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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