Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Mountains and the Sea

Marina Grande, Sorrento

As July 2014 ends here in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, my thoughts are on the Mediterranean.  Love of New Mexico, its dramatic landscapes, traditions and culture remains strong, but the lifelong attraction to oceans sounds a call for return to the sea.  Boyhood on the beaches of Chesapeake Bay and the Jersey Shore; six trans-Atlantic crossings on troop ships as well as the great Italian passenger liners; ferries in Puget Sound, the Aegean Sea, the Sea of Cortez, Golfo di Napoli, the Strait of Messina, and the crossing from Gibraltar to Tangier; jaunts along Liguria's Golfo di Tigullio, the coasts of California and Baja Mexico, the sands of Oahu and the Bay of Biscay, the shore of Cascais in the Estoril -- these plus countless other inlets, coves, marinas have fostered a love of the waters which decades in the mountains have never depleted.  Santa Fe's monsoon season with its thundering rainstorms, usually followed with bright turquoise skies frequently ribboned by colorful rainbows, its magnificent fiery sunsets and cool, brilliantly sun-splashed dawns is hard to beat as a place to spend one's summer. Yet, this year I yearn to look on and hear the sea.


Of the many Julys enjoyed on the water or at its edge, it is Sorrento for which I most feel nostalgia in this mid-summer month.  July in Sorrento is a time of warm bright sunshine and cool breezes from the Bay of Naples, colorful fiestas, street stalls overflowing with fresh vegetables and fruits of the sea, cheerful crowds at sidewalk cafes and ristorante, crowded beaches, everywhere the acknowledgment that this is the best of times, to be grasped to the full, savored. Many concerts and exhibits are available, presented in historic venues of great beauty. And always that sparkling sea, dotted with fishermen's boats and the ferries transporting commuters, vacationers and revelers to Capri, Ischia and Procida. Across the water, the stunning panorama of distant Vesuvius, at its base Pompeii and Napoli. In July, too, is celebrated on the 16th the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel with a water procession of boats laden with the Virgin's statue and banners, flowers, musicians -- instrumentalists and choruses -- accompanied and saluted by larger craft shooting huge streams of water into the skies.  On the 29th, the feast of Sant' Anna begins at her church in Marina Grande, her statue carried aloft in a large procession which climbs the heights to the main streets of Sorrento. On return to Marina Grande, the statue is held facing the sea, devotions imploring the Virgin's safety for the many fishermen who sail from here for long working weeks in far reaches of the Mediterranean. Out in the sea, remotely-controlled fireworks from a barge illuminate the dusk and the gathering night with huge bursts of colorful patterns reflected in the darkening water. Frequent cannon shots are fired, audible evidence for miles around of the honor being bestowed on Marina Grande's patron saint. Well beyond midnight when abed, the wonders of Sorrento in July are difficult to forfeit. Celebratory cannon is still being fired. pedestrians cajole in the streets, many of them singing the traditional beloved Neapolitan songs of the area. One young man's rendering of Core N'grato as dawn approaches can break the heart. One listens and marvels. Sleep can wait.


On one of my last visits to Sorrento in July, I noticed an elderly man seated on a bench at the belvedere where I went each morning to greet the sea. And became aware that if I returned late in the day to view the sunset, he was still there. Younger than he, not yet acquainted with the eccentricities of advanced age, I grew bold enough to draw him into conversation, wondering if during long days at the belvedere he had need or want of anything. No, he answered, he brought along bread, a flask of vino, there was a gelato bar with restroom nearby, and the spectacle of gorgeous vistas and water traffic was never-ending. I learned that he was from Spoleto, born and raised in Umbria which he dearly loved, but service in the Italian Navy had fostered a passion for the sea to which he now made a yearly visit. "You say you know my area," he said, "have been to Assisi, Perugia, toured the countryside. You've seen our hill-towns, vineyards and mountains, the artistic splendors. I assume you've some concept of how I've loved Umbria all my life." He then fell silent, and I did not pursue more conversation. We watched lights on prows of small boats of fishermen no doubt hopeful of evening calamari catches. A masted sailboat, silhouetted against the red sky, was rounding the far point of Penisola Sorrentina. After a while, I heard the Umbrian speak again, more to himself than to me: "I love my mountains and I love the sea. Not living in a region which has both, I make -- despite many obstacles -- this essential annual pilgrimage." 



