Sun Dreaming – 4/11/05

Monday Poem, A Year and a Day

Sun Dreaming – 04/11/05

The winter has been long and I turn my heart towards travel.
Soft banks of snow have been transformed by the late winter rains
and now bear none of their earlier powdered beauty.

The icy mud sucks at my feet as the brown grass shows
greasily through on cold, dead patches of earth.

It is grey and cold,
Too cold to hope yet for flowers.
Too cold to see the ice banks retreat into the ground.
The wet and sharp winds bite exposed ears
and makes red cheeks sting.

Drizzling rain freezes as it hits,
making a walk to the mailbox a treacherous affair.

It is cold.
Grey.
Wet.
My shoes are soaked.

Then I smile.

For a moment, I am not here,
and I fly away in my mind.

For me, Southern France is always sunny,
and I close my eyes,
remember…

and walk along the terraced hillsides,
amongst the ancient almond trees once more.

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And Then There Were None.

Harry Patch has died.

He was born in 1898, trained as a plumber at age fifteen, was conscripted into the army of Great Britain in 1916 and was the last living combatant of the First World War. There are three other men still alive who served, but Harry was the last who actually fought. A soldier who, on the day of his nineteenth birthday, entered the trenches for the first time to experience something that no one alive today can fully understand. It’s not possible that we could.

He had a good idea of what lay ahead of him. Not only did he have an older brother who had already been wounded in the conflict that would reshape much of Europe and lay the groundwork for yet another, far bloodier war, but also, this was not 1914 anymore either. By 1917 when he had completed his training, citizens of all nations understood the meat grinder that they were throwing their teenagers and young fathers into. By then, the enthusiasm for glory was diminishing daily. It was understood by all except the embroiled governments that there was no real glory to be had but rather, death, dismemberment, mental anguish that would last a lifetime, reducing men to shadows of their former selves. The wide eyed, naivety and excitement that so commonly clouds the minds of otherwise sensible individuals had been mostly scoured away in the mud of no-man’s land and blood of millions of young men.

Harry was trained as machine gunner, an invention that was used to such effect in those years it became the signature weapon of the Great War. The device, invented years before the outbreak of war, was perfected in this conflict and refined to a point where even for the next generation, designs were near duplicates and carried once again to the fields of France to fight in the war after “The War to End All Wars.”

Machine guns were feared by all on both sides and as such, were prime targets to be taken out as quickly as possible. This was to be the fate of the gun crew Harry was attached to. As they lay in the slime of Passchendaele, a shell exploded over the team. Three, out of the five man team were blown apart. Harry suffered a wound from the flying shrapnel but lived. With a visit from a battlefield medic, a run on a stretcher to an aid station and then to the rear and out of France, he made it back to the Isle of Wight where he would convalesce. Later, still in England, as he drilled on a rifle range, preparing to return to the front, he would receive the news that the Armistice was signed.

stretcher

The war was over. The lives of over eight and a half million soldiers had been lost. Over twenty one million had been wounded. Far more had wounds that did not show outwardly. It took Harry over eighty years before he could bring himself to talk about it. In 2007, he found the strength to return to the fields of Flanders and see the land again where so many men were unlucky enough to not be wounded like himself, but instead mingled with the soil, unseen even to this day.

That one battle alone consumed over 850,000 men.

One battle.

I am a student of history. I have a thirst to know and find awe and respect in the items that have been carried and cared for by those who have held these things; who have lived or just as often, not lived through the fires of past conflict. I am not alone.

Collectors of history cover the globe and the hunt for the right helmet, the correct rifle or the authentic letter spurs on a lively commerce. What worries me is the disconnect that can occur with these items and the stories that refuse to cling to them. An object can’t tell you the story of it’s owner and with the death of those who knew, we loose that human element, and it is a loss. The bayonet that is snapped up at an antiques show that might have ruined the life of a family a century ago. The canteen for sale that once was filled but never drank from. The extra overcoat that was ordered but shipped back unworn. We can’t forget where these things come from or whom they might have touched. We should, however, care for them since we can no longer care for their one time owners. They are not ours, however. We are only stewards and need to teach why there are items of humanity. Why they are special.

