Notes from the Sunshine State

We are enjoying a quiet Christmas in Florida away from the hustle and bustle back home in Maryland.  Wishing everyone a happy and healthy holiday season wherever you happen to be.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Feats of Daring and Endurance - The Battle of the Bulge

I am reminded that 71 years ago, on December 16, 1944, the gigantic struggle that would come to be known as the Battle of the Bulge, one of the bloodiest and largest land battles ever fought by the armed forces of the United States, commenced in the Ardennes Forest of eastern Belgium and Luxembourg.  Before it ended in late January 1945 over 600,000 American troops would be committed to combat against the final offensive of Hitler’s Third Reich.  Almost 20,000 Americans were killed in action along with over 70,000 other casualties.  The heroism of the men who died and survived will never be forgotten.  One of the lucky ones was my dad who served in the 104th Infantry Regiment of General George S Patton, Jr.’s Third Army.

During the early morning hours of December 16, the Germans launched a surprise major counteroffensive through the Ardennes of Luxembourg and eastern Belgium in a last ditch effort to divide American and British forces advancing toward Germany. The Germans quickly advanced westward creating a large “bulge” in the Allied lines while never actually breaking out. Third Army was forced to suspend its offensive in the Saar Basin and reposition its forces in order to address the new German offensive. All units of Third Army would be thrown against the southern shoulder of the bulge. On the eve of battle, General Patton told General Omar Bradley: “My three best divisions are the 4th Armored, the 80th and the 26th. I’ll concentrate the 4th Armored at Longwy beginning tonight, I’ll start the 80th on Luxembourg tomorrow morning, and I’ll alert the 26th to be ready to move.”  III Corps, including the 26th Infantry Division, was transported from Metz to the vicinity of Arlon, in southeastern Belgium, on December 19. The division found itself at Eischen, Luxembourg on December 21.

III Corps launched an assault northward through western Luxembourg the following day to help relieve American forces under siege at Bastogne, Belgium. Not knowing for certain where it would encounter the German salient, the 26th Infantry Division, with the 104th on its right flank, first encountered German resistance near Rambrouch some 16 miles north Arlon and Eischen. By December 23 the 104th was advancing through the hills and gorges of the Ardennes toward the Sûre (Saar) River north of Grobus where the Germans had counterattacked. III Corps met heavy Germany resistance throughout December 24 and Christmas day as it continued to advance northward. There was intense combat on Christmas morning in Eschdorf which fell to the 104th on December 26. Still on the division’s right flank, the 104th then moved up to Esch-sur-Sûre to establish important bridgeheads over the Sûre on the 27th. While the 104th secured the bridgehead, the remainder of the division continued its northward advance on the Wiltz River, in northern Luxembourg, in the closing days of 1944 in an effort to break the German siege of Bastogne. Dad and his unit remained in Esc-sur-Sûre for several day securing the regimental headquarters in the Hotel Ardennes. It was here that he won his Bronze Star.

By early January 1945 III Corps and the 26th Infantry Division had reached a virtual standstill just south of the Wiltz River. Heavy snow and German resistance stalled the drive to reinforce American forces that had finally broken the siege of Bastogne. The 104th was positioned north of Nothum and on the high ground above the river in the vicinity of Mon Schumann. The division would remained in this general vicinity until January 20 when the German offensive had all but collapsed.  The division finally crossed the river on January 21 and secured the town of Wiltz.  By January 25 the German offensive in the bulge was over and Third Army resumed its eastward advance from northern Luxembourg into Germany proper.

In his end of battle commendation letter to his division on February 1, 1945m, Major General Willard S. Paul told his troops: "When you initially attacked for seven days and nights without halting for rest, you met and defeated twice your own number. Your advance required the enemy to turn fresh divisions against you, and you in turn hacked them to pieces as you ruthlessly cut your way deep into the flank of the "bulge." Your feats of daring and endurance in the sub-freezing weather and snow-clad mountains and gorges of Luxembourg are legion; your contribution to the relief of Bastogne was immeasurable. It was particularly fitting that the elimination of the "bulge" should find the Yankee Division seizing and holding firmly on the same line held by our own forces prior to the breakthrough. I am proud of this feat by you as well as those you performed earlier. We shall advance on Berlin together."

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Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Fifty Years of ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’

Fifty years ago this evening CBS aired A Charlie Brown Christmas for the first time and ever since it has been a staple television offering during the holiday season.  And to think it came close to never airing at all.  In 1965, producer Lee Mendelson teamed up “Peanuts” creator Charles M. Schulz and animator Bill Melendez to put together a half-hour animated special featuring Charlie Brown and all of the familiar “Peanuts” characters of that era . . . all on a budget of less than $100,000 through the sponsorship of the Coca-Cola Company.

Upon viewing the finished project, some CBS executives were uncomfortable with its underlying religious message . . . something that would never fly today when most networks fear even mentioning the word “Christmas” less they offend some person or group.   Yet the show was aired and has survived intact all these years.  Perhaps they were also uncomfortable with its condemnation of the crass commercialization of Christmas.  “Look, Charlie Brown,” Lucy confesses.  “We all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket. It’s run by a big eastern syndicate, you know.”  Maybe it hit just a little too close to home.  Schultz and Mendelson also bucked conventional wisdom, using children for the voice overs and jettisoning the laugh track which was a standard of that time.

The special aired on Thursday evening, December 9, 1965 . . . preceded and followed by episodes of The Munsters and My Three Sons, and going up against The Donna Reed Show and Daniel Boone on ABC and NBC.  The corporate and network powers did not expect the show to be a success, yet this melancholy tale garnered almost half the viewing public that evening; over 15 million households tuned in.  It all seemed genuine and sincere.  It has been a staple of holiday viewing ever since despite many dated cultural references.  It reminds us of what now seems like a time of innocence when the world was less complicated.  CBS continued the annual broadcast through 2000 after which the rights were sold to the Disney-owned ABC network which aired it for the first time in 2001, a year after Charles Schulz died. 

I watch almost no network television; there is very little that appeals to me as programming becomes increasingly trivial and tiresome.  This year, however, we thought we would tune in for the 50th anniversary broadcast aired on ABC last week.  It would be fun to think back over the years; to briefly retreat from the over commercialization of the holiday season and to remind ourselves of what Christmas is all about.  No such luck. I could barely make it half way through the two-hour program before I had to turn it off.  Instead of a fond remembrances of things past we were treated to a display of the same commercialization of Christmas Charlie Brown and his friend Linus tried to transcend while all around them had forgotten its true meaning.  Charlie Brown’s sister Sally dictates a long list of presents she wants. “All I want is what is coming to me.  All I want is my fair share.”  Lucy prefers real estate and wants to be Christmas Queen.  Snoopy eats and is only interested in winning the Christmas lights contest.  When Lucy threatens to slug her little brother Linus come to the realization that “Christmas is not only getting too commercial, it's getting too dangerous." Charlie Brown cries out, “Doesn’t anyone know what Christmas is all about?”  It is only thoughtful Linus who can answer as he recites Chapter 2, verses 6-14 from the Gospel According to Luke.  The message is simple.  One should not be afraid, for there was “tidings of great joy which will be to all people” . . . something that would change the world forever.  “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

 ABC seemed to forget this when it aired its anniversary special last week.  It was not so much a celebration of the original show, but rather a two-hour extravaganza featuring current A-list celebrities such as Kristin Chenoweth and Matthew Morrison reading what someone else had written and singing songs that had absolutely nothing to do with Schultz’s and Mendelson’s original creation.  I turned it off once it became clear to me what ABC had in mind . . . just one more wave in the endless tide of holiday commercialization that has now eclipsed even Thanksgiving. 