Saturday, June 28, 2014

Hope Reawakened: Honor Flight 0614





HOPE REAWAKENED
Northern New Mexico Honor Flight 0614

Not one for social reunions, I'd never attended a high school or college class reunion, never gone to the annual gatherings of World War II comrades from my outfit while there were still enough of us alive to justify them. But during the past year, I'd heard about plans for the Northern New Mexico Honor Flight to take regional veterans to the WWII Memorial on the mall in Washington, D.C. I completed an application, cognizant of the fact that I'd cancel if subsequent itinerary details suggested inability to meet physical needs. At 91, aches and pains are no strangers, mobility is limited, and one must meet the daily innumerable challenges of advanced age.

Too, I'd had in recent years serious concerns about the country I've fought for:  bitter disappointment over the partisan deadlocks in its administration, disturbed by its societal ills, disgusted by rampant profanity and pornography, anguished by media rants of Washington betrayals, drugged youth serial killers, the nation in decline. Too often feeling alien in my own land, considering living abroad, seeking a culture, if possibly existent, yet not fractured by the ills of a new millennium begun with the terrorism of 9/11. Flag-wavers and anthem-singers on national holidays struck me as being delusional rather than patriotic, in denial of how very far our country had fallen from grace.

Not free of such conclusions and/or convictions, I attended the orientation meeting for the Honor Flight. And immediately was in the midst of Americans of whom I've seen too little -- or read/seen of via the media -- in late life. Not only military and reservist volunteers, but civilian members of Honor Flight totally committed, giving time and energies to recognizing war veterans and honoring the country for which they fought. On all sides, I was surrounded by individuals and families dedicated to fostering the very best of American ideals, accomplishments and its future. From this group, I was assigned my guardian, a young ex-Navy man who was to accompany me throughout the trip and whom I securely felt could meet any personal need or emergency which might arise.

Like most World War II veterans, I came home to no victory parade. Instead, a post-war United States meant adjusting to a civilian population which had not experienced invasion, bombing of its towns and cities, the obscenities of a ravaged country. Time to move beyond the war in which the absence of computers, emails or cellphones had spared the Homefront knowledgeable contact with what was happening to sons, brothers, husbands and fathers on foreign fields. The veterans fell silent, fully aware that words could never breach the chasm with loved ones and friends who'd not looked on atrocities they'd seen. Convinced that what we'd done was right, Nazism and Fascism defeated, our country yet free, we nevertheless accepted the fact that few comrades were honored. Life moves on with new challenges. In the decades which followed, opportunity to speak of service and combat was limited to the infrequent encounters with one of our Band of Brothers. And with their inevitable aging and passing came the acceptance of being alone with indelible memories and images which never leave the warrior.

The Honor Flight shattered that loneness. From the first moments of departure in a mile-long motorcade to the airport -- the city's principal interstate highway closed to all other traffic, a fleet of motorcycles and police cars leading the way, military personnel from nearby bases lining the road, saluting our vehicles as we passed -- I knew I was with a community nourished by service to others. On the bus I rode were other veterans and their guardians, members of the medical team accompanying us, a television crew which would be with us for the entire trip. In the seat ahead of me was a young marine in full-dress uniform, a folded American flag held close to his chest, beside him the large framed photograph of the veteran who had registered for this Honor Flight but died two months before it launched. That marine with triangular folded flag and framed photograph was beside us for the next three days, participating in every event, his presence a constant tribute to and reminder of the fallen comrade who was in our midst.