In 1914, the European youth were electrified with the promise and thrill of war. There had been a long wait between conflicts and the populace had forgotten that glory was a lie. It wasn’t glorious. It was riding into the jaws of Death and hoping to be the survivor, even as your friends die all around you. The elders of state ordered them to go and they did their duty.

Lions led by Asses.

We can debate the argument if the Great War was inevitable or avoidable. We can question who actually started it and where the fault lies.We can point fingers at incompetent commanders and mourn those who died due to the idiocy of suicidal orders handed out with no care or strategy. What we cannot do, should never do, is think for a moment that the Great War was that. Great. It was a charnel house. We should never for a moment confuse that with glory.

Good night to you Harry Patch, you and all those who saw the war of 1914-1918 with their own eyes. There are yet three more who were there, but you were the last to raise arms against an enemy you barely knew.

The fields are quiet now except for the sounds of traffic and tractors. The memories you shared are written in the annals of history.

May we never forget the price we as men paid to hear them.

“I met someone from the German side, and we both shared the same opinion: We fought, we finished, and we were friends. It wasn’t worth it.”

~Harry Patch

HarryPatch

Over There

“So, I hear that you just got back from Venice?”

Tony, the woman on the other end of the phone line corrected me with the sound of wistful emotion coloring her voice.

“No, Florence. I was in Florence, Italy actually.”

By the sigh that followed the word “actually,” I knew the answer to my next question before I even put it out there, but to ask anyway was proper form. I’m all in favor of letting people gush when they have it in them. Blissful gushing is one of the pinnacles of personal happiness and I, for one, wasn’t going to deny her the chance.

“Oh! It was just so… Oh! All the famous people who’ve lived there and all the beautiful things that they left behind for us to see!”

Smiling, I let her go on for as long a she wished. The enthusiasm in her voice made me smile broadly.

Tony lives alone out here on the island, and is kind enough to watch Lulu Belle for us from time to time. Since her own son, daughter-in-law and grandson live on the other side of the country, it gives her a chance to do grandma duty for our little girl while giving us time to actually accomplish things like work and… work some more.

“Have you ever been to Florence?” The question was asked with the bubble like hope of having a fellow traveler to compare notes with. Sadly, I had to tell her that, no, we hadn’t been so fortunate.

This was followed by the inevitable, “Oh! You should!”

Should, indeed. Acton Girl and I would love nothing more.

We knew all to well what starting a family would mean to our vagabond traveling method. It wouldn’t put a crimp in it. It would crush it in a vice like embrace until turning blue in the face and going limp. Travel, at least for the next seven years or so, would be sporadic, far more tame, or possibly unknown all together. It was a trade we both willingly made, but it still smarts from time to time.

Like, when we think about it.

When I was five, my parents did an incredibly brave thing. They took their very young child and put him on a plane with them. When the door shut, it would not open again for six hundred and twenty-nine hours. Well… perhaps that’s stretching it a bit.

Six hundred and twenty-six hours, then.

It was a very, very long flight from the East coast to Hawaii and when you’re five, the miniature dynamos that run in your chest are controlled by a squirrel that operates your brain, and he keeps them running at full tilt, fueled on a diet of soda, potato chips and pure excitement. I have always maintained that if we could figure out how to harness the power of a five year old, our planet’s energy problems would be solved. That, and you’d wind up with a five year old who’d actually listened to you when you spoke to them.

Win / Win!

I survived the trip and have no memory of the interior of the overhead luggage racks, so I’m assuming that I behaved my self, though memories are a tad sketchy.

That was my introduction to travel and amazingly, things went well enough on that trip that my parents decided to keep taking that little squirrel powered kid with them and I have benefited from that immensely. I had the chance to make some truly amazing journeys as a child and young man and have seen parts of this world that most people know only through history class or movies. Some of the things I saw and places to where I traveled no longer exist at all or are not a place a U.S. citizen could now comfortably walk. For those experiences, I am deeply thankful.