I have watched the special almost every year since it first aired.  Oh, I missed a year here and there when I was in college and studying for end of the semester exams, or when I was a student in Europe and did not have a television.  With the advent of the VHS version, followed by a digitally re-mastered DVD, I am no longer forced to watch it whenever ABC chooses to fit it into its December line-up.  I can watch it any time I want and without commercials.  I now look forward to each Christmas Eve when my family and I sit together and watch A Charlie Brown Christmas.  We “never thought it was such a bad little tree. It's not bad at all, really. Maybe it just needs a little love.”  I think this is why we really watch it.  In an ever more dangerous and complicated world, all we are really looking for is a little love.  Merry Christmas Charlie Brown! 

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Monday, December 7, 2015

Infamy - Rememebering Pearl Harbor

When I was living in Tucson during graduate school in the early 1970s, I used to join USS Arizona survivors and others on the campus of the University of Arizona on December 7th to listen to the ringing of the ship's bell hanging in the Student Union's tower. One of the bells of the ill-fated battleship hung there . . . the other at the memorial in Pearl Harbor erected over the sunken hulk of that noble dreadnaught . . . a tomb to the 1,177 sailors who died that Sunday morning 74 years ago today.  There were several survivors left back then in Tucson. Only a couple this year.  Next year perhaps they will all be gone.  History marches on.

I first became aware of Pearl Harbor when I was living in Asheville, North Carolina in the early 1960s.  Our neighbors were a lovely elderly couple and they would frequently invite me inside for milk and cookies (they still did that back then).  She was always in the kitchen making something, and he would sit in his study in the afternoons reading.  His study was floor to ceiling books.  It did not register with me then, but how wonderful that room must have been for him . . . a place where he could retreat to read and mediate.  Even now I dream of such a place.  I would bring my milk and cookies into his study and we would sit there and he would talk to me and ask me what I was learning in school.  He had a wonderful old desk covered with books and sheaves of papers.  I loved those afternoons we spent together.  

I recall two photographs hinged in a frame sitting on one of the bookcases near his desk.  I had seen them many times during my visits; two black and white photographs of towheaded boys in white sailor uniforms sitting in front of an American flag.  One had a devilish smile and the other only a blank countenance, as if he was staring at something a thousand miles away.  I asked my neighbor who these boys were.  And they were boys.  They wore uniforms, but they were just boys.

My neighbor told me they were his sons and he was very proud of them.  He smiled and then fumbled with a book at his desk.  I smiled, too.  They were handsome boys.  “Are they still in the navy?” I asked.  He smiled at me again and looked out the window.  “No,” he said.  “They are both dead.”  He was no longer smiling.  And neither was I.  A sadness fell over that sunlit room full of books.

I did not learn the full story of what happened to my neighbor’s sons until some time later.  One son was stationed on the USS Oklahoma and was killed in action on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.  His parents, my neighbors, were able to bury him in Arlington National Cemetery.  The other son served on the USS Arizona.  He died the same day as his brother and is entombed along with 1,176 of his shipmates in the wreck of his ship resting at the bottom of Pearl Harbor.

December 7, 1941 will be a date that will always live in infamy.  It may be a dark shadow on most peoples’ calendar, but I will never forget it.  Each year on this date I think back to that day in my neighbor’s study when he stared into the distance and told me about his two sons who died so close together and so far away.

This is why I went to listen to the ringing of the ship’s bell in Tucson, thinking back to that hinged frame with two photographs of young boys who will always remain young boys.  I was lucky I was able to grow up and have a son of my own.  I can’t even imagine the pain of losing one son.  But to lose two . . . on the same day?  Those photographs of a half century ago haunt me to this day.  They will always haunt me.  I will always hear that bell ringing each December 7, a day that will forever live in infamy.

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Friday, November 27, 2015

Retribution: The Bombing of Freiburg - Postcard from Germany

In Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany

Staring out the bathroom window of the building where I first lived in Freiburg, Germany in the early 1970s, I could see the intricately ornate 380-foot spire of the city’s famous Minster.  Although this cathedral has been the seat of the Archdiocese of Freiburg since the early 19th century, it has always belonged to the people of Freiburg and they are rightfully proud of its beauty and significance.  Often called one of the most beautiful churches in the world, it was partly for this reason that I climbed up into the 700 year old spire on one of my first days after arriving in Freiburg in the autumn of 1971.  I did not realize at that time how privileged I was to have this opportunity.  But for the grace of God this magnificent structure almost perished from the face of the earth just 27 years earlier.  It had survived wars and catastrophes throughout its long history, a history that came close to its end on the night of November 27, 1944 when some 300 Royal Air Force bombers laid the city in ruins, killing almost 3000 civilians and injuring 10,000 more.

This was not the first raid on Freiburg during the war.  Ironically, the first bombs to fall on the city were German.  Writing in his Berlin Diary (1941), the Germany-based American correspondent William Shirer noted that "three Allied planes dropped bombs in the middle of Freiburg on May 10, 1940, killing 24 civilians" (German claims were nearly triple that number).  The Nazi propaganda machine quickly seized the attack for its own purposes, claiming first that the enemy aircraft were French before later blaming the RAF.  It also reported that over half of the victims were children.  It was not until 1956 when the German military historian Anton Hoch described how the bombs that fell on Freiburg in May 1940, killing nearly 60, actually came from German Luftwaffe bombers on a raid to Dijon, France.  Somehow they had lost their bearing in bad weather.

Freiburg never possessed significant strategic or military importance to the Reich during the early years of the war and the skies over Freiburg remained relatively quiet.
In fact, German refugees from other cities targeted by the Allies fled to the relative peace and quiet of southwestern Germany.  This tranquility lasted until early October 1943 when a few  American bombers attacked local rail facilities followed by some hit and run strafing attacks in September and October 1944.  There were also minor bombing runs on rail facilities and a nearby Luftwaffe base in early November 1944 prior to the catastrophic raid on the city later that month.

With the Allied armies advancing across France and drawing ever closer to the German frontier along the Rhine River only a few miles west of Freiburg, the city took on new importance to German military planning and future troop deployments to the approaching front lines.  These developments also made it a target for Allied strategic and saturation bombing operations against German cities.  The major raid on Freiburg - Operation Tigerfish - would not only target rail and industrial facilities, but also the Minster and civilian areas as a means for breaking the German morale and as retribution for German raids on British cities during the Blitz four years earlier.  This included the devastating attack on Coventry during the evening of November 14, 1940 carried out by over 500 Luftwaffe bombers which virtually leveled that city’s storied cathedral.

