Zwack Attack

Last night, I was the parent on duty. Action Girl mostly works second shift and thus, the evenings are my territory with the Widgets. When it was just the single Widget, Short Stack, it was really not very hard to pull off. Things went pretty smoothly on the whole and hell nights not withstanding, we got along pretty well and he got to sleep at a reasonable hour. Then came Lulu Belle.

Just about the time the evening routine had become highly predictable and easy to execute, we threw in the random variable of a new baby. Things immediately got way more interesting than any sensible person would ever want. With new babies, the real problem is that routines just don’t exist long enough for you to figure them out and exploit them. Just about the time you realize that the baby always likes this or laughs at that, everything changes. Yesterday’s panacea is today’s anathema. It keeps you on your toes. It also makes me relish that evening beer all the more.

After Lulu Belle is tucked in and happily reaming about an edible world and Short Stack is lying in bed pretending to be asleep, but actually whispering stories to him self, I switch off the lights, go to the fridge and grab a beer. The day is over, both kids are fed and I’m pooped. I feel that I’ve earned my cold one.

Last night, disaster struck. As soon as the kids were down and I quietly padded into the kitchen, I had a sinking feeling. I know what I’d find. Opening the door only cemented my horror as an empty beer drawer stared back. This was not what I was hoping for. As the lone adult in the house and with both kiddos asleep (or close enough to asleep), there was no way I could to run down to the store. I was trapped in my beerless home. Just to add insult to injury, my half full bottle of Black Strap rum had been left at another house after an evening of Dark & Stormies, so my other late night favorite was inaccessible as well. I looked around to check out my options.

Scotch? Gone.
Calvados? Finished.
Whiskey? Also empty.

You have GOT to be kidding me!?

With the exception of a few liquors that didn’t appeal to me at the moment (Gin, Sake, Tequila) there was nothing in the “booze” range to be had in the house. Even the wine cellar was looking pretty bare. That’s was okay for the moment though. I didn’t want wine. I wanted BEER!

A conversation with my wife later that evening netted me some sympathy but didn’t whet my whistle. I assured her that would somehow cope without my nighttime libation but as I hung up the phone, I started casting about for something to take its place. I settled on my favorite daytime drink as an alternative and poured my self a generous glass of milk. Though cold, smooth and normally enjoyed fully, the milk lacked a certain… everything. The kicker was when Action Girl returned home after her shift was done and guiltily admitted that after the boats were tied up, she had gone out to the near by pub with a coworker to cap off the night. AAAGH!

So, with the break of a new day and a trip to town scheduled, I knew what my first stop would be. Normally, I would have saved the beer run as the last item on the “to do” list before returning to the ferry terminal… but not today. It was snowing like a bugger and knowing I had a ton of shoveling in my future, I wasn’t willing to risk it. I love my local beer and booze shop, and not just because they’ve given me free beer in the past, though to be honest, it doesn’t hurt their standing in my book. I like them because they are friendly, exceedingly well stocked and very, very knowledgeable. These are not your average front counter drones. They all know their stuff and if you ask them for their opinion on… oh, I don’t know, Finnish vodkas or Belgian dopplebocks, they will have one. A very well informed one. They are worth listening to. They are also curious and keep bringing in more and more unusual alcoholic items from obscure corners of the world. You just never know what you’ll find there.

As I walked through the door with a smile and a wave to the guy behind the counter, I got as far as, “Hey, how ya’ do…” before it changed me pointing with an outstretched hand and to a shouting.

“HOLY CRAP! YOU HAVE ZWACK!”

There, sitting on the counter, still next to the box they were being unloaded from, was the familiar green bottle with the warning-like gold Swiss style cross emblazoned on it. It’s a liqueur made in Budapest and the bottle itself is vaguely shaped like an old fashioned bomb such as one you’d fire from a bronze cannon at invading Napoleonic infantry. Perhaps they did.