As I grew older, the travel bug stayed with me and with my independence and a new found life-long companion, I had the chance to travel without Mom and Dad and see what that was like. It was great!

Action Girl and I have made several foreign trips together and have really gotten proficient at our own style of travel. We bring packs and travel by train a lot. We look for rooms to rent rather than hotels or hostels. We buy our food at local markets rather than looking for the next restaurant and we are masters at picking a town on a map, hopping on the next train out of town and then making it up once we arrive wherever we picked. If there is no room in town, we’d hop back on the train and try the next stop.

eurorail

Oh, Eurorail Pass, how we love thee.

We vacationed like this for two reasons. The first is because we like it. The second is that we don’t have the cash to do it any other way. To be honest, I’ve traveled both ways, and I like our method the best. We seem to slip into the crowds rather than gliding over them. Rick Steves would approve, I think.

It’s summer here in Maine and Action Girl and I haven’t been on a jet in about three years. “Getting away,” for us means slipping off to the restaurant down the road while Grandparents watch the kids. We sit in our chairs, chatting about what adorable thing Lulu Belle did today or what Short Stack found at the beach as we sip at our drinks, sample each other’s entrees and make furtive glances at watches to see how much time we have left before running home to relieve the troops. As we talk, a sporadic stream of neighbors and fellow islanders walk by on the way to their own tables and make the inevitable comment, “So, who’s watching the kids?”

Us, being us, we tell them, “the cat” and we’re hoping he gets them litter trained tonight.

But, that’s us.

Short Stack is only three and a half and Lulu Belle, sixteen months. I don’t think we’ll take them on a jet for a while yet. I can just barely remember my trip to Hawaii when I was five and don’t see the point in dragging children on a big vacation that they won’t remember. This weekend, we’re trying something new and visiting a local New England attraction. We can easily drive there and might even have the chance to meet up with my blood brother, The Doctor, and his family. It won’t be Florence, but I’m willing to bet that it will be interesting. With three kids under the age of four, how could it be anything else? At least we’ll have them outnumbered.

We’ll see how long Action Girl and I can hold out before we crack and impulsively buy tickets to some corner of the world. I don’t think we’d have any problem slipping back into old travel habits. It’s just going to be more challenging with munchkins coming along for the adventure. In the mean time, I’ll start getting things lined up for our road trip this week. We’re only driving from the Maine coast to northern New Hampshire, so the journey should take about two hundred and thirteen hours.

It can seem like that car occupants, anyway.

Oh, Amtrak, how I wish you were here. They have overhead baggage compartments, you know.

Sixty Five Years Later

Utah, Omaha, Juno, Gold, and Sword.

It’s been quite a long time since I stood on the bluffs and cliffs overlooking these beaches. It was an experience that I shared with a large contingent of my extended family, including my Grandfather. Though he was not there during his service in The War, he is a battle weary veteran who understands what went in to a landing. He in fact, understands it better than most men alive. It was what he did for years and under horrifying conditions at that. As a skipper of LST’s, LCI’s and LCM’s, he became a member of an elite group of landing craft captains specializing in unusual or particularly difficult combat landings. His war, however, was in the Pacific.

As we walked around and over the battlements of a lifetime ago, he pointed out small things here and there that we might not have noticed. Things like how the tide was running and what that would do to soldiers in the water, the position of gun emplacements and how the fire would have converged out to sea and where it would be most intense. I have always been fascinated with the Second World War and having been glued to my television set when ever “Victory at Sea” was on, I was well versed in the Pacific War. Whenever I had asked him about his own stories though, I was brushed off. He had a handful of funny tales he liked to tell and retell. I can recall him recounting memories of watching B-25’s and B-26’s making bombing runs on the Owen Stanley Mountains in New Guinea. That was always a favorite for him.

