The Call of the Old West

Note: In September, on a visit to the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, I was enthralled by exhibits in the building’s second-floor Cattle Raisers Museum. It’s worth a trip if you have not been there.

The West lives on . . .

Although most of my adult life has been lived in large cities, much of it as a 101_0921transplanted Texan, a fair part — perhaps the better part — of my childhood was spent in Miles City, a small town at the confluence of the Tongue and Yellowstone Rivers in dusty Eastern Montana. It has a long and varied history, very little of it serene and comfortable, but it was nowhere near as wild as other early settlements of those early years in the Old West.

It was from a site near the rivers that General George Custer began his 1876 march into history at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. That same year, Fort Keogh was established there in a continuing attempt to subdue Indian tribes. The town, named for the original commander, grew up around the fort and welcomed the Northern Pacific Railway in 1881.

Cattle, armies and rail lines . . .

Miles City also became the northern terminus for cattle drives that originated in Texas, taking a huge toll on men and stock alike. During the final decade of the101_0917 century, the need for troops declined, and by 1907 they had all been reassigned. That year a second rail line was routed through Miles City. The Milwaukee Road became the last transcontinental rail to cross the state to the Pacific.

Partly because of the railroads, Miles City emerged as a primary U.S. Cavalry remount center in the years preceding World War I. In 1914, the Miles City Roundup was established, and the outpost city’s reputation as the most important horse market on the world stage was born.

It was renowned because of the surrounding open range, but also for the many banks and bars along its Main Street, and for other creature comforts, among them  both juicy steaks and comfortable beds in real hotel rooms. In the early days, it was a favored destination for cowboys and trainmen, some notable lawbreakers and a fair number of law-abiding citizens and families. As time passed and the world changed, Miles City survived, but it didn’t exactly thrive.

Saddling up for cattle drives . . .

Then in 1995, Miles City became the end point of the Great American Cattle Drive, a six-month historical reenactment “performed” by 300 head of cattle and 24 cowboys, along a route that threaded its way through Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and 101_0925Wyoming on the way from Fort Worth north. The days of the open range were gone, but the long stretches of uninhabited land and the big skies remained, even though mid-90s cowboys closely paralleled the path of modern highways.

Today, Miles City is perhaps best known for its annual Bucking Horse Sale, held the last full weekend of May for the past 68 years. It is still the place where much of the nation’s rodeo stock gets a start. The reputations of legendary modern cowboys, broncs and bulls are sometimes born in Miles City. It’s a dusty, quirky small town in a state with few residents. It still retains much of its unpolished character from decades past, and that only adds to its appeal in my somewhat biased view.

The past intruded on my consciousness as I strolled through the Cattle Raisers exhibits. But it was the lifesize Longhorns, the talking bovine portraits, and the display of impressive, unique saddles that stole my heart.101_0941101_0935101_0932101_0931

The saddle that drew my attention was custom-crafted at Miles City Saddlery. My first pair of boots was made there, and the saddlery still exists in a prime location on Main Street, almost 110 years after it opened. I could not touch the saddle’s leather nor feel the embossed patterns, much less sit astride it. But it is a work of art, even though the documentation notes that it was probably much too fine to ever have been a working saddle, even for a well-to-do cowboy.

Moving on, moving west . . .

I read cattle drive descriptions and viewed trail maps, examined worn hats and well-used spurs. I learned the histories of huge Texas cattle ranches and the stories of the hard men who shaped the land and raised those cattle to build their legacies. I could envision the promise of those times.

My forebears were not cowboys; rather they worked the land and the railroads of the day, also the mines. They moved throughout the Midwest and West, from Virginia westward to Missouri; then on to Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado, Wyoming and Montana, Idaho and Washington.101_0926

I still feel a kinship with the cowtown of my past, as well as with modern Fort Worth. That’s another reason why my recent visit to Wichita, Kansas was so memorable.  Whether I chalk it up to genes or early environment, old cowtowns feel like home!

If you’re interested in Cowtown histories, read about these three as a good start:

Wichita, Kansas

Miles City, Montana

Fort Worth, Texas

And if you want to know more about cattle drives in general, read this one.

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Thunder in the Sky

The sky was grey. The air was chill. The streets were wet from persistent drizzle. But there was no mistaking the sound of jet engines.

Just before 3:30 p.m. yesterday — Thursday, December 6 — there was thunder in the sky. Well-trained naval pilots departed from the Joint Reserve Base in Fort Worth, Texas headed south to College Station for one final bit of pageantry in conjunction with the funeral for the 41st president of the United States.20181206_112839It was a fitting tribute to George Herbert Walker Bush, himself a former naval pilot.