“Yah, we just got these in. Are you familiar with it?”

zwack

I marveled at the bottle for a moment and thought back. I have only encountered Zwack on two occasions. The first time was at our friends Laura and Harrold’s house in western Germany. He’s a Colonel in the U.S. military and having a variety of men serving under him, he’s received various gifts to stock the bar over the years. While Action Girl and I were visiting them one time, we all decided to get some drinks going. I spotted the bottle of Zwack.

“So… What is it?” I asked.

Harrold looked at it appraisingly. “You know, I have no idea. I’ve had it for years and sort of never dared get into it.”

We got into it. The name begged for us to. I don’t remember the night too well.

The next time I spotted a bottle was years later in, of all places, a friend of a friend’s house outside of Boston. We were there for a surprise party and the bottle sat happily in the liquor cabinet all night and taunted me. We never did get into it and I wasn’t sure who our host was exactly and so, was unable to inquire in the most leading way possible. Oh, the missed Zwack!

So, a few moments after spotting this rare bird on the countertop of the booze store, I happily walked out with my very own bottle. As I sit here now, with the kiddos tucked in bed and ostensively sleeping, I’m just finishing off my first glass of Hungarian booze in many years. The taste? Well… I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that nostalgia has colored my memory of the taste. It’s a liqueur and so it’s rather syrupy and sweet. Not clean and bracing like good whiskey or vodka. Do I regret the purchase? No, not one bit. It’s a good drink after an evening moving snow around the driveway and warms you all the way down as you sip it. All in all, it’s a perfect winter libation.

Also, I’m betting that it will last us longer than a six pack of the local micro-brew’s beer. At least it had better. If we tried to polish it off in a few nights without our friends here to help us, we’d be speaking slurred Hungarian in no time.

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Veteran in a Foreign Land

There is a cemetery just over the Massachusetts line, coming from southern New Hampshire. As old graveyards go, it’s pretty standard fare for an old New England town. The stones are mostly slate, cool and a dark silver-blue.

Many years ago, a good friend of mine took me there on an overcast Veteran’s Day to see something unusual. Something easily over looked by the casual observer. As we walked out onto the mown grass, dotted with brown and crunchy leaves, we stepped carefully along the rows of stone and loss. Here and there, a place was left empty in the lines of mothers and fathers, sons and daughters. Places where the markers had fallen to the earth and been swallowed up by the passing of time. As is usual in these places, little flags flew at the foot of many of the stones. Men who had joined up to fight for their country in its many hours of need. The small banners of red white and blue fluttered silently in the early November breeze.

I looked with some interest at the various inscriptions to see where and when these brave souls served. Some had been in the War of 1812; some white marble stones showed the resting places of those who had gone to fight against the Confederate States during the American Civil War. Several were veterans of the Revolution of 1776. The original American Patriots.

As we rounded a row of leaning stones, a small flag caught my eye. My friend was already standing there looking down and reading the inscription. Here lay the mortal remains of a man who had served his country and died while in its service. He had not been killed in action but must have succumbed from an accident or illness. The stone told us little more than his name, rank, age and unit he served with. The diminutive Union Jack fluttered proudly. Here lay a junior officer of the Royal British Army, having passed away in a land far from home and his roots. He had died in 1772, a loyal subject of his Majesty, the King of England.

british

With his hour of passing, this man had missed so much suffering and conflict that was to come. Where he would have wound up, is pure speculation. Would he have been true to his station and employ? Would he have fought the Rebels with his all or, like many who had lived here among the colonists for so long, would he have defected from the ranks and become a quiet farmer with land of his own to plow? Who is to know?

What was left is a tastefully decorated slate, leaning with time and a small British flag placed by those whom he would never know. It flies among the flags of a country that he would never live to see emerge. Today is Veteran’s Day and today, I shall remember him. Though his name has slipped my mental grasp, I’ll imagine him walking happily along on a sunny day, long, long ago. Down a cart path and into the village he would go, thinking how full of marvel and opportunity this new land was.

Tomorrow’s History

(Written on the morning of November the 4th 2008)

While I could hardly call this morning an “Indian Summer” day, it is pleasant for November. Mild in temperature with bright sun forcing its way through a thin haze while a chilly, light breeze keeps you aware that winter is not far away. This morning, I have taken the opportunity given me by the warm weather to do some writing out of doors. The shamanism of technology, giving me a wireless connection as I sit on a rock ledge that emerged form the ground, who knows how long ago.