Without any warning issued by air raid sirens the attack commenced shortly before 8pm and continued for just over an hour as the RAF bombers dropped thousands of high explosive and incendiary bombs on central Freiburg.  The casualty count would have been much higher had there not been a most unusual warning of the impending onslaught.  A drake living in the municipal park in the center of the city raised such a ruckus that many residents headed to the air raid shelters just before the raid commenced.  The duck did not survive the raid, but its clarion call saved the lives of countless Freiburgers. 

The fires burned throughout the night, and when dawn broke the following day a thick pall of smoke blanketed the city and the surrounding hills.  Much of the Old City surrounding the Minster had been leveled and numerous historic buildings dating back to as early as the 15th century had been partially or completely destroyed.  By some miracle of chance (or perhaps something more than that?), the Minster remained standing among the ruins (see the above photo) having sustained only minor cosmetic damage.  The building two blocks away where I would later live also remained standing.  The thousands who perished lay buried in the rubble.

The air raid also disturbed the sleep of Freiburg’s dead, including those interred in five separate burial grounds situated near the Minster.  The bomb damage would necessitate the removal of these burial vaults to the city’s main cemetery where they were place around the Einsegnungshalle [consecration hall].   A wooden cross was erected on the site on the first anniversary of the raid.

By the time I arrived in Freiburg in the autumn of 1971 the city had been rebuilt.  The Old City appeared much as it did before the bombs destroyed it.   Reconstruction included several memorials to those who had perished.  Today, in the middle of the main cemetery, there is a granite cross inaugurated in 1951 along with a female figure, Die Trauernde [The Mourners] by Richard Engelmann (1868-1966).  Before the consecration hall there is a  monument to the victims of the November 1944 air raid interred nearby.  On the keystone of the west tower of the Minster, near the entrance, there is now a plaque dedicated in 1994 - the fiftieth anniversary of the raid - commemorating the victims of each of the air raids on Freiburg, including the victims of the mistaken bombing by German aircraft in May 1940.  Ironically the plaque’s poem by the Freiburg poet Reinhold Schneider (1903-1958) was written ten months before the November 1944 air raid.  The city did not forget the heroic drake who warned of the impending attack, erecting a small statue created by Richard Bampi in the nearby municipal park on the anniversary of the raid in 1953.  A footbridge connecting the park with the prominent Schlossberg overlooking the city now includes several concrete reliefs completed by the artist Emil Wachter (1921-2012) in 1979 and representing the destruction of the city.  One of these motifs make reference to the German bombing of Coventry.

During my early months in Freiburg I heard a number of stories about the November 27, 1944 air raid on Freiburg.  Walking through the Old City at night I would occasionally look up into the sky and try to imagine what it must have been like . . . and shudder at the thought.   I read in the Badische Zeitung that there would be a wreath laying ceremony in front of the Minster on that anniversary of the raid.  I attended and it was a sobering experience as I listen to the prayers offered as the Minster’s bells peeled in memory of those lost.  The crowd included many who were fortunate to have survived.  I could always hear the bells from my nearby room, but that night their tone and spectral quality took on a new meaning.  As chance would have it, the following day I joined several other Americans studying in Freiburg for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner.   There was much indeed to be thankful for.  We were joined by several of our German colleagues, no longer sworn enemies but the best of friends.

I visited Freiburg again in November 1984, and one again I attended the wreath-laying commemorating the 40th anniversary of the air raid.  And once again I listened to the tolling of the Minster bells and gave thanks.   Last month I returned to Freiburg, now almost 71 years after that fateful night.   There are few alive today who remember the air raid.  The stories have now become distant history.   There is a lesson in all of this . . . we should never forget the horrors of war. 

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Thursday, November 26, 2015

Seven Years of "Looking Toward Portugal"

Seven years ago yesterday I launched this blogspot when I posted “Never too late to start.”  I had been kicking around the idea of starting my own blog site having read others; I thought it time for me to chime in.  I did not have the slightest idea then where it might take me or whether it would even last.  All I knew was that I had many things I wanted to say and perhaps this might be the perfect way to get these ideas off my chest and into “black on white.”  I could have never imagined that evening in Gainesville, Florida that Looking Toward Portugal would still be going strong seven years later.  To date I have posted 358 entries on anything, everything, and sometimes nothing at all . . . just a quick random thought in need of being set free.

The significance of the blog’s name you ask?  For almost 30 years I have been gravitating to the coast of Maine. Indeed I now spend several month there each year  and it has become my second home.  I often find myself standing on that rocky shoreline, looking out to sea and pondering this and that (some of these thoughts have been posted here).  If you gaze in a general easterly direction from the Maine coast, you will see nothing but the rolling swells of the Atlantic.  Nova Scotia is out there somewhere, but if you continue across the Atlantic you will eventually arrive on the northern shores of Portugal somewhere near Oporto.  Thus the name.   I am reminded of Jack Kerouac’s observations when he stared out across the Atlantic from the shores of Long Island . . . "this last lip of American land . . . the end of America . . . no more land . . . and now there was nowhere to go but back."   Sure we have limitations, we think we have done all that we can do.  Yet there are other possibilities out there if we only choose to look beyond those far horizons.

I am looking forward to another seven years (at least) of postings . . . new horizons.  I hope you will join me in the search.

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Wednesday, November 25, 2015

My Old Watering Holes - Postcards from Germany

In Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany

A great deal has changed in the 43 years since I was a student in Freiburg.  I visited a few times in the early years after I returned home to the States, but now it has been almost 30 years since my last visit.  I should not have been surprised that things appear different; a lot has happened in Germany since I lived there.  There is only one Germany now, something I could never have imagined in the early 1970s.  And I have also changed.  Gone is that strapping youth on the cusp of adulthood who moved about in a carefree world.  In his place is a hobbled 64 year old man wandering among today’s students thinking that their parents were mere children when he last wandered these still familiar streets and pathways. 

So when I returned to Freiburg I scouted out some of my old haunts, beginning with several local pubs to which I and some of my fellow students retreated for a couple of beers and debates after long days in the classroom or the library.  One of our favorites, the Gasthof “Die Sonne,” not far from where I lived at one time in the Littenweiler section of the city, still looked the same . . . still painted an off yellow.  Upon closer inspection, however, I noted that it was now called Ouzeria and served Greek dishes and other Mediterranean specialties.  Disappointed, I walked down the street to another favorite, the Gasthof “Zur Goldenen Krone.”  Once again, from the outside it looked much as I remembered it yet it was now “La Crona” and specialized in Italian cuisine.  The menu looked inviting, but I was still in search of some memory from the past.  Finally, I drifted to another local gathering place . . . the “Gaststätte Lindenmatte.”  It, too, looked the same as I remembered it and the sign outside still bore that familiar sobriquet.  I stepped inside and the interior had not changed noticeably in all those years.   I looked at the menu posted by the entrance.  It was now an Afghani restaurant and had been for the past 20 years.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love Afghani food, but that is not what I had come in search of.  The Lindenmatte, in the old days, was well-known for its frittierte Bratkartoffeln mit Knoblauchsoße [fried potatoes with garlic sauce], and I was happy to see that it and a few other local dishes remained on the menu.  I retired to the beer garden outside where I ordered that old specialty along with a bowl of Ash, a traditional Afghani soup with noodles, yogurt, kidney beans, chickpeas, ground beef, seasoned with dill, turmeric, and garnished with mint leaves. The best of both worlds.