Instinctively, I stepped outside; instinctively, I stood at attention on the patio and looked up at the overcast sky. I could not see the jets as they streaked over the city. But I did not expect to. It was enough to hear the sound. And it seemed to last a long, long time.

This was not a CAVU day, I thought. Ceiling and visibility for the pilots was far from unlimited. But I was certain they would not be deterred on this, of all days. I hoped that the skies would clear in College Station so that the crowds gathered to pay tribute to President Bush would witness what was to be the largest “Missing Man Formation” ever flown.

Indeed, about 40 minutes later, the planes in tight formation appeared on the TV screen. The funeral train had arrived at its destination, and the casket was carried out of the rail car with military precision to the strains of Ruffles and Flourishes.

Soon after, the aerial honor guard drowned out the National Anthem as mourners, military honor guards, and the crowds gathered to pay homage stood at attention.20181206_154428Timing was perfect.

The 21 planes came in waves of four, until finally one peeled away, headed for the wild blue yonder far above — or for heaven, if you prefer, carrying with it the spirit of the departed leader.

The symbolism is inescapable. A flyover is always impressive. It was beautifully choreographed in honor of a president who almost lost his life when his plane went down over the Pacific during World War II.

Today, the memory of that sound — the thunder of jets overhead — became even more poignant because of the date. On December 7, 1941, it must have been a similar sound — multiplied a hundred times over — that accompanied the dark cloud of enemy planes flying low over Pearl Harbor.

That long-ago thunder in the sky subsequently shaped the destinies of many men, including one who would become president some 48 years later.

Yesterday our military forces and Texas A&M Cadets honored a former commander in chief. Earlier, presidents and friends, legislators and colleagues, and the American public had remembered him in Washington, Houston and all across the nation. The tributes were memorable and heartfelt.

Today, we commemorate another event in history. As we should. And we pay tribute in a different way. As we should.20181206_162938The words on the facade of the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library on the grounds of Texas A&M University express it all, eloquently.

 

 

 

Note: CAVU is an aviator’s acronym, as explained at the Bush memorial service in Washington, that stands for “ceiling and visibility unrestricted,” meaning that it’s a good day for flying. In more modern vernacular, the “U” is also for unlimited, and it is a mindset for those who choose to live life to its fullest.

 

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About that upcoming election . . .

I will vote tomorrow.

Yes, I know I could have cast my ballot early. I might have avoided a line, or stood in line in better weather. My schedule tomorrow is a busy one, but I will make the time.

I do not take voting lightly.

Somehow, I feel that the effort it takes to get myself to my designated polling place on the designated day is a valuable exercise in citizenship. It’s a symbol of the power that has been entrusted to me; the gift that allows me to make choices about issues that are important to me and the type of government that I endorse.

Voting as an act of faith

What gets me to the polling place is a conviction that voting is my right as a citizen, but that freedom comes only with a sense of responsibility. Our system of government, however, is not without some hardships, both intellectual and physical. I want to remember that past generations fought for the right to vote, won victories on the battlefields of war, in the halls of congress and in schools and living rooms all across the country. We still face some of those challenges today.

I have faith in a future that will unwind according to the legitimate choices of a well-intentioned public, and in the thought that millions come together on a single day to make their choices known.

That faith may have been shaken lately, but it has not died.

Somehow, the idea of a voting season that stretches out for days and weeks in advance diminishes that notion. One of my favorite movie lines has always been, “America isn’t easy; America is advanced citizenship.”

That translates, in my mind at least, to going to the polls on Election Day, not at another time that might be more convenient.

The Promise of Voting

I recently read the thoughts of “100 Women on 100 Years of Voting” as published in The Guardian. This year marks the centenary of the vote for British women, among other anniversaries, notably the end of World War I.

I will vote tomorrow with memories of their words echoing in my head. I will also be thinking of the young people I recently met in Cuba, longing for the day when they will have a chance to vote for meaningful change in their country.

I will also remember that the right to vote is interpreted very differently across the globe. In many places the vote has not yet been extended to all citizens; in other nations, voting is mandatory. In still others that are called democracies, the requirements for meaningful elections are not in place.

No, I do not take voting lightly.

If you haven’t yet voted, please join me tomorrow at the polls. I trust it will be a meaningful experience. And then maybe we can all get to work to solve some of the problems that we all agree exist in our country. The day has arrived.