It’s a historical day today. Not just because it’s November 4th and an election year, but I mean that for me, it’s one of those days when I can feel history flow. It’s strong in the air and I feel its weight. The little park I’m sitting in is like so many that you’ll find scattered around the world. It’s pleasantly green, dogs run freely through it, peeing on anything that doesn’t move and the pigeons have designs on the half a doughnut that I’ve set down next to my coffee mug.

As I look up and to my left, a massive piece of steel looms overhead and points out over the shipping channel that leads south, in the direction it came from where it found it’s way, from it’s temporary tomb. It’s a piece of high powered ordinance from a long gone era, now perched atop a cement pedestal, never to fire again. Once, it was the height of war making technology, now it rusts away and collects bird droppings. This is no ordinary piece of artillery, however. This is a naval gun that, though never fired in battle in the heat of battle, set the fire for one of our countries most questionable wars. This is one of the deck guns from the USS Maine.

On the night of February 15, 1898, the USS Maine was sitting quietly at anchor in Havana harbor. She had been sent there to guard U.S. interests during a time of political upheaval in Cuba, as a revolution brewed, threatening the Spanish colonial hold in the Caribbean. The Warship was, in short, there as a show of force.

uss-maine

At 21:40, a massive explosion ripped the ship apart killing much of her crew as they slept in their berths. To this day, and after three different investigations spanning more than a century, no one knows for sure what happened. What we do know is that her destruction was quickly and expertly blamed on Spain and was the match that ignited the Spanish-American war. A piece of mostly forgotten history that only made America the dominant power in the western hemisphere. “Remember the Maine and to Hell with Spain”, was a cry that would resonate with an American public fed on at best, dubious and at worst, out right fabrications of what was happening in the world.

Without descending into a long and detailed history lesson, the destruction of the USS Maine was blamed on a Spanish mine. An “infernal device”, as it was described in the day. The Spanish government denied any doing and rather, blamed it on the ship’s coalbunkers igniting. Not an unheard of occurrence, back then. This possibility didn’t stop the race to battle that was unforgivably whipped along by The Hurst and Pulitzer news services. A massive distortion of the available facts in an effort to boost sales of their papers and extend their circulation would later be graced with a special moniker; yellow journalism.

In the end, the war went well for the U.S. and very badly indeed for Spain. They lost Puerto Rico, their hold on Cuba and all their holdings in the Pacific. In only about a year, America had successfully beaten an aging colonial power and completed a land grab that, for the most part, we still hold a good chunk of to this day. It was a different time. It could never happen again. Well, perhaps it could never end like that again.

As I look over my right shoulder from my quiet, moss-speckled perch, I can see a newer monument. A black and highly polished memorial, wrapped in a stone American Flag. No weaponry is displayed here. It’s more about the lives lost than the moment made in history. “In Memory of those who died in the rescue efforts on September, 11 2001”

As I cast my eyes around the park, I see a World War II memorial looming in the distance, flags lazily sauntering in the early morning breeze and at the top of the hill to my back, two field cannons, engineered in the time of the American Civil War, but just missing their day in the sun by one year, being cast in 1866. These cannons, like the deck gun from the USS Maine, likely never fired a shot in battle.

I am not a pacifist, and do not make the argument that war is unnecessary. The Monuments that are scattered around where I sit are, in my mind, are testament to wars both unavoidable and reprehensible. Causes of righteous indignation and blatant manipulation for alternate goals. Within each war, with its lives lost and deeds done, both good and bad erupted from each tumult. That can not be refuted. There is no black. There is no white. Life, so far as I have been able to discern, doesn’t work that way. We work with what we are dealt and hopefully, work towards the good of all.

Today is a historic day, no matter what the outcome. Every day is. The weight of decisions made now will have ramifications that we cannot accurately guess until we wait to see the cards turned over. Tomorrow’s history is yesterday’s future. I wonder what it will bring.