The next day I caught the tram at the Littenweiler terminal and ticked off each stop from memory as I headed along Hansjakobstrasse into the city.  Römerhof, named for another Gasthof I frequented from time to time when heading home from the gym.  It is now an international school.  Then came the tram stops at Hasemannstrasse and Emil-Gött-Strasse, followed by the former Stadthalle and Messplatz stations (now renamed for the adjacent Musikhochschule and Alt-Messplatz).  This area is almost totally unrecognizable although I was happy to see the old Gasthof Schiff where I spent numerous evenings on my way back to Littenweiler.  Originally built in 1777, it looked as I remembered it on the outside, but the interior has been completely remodeled into what can only be called a fern bar and jazz club.  Another disappointment, although it still serves local fare at greatly inflated prices.  It is no longer the neighborhood Kneipe I recalled from the old days.

Back on the tram I passed the station near the Brauerei Ganter which still brews my favorite local beer, finally arriving at Schwabentor and Oberlinden, in the Altstadt, which was my home when I first arrived in Freiburg.  I had a small room in the Haus der blauen Lilie, in the Salzstrasse.  When I moved in it reminded me a great deal of the room portrayed in Carl Spitzweg’s very famous Biedermeier painting, “Der Arme Poet.”  The building still looks the same.  It was originally constructed circa 1460 although I swear the bathroom down the hall was older than that!

I hoped that perhaps the nearby watering holes I frequented those many years ago would look the way I remembered them.  There were a number of places situated around the nearby Marktplatz and its imposing 800 year old Minster, often called one of the most beautiful churches in the world.  Wandering the market I noted again how much the Germans seem to have acquired tastes for cuisines other than their own.  I remember the Minster surrounded by little wagons offering assorted grilled sausages served with onions and doused with spicy mustard.  I found only one where I could still order a “rote Lange” served with a hard roll and wrapped in waxed paper.  Others had been replaced with the ubiquitous Turkish döner kebab stands found throughout Germany.  I opted for my old favorite which I ate as I walked around the market and through the familiar passageways in my old city neighborhood.  And there it was!  Another of my favorite watering holes.

Gasthof zum Deutschen Haus, in the Schusterstrasse, dates from around the same time as my former residence in the Salzstrasse two blocks away.  It looked just as I remembered it.  Surely a local with such a name would remain authentic to its Germanic roots, and so I decided to go in and wash my lunch down with some local beer.  Is it possible it had not changed in 43 years?  I was pleasantly surprised as I entered this favorite watering hole.  I had stepped into the past I was in search of.  If there were changes, they were not perceptible to the naked eye.  The wooden tables and chairs; the framed photographs, maps and etchings on the wall; the polished wooden bar in the back, and the Stammtisch with its familiar “Reserviert” sign for favored denizens.  I pulled up a stool at the bar and enjoyed a couple mugs of Ganter beer while I skimmed the day’s edition of Badische Zeitung (I still have a faded clipping of the paper’s 1972 review of a play I co-wrote and directed while living in Freiburg). 

The American writer Thomas Wolfe once claimed you can’t go home again, and in many ways this is true.  Freiburg has changed so much since I lived there; things look familiar, but they are not the same.  Time marches on.  Still, it was nice to find a place that has remained much as I remember it.  The people might be new, tastes change. and the world outside is rushing into the unknown future.  There is nothing we can do about that.  Thankfully a few places have not been in such a hurry.  And the mugs of Ganter taste just as good as they did back in the day.  Perhaps one can never truly go home again, but Wolfe also understood the opportunities available to those who tried.  “Some things will never change. Some things will always be the same. Lean down your ear upon the earth and listen.”   I am glad I followed his advice.  “I have to see a thing a thousand times before I see it once.”   

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Monday, November 16, 2015

In This Peaceful Valley - Postcards from Germany

In Freiburg in Breisgau, Germany

During a recent trip through Germany I spent a delightful week in Freiburg im Breisgau where I attended university in the early 1970s.  It has been thirty years since I was last there and I was curious how much the town had changed over the years.  What a treat it was to wander about places that held so many fond memories from the past.  While I was there I reflected on its long history and I recalled a time when this place, where the Black Forest merges with the Rhine River valley, was the site of a major battle over three centuries ago. 

The Battle of Freiburg during the Thirty Years War is popularly known as the Three Day Battle as it took place on three non-consecutive days - August 3, 5 and 9/10, in 1644.  A united French army of approximately 16,000 troops commanded by a young Louis II de Bourbon, the Duke of Enghein and a cousin of Ludwig XIV, and by Marshal Henri de la Tour d'Auvergne, Viscount of Turenne, tried to recapture the city which had recently fallen to a Bavarian army under General Field Marshal Franz, Baron von Mercy on July 28, 1644 following a five week siege. 

Mercy had fought the French at Tuttlingen in November 1643 and began to assert Bavarian hegemony throughout Swabia, Breisgau and the Upper Rhine.  In April 1644 Maximillian I sent an army under Mercy through the Black Forest to engage French forces under Turenne near Breisach, on the Rhine near Freiburg.  After laying siege to Uberlingen, on Lake Constance, in May 1644, Mercy left a covering force there and advanced his army of approximately 16,000 troops toward Freiburg and the Rhine where it arrived on June 26.  The French under Turenne, not prepared to do battle against a superior Bavarian army, were forced to watch helplessly as Mercy besieged the French garrison in the city which fell a month later.  A French army under Enghein finally arrived in Breisach on August 2 fresh from his great victory of Rocroy to reinforce Turenne.  But they were too late to save the city.  By this time the Bavarians were well entrenched on the Schönberg and Lorrettoberg, known then as the Schlierberg, on the southern edge of Freiburg.  Nevertheless, the young and brash Enghein, who assumed command of the united French armies, chose to launch a full frontal assault against the Bavarian positions on August 3. 