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Wichita: A Return to the Old West

Fort Worth’s Cattle Raisers Museum recently rekindled — unexpectedly — a dormant passion for the cattle trails and cowtowns of yesteryear.

The history of the American Heartland and the Old West is a unique combination of hard times and severe conditions, but also of risk-taking and fortitude, memorable events, great achievements and epic failures. There were tall tales and small victories

over the land, the weather and human nature. From lonely ranches, bustling cowtowns and, further west, mining towns, rip-roaring frontier outposts and long stretches of open space, I find those stories of “livin’ by your wits,” confronting danger and triumphing over circumstance endlessly fascinating.

The museum visit fueled my desire to take to the road again for a trip to the Midwest and, in a sense, through some of my past. So, when an opportunity arose to meet a cousin in a spot almost equidistant from our two homes, the idea became reality.

This time I drove, with the benefit of modern horsepower, comfortable seats and climate control, north to Wichita, from my home south of Fort Worth. Along with Dodge City, Kansas City, Miles City, Montana, and Cheyenne, Wyoming, Wichita radiates a certain mystique, a holdover from the days it was a prime stop along the route of cattle drives and wagon wheels, a waypoint on the Chisholm Trail.

Wichita Attractions

In Wichita, I looked forward to touring the Frank Lloyd Wright House, hoped to spend a spooky evening at Botanica, and even considered saying hello to the Longhorns housed at the Wichita Zoo. Other expectations were minimal. My cousin and I made no concrete plans, other than planning to fill each other in on lives lived too long with too little personal contact.

I did not expect to fall in love with Wichita. But that is exactly what happened. The weather could have been nicer, but the people we met more than compensated for the clouds and drizzle.

The sun came out for only one entire day; the temperature was pleasantly cool  and we took advantage of it! However, at the end of our short stay in this vibrant modern city with its quintessential frontier vibe, we were both sorry to bid it goodbye.

Wichita’s more recent history was built by aeronautics; its renown as a cowtown was relatively short-lived. Grain and oil followed the cattle; then aeronautics, making Wichita a boom town for airplane production during the war years. Today, this small city (population only about 390,000) produces 70 percent of the general aviation aircraft in the nation. However, the city still reveres its cowtown reputation, but has embraced arts, music, science and modern commerce in a big way.

Art, History and People

Colorful public art dominates the downtown area and enlivens streetscapes throughout the city. Even bridges, waste containers and city street lights are aesthetically unique. Herringbone brick still paves fine old residential streets, and contemporary architecture mingles happily with old red brick warehouses and columned bank buildings from the early 20th Century.101_0984 (2)101_0982 (2)101_0975101_0983

The Arkansas River (pronounced like the state’s name with an “AR” in front of it; not, we were to learn, like the “other” state that shares its spelling) meanders through the city’s central core, with riverfront parks and museums grouped strategically to make parking and walking easy for local residents and out-of-towners alike.

Surrounding land was home to nomadic peoples for millennia, according to historians, although the first Wichita Indian settlement dates only to 1863. Shortly after that, J.R. Mead opened his trading post, and the the town was incorporated by 1870. Today, Wichita is the largest city in Kansas. But it doesn’t feel large. It feels neighborly, if at times a bit quirky.

There are street people, and it is obvious that some residents live below the poverty line. As in most cities, there seem to be ample problems to solve, but there is no sense of threat for visitors to Wichita, and those we encountered, from hotel and restaurant staff to shopkeepers and families out to enjoy the sun and city parks, were cordial, exceedingly helpful and upbeat.

Good Fun and Good Food

What we did do: The Old Cowtown Museum is not a museum in any normal sense. WP_20181009_15_17_42_ProWP_20181009_14_08_49_Pro (2)WP_20181009_13_59_04_ProWP_20181009_13_11_22_ProRather it is an experience, an interactive recreation of a frontier town and it is simply wonderful. We sauntered along the wooden boardwalk, poking into the actual old homesteads, stores, and buildings, the church, one-room schoolhouse, tailor shop, general store, Masonic Lodge, newspaper office and grain elevator — a total of 54 original or recreated buildings that  that have been moved to the multi-acre site. On the day we visited, the streets were even suitably muddy; we watched as a leather-aproned blacksmith pounded red-hot metal into usable implements, and we quenched our thirst with Sasparilla at the old-time saloon.

We were awed by the history lesson and the story of how the Keeper of the Plains 101_0986101_0987sculpture came to be. We witnessed the swiftly-flowing river and saw it well above its normal level following days of storms and heavy rains.

Although we enjoyed the lighted pumpkins and live music at the botanical gardens, we regretted not seeing the plantings in daylight.