Flight of a Lifetime, Part II

When the time got close, we needed to help get the plane ready for take off. Both aircraft have four massive radial engines. The radial is a fantastic design. Tough, easy to work on, very powerful and air-cooled. The only problem with them is that if you shut them down and let them sit, all the oil collects in the lower cylinders. To fix this, you have to “turn them through”. That means is that you rotate the propeller by hand to get the oil up into the top cylinders. It took a group of about ten of us ten minutes on each engine. By the time we had finished, all of us were sweaty and my hands hurt. For the record, those blades might be massive but, boy, are they ever sharp and they only spin with a good deal of effort. It was like pushing a piece of sheet metal, edge on, through mud.

When it was done, it we headed for the door. Doors, actually. There are two access hatches on a B-17. One is the smallish door on the right hand side, aft of the wing. That’s where everyone was heading except me. There is another, far smaller hatch, three quarters of the way under the nose on the left side. When the door opens, you are at eye level, looking directly into the navigator’s station. The opening is only about twenty inches square and there is no ladder. To get in you have two options. First is to reach through, and pull your self through as your legs bicycle foolishly in the air. The other option is the cool one. It’s what the boys who flew this plane over seventy years ago did. You reach up, palms toward you, and grab the top lip. Then, like an overenthusiastic chin up, legs are pulled up, shot through the hole and you push off with everything you’ve got, hopefully, flinging all parts of your body after them. There was no one at the hatch and I was sure that if I asked, the answer would not be the one I wanted. A quick glance around, a grab and… Heave! In I went, just like on the newsreels and, off came my hat. I looked through the hatch from inside the bomber at my hat as it lay on the tarmac. To go back out and get it would both kill the “I’m so cool!” sensation that was coursing through my veins and open me up to being in trouble with the ground crew. Crap. Just then, a face appeared through the hole covered with a big toothy smile. It was one of the ground crew. I smiled back sheepishly. With one hand, he scooped up my hat and handed it to me through the small opening.

“Ever see ‘Twelve O’clock High”? He asked, still grinning.
“Um.. Thanks. Yah, a few times. I own a copy, actually.” I replied as I retrieved the hat.
“Heh, me too. Have a great flight!” And with that, he reached in, grabbed the hatch and swung it closed. I scrambled back to the radio room for takeoff, happier than ever.

FAA regulations dictate that all passengers must be belted in for take off and landing. The B-17 was not built for regulations like that and accommodations had to be made to fit the times. The floor of the radio room is wooden and along the sides, against the fuselage, they had bolted seatbelts right to the floor. You simply sit down with your legs out straight and buckled in. The sitting portion of the flight would be short anyway.

As I sat down on my bit of plywood, I looked around at the others who had paid for this privilege. I knew that it would be a few minutes before takeoff and I was curious what drove the other guys here to plunk down enough cash for a flight to Europe, just for an opportunity to fly in a plane that used to drop bombs on the same. To my left sat an older man. He looked like he was in his seventies and unlike the rest of us who were casting our gazes around the interior of the plane; he looked more like he was meditating. I decided to ask.

“I used to fly in these during the war. I was a waist gunner.”

This is always a trick moment for me. I desperately want to know all the details but at the same time, don’t want to be intrusive. I don’t remember asking him any more questions, but I probably did ask a few. He was defiantly there for a personal experience and I quickly left him alone with his ghosts. It seemed like what he wanted, I recall.

Across from me, lashed to the floor sat another man. He looked like he might be in his late fifties or early sixties and was well dressed. He looked like someone who didn’t spend much time sitting in anything other than an executive, leather office chair. I decided to chat with him a bit and found him to be quite affable. I also detected a hint of an accent. After a few minutes, I asked him why he wanted a ride. With out skipping a beat, he told me.

“ I grew up in Germany during the war. I remember as a little boy, running for the air raid shelter with my mother as the planes came over from England. Even then, I thought that these planes looked so beautiful and I always wanted a ride in one. Now, I finally will get my wish.”

Two men who were on opposite ends of the bombing of Europe, together in one of the planes that was used. Amazing.