Few, indeed, must be Americans who can look on the memorials in Washington DC and not be moved. Our day among them -- Arlington, the Lincoln, Iwo Jima, Korea and Vietnam -- was unforgettable. At the World War II Memorial, my guardian wheeled me to the Atlantic Pavilion where the names of towns and campaigns I'd known in the European Theater are inscribed in stone. I noted other veterans from our group gathered at the Pacific Pavilion. Many stood with bowed heads at the Wall of Stars, each of the 4,048 stars representing 100 American casualties. The Memorial was crowded on this bright June day, swarmed with groups of students on school tours from across the country. I was surprised by the boy who left his fellows, approached, took my hand and thanked me for serving the nation. Though the first, he was but one of scores -- most in their early teens -- who came to my side, embraced this elder in wheelchair, and expressed thanks. A few of them asked to have their pictures taken with me, and promised to share photos (which they did!). Truly a blessing to look on youthful faces, eyes aglow, some misty, voicing gratitude for the freedom you'd bestowed on them. Adults as well came to our sides, extending hands, hugs and kisses of respect and honor. But it was that never-ending stream of teenagers, throughout the day and at all the memorials, whose every word to me with obvious love of country restored my hope for sustenance of American ideals.

At our hotel banquet that evening, veterans and guardians were invited to publicly speak of what the Honor Flight meant to them. It came as no surprise that, as impressive as the memorials and all events had been, the most significant moments had come from the youths who so warmly paid tribute. One of the guardians spoke of the national media and political negative reports and of how little we read or hear of Americans encountered this day. He concluded with the assumption we all shared: that if the future of our country is dependent on members of the new generation comparable to those we'd met, it is in good hands. A lady beside me leaned close and whispered A Child Shall Lead Them.

(Northern New Mexico Honor Flights will be sponsoring more trips to the WWII memorial for veterans, The superb organization merits support. Website: http://www.uvcnm.org/documents/HonorFlightBrochure2-13-14.pdf)











Thursday, May 8, 2014

MAY 2014


ceramic clay figure, glazed


MAY 2014

The month of the year in which I turn 91. Hard to believe despite the daily physical challenges which confirm it. But what young person could possibly look ahead -- speculate -- that he or she would be around so long? When reading Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) as a veteran of the European Campaign, World War II, I was convinced that much of what he foresaw in that novel might prove true. Certainly boyhood and youth during a maddening twentieth century left me with few illusions concerning the frailty of humans, our capacity to self-destruct in tyrannous societies. But at that time, it was easy to dismiss concern for 1984, distant, a year I'd likely not live to see. Not to worry.


Clich├ęs:  time flies; faster than you can bat an eye; long row to hoe; all in due time; Rome wasn't built in a day; at the eleventh hour; no time like the present. If once inclined to smile at the old bromides, one now recognizes their established validity. And can't help pondering the quote arguably attributed to Francois Guisot and/or Winston Churchill: "Show me a young Conservative and I'll show you someone with no heart. Show me an old Liberal and I'll show you someone with no brain."


Among the indignities of old age, one of the worst for we who most of our lives have been exceedingly active, busy, self-reliant and fiercely independent is the surrender of accompaniment to Sinatra's I Did It My Way. We may persist in yet pushing that envelope, but often are approached by store clerks, friends, even strangers on the street solicitously asking the white-haired, slowed man on a cane "Do you need help?" Though appreciative of their concern, the answer is usually No. And the same response, if any, goes to well-intentioned suggestions that we abandon home maintenance, household and property chores, move into a Retirement Home. Ole Rockin' Chair may beckon, but look aside.


A poor life this if full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
W. H. Davies penned those lines which I've long tried to honor, seek to do so even more today. Every stage of man has its blessings, and a few of late life are freedoms from unjustified commitments, futile pursuits, pettiness and pointless quarrels; the stripping away of most vanities, effort to affect other than who and what one truly is.


I want to live before I die. No poet this time, but words spoken by a rough comrade whom I was trying to persuade to not desert his sentry duty of walking guard. I'd brought a canteen of hot coffee to his cold post, but he gruffly refused it, saying he wanted stronger stuff -- why didn't we just take off for The Three Horseshoes, a country pub a few miles down the road, have some black-and-tans. Stationed at an army camp of Quonset huts in mid-England awaiting transport to the Continent, we'd seen little action in recent weeks, our antiaircraft guns and searchlights idle against the Luftwaffe planes headed west and the Allied ones headed east in skies above us. Rationale for the strict sentry guidelines was that though free of bombings, German parachutists/snipers might infiltrate our area, as it was rumored they'd done elsewhere. Days of training, orientations regarding the Channel