“They’d come over the range high and in formation, then, one by one, dive like sparrows down the side of the mountains. We’d count them as they peeled off and thundered at tree top level with their engines wide open. Then they’d disappear over the jungle. We’d count them again as they came back into our view over the water and figure out how many we’d lost. At that speed, nobody had a chance to bail out.”

That was about as detailed as he would get. I never really heard much about the landings he made at all.

Even though I knew the stories by heart, I would still sit and listen, eager to hear what ever he’d give me. France however, was different for him. He hadn’t been here during the fighting and so, he was in a reflective mood and willing to share his views on how he saw this field of battle. It was a fascinating trip.

As I stood on a German pillbox, its sides crushed under the weight of Allied shelling and bombing, I remember wondering if it was a tomb for the soldiers who would have been manning on that day long ago. There are missing men in every battle, but the thought that under my feet and few feet of concrete and steel, may hold the unremovable, mortal remains of the German war machine, was a sobering one. They would have been young boys. They never grew old, but died as teenagers for the dreams of a madman. The loss from every stone, dune and bunker was palpable.

As we visited the American Military Cemetery at Omaha Beach, we split up as we walked with a sort of hushed reverence. These were the heroes who had given their own “last full measure of their devotion” and the emotion for me was overwhelming. As I humbly walked among the graves, I couldn’t miss hearing the voice from a young British girl as she pointed me out to her parents.

“Look mum! That man is out walking on the grass! It says right here not to do that!”

She was right, naturally. I had walked deftly past the neat little sign admonishing this very thing. We were to “stay on the paths, please.” I smirked… and kept reading and saying the names to my self in a soft whisper. These were my countrymen. They were from my home and I did not think for a moment that I didn’t have the right to be there. In the cemeteries of the other nations involved, I would stick to the paths, but not here. This was U.S. soil and I was here to pay respects. I was twenty-one years old then, and older than most of the soldiers who surrounded me as they lay in peace.

Besides, Americans have never been great at following rules. It’s actually how we started out with our own country.

On this sixty-fifth anniversary of the invasion, I think back to my time walking the peaceful and quiet beaches of Normandy. I thank the French whom we met there and the kindnesses they gave us during our stay. I think of my Grandfather as he stood on the cliffs with the knowledgeable eye of a veteran landing craft captain as he wondered aloud how they got anyone past the sandbars and onto the beaches or over the cliffs.

We remember this day for the great sacrifice of youth that took place and because it marked the turning of the tide in, what had looked all too often, like an unwinnable war against a juggernaut that knew no defeat.

The beaches are beautiful now but still carry deep scars, much like the individuals who were there on the day of invasion. Their scars will be gone soon. They are leaving us by the hundreds every day. The scars on the land will outlive them all.

If you have not seen them, I suggest you should.

If you know someone who saw it for themselves sixty-five years ago, ask them about it now, for they will likely be gone tomorrow.

d-day letter

Thank You.

Arlington

Winning the “Husband Points” Lottery.

Three years ago, we had made plans to go vacation with out friend in France. His house is beautiful and the country side is rugged and inviting. The time we were planning to go was what they call the “shoulder season”, meaning that it was leading up to, but not quite yet, nice out. It’s a good way of avoiding tourists and crowds, although where our friend lived, that was hardly a factor. His house is located on a terraced hilltop out side of an obscure and minimal village in a little traveled province of southern France. Hardly on the tour maps. The weather would be chilly and rainy but we knew how to dress for that. On the positive side, that would mean lots of fires in the mammoth fireplace. I hade visions of me sitting, curled up on the couch or out in the courtyard, wrapped in blankets and writing for days at a time, interrupted only by wonderful food, wine and conversation. It sounded like heaven.

This was to be no ordinary trip for us either. This was our “Last Hurrah” trip. At the time of the trip Action Girl would be about four months pregnant. We both knew that long distance journeys would be out of the equation for the foreseeable future. We both wanted to see our friend again but to be honest, it was I, who was looking forward to this the most. Left to her own devices, she would have fancied something with more palm trees. Still, it was looking like it would be a fun time.