If we found anything odd during our stay, it was that it’s difficult to find a place to eat after about 8 p.m. Or maybe we just were looking in the wrong district?

Now that I have been introduced to Wichita’s charms, I want to return, to savor more of what it offers. Unfortunately, I feel that I didn’t even scratch the surface of its delights, and I suspect that there’s good food, good shopping and good entertainment just waiting to be found.

I had read about the Doo Dah Diner and had hoped to visit there to sample its all-day breakfast. I had also read about a fish and seafood restaurant on the banks of the Arkansas. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it there either. That’s two things left undone. The zoo was another, and I have since learned that the Wichita Zoo has a worldwide reputation. Also, the day we visited Frank Lloyd Wright’s Allen House, it was unexpectedly closed, so we had to be content with walking around the house and snapping outdoor pictures.

But, this trip to America’s heartland — and in a sense — into both the country’s past and my own was a worthwhile one on many levels.

Dorothy and Toto were transported unexpectedly out of their state and into big adventure, and I never quite understood why they were so eager to get back to Kansas.  Now I do — I understand perfectly!

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Another Year Has Passed

Our day began early. We had just spent the first night in our brand new home, and we were eager to get on with the day. There was much to do. The coffee was brewing, and we were entranced by the morning light and the unfamiliar view. We decided to take a few minutes to enjoy the experience. We turned on a portable radio, hoping to find some pleasant music. It was not yet 7 a.m. in Santa Fe, NM.

The announcer’s voice was strained; the words made little sense: smoke – airplane – accident – tragedy – disaster – New York . . .

Amid the chaos of packed boxes and the jumble of furniture, we located a small black and white television set. We plugged it in, and were immediately immersed in another kind of chaos.

The date was September 11, 2001.

Our world changed in an instant.

We poured our coffee and stood mesmerized, watching grainy live coverage, not able to hold back the tears, not believing what we were seeing, not able to speak.

Seventeen years later, the pain is still real, the memories intense. Strangely, with the passage of time, new reminders are increasingly evident.

The World Took Note

In February, at the World War II Museum and Memorial in Caen, France, we gazed with surprise at a piece of twisted steel girder on permanent display in the courtyard,100_8603100_8600100_8601a grim reminder of the day a part of the soul of New York collapsed in a heap of rubble. It caused a wrenching emotional reaction in this building where the horrors of war are real and all too painful.

In May, on a spit of land in Bayonne, N.J., across the Harbor from where the Twin Towers stood in Manhattan, we were struck by the breathtaking beauty of a symbolic teardrop. It symbolizes loss, but somehow it is a testament to hope. 100_9504Though not well known, the sculpture by artist Zurab Tsereteli was an official gift to the United States from the Russian government.100_9514Dedicated to the struggle against world terrorism, the sculpture park is testimony to the global impact of 9-11. Today, it is a place for reflection, and the busy life of the harbor continues all around, with the Statue of Liberty and the World Trade Center site both a part of the remarkable scene.

Today, we paid a visit to Fort Worth’s Museum of Science & History to view the Tribute Exhibit in the building’s Urban Lantern. Its existence is not at all a secret, but it’s not a prime attraction either. However, once seen, Column 133, Steel N-101, which helped support floors 100-103 of the North Tower, the first to be struck 17 years ago, will not be easily forgotten.

That’s as it should be.

Today, on Rosh Hashanah, it is especially fitting to remember, and also to look ahead.

Shanah Tovah; may the coming year be good for us all.

 

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Today, and 100 Years Ago . . .

Legos are great! But so is history.

I learned a little more than a year ago, much to my surprise, that my then eight-year-old grandson is a history buff. Not your ordinary kind of kid who’s interested in the 60s or 70s, mind you, but the passionate “I want to know everything about World War I” kind.

His parents reported that he was mesmerized by National Geographic specials, read everything he could digest about events leading up to that war, learned about Archduke Ferdinand, asked questions that college graduates have never considered, and retained facts and information that most of us have long forgotten — if we learned them in the first place.

After all, WWI is “ancient history” even for members of my generation. And when I was young, even though I grew up as an “Army brat,” my interests were seldom about history.

But this child — now 10 and growing wiser every day, has recently enlarged his sphere of interest to include other wars, other places, other times. (In addition to a fascination with critters and snakes, Legos, spaceships, rockets, archeology and myriad other subjects, including video games and dance steps.) Pretty normal, all of it — except maybe the history part.

Listening to the ancestors . . .