Before I could pester anyone else, engine one barked and puffed to life. The B-17 was built for fighting, not for comfort and when the engines are running, you can forget about holding a conversation. Little could be seen from our seats as we took off, but once in the air, we could roam all over. I felt like I was living a dream. I poked my head through the open radio room top window and the slipstream hit me like a tidal wave. The force was amazing and I let out a long, “WOOOOOOOOHOOOOOO!” into the prop wash

Eventually, I found my way to the nose and sat in the bombardier’s seat. A huge, bowed window of Plexiglas sat in front of me and as I pressed my forehead against its center, the rest of the aircraft disappeared from my view. All I could see was the rolling hills and open air in front of me. It was an amazing view and it made you feel as though you were alone in the sky.

I crawled back through the plane and visited each station. I stopped and watched the pilot and copilot for a while and stood in the top turret and looked around. With no German fighters present, I decided was safe to keep moving. The radio room was empty for the most part as I passed through on my way to the tail. The openings for the waist guns yawned open on either side of the plane and the wind and sound of the engines made an amazing noise. You had to shout to be heard. In the port waist window, the old gunner stood at his post, just looking out at the rolling countryside. Like the others here, I gave him his space. It was obvious that he had wanted the ride for very different reasons than we did.

The only restricted areas were the tail gun position and the belly turret. The turret on the bottom of the plane is very difficult to get in and out of and you need the help of someone in the aircraft. It’s also very cramped and during wartime was reserved for the smaller crewmembers.

The tail too was roped off. This was due to the fact that you have to step over the yawning opening that the tail wheel mostly fills. Essentially, it’s a hole in the floor that is big enough to fall out of if you aren’t careful. OSHA would have a field day with one of these things.

The ride was just as fantastic as I’d dreamed. As luck would have it, because it was the last ride of the day and the last day of the visit to my area, the half hour flight went on for well over an hour. By the time we landed, they had the strobes and landing lights on.

It took about an hour after we landed and shut her down for my hearing to work correctly again, but I didn’t mind in the least. It was grueling and deadly work to ride those planes into war and I feel like I can imagine what it was like a little better now. We didn’t need oxygen or flack suits. No one was shooting at us and no live bombs were on board, but the mixture of excitement and fear must have made a toxic cocktail for those young men who did it every day. I’m feel honored that I had the chance to do what I did and marvel at what others went through in the name of duty.

Epilogue:

The Nine-O-Nine is still flying today, as is the B-24 that I opted not to fly on. They belong to a group called the Collings Foundation and if they come to your area, they are worth the visit. I don’t know if they still offer rides, lawsuits what they are these days, but I’d ask if you care to. It’s a almost vanished part of our world and some day soon, they will no doubt be put on permanent display in some worthy museum, but never fly again. Grab the chance while you can.

Flight of a Lifetime, Part I

I knew that they were going to be coming to town and I had made darn sure that my schedule was open. There was no way that I was going to miss this.

I have always found history in general to be fascinating and Second World War history, in particular. Perhaps it was because of all the ‘Victory At Sea’ episodes that I soaked up or maybe the fact that there were still so many veterans of that war still around. What ever the reason was, it captured my imagination completely and I spent a lot of time researching the various bits of equipment used, the vehicles that carried men into battle and where and when those battles took place. Having been born an aviation junkie, I naturally put a lot of effort into learning as much as humanly possible about as many of the war’s aircraft as I could find. Knowledge, like anything else, fades away with disuse and I doubt that I could talk in anything close to the complexity now, that I could back when I was young. At my height of research, I could have easily been employed at the Air and Space museum, if they let sixteen year olds lead tours.

A job at an air museum would have been welcomed with open arms by me but alas, there were none anywhere near my home town. I spent my time scrounging up bits of WWII history to fill my own personal museum in my room. So, with no job to discuss the intricacies of how a Bendix ball turret works or what the overhaul time was on a Merlin Kestrel engine, I was reduced to a more perfunctory job of working behind a counter at a retail shop. Even then, I managed to work Second World War aircraft into the odd conversation.