The first day of the battle found approximately 16,000 French troops advancing from Breisach.  Enghein and his army of 10,000 proceeded directly to the foot of the Schönberg near Ebringen, while Turenne’s 6,000 troops advanced through the hills south of the city to Wittnau in order to attack Mercy's entrenchments from the rear.  Turenne encountered the enemy at Wittnau and forced the Bavarians to retreat toward Merzhausen where Mercy’s resistance stiffened preventing Turenne from gaining his objective at Uffingen and the flanking of Mercy’s defensive line.  In the meantime, Enghein’s force slowly advanced up the slopes of the Schönberg under merciless Bavarian firepower.  The French suffered heavy casualties and were thrown into disorder.  Forced to reassemble, Enghein mounted another assault against the entrenched summit of the Schönberg. Mercy, whose was forced to divide his troops in order to halt Turenne’s advance at Merzhausen, abandoned the Schönberg for new entrenchments on the Lorettoberg.  The first day was a stalemate as rain began to fall.

There was no fighting on August 4 as the two French armies reunited at Merzhausen where they were deployed for a new assault against the Bavarian positions on the Lorettoberg. On August 5 Enghein attacked straight to his front with successive waves of troops.  Fearing a breach the Bavarian line, Mercy ordered a quick counterstrike and forced the French to withdraw, again with heavy casualties.  There was no fighting for the next three days.  The French received food and supplies from Breisach while Mercy sought to resupply his troops from Villingen, to the northeast. 

On the morning of August  9th Turenne marched his army via Betzenhausen and Denzling and into the Glottertal while Enghein and his cavalry remained at Merzhausen facing the Lorettoberg.  It was his plan to have Turenne cut the Bavarian supply line forcing Mercy to either attack or retreat.  Little did Enghein realize that during the night of August 9/10 Mercy had left a  garrison facing him while marching to Sankt Peter to gather munitions.  There Mercy and Turenne fought a quick yet indecisive forward action before retreating as the rest of Turenne’s army advanced through the Glottertal.

Enghein’s strategy failed and Mercy’s army, although suffering heavy casualties, withdrew intact to Rothenburg ob der Tauber without serious loss of weapons and material.  Mercy abandoned Freiburg to the French yet his army survived to fight another day. The battle was a tactical victory for the French despite the heavy casualties and within  the next two months Enghein and his united French army were able to conquer much of the Rhine valley.

Thankfully peace now reigns in a valley I love so much.

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Sunday, November 1, 2015

Postcards from Germany

I have recently returned home from a long-awaited and much anticipated visit to Germany.  Due to a very busy schedule and the lack of adequate Wi-Fi and internet connections overseas, I was unable to post as I moved around the countryside.  Even in Berlin I felt cut off.  Still, I kept copious notes in my travel journal and outlined a series of “Postcards from Germany” with the intention of posting them once I returned home.  Several of these “postcards will appear here throughout November.  I hope you will check them out.

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Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Closing the Circle - Returning to Germany

Palace of Justice in Nuernberg, Germany
It was a long summer in Maine and although it did not turn out exactly as planned, I was happy to accomplish as much as I did in the fifteen weeks spent on the edge of Sabbathday Lake.  And now I have been home in Maryland for a cold, windy, and wet week trying to get back into a routine.  But it will have to wait.  Tomorrow I am boarding a plane to Germany where I will spend the next two weeks reliving old memories.  I hope to post from there.

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Tuesday, September 1, 2015

A View from Outside - New Dispatches from Maine

From Viet Thanh Nyugen's The Sympathizer (2015) referring to Americans: “They believe in a universe of divine justice where the human race is guilty of sin, but they also believe in a secular justice where human beings are presumed innocent. You can’t have both. You know how Americans deal with it? They pretend they are eternally innocent no matter how many times they lose their innocence. The problem is that those who insist on their innocence believe anything they do is just. At least we who believe in our own guilt know what dark things we do.” 

I am always fascinated to read what others think of us as Americans. Sometimes the truth is brutally clear. I wonder what the Iraqis and Afghanis really think about our efforts to make their worlds better for them? Americans must come to understand that not everyone wants to live like us. Who are we to tell them they are wrong?

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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Still a Peach: The New Look - New Dispatches from Maine

August 2015
March 1956
Strange what people will do when they are left alone and to their own devices.  My wife left me here in Maine while she went gallivanting around Scotland and I had to come up with ideas for entertaining myself.   One idea was to head into town for a much needed haircut.

Given the sparse arable acreage on the top of my head, my wife has long encouraged me to get my hair cut very short . . . and that is exactly what I did.  But after considering the gray fringes left afterwards, I looked at the barber with serious intent.
“Hell, Just cut it all off,” I said with a wave of my hands at my reflection in the mirror.
“Right down to the skin?” he replied.
“Nah,” I said.  “Right down to the bone.”
“And while you are at it,” I added.  “Take the sideburns off, too.” 
It just wouldn’t look right to leave them.  A goatee would suffice nicely.
I closed my eyes and listened as his clippers moved effortlessly across my head.  Front to back.  Side to side.  Up and down the sides of my face.  And as he maneuvered about my head and face they gradually grew more sensitive to the air flowing over and around them.  I was curious what I would find once I opened my eyes again.

I was first concerned about the shape of my head.  Would it look good shorn of its once  hirsute glory?  Would there be bumps and creases better left covered?  Would there be nicks and liver spots I would prefer left hidden?  As it turns out, my head looks pretty damn good for a guy my age.  In fact, shorn of the gray, thinning hair, I thought perchance I might even look a bit younger.  The verdict is still out on that one.

My hair has not been this short since 1956 . . . well, I actually had some hair back then.  So I guess it has not been this short since the day I was born.  But come to think of it, even then had a few downy wisps up there.  I had hair down over my shoulders in my 20s, and it has been medium long off and on since then.  Yet with advancing age I have watched it grow thinner and grayer and I seem to always be in a quandary as how to manage it so that it looks good.  Problem solved.

How long will this new look last?  There are already bets that it won’t be that long; I’ll grow tired of having to shave my entire head every day.  I don’t think so.  Five minutes with a razor in the shower and I am good to go for another day . . . less time than it takes to wash and rinse it.  Frankly, I like the new look and I think I will keep it.  I just hope others will look beyond the chromed dome and consider the inner man.  To quote Dolly Parton: “Just ‘cause you lost your fuzz doesn’t mean you ain’t a peach.”

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Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Autumn is Closer Than We Think - New Disparches from Maine

"Approaching Autumn" (2015) Steven B. Rogers
The bright greens of the all too short Maine summer are taking on a duller, yellowish tint.  The swamp maples, the first to show their autumn hues, turned a couple weeks ago, and now other trees are hinting of yellow and red, and the sugar maples are beginning to turn their familiar orange along the edges.  Strange when the current Maine weather is serving up daily temperatures into the 90s with matching humidity.  It is hard to believe that autumn is really not that far off.  How can this be true?  “Why, the ice just went off the lake!”  Summers up here are indeed short.  We are being reminded of this all too quickly.  Add to this the fact that the local breweries have just released their autumn seasonal beers.  Put a six-pack on the check-out counter and the clerks will  shake their heads and say it is too early.  “Summer just started.”  I am not complaining as these brews usually don’t come out until mid-September.  This way I get to enjoy them a wee bit longer.  There is a silver lining in every cloud.