When I heard of this young boy’s interest, I saw an opportunity. As the current matriarch of a family with a long history of military service, I have become the holder of a trust — I have in my possession the relics of service — pictures, histories, uniform patches and insignia, artifacts of wars fought long ago and far away by members of the family whose names I barely know. Truth is, I was excited about the prospect of passing on the stories and the objects to a child who may learn from them and hold them dear.

Last year I was consumed for several weeks with opening boxes, examining old letters, cataloging and organizing items that would be appropriate for a child, one with a burning desire to learn about why we went to war a little over a century ago.

When I mentioned that he had ancestors who fought in the Great War and asked if he was interested in pictures and objects from those times, the answer was a quick, “YES, Yes, Yes, yes,” true to his exuberant nature.

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So, last year, for his birthday, along with Legos and trinkets, he was gifted with a World War I mess kit and utensils, some photos and letters, and a promise of more to come.

That was just the beginning.

Stories of all kinds . . .

When the brothers of my grandparents put on the uniform and shipped out to Europe,  I know that they and their families were worried. Both returned. Their stories are very different, but both were changed by the experience. Now I am consumed by the task of piecing together some of those experiences, honored by the attempt to tell their stories through their own words and pictures.

Another of the ancestors drafted for that war had recently emigrated from Sweden to the United States. It was 1917; he served in some of the major battles in France and Belgium. In 1918, in conjunction with his discharge papers from the U.S. Army, he earned his citizenship. He was so proud!

None of those men spoke about the war. But they saved scraps of paper, blackened buttons from their uniforms, foreign currency and coins, a few photos. There are letters to family members written during training, and quick messages of safe arrivals. There are notes scribbled during long marches and quick bivouacs  to give a glimpse of the hardships. There are censored letters and a few postcards; some from the young lieutenant who found himself a student at the Sorbonne following the armistice!

All that history belongs to me — and to my grandson. So the service ribbons and dogtags, faded unit patches and wrinkled pay stubs, penciled notes, dented canteens, and small silk flags of the allied nations will one day be his to treasure — or to dispose of. French and Belgian posters pulled from their kiosks and stored in a trunk for the better part of 70 years will one day be his as well. They are framed now and hang on my wall as a reminder of all that happened then. The war that ended 100 years ago changed the lives of individuals as well as the course of history.

A century has passed . . .

This is the appropriate year to remember the Great War. We traditionally celebrate centennials — and even though the century that has passed has not yet brought peace to the world, it is still a laudable goal.

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This weekend my husband and I will take our grandson on a quick road trip — to the National World War I Memorial and Museum in Kansas City. We think he’s old enough now. He is looking forward to one last summer adventure before school begins. When we asked if he’d like to come with us, his response was an enthusiastic “YES, Yes, yes!”

We actually haven’t told him yet that there’s a Legoland Discovery Center nearby in Kansas City. I think we’ll make time for it as well.

For our part, we will view it all in a fresh new way — through 10-year-old eyes. Before the weekend is over, I expect he’ll be teaching us. I look forward to sharing with him more of the family stories. I have written about some of them before. I now have another reason to write more fully about those men and their experiences.

 

Note: This is a very personal project. With my grandson’s interest came a renewed fascination with the lives and stories of those men in my family who served in the armed forces during this country’s wars. A book, based on their own writings and memorabilia, is in progress, partly as a response to my grandson’s plea several years ago: “Grammie, would you write me a book someday?” That’s a request I could not refuse. I hope you, my readers, will also find interesting some of the stories I will post here, Off Main.

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Challenge: Cleaning out a handbag

Like Fibber McGee’s closet, a woman’s purse can be “enemy territory.”

Note: This was first published on Yahoo Contributor’s Network a little over five years ago. I recently ran across it in my files and, because of the demise of the platform, I decided to republish it here. I must admit that my habits have not changed in the intervening time, and my handbag today is just as disorganized as that other one. I simply ignore its contents, and I have perfected that attitude. But I have moved in the direction of smaller bags. Is that progress? I’ll let you decide.

It’s always happening to me — I reach for something in my handbag and instead of finding it, whatever it might be, quickly and easily, I emerge with a handful of paper remnants, snippets of napkins, business cards with indecipherable notes on the backs, sales slips with faded, scrawled words and phrases. Each time, I make a silent resolution to clean out the contents of my purse and restore order (the hope is that by so doing, I can perhaps instill some order in my life — to date it has not happened).

I have writer friends who swear they do the same. Is it then a shared affliction?

And, what to do about it?