One day as I ground down the hours until I could close up the store, an elderly man came up to the register, took a look at my t-shirt and remarked with a smirk, “Mine was faster.”

I glanced down. Emblazoned on my chest was the GeeBee R-1 racer.

James Dolittle had raced it in 1932 and in it had set the land plane world speed record at 296 miles per hour. It’s top speed was printed directly under the image of the aircraft.

“So… What did you fly then?” I enquired.
“Oh, mostly P-47’s. I was based in England”

Well, that kicked off a lively chat. The two of us had a ball, I was amazed just to find someone willing to share some stories and I think he was surprised to find a kid who knew what the stories were about. We talked about fighters and bombers long past and about the visitors that were expected at the local airport some time soon. We would both be there.

The visitors were two old bombers that flew together all over the U.S. One is the “All American”, the last flying B-24 in the world. The second is the “Nine O’ Nine”, one of about ten flying B-17’s left in the world. I love these aircraft with a passion and there was no way that I wouldn’t be there to see them. Then the revelation came that, for a fee, a ride could be had if there was room and if the weather permitted.

The day that the two bombers came to town, I was informed by my boss that I had to work late. I figured that there would still be time and anxiously awaited the time when I could leave. I’m willing to bet that I had a fair shot at breaking Jimmy Dolittle’s record as I sped to the airport. I bought my admission ticket, walked up to the little table that the crew had set up, slapped down my checkbook and asked the price of a ride.

“$300 will get you in the air. The flight will last about a half hour.”

I don’t spend that kind of money lightly and back then, not only was $300 a lot more than it is now, but with my counter clerk job, I wasn’t exactly raking in the cash. I immediately opened the flap, filled out the check and handed it over. I knew that this wasn’t likely to happen again. Then a tough question was posed to me.

“So, which plane do you want to ride in?”

This was hard. The B-24 was the last of its type still in the air, but the B-17… That plane is the symbol of America’s involvement in the war. That, and it is one beautiful bird. Just sitting there with its engines silent, and its nose pointed skyward, it looked like it wanted to take to the air. I chose the Nine o’ Nine, the B-17.

Part two next…

For What It’s Worth

I went out to the movies with my Dad last night. It was a rare and happy opportunity for both of us to get together and just be guys. Mom had gone to stay over night with one of her sisters and Action Girl had taken the kiddos up to her folk’s house for a mini-vacation. Dad had a conference to go to and I had work to do so we had stayed behind. That evening, we were left to entertain our selves.

I’m very close to my Father and the fact that with adulthood comes fewer chances to do things with him has been hard for me to take at times. We really are good friends. This was a great chance to play!

So, decided to go out and do something that our wives might not want to do. In this particular case, Action Girl was a little bummed by our choice since she was up for this particular adventure. Well… adventure might be pushing it. We went to the movies to see explosions and silliness. We went to see “Tropic Thunder”.

For those of you who might be living in a cave in the Antarctic, Tropic Thunder is a goofball movie about a bunch of goofballs trying to make a movie. As one of the characters puts it, “I’m the dude, playing the dude who looks like another dude”. Oh, yah! We’re talking about quality here. Funny in a lot of places and full of explosions. What more can you ask for in a “guy” movie!?

The quick and dirty backstory is that they are filming a movie about the Vietnam War, in Vietnam. It follows them as they wander off into the jungle and wind up being mistaken as U.S. drug enforcement agents by a local heroin processing gang. Hilarity ensues. So do fart jokes. Oh! And did I mention the explosions?

Here’s where this gets interesting for me. I have never been in the military. That’s something that I’ve always sort of regretted. I’m not sure why. My Dad, however, was. He was extremely lucky, being assigned to a unit that just completed a tour. Before the next deployment came around, things changed. The troops were being pulled out, not put in. Considering that he was trained as a combat platoon sergeant, it’s a minor miracle that he stayed State side for his entire time in the military. He did however train, live with and know a lot of guys who did go over. His best friend had joined the Marines, was a 30 cal. man, and somehow managed to make it through at least two tours, though it cost him dearly. He came home a very different person and it took years for him to put his life back together. Several of my Dad’s friends didn’t come home at all.