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Saturday, August 15, 2015

Approaching Watercolors - New Dispatches from Maine

"Goldfinch Maelstrom" (2015) Steven B. Rogers
"Sabbathday Synapses" (2015) Steven B. Rogers
These past few weeks I have not been able to put many words down on paper, but I have been playing around with images "on canvas."  My wife is the true artist in the family, but while she has been away in Scotland, I have been wanting to see if I might get some visual images down on paper using watercolor as my preferred medium.   I have found the entire experience rewarding and I just may stick with this for awhile and see what comes from it. The image on the right is a new watercolor entitled "Goldfinch Maelstrom."  The image on the left is "Sabbathday Synapses."   What's next?

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Maine’s Two Worst Air Disasters Occurred on the Same Day - New Dispatches from Maine

Photo by Mario Sirabella
While doing research on a novel set in the remote northwestern corner of Maine near the New Hampshire and Canadian borders, I came across a story of a B-17 bomber that crashed on Deer Mountain, in the far northern margins of this region, on July 11, 1944.  The accident still stands as the second worst airplane disaster in Maine history, occurring on the very same day as the worst air crash, when a Douglas A-26 Invader bomber went down in dense fog, plowing into a government-owned trailer park near Long Creek in South Portland, killing the two-man crew and 17 on the ground.
The Deer Mountain crash, which will eventually figure into my novel, occurred in a remote section of the Bowmantown township east of Parmachenee Lake in the Montagne Blanche.  The B-17 bomber was part of Combat Group I, Ard 6-30 Provisional Group, and was being transported by its full crew of ten, all ranging in ages 20-27, from Kearney Army Air Field in central Nebraska to Dow Army Air Field (today Bangor International Airport) here in Maine.  From there it would have continued to Gander, Newfoundland, Greenland and Iceland before reaching Prestwick, Scotland.  It was slated to enter active service with the 8th US Army Air Force based in the English Midlands for operations in the European Theater following the D-Day invasion a month earlier.  Other flights of bombers and fighters were being ferried from airfields farther north in Maine, at Houlton and at Presque Isle. 

After departing its base in Nebraska, the aircraft encountered worsening weather and turbulence as it flew over the Appalachians of eastern Pennsylvania, and then over the  Catskills of upstate New York and the Green Mountains of central Vermont.  Shortly before 11am on July 11, while flying near Albany, New York some 60 miles north of its planned route, the crew established radio contact with Grenier Field (now the Boston-Manchester Regional Airport) in New Hampshire which recommended that the aircraft proceed directly to Dow Field.  Instead, it apparently got lost after changing course to avoid severe storms farther south and continued its flight path over the Green Mountains and into the White Mountains in far northern New Hampshire.  Grenier was the last radio contact with the aircraft.

Believing they were somewhere over the coastal plain of southern Maine, the pilot took his plane to a lower altitude to get below the weather and attempt to locate his position.  Witnesses claimed the bomber had circled the Rangeley area much farther to the north for an hour and a half before disappearing into the clouds.  At approximately 1:30pm the B-17 crashed into Deer Mountain about 500 feet below the 3,500-foot summit and wreckage was spread over an area 30 to 200 feet wide and 800 feet long.

Another bomber participating in a joint US-Canadian search effort discovered the crash site two days later, on July 13, and personnel from Dow Field and the air field at Presque Isle were immediately sent to the crash site to investigate the accident.  Investigators noted that severe thunderstorms were in the area and heavy clouds obscured the mountain at the time of the crash.   The bodies of the crew were removed to Bangor and returned to their families and later a bulldozer was brought in to salvage certain items from the crash site before burying the remaining wreckage which is still resting on the side of the mountain over 70 years later.

In 1999 efforts began to erect a memorial to the lost crew who never made it to the battlefields of Europe.  Money was raised and eventually a large memorial was transported on local logging roads to the very remote crash site.  The memorial was finally dedicated in July 2000, on the 56th anniversary of the tragic crash.

The second crash on July 11, 1944 - still the worst air disaster in Maine history - occurred near the Portland airport, some 125 miles south of the remote Deer Mountain crash site.  On that afternoon another Army bomber, this one an A-26B-5 Invader on a training flight from Louisiana and apparently attempting to land at the airport, appeared briefly out of the fog at an estimated altitude of 200 feet.  Climbing several hundred feet it disappeared again into the fog.  Shortly thereafter there was a loud explosion and flames were seen beyond the runway near Long Creek, a small tidal stream flowing into the Fore River near the Portland harbor.  Witnesses say the aircraft struck the ground and cartwheeled adjacent to the Westbrook Trailer Camp, a government housing facility for workers at the nearby New England Shipbuilding Corporation yards in South Portland and their families.  The two man crew was killed and the burning wreckage destroyed sixteen trailers and damaged a dozen others while taking the lives of 17 people on the ground, mostly all of them women and young children who could not escape the firestorm, and injuring many others.  The exact cause of the accident is still unknown.

What was left of the trailer camp no longer exists in what is today South Portland’s Red Bank neighborhood and Olde English Village along Westbrook Street near the Portland International Jetport.  A memorial to the Long Creek disaster was erected in 2010 in a small park near the crash site. 

How strange that two bombers apparently disoriented by inclement weather conditions would crash so close on the same day.

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Saturday, July 4, 2015

Celebrating American Independence - New Dispatches from Maine

This morning I once again participated in the annual reading of the Declaration of Independence at the New Gloucester (Maine) Historical Society’s History Barn located behind the Meeting House in the Lower Village.  As a regular summer visitor for over two decades, and now a summer resident for the past six seasons, I was honored to continue my participation in this fine tradition marking the day we celebrate our revocation of British tyranny. And as before, I read the section listing the numerous “injuries and usurpations” to the American Colonies by King George III.

The Declaration meant a great deal to the early citizens of New Gloucester.  In 1736, a group of citizens of Gloucester, Massachusetts petitioned the colonial governor to settle land near the coast in the Province of Maine (it would not become a state until 1822).  The petition was granted the following year, and in 1739 a group of settlers cut a road from Yarmouth, on Casco Bay north of what is now Portland, through the intervale to the headwaters of the Royal River at Sabbathday Lake where our summer cottage is located.  A blockhouse fortification and palisades were erected on the high ridge line of Gloucester Hill circa 1753-1754 during the French and Indian War.  The town of New Gloucester was eventually incorporated in 1774 at a time when the thirteen American colonies were organizing to express general dissatisfaction with their treatment by the British crown.  Upon incorporation the good people of New Gloucester made it known that it would gladly contribute to the common defense of the united colonies in support of full independence.  By the end of the Revolutionary War, 44 New Gloucestermen heeded this call to arms.

I think every American should read this document from time to time to remind ourselves of the promises we made as a nation and its citizenry 239 years ago.  I fear we have strayed far from many of the freedoms and rights granted to us by our forefathers.  It is time we reconnect with our honorable heritage and face the future with a renewed sense of patriotism as we honor the gifts our Founding Fathers presented to us.

