And then the unthinkable . . .

One Saturday not long ago I attended an emergency response training session in my community. Offered by our local fire department, it seemed a proper way to update the First Aid training I had received a long time ago.

This session went beyond the splint and bandage knowlwdge that was required of a Cub Scout den mother, and the practical procedures I practiced when young children were in my household. Instead, the focus was on disaster response, ways to recognize and respond to medical distress, and what to do first at the scene of a serious accident.

It was eye-opening training.

Our small group practiced hands-only CPR, how to use an AED (the automatic external defrillator commonly available in public places today), how to apply a proper tourniquet, and what to do prior to the arrival of trained emergency response teams. We were also instructed about how not to make a medical emergency worse by doing the wrong thing.

It was good information; I recognized a need to update my home medical supplies, and resolved to install life-saving first aid kits in my vehicles. I reaffirmed my desire to be prepared. It’s only sensible.

The disturbing part of the session came later.

A local police officer was our no-nonsense instructor. A member of our city’s well-trained emergency response team, the police officer who had once given me a ride home when my car stalled spoke about how to survive an active shooter situation.

She pulled no punches.

Public discussion centers around prevention rather than survival. Sadly, in the modern world, everyone is at risk, and no place is immune.

Awareness is key. Quick action is imperative.

I came away from that training session with an increased sense of vulnerability, but also with heightened determination. I no longer take safety for granted. Identifying escape routes is not paranoia; being watchful in public places is smart. Surviving extraordinary events, including airplane crashes and natural disasters, sometimes hinges on preparedness, immediate response, and will.

That is fact.

So, why this, and why now?

Last week, mid-week, in the middle of the night, my neighborhood was suddenly brightened with the flashing lights of mulltiple police cruisers. Officers patrolled the street and it was obvious that something uncommon had occurred. It was not until yellow police tape was strung at a residence across the street that a vague sense of foreboding became palpable.

Not fear exactly, but beyond curiosity.

A police barricade was set up at the end of our quiet cul de sac, and neighbors’ departures and arrivals were noted.

Later, when local news teams set up in my front yard, then knocked on my door with cameras and microphones turned on, we learned that a shooting had occurred, and that a neighbor had been transported to the hospital in serious condition.

No one in the neighborhood commented publicly; the incident was only briefly mentioned on one local television channel. Details were not forthcoming. Unknown strangers were apparently involved.

The yellow crime scene tape and street barricades were removed later in the day. The home across the street was quiet and empty.

It may never be quite the same, but life on my street has returned to its normal cadence. Neighbors come and go. We smile and wave, set the garbage out on the appointed day, check the mail, and walk the dog.

Although my neighborhood is pleasant, we are not well-acquainted with our neighbors. The family across the street was new to the neighborhood. Unfortunately, we had not even been properly introduced. We do not even know their names.

We honestly do not know what happened that night. We may never know. We do not know if the family has returned permanently, or if they ever will. They too come and go, sometimes at odd hours. We notice. We feel a loss. We do not know the condition of the man who was shot.

This lack of connection is perhaps the greatest loss, the biggest concern, I have a sense that in the not so distant past, residents of a neighborhood would have stood together in such circumstances. Neighbors would have comforted and consoled their neighbors. Perhaps that type of solidarity might have prevented the incident, whatever it was.

We do not know.

 

 

 

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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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Rituals and memories . . .

One beautiful early spring day many years ago, while living in Santa Fe, I received an unexpected call from friends we had previously known in Dallas.

It was Friday, just as this year, and Easter was on Sunday. Preparations for the first Passover seder were already underway at our house. But old friends don’t arrive every day. We immediately invited them to join us, and we set two more places at the table.

I remember that celebration with fondness.

We had been busy chopping apples, preparing Haroset and bitter herbs, roasting a shank bone and setting the table. But most of the work was finished and we looked forward to an opportunity to share a meal and good times with dear friends.

They brought marshmallow and peanut butter-filled chocolate bunnies. They also brought beautiful white eggs and a dye kit, and gleefully set up shop in our kitchen, amid the Matzoh, the chicken, the vegetables, and the half-done dessert.

We were like children that afternoon, mindful of our separate traditions and eager to share news of our separate lives over the past months and years.

That evening we had colored eggs on our ceremonial Seder plate, along with the parsley, the horseradish and the other essentials. We shared the Passover story, and we repeated ecumenical prayers. We all had a wonderful time and somehow it seemed more than appropriate that we meld the symbols, the prayers and the traditions of our individual families and faiths.

We also celebrated other newfound rituals — our roast chicken was served with green chile on the side, and the rest of the menu was just as eclectic, made more savory because of the guests who trusted they would be welcomed with open arms even at the last minute.

This year, as the world is immersed in “separateness” and strife, and when the news seems less than joyous all around, I recall that other holiday — the joint celebration of holy days that seemed effortless and totally right — and I have hope that similar scenes continue to be played out in other households, even now.

One of my favorite authors, Robert Fulghum, speaks of rituals, saying “Rituals do not always involve words, occasions, officials, or an audience.” But when they do — as in the ritual of the Seder, or the rituals of Easter services, they are poignant. They deserve to be honored, held dear and celebrated with gusto.

No matter where you are, or who you are with this special weekend, I wish you well. It matters little whether you mark the occasion with a large family, or spend it in solitude. I hope you greet it with good memories from the past and the expectation of a pleasant future. If you are able, share the joy with good food and good tales, with good friends, and with a sense of celebration.

And, by the way, perhaps colored eggs on the Seder plate should become a tradition.

Life is, after all, a continuing celebration.

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Under a wandrin’ star…

There may be nothing new under the sun, as my grandmother was fond of saying. However, everything on the globe is new to you if you haven’t seen it before. Travel offers infinite possibilities — not only to see, do and experience, but to meet new people and to renew oneself.

So, when friends ask — as they sometimes do — “Don’t you ever stay home,” my reply has always been “As little as possible.”

Lee Martin’s raspy lyrics resonate with me still:

Home is made for comin’ from, for dreams of goin’ to . . .

Not that I don’t like the pleasures of home and hearth. I bask in the glow of the familiar, the comfort of friends, the joys of family, the lure of the comfortable and familiar. And then I hear the call: a new trip beckons or I feel the need to see for myself what others have spoken or written about.

And I’m off.

I was fortunate enough to marry a man who is also open to adventure, to travel that does not always involve firm plans and set itineraries. And, over the years, we have invariably followed our hearts, to the consternation of family and all but the best of friends.

Our travels have taken us to unexpected places in unusual ways, at odd times. And every trip has enriched us in ways we could not have foretold.

Today, it is cold, drizzly and dreary. Today I am dreaming of warm, sunny and inviting, with the prospect of good food and lively companions.

Unfortunately, I cannot simply pack my bag and be gone. But soon; soon, I say to myself, I will loose the ties that keep me here, and be gone again.

The problem is that the world is large and many destinations tempt me. Where the next journey will lead is a question still unanswered.

I have several trips in planning stages. Others are simply possibilities at the moment. I long to return to Cuba: Last year’s day-long visit to Havana was not nearly enough to whet an appetite so long building. I want to see New Zealand and Australia; Brussels and rural Belgium once again beckon. The Baltic as well. And Russia. Yes!

I am sure there will be time and opportunity for some as-yet-unknown-options in 2019, whether they are close to home road trips or journeys across the dateline.

It’s a new year, after all.

That’s the beauty of a calendar reset: The promise of new beginnings comes with the date change.

So, what are your plans for the coming year? I gave up on resolutions long ago. But I’ll not give up those travel dreams. Not ever!

And, as always, there will be many stories to tell.

 

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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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