On a recent foray into the depths of my “carry bag” the yield of remnants was especially telling. Aside from the assorted receipts which clearly no longer serve any purpose and which I cavalierly tossed in the trash, I found:

  • 3 words on separate remnants of old paper – Inkheart, badinage, and “old-fangled” –attesting to a quirky thought process. I like to think that I treasure words, and explain to family and friends, especially the young ones, that words are “fun” and that learning meanings is a game. They often respond with blank stares.
  • 3 scraps with phrases – “Now is the time,” “sede vacante,” and “Americans: Outliers Among Outliers.
  • One square yellow sticky note with a name and time scribbled in red ink — important appointment would be my guess. Surprisingly, I have no recollection of ever meeting or talking with “Rae.” So, Rae, if I missed our appointment, I am truly sorry. Perhaps you could contact me again.
  • 2 slips with dollar amounts, nothing major: Simply $12.97 and $3.34. Really?
  • One half of an old bank deposit slip with the following numbers: 12-17-36. I thought perhaps it was a combination, the safe deposit box? Then I remembered: It’s Pope Francis’s birthday. Shouldn’t we all know when the pope’s birthday is?
  • A 3×5 file card with an email address (which I will not print, because I really do know him).
  • Two recipe cards picked up at a local grocery store – Snapper with Parsley and Cilantro Rice, and Haddock over Walnut Rice. I see a pattern there – they sound good, too; I resolve to try both.
  • And, finally, two scraps with what I will assume are either pieces of song lyrics or phrases from a book I was reading; no attribution, however. But I am known for doing that – scribbling phrases that I find moving or meaningful and then forgetting the occasion or the author to the point that I am always afraid to reuse them out of respect for copyrights and creativity. Maybe I wrote them and I shouldn’t worry. Maybe they are things my grandmother used to say and I should simply laugh. Maybe they are the code to a secret strongbox full of jewels. See where my twisted mind takes me?

In writing this, I decided that I really did not know the precise meaning of the word “foray.” So I Googled it. I have become a child of the computer age, however unwillingly!

And I found:

for·ay

/ˈfôrā/

Noun

A sudden attack or incursion into enemy territory, esp. to obtain something;

a raid: “The garrison made a foray against Richard’s camp.”

Now, that is a definition I will nevermore forget. And it describes perfectly my reconnaissance mission to my handbag. It was successful. It was effective. And, as I explained to my grandson just recently:

“We are always learning, aren’t we? I think that we should try to learn something new every day.”

He nodded, smiled, and promptly returned to what he was doing before.

 

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D-Day — so long ago, but not forgotten . . .

On an off-season trip to France in early February, my husband and I were mesmerized by the Normandy beaches. Their windswept expanses and blustery beauty are inescapable, of course, and in many of the small-town historic locations not another tourist was in sight. Winter hours were in effect at those museums and attractions that were open at all. Days were cold and drizzly, and the climax was the epic blizzard that blew through Brittany and Normandy on its way to paralyzing Paris.

But the somber season underscored the meaning of the trip for us. Although we both had previously been to Normandy, we had also then been enchanted by Mont St. Michel, by the food, the warmth, the sun and the flowers. This time it was the history that drew us — the beaches themselves, the battlements and the cemeteries.

The experience changed us.

An Overview of Overlord

We began our “beach” day at the Caen Memorial Museum, the Centre for History and Peace in Normandy. It is astonishing in its scope, and in its pertinence. A full-size P-51 Mustang hangs in its great hall, looking surprisingly small and fragile. A German bunker mockup is eerily realistic. And its tableaux and diverse displays are awesome.

The collections span events far beyond D-Day, detailing how a European conflict became a World War, and how battleground experiences morphed into the Cold War. There is also a piece of twisted metal from the World Trade Center in New York, a chilling reminder that peace has not yet been achieved in our time. I would eagerly return to spend additional time there. On this cold, windy day, it was good to be inside, and we learned a great deal during the time we spent there. But we were eager to get out to the beaches before the sun sunk too low on the horizon.

The five Normandy beaches that supported the D-Day landing are not far from Caen, and not far apart, scarcely 50 miles — one day is sufficient to see them all. In 1944, it took the allies six full days to gain control of the embattled territory and unite the beaches. Operation Overlord, the military campaign begun on D-Day, succeeded in liberating all of northern France by August 30, and by the next spring, the war was nearly ended.

June 6 is a day, much like December 7, that should, perhaps, live in infamy. It is estimated that approximately 2,000 American troops died on Omaha Beach where there was heavy fighting; more than 9,300 Allies were killed, injured or went missing along the five beaches that day. Instead, though, June 6 is a day that is remembered — as it should be — as the turning point of a war that lasted far too long and cost far too much in terms of both dollars and lives.