Tropic Thunder was about humor, but it was kind of uncomfortable at times to sit there next to my father, knowing that he was looking at the movie in a different way than the director intended. There were some moments of uneasiness for me as I watched. At one point as the uppity actors are being dumped into a jungle clearing by helicopter to “experience” what it was like to be In Country, the camera pans over a swampy area and catches the faded and wrecked tail section of an old huey, lost “for real”, during the war. I know it was a prop on a set, but it yanked me violently out of the show on the screen and bothered me deeply. Suddenly, it struck me like filming a comedy at an old death camp. It colored my view of the rest of the movie.

I was born too late to have understood what was happening in Vietnam when the war was in full swing, but it loomed large in my later childhood, none the less. Our dads were the vets who didn’t want to talk about it, or the protesters who felt that they could finally rest. Comic books didn’t touch the subject much. It was still a taboo subject at that point. I remember vividly, my Dad, the gentlest man I knew, dressed head to toe in olive drab, sergeant stripes on his shoulders, cap under his arm and those big black boots. I remember sitting on our steps and not wanting him to go away, even though I knew he’d be back soon. By the time I was old enough to understand, he was out.

They wanted him to stay, naturally, but he had had his fill and was eligible to leave. He hung his boots in the cellar and there they stayed for a long time. They were a fixture for most of my childhood. Eventually, they disappeared during a basement clean out.

The war of my generation was the first Gulf War. If I was going to go, that was the one that I would have been been part of. I was in college and not inclined to join George the First’s party in the sand. I’m too old for service now. Even if I asked to join, they wouldn’t take me. The interesting thing is that Vietnam is still the one that strikes home to me. It’s the one that I feel a strong personal connection to, even though the history buff in me tends to study the First and Second World Wars the most. I may find them fascinating, but they don’t resonate like Vietnam does. I’m not sure why. I don’t even read much about that war in south east Asia. It just feels too close.

Though all war is a horrible thing, Vietnam was a truly hideous war for all parties involved. It was the one where what it meant to be an American started to unravel and splinter. It changed our world view and changed the way we were viewed by the world. It was also the one that claimed the lives of so many of my Father’s friends. Years ago, just the two of us went to the memorial in Washington D.C. I stood back a bit as I watched him look for the names he knew and tried to both be there for him if he chose to point them out, yet distant enough for him to remember in peace. It was a hard moment for both of us.

So, the movie ended on a crechendo of explosions and foolishness. The good guys get away, the movie gets made and the bad guys get nothing. All is good in Hollywoodland. The two of us went out for fish and chips and split a side of muscles. We took advantage of the rare time alone and chatted about all sorts of stuff, but not the movie. I never really gave it another thought until this morning as I was racing around, being industrious. Suddenly, the little music box that lives in my head started playing Dusty Springfield and it stopped me cold. I went over to my computer and looked through my music list and started arranging. In a few minutes, I had built what is to me, the music of the Vietnam War. To be honest, it’s what you’d expect, but it’s made me think long and hard about it again. Memories that are not my own but personal enough to make my vision blurry.

I think I’ll go someday and see that far away place for my self. I don’t know what I’m looking for in the war zone of my Father’s generation, but I’d like to try to figure that out; wether to settle the dust in my mind or stir up the ghosts.

Either way, I think it will be an important moment.

Normandy, with Grandpa

On the year of the 49th anniversary of the D-Day landings, I got to walk the beaches with my Grandfather.

He hadn’t been there all those years ago, you understand. His war had taken the young New Hampshire boy to much stranger fields of battle. His war had been going on for years. His war was full of malarial mosquitoes and sunstroke. His war was mostly ignored, or so it seemed to him.

On June 6th, 1944, Tech Sgt. N.B.H. was most likely floating off the shore of New Guinea watching B-25’s making bombing runs on the Owen Stanley mountains and wondering where the next landing would be. He was the skipper of various landing type craft, sometimes LCI’s like you see on the beaches of Normandy, but more often LCM’s or LST’s. Those are the big boats for getting machinery and tanks into the landings. His boats were often the first ones in and some of his battle ribbons, which he gave me years ago, hold bronze stars.