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Friday, June 26, 2015

Grilling Red Snappers - New Dispatches from Maine

It has been said that you know you have crossed into Maine when you go to the local market and the hot dogs on display are a bright, almost neon red. They are not called hot dogs here.  They are red snappers, pure and simple.  Oh, you can get the regular hot dogs at grocery stores, but why when you can enjoy a red snapper instead?  Red because of their obvious hue, and snapper because of the sharp snap they make when you bite into one.  Some folks are turned off at first sight; I know I was just a little suspicious.  They just did not look real to me.  But this all changed when I first bit into one of these pork franks for the first time.  They are delicious!

This is not to say these tasty wieners can’t be found elsewhere, although you might have to look near and far to find them in the grocery store.  I have seen them for sale in Massachusetts, but not on the scale they can be found here.  In Maine they are a staple anywhere you look, due in large part to the fact that the largest manufacturer of red snappers is Bangor-based W.A. Bean & Sons who have been turning them out since 1918 (founded in 1860, five generations of Beans have been running the company since then).  It claims it is the only source of red snappers in Maine and produces over 4 million of the red tube steaks annually.

They are tasty whether served in a split-top frankfurter roll, which is not the same thing as the standard hot dog bun found elsewhere in the USA (see photo above), or by themselves on a plate.  Just add a healthy squirt of mustard - I prefer Dijon or a mustard-horseradish confusion - and they are ready to eat washed down with a bottle of Moxie or cold beer. 

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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

A Special Kind of Soldier - New Dispatches from Maine

                L'audace, l'audace, toujours l'audace!
                 – General George S. Patton quoting Frederick the Great

I thought about posting this a few days ago, on Father’s Day, but decided to wait until today which would have been my dad’s 91st birthday.  I have posted about him in the past, but being in Maine, I thought I would touch on his short time here, about the only thing I knew about the Pine Tree State until my first visit in 1988.  I have been a regular visitor, and now part time resident, ever since.

Dad was drafted into the US Army in April 1943, just a couple months shy of his 19th birthday. He left his native Michigan, having never traveled farther than northern Ohio, and completed his basic training at Fort Jackson, in Columbia, South Carolina.  From there he was sent to the University of Maine, in Orono, as part of the Army Specialized Training Program.  The ASTP was designed to single out specially qualified soldiers for their exceptional IQs and send them to various college campuses around the United States to learn special war skills.  The two-company detachment of over 500 soldiers assigned to the University of Maine in the summer of 1943 was designated as a “pre-radar” group to study electrical and civil engineering and other related disciplines that would be required for the eventual invasion of Japan.  Some were also enrolled in Officers Candidate School (OCS) to be trained for a specialized officers corps to serve as Army engineers as the war expanded in the European Theater.  The training program was intense.  The ASTP soldiers wore their uniforms bearing the ASTP patch emblazoned with the “Sword of Valor and the Lamp of Knowledge” and maintained strict military discipline while attending university courses.   They stood early morning reveille and marched to classes and the dining hall.  The war had not yet begun in earnest for these young men, but they all knew their time would come.  They were “soldiers first, students second.”  Still, they knew they were fortunate to attend college and I recall Dad telling me how much he enjoyed his time in Orono; the war was far away and life was good, even during the winter with all the snow and the sub-zero temperatures.

    Some Mothers have sons in the Army,
    Some Mothers have sons on the Sea,
    Take down your service flag, Mother,
    Your son's in the ASTP.

Unfortunately, it would not last.  In February 1944, during the third term of the ASTP at Orono, many of the soldiers enrolled in the basic part of the program, including my dad, were recalled to active combat duty.  Casualties were mounting rapidly and the entire ASTP was abandoned that March when the advanced OCS students were also recalled to active duty.  They did not realize the Sword of Valor would come so quickly.  The Army decided its need for infantry replacements was more pressing than the need for technical specialties.  The early group traveled by train to Tennessee to join the 104th Infantry Regiment, 26th Infantry “Yankee” Division in the US Second Army’s spring maneuvers.  They were needed to bring the division up to strength before it was shipped to France in the wake of the D-Day invasion where it would join the US Third Army under General George Patton.  Originally consisting of personnel from the Massachusetts National Guard, the division was no longer the special pride of New England as its ranks swelled with men from all over the United States.  The ASTP soldiers would serve in the front ranks as combat infantry riflemen and knew from the beginning that their future looked grim.  Many who went never came back.

Thirty-four of the former ASTP soldiers at the University of Maine – their own special band of brothers – returned to Orono in September 2001 for a first reunion sponsored by the College of Engineering.  They returned not so much because of the short time they spent on campus, but because all of them were thrown into the war together.  These “special soldiers” came together again to honor the 52 members – 10% – of the ASTP detachment at the University of Maine who were killed in action during World War II and to place a bronze plaque inscribed with their names.  Since the university did not maintain records for the ASTP detachment assigned there, it is difficult to say if many more died during the war. Those who could be located and who attended the reunion believed there were many more.  Without original records, no one can be certain.  As many as 75% of the ASTP detachment was wounded in combat in northern France and across Germany in the final months of the war.  The plaque also includes the names of two soldiers who died in a dormitory fire on campus in February 1944.  I remember my dad telling me about the fire.  He was housed there and was lucky to get out.   Since this reunion, surviving ASTP members have located the names of several additional members who were killed in World War II and their names appear on a second plaque which hangs along side the first in the Class of 1944 Hall in the hope that those special student soldiers who died will not be forgotten again.

Dad did not attend the reunion; I doubt he even knew about it at the time.  He visited me here in Maine several years ago and I am quite certain it was his first time back since he left in 1944 on his way to Tennessee and the battlefields of Europe.  I asked him if he planned to go back to Orono to see if it had changed much.  He never did.  He pretty much put the war behind him when he returned home when so many did not.

If I have a chance, I hope to visit Orono this summer to have a look around and think of Dad and the good times he spent there as one of the US Army’s special kind of soldiers.

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Sunday, June 21, 2015

Subaru War Horse - New Dispatches from Maine

Allons! whoever you are come travel with me!
Traveling with me you find what never tires
     – Walt Whitman, “Song of the Open Road”

Our 2005 Subaru Legacy wagon crossed the 200,000 mile threshold yesterday morning on my way home from the post office, the most miles we have ever put on a car.  That averages out to 20,000 mile a year and I can believe it.  That is over two-thirds the distance from the earth to the moon!  Our car is a war horse if ever there was one.

Purchased in early January 2005 when we drove it off the dealership lot in suburban northern Virginia, it is our fourth consecutive Subaru since we bought the first one - our first new car - in 1978.  Now, over ten years later, it is still a smooth and enjoyable drive.  And like all the Subarus that preceded it, it has been extremely reliable and durable after numerous fully loaded trips to and from Florida and Maine, as well as the  shorter road trip to hither and yon.  And the old girl still gets incredibly good mileage.  