By the end of the day, more than 156,000 Allied troops were ashore on the coast of France. By the end of the week, the numbers swelled to more than 326,000, in addition to 50,000 vehicles and at least 100,000 tons of material. Approximately 5,000 ships and landing craft were part of the surprise invasion, along with support from 11,000 aircraft.

Prior to the beach landings, paratroopers were already in position behind the front lines; some of them had arrived in gliders. World War II tested the mettle of a whole generation — men and women — both at home and abroad, and of all parties to the conflict. And D-Day changed the course of that war. Eleven months after D-Day, the allies accepted the surrender of the German Army. Hitler had already committed suicide.

Preserving the Memories

Tributes to those who fought are everywhere. Pocket museums and unexpected reminders of the war are evident in every small town and along every roadway in this area. Local residents still remember what happened here, even though those who lived through the hard times are aging. Those who survived now die of old age. D-Day was, after all, 74 years ago.

Near Omaha Beach we stopped at a simple monument erected to the Big Red One, and walked out on the bluff above the beach to an impressive obelisk that stands as a lonely guidepost and memorial to the 1st Infantry Division. It is eerily quiet, and peaceful. We looked into a German artillery bunker and stood gazing across the expanse of sea grass and sand at a clear view of the waves below. We imagined the landing craft arriving in the crashing surf with their cargoes of young fighting men.

We stopped in the colorful village of Arromanches-les-Bains — designated Gold Beach, to see the remains of concrete Mulberry Harbours, towed across the English Channel to assist with the unloading of supplies ferried to France following D-Day. It was quiet and deserted on the day of our visit.

We spent somber moments in the Normandy American Cemetery Visitor Center at Colleville-sur-Mer. We choked back tears at the thought that there are more than 9,300 white marble headstones here, and that the first burials dated to June 8, while battles still raged all around. This is American soil, paid for at great cost, but granted in perpetuity as a gift from a grateful French nation.

On the walls of the impressive semi-circular memorial that leads visitors into the grounds are the names of an additional 1,557 American soldiers whose remains could not be located and/or identified subsequent to the invasion.

 

The Impossibility of Forgetting

We left the American cemetery on that first day — thinking we did not need to walk among the headstones.

We drove on to the nearby La Cambe burial ground of 21,000 German soldiers who were never to return home. And we are still haunted by the stark black crosses and poignant symbolism of the battlefield cemetery established by the U.S. Army graves registration service during the war. It once held both American and German graves. The American dead were later exhumed and reburied at the American Cemetery, or returned to the United States in accordance with the wishes of next of kin.

The German Cemetery now contains a central mound to mark a mass grave: It is the final resting place of 209 unknown German soldiers and 89 identified combatants buried together. The cemetery was officially dedicated only in 1961, and, to this day, occasional interments of German soldiers whose remains are discovered throughout France are held there. La Cambe’s black crosses are purely symbolic. Flat ground markers list the names of the dead.

There are other cemeteries as well in Normandy — British, Canadian and Polish, along with many burial grounds that contain graves of both Allies and Axis troops — many of them still unidentified.

A Powerful Reminder

We drove on to Brittany, for several days of immersion in French countryside, food and culture. It was welcome after the emotional journey to the beaches.

But then we returned to the American Cemetery. We were drawn back to this spot, and were among a handful of visitors on a day that was blustery and frigid — snow was even then in the air — but it dawned bright and sunny. We walked among the headstones, reading the names, the units and the ages of those who died. We visited the chapel at the far end of the reflecting pool, gazed once again down at the beach, and stood, transfixed, as the color guard lowered the flag at 4 p.m. The mournful sound of Taps sounded across the silent acreage filled with stately white crosses and stars. Only then did we leave.

There is a time capsule embedded on the grounds — dedicated to General Dwight D. Eisenhower and the forces under his command on June 6, 1944. It was unveiled June 6, 1969, the 25th anniversary of D-Day, by the newsmen who were there. It contains  original reports and newspapers detailing the event.

It is slated to be opened on June 6, 2044.

Hopefully, 26 years hence, what happened on these beaches 100 years earlier will not have been forgotten.

Note: It was only recently that I became aware that my father, who served with the 364th Fighter Group in Honington, England, during World War II, earned service ribbons for D-Day. It came as a surprise, because he never talked much about his service during the war. I think I understand why. But I wish I could have heard his stories. 

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Take a moment . . .