The first problem started in a Paris Suburb. In 2005, Two youths, fleeing from Police ran into a power sub station, over the protective fences and were electrocuted. The Minister of Saying Things On TV at the time was then Mr., (now President) Sarkozy. He managed to fan the flames of racial discord enough to really get the riots going full tilt.

We watched the news and the pictures at home of burning cars and screaming protesters. “No big deal”, we thought. “This is France we’re talking about here. Protesting is a national sport over there. I’m pretty sure that their version of the Boy Scouts offer a merit badge in protesting. It’s a way of life for them. It’ll blow over. Besides, we’re not going any where near Paris. We’re flying into Marseilles.”

Two weeks later, the rioting had spread to Marseilles. Great. After each new news installment of what was on fire in France now, friends kept asking us the leading question, “You’re not going to go, right?” No, we were still planning to go. The only problem that seemed to be looming was that I was still waiting for my new passport to arrive. As usual, I had waited too long. My old passport had expired and only through the less than subtle prodding from Action Girl, did I get it in, supposedly, on time. It was getting down to the wire.

About two weeks to go and the passport arrived. I popped it into the luggage and foolishly thought that we were good to go. The rioters even seemed to be burning fewer cars and shooting at fewer police. What timing! Four days to go and then… oh dear. While doing the final packing, Action Girl happened to look at her passport.

Expired.

Not to worry. It would be expensive, but the government does offer an expediting service. All you need to do is send in your old passport, new pictures of your self and a bank check big enough to make a mortgage payment. The new passport will then arrive in one day from the time they receive it. So, we did all this and waited. And WAITED. Two days until we leave and still no passport. Action Girl calls the processing center and inquires what’s going on. They haven’t seen her passport. WHAT!?

Through a set of unfortunate events and misleading instructions, Action Girl had mailed her information and old papers to the wrong place. There was no new passport coming. Not in time anyway.

What I got that afternoon was a phone call from my cursing/semi-hysterical wife, telling me that the trip’s ruined and that she was going to call work up and try to get her vacation time back. After talking her down from the edge, I told her to give me the afternoon to work this out. I got off the phone and put my brain into overdrive. Mind you, “overdrive” doesn’t get used much. It smokes a bit and makes a grinding sound.

Where could we go? Florida and much of the southern east coast had just been flattened by a series of hurricanes. So had most of the Bahamas and the Virgin Islands. I didn’t know much of anything about vacationing in California, Washington or Oregon. We needed to find a place to go that didn’t involve passports but would be guaranteed to make my dear wife happy about this vacation on the fly. I had it! I called the airline and asked them, “What if we went west instead of east?” A couple hundred dollars paid to them for changing my mind, a quick call to my Mother to enlist her help in finding lodging and we were all set. I called Action Girl at home.

“Empty out the suitcases and start repacking for warm weather.”
“What? Why? Where are we going?”
“Don’t forget your swim suit.”
“WHERE are we going!?”
This was tough. I badly wanted to make this a surprise, but I supposed that she had lived through enough stress for today. I also guessed that she would have strangled me if I withheld this information until we reached check-in at the airport.
“Maui”

*Gleeful squeals*

“Do we have tickets?”
“Taken care of.”
“A place to stay?”
“Mom found a place. It’s on the beach.”
*More squeals*

So, we called our friend in France, gave him our apologies and flew from Boston to Maui. I hadn’t been there in about ten years and for Action Girl, it was her first time. We had a blast. I didn’t get much writing done. Most of our time was spent sightseeing and snorkeling. We had a blast.

I’m still looking out for a chance to get back to France. The fires are out and the rioters are just the local taxi drivers or school teachers and no one seems to be shooting at the police at the moment. I’ll get there yet. The trouble now will be convincing Action Girl to fly east, rather than west.

Bon Aloha.

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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