Most of the miles are the routine daily local trips.  Driving in and around the Washington, DC metropolitan area takes a heavy toll on any car.  The streets are rough and full of potholes.  Add to these conditions the cold and damp winters and the hot and steamy humid summers which also exact their heavy toll.  The war horse goes where we point it and brings us back again.

We crossed the 100,000 mile mark in Florida in March 2010, and now we are in Maine and another summer during which we will rack up several thousands of miles of back road driving.  We take good care of her and she treats us well in return as we continue to explore the edges of America.  I’ll never tire of the old gal.

I wonder where we will be when we reach 300,000?

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Saturday, June 20, 2015

It's Time to Take It Down - New Dispatches from Maine

The recent murderous rampage in Charleston, South Carolina by yet another misguided and foolish person saddens and sickens me.   How many more of these  monstrous acts of violence must we endure before our leaders show the courage necessary to end this scourge?  Promises were made after the Newtown massacre almost three years ago and they still remain only promises.  People who should never have a gun can still get them.  And now, in the wake of this latest slaughter, people seem to be more interested in symbols than the weapon that killed nine innocent people in a historic black church in Charleston.  Many seem to believe that this madness will stop if we finally ban the display of the Confederate battle flag.  I feel they are somehow missing the point. 

I agree with those who think the flag should be taken down . . . from where it flies on the grounds of the South Carolina capitol in Columbia and elsewhere.  Those who tell you that it is a symbol of “heritage and not hate” are kidding themselves.  Just take a look at the above photograph.  Who wants to claim that as their heritage?  Lindsey Graham, who represents South Carolina in the United States Senate, and who almost three weeks ago announced his candidacy for President of the United States, would have us believe that the Confederate battle flag (different from the national flag of the Confederacy) is a "part of who we are."  Really?  It is certainly not a part of who I am.  And I would go so far as to suggest that it has nothing to do with anyone alive today regardless of where they were born or live.  A part of who we are as Americans?  Does this mean that modern Germans should fly the Nazi banner from their homes and government buildings because it is a part of who they are?  I don’t think so.  Today one often sees the Confederate flag flying alongside the Nazi banner at Klan rallies and other white supremacist gatherings.  The Confederate battle flag, regardless of what it represented a century and a half ago, has become inflammatory while representing an unfortunate chapter in this nation's history, one that could possibly have been avoided if our Founding Fathers had done the right thing when they had the chance.

Taking this symbol down will not end the racism it has long represented nor will it stop the endless and senseless gun violence that plagues this nation.  These problems are far too complex, and our leaders appear hesitant to address them in any sensible way.   Let's keep our eye on the ball, folks!  It is high time we start considering the very real problems we will continue to face as long as nobody has the courage to act.  We need to start somewhere.  Taking down that flag is only the first small step on the long road to doing what is necessary and right.

Symbolism only goes so far, but yes, it is time to take that flag down.  A first step, a small step, a symbolic step.  But we can’t stop there!  We need to roll up our sleeves and get to work doing what needs to be done.  And soon.  No more talking about it.  It’s time to act.  And if our leaders are not willing to do what we elected them to do, for whatever reason, then they need to step aside and get out of the way of those who can and will.

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Friday, June 19, 2015

Red Flannel Hash - New Dispatches from Maine

Someone yells “hash is ready” and I am usually the first to sit down at the table.  I love hash.  Corned beef hash, roast beef hash . . . call it hash and I am there.  But I never heard of red flannel hash until I first came to Maine almost three decades ago.  But I am glad I did, and despite some initial reservations about this local variant, I still come running. 

The etymology of the term “hash” goes back to the French “hacher” . . . to chop.  Like any good hash, it tastes best when made from leftovers and whatever else you might have handy.  In this instance, it is a motley of onion, diced potato, corned beef, with some salt and pepper to taste.  The “red flannel” come with the addition of chopped beets.  Top it off with a couple fried or poached eggs and you are done.  I am not a big fan of beets, mind you, but it works here and I am not exactly sure why.  It tastes good and so I don’t ask too many questions.

I have heard a couple tales on the origins of the name.  Some say it goes back to Vermont’s Green Mountain Boys during the American Revolution.  Supposedly they were so hungry one winter that they chopped up their red flannels to add to their scarce potatoes.  I guess hunger trumped warmth.  Another tale tells how a cook in a mining camp, suspecting her husband was stepping out on her, ground up his red flannel long johns and added them to the morning hash.   It turned out he and the others liked the stuff so much they asked to have the bright red hash every morning.  Having dispatched her errant husband’s only red flannels, she substituted beets after that.  I wonder whether he ever questioned the disappearance of his skivvies?  A good hash can make one forget his or her woes.  That must be it.  These make for entertaining tales, but the origins of Red Flannel Hash is, I am sorry to say, far more pedestrian.

Apparently The New York Times published a recipe for Red Flannel Hash in its October 25, 1943 edition under the title “Dish of Infinite Variety.”  It almost immediately drew fire from some of its readers.  One complained that the war would surely be lost “if the noble American dish of red flannel hash be fallen to the low estate set forth by your editorial . . .”, adding that the dish originated with the “never-to-be-forgotten institution, the New England Boiled Dinner!”   The ingredients were simple; one took the boiled dinner left-overs – “potatoes opalescently colored and lusciously flavored by a mixture of juices; beets, red and enticing; and a few golden carrots” – and chopped them up (but not too fine) “and warm them to a turn with a discreet use of the pot liquor.”  Another reader wondered “in what isolated corner of New England did you find the recipe published for red flannel hash?  Or were you simply fishing for the real recipe to replace the parody you gave?”  The dish was once again attributed to a boiled dinner – “corned beef and cabbage to New Yorkers” – and included “beets, carrots, turnip, cabbage and potatoes with the corned beef. The hash is the clean-up meal. It is correctly made of 50 per cent potatoes, 25 per cent corned beef and 25 per cent beets.”
Once chopped everything was fried in bacon fat in an iron skillet “and you have a dish for the gods, whether it be served for breakfast, lunch, dinner or supper.”
As fussy as Mainiacs are about their Italian Sandwiches (see my June 17, 2015 posting), the same goes for their Red Flannel Hash.  Some say it is only for breakfast and must be served with a fried or poached egg.  Others will insist it is a supper dish served with a side dish such as cole slaw, baked beans, or cornbread.  Still others will insist it can be served anywhere and at any time.  I tend to side with the latter.  And whereas Worcestershire sauce is frequently added to American Chop Suey (see my June 18 posting), Red Flannel Hash can be enhanced with a splash of apple cider vinegar.  Some will fry it in oil or bacon fat while others will add a dollop of sour cream just as you would to a bowl of borscht (beet soup).  Some like it soft and mushy and others fried crispy.

Strictly speaking, Red Flannel Hash is not unique to Maine; you can find it just about anywhere in northern New England.  But it was here in Maine where I first encountered it and so I consider it local fare.  My nose tends to go up when beets are offered to me; I would almost prefer my flannel long johns to beets.  Still, they work well in hash for some reason.  And I do love borscht, so what can I tell you?   The mysteries of life.

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