He had signed up in 1942, waiting until he had finished high school before joining the army. He had picked the army because he was a hunter, confident in his ability with a rifle and was comfortable in the woods. He knew little about airplanes, so stayed away from the Air Corps. and didn’t like the idea of being in the Navy. His logic was that if his ship was hit, there was little he could do about it. He’s a hands on person and relies on his own judgment and wits as they rarely let him down.

So, off to the Army he went. Then they found out that he grew up on a lake. Next they found out he could run a boat. before he knew it, he was off to lake Pontchartrain, being schooled in the art of running landing craft. His leadership qualities quickly sent him to the wheelhouse and his athletic abilities got him sent to the Combat Engineers.

The Combat Engineers were often the guys who went in ahead of the landing to get it ready for the infantry and the marines or to fix a degrading landing. These were the guys who got shot at first or under the worst conditions. They were specialists and his unit badge sported a shield with an eagle, anchor and tommy gun, meaning that they would get there by air, sea or foot, and they did.

He survived the war, but just barely. His only physical injuries came from falling through a hatch, carelessly left open by a green replacement, a partially crushed finger from a 55 gallon drum of oil that fell on him, a concussion from a falling signal light that was shot off his mast, and a case of sunstroke that nearly killed him. He made it though though, and he’s still around to this day.

He mostly tells you the funny stories. The painful ones he keeps to him self. The men he talks about were the ones who came home with him. I’ve never heard him mention the name of a single friend who was killed in action, and there must have been many. Where he was, it was inevitable. If I press for more than the five or six stories he tells and retells, he’ll go off on a line about how there are millions of stories out there from millions of people and that his don’t matter. I disagree, but it’s not my place to argue that. The memories are his, and he is entitled to share them or not. I just make sure that I’m there to listen.

When we walked the beaches in Normandy all those years later, I had the chance to watch an old man learn something new. He had always sort of talked down the European war. In many ways, I think he resents the coverage and interest it gets, while his conflict remains little more than a foot note. For years, when ever he saw footage of the D-Day landings he would speak disparagingly about how the men had to wade, if not swim to shore. “We never did that! If we brought you in, you had dry boots!”

Standing on the bluffs in the old German positions, this old man looked down and saw the beach with the eyes of a military landing craft captain. After a few minutes he remarked that now he understood.

“This is a hell of a place to land. Look, there are at least six sand bars that you’d have to plow through before you’d hit beach. You’d never have the momentum to get past the fourth one. This is an awful place to bring them in. No wonder they had to swim.”

Later that night, it started to rain as we all went out for dinner. There were thirteen of us in the group and it wasn’t easy to find a place where we could all fit. We finally found a nice little restaurant and nearly filled it with our family. As the evening came to a close, the owner came out to our tables to ask if we had enjoyed our meal. When he spotted the white hair on my Grandfather’s head, he asked if he was a veteran. “Yes, but not from here. I ran landing craft in the Pacific.”

The two old men chatted a while and as the bill came out, the owner grabbed it quickly and removed the cost of my grandparent’s meal. My grandfather objected but the owner insisted. “It is my gift to you. Wait one moment, I have something else.” The owner disappeared into the back for a few minutes and emerged, holding a labelless, corked wine bottle. “This is sand from the beach. I picked it up my self just a few days after the invasion. It has the blood of American soldiers in it. I want you to have it. I remember. Here, in Normandy, we all remember.”

I’ve never seen my grandfather so much as tear-up, and to be honest, I don’t know if he did just then. I know I would have. I had to look away. It was too much to see.

It’s June 6th today. A day of loss for so many families. Many dreams stopped forever on a long stretch of beach or on the cliffs over the French coast. So many more dreams however, were made possible by the loss. We remember that day for the heroism and loss on those beaches but I’ll try to think of my Grandfather, all those miles away, floating on a steel deck in the Pacific, wondering when it will all be over so he can finally go home.

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