 

100_9060 (2)My husband and I traveled to the Normandy beaches in February 2018. It was a moving experience. Today, it is with special reverence for those who died on those wind-swept beaches of France that I will celebrate Memorial Day.

Memorial Day

Because I come from a military family, this day in my childhood was always marked by ceremony and parades, a solemn recognition that some who wore the uniform died in service. The food and family aspect of Memorial day was less important than the solemnity of remembrance.

Somehow this Memorial Day seems especially poignant: It is the 150th annual observance of what was originally termed “a day of memorial” following the Civil War. Decoration Day continued to be observed by families and communities across the nation, often on May 30, and often simply by decorating the graves of the fallen.100_8616This year also marks 100 years since the end of World War I, “the war to end all wars.” The custom of red poppies stems from the poem, “In Flanders Fields,” written in 1915.

In just a matter of days, the world marks the 74th anniversary of the D-Day landings that led to a cessation of hostilities in Europe, and finally to the end of World War II. Sadly, there have been many battles since.100_8663 (2)

A Time for Hope

But there is hope as well, perhaps the best hope in nearly 65 years for a lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula. American troops continue to serve in foreign lands, fight battles in far away places, and die in service to their country. Perhaps there is hope that those conflicts also will be ended before long.

It was only in 1971 that the observance of Memorial Day was officially fixed as the last Monday in May. It is a national holiday, a long weekend, and the unofficial start of summer. But, like most holidays, it has a serious side. 100_9062By all means, observe the holiday with friends and family. Be safe, enjoy the good things of life. But, take a moment — at least a moment — to acknowledge the sacrifice of the 645,000 men and women who have put on a uniform and given their lives in conflicts around the world since the outbreak of World War I.

At the same time, think back to our own conflict, and acknowledge those who — on both sides — paid homage to those who died. It makes Memorial Day even more meaningful.

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September 12, the day after. . .

The word that I cannot get out of my mind today.

No matter what detractors may think or say, we are a resilient people. We may be a nation of defiant individualists; we may complain about conditions – sometimes too much; we may disagree adamantly about the way to solve problems, about best solutions, about the future of the world and what is good for society. We often hold tight to those differing opinions and are quick to voice them.

Resilience!

Deep at the heart of it all, though, we are a nation of optimists, of thumb-your-nose at the worst that befalls us believers in the reality of good; of roll-up-your-sleeves and get-back-to-work do-ers who are prepared to meet challenges head on and triumph over setbacks.

We saw that spirit over the past few days in Florida. We witnessed it last week in Houston and along the Gulf Coast. We have watched the horror of wild fires in the West and been told of the ongoing battles against them. We have seen it on the world stage. We have witnessed ordinary people helping other ordinary people in an outpouring of concern and the desire to make things better.

Perhaps we should remember that, think less about our differences and more about our resilience and our shared, collective purpose. We have been, and still are, a beacon of hope – as much to ourselves as to others.

Watching television coverage of natural events, I have been struck anew – brought almost to tears, but with smiles that I could not suppress – by the goodness exhibited during the worst of times. Volunteers join professionals; Coast Guard cutters and helicopters work together as do airplanes and cruise ships. Doctors and electricians, school children and businessmen, volunteer housewives and government officials, entertainers and sports figures – all come together in times of crisis.

A flotilla of private boats arrived to help out in Houston. And power company trucks formed a convoy from Minnesota to Florida. Hot shot firefighters traveled from Texas to Montana and the Pacific Northwest.

We all participate in the clean up and the rebuilding, we help the less fortunate and care for the hurt and grieving among us. We reach out to assist other nations and cultures, and we send not only our money, but we give of our time and resources. Much of the time, we do it with no thought of compensation, no expectation of thanks.

And that gives me hope. How can you view it otherwise? Come to think of it, there is another word that comes to mind.

Goodness!

As a country, we have proved our mettle in wars foreign and domestic, through flu outbreaks and dust bowls and stock market collapses, through bank failures and housing bubbles, through shipwrecks and space shuttle explosions, through natural disasters and terrorist attacks, and through many years during which issues have been hotly contested. As a nation, we have never faltered nor been defeated, never lost hope, never put aside our ability to laugh at ourselves, never given up.

And that gives me hope as well. It gives me hope that we will weather the current storms – both literally and metaphorically – that plague our nation.

During a moment of silence yesterday morning, repeated at four separate locations in the East and led by our president and first lady, we remembered what it took to get through one horrendous moment in our history. September 11, 2001. We survived then. We will now.

Today is September 12, 2017. Isn’t it time to get back to work? All of us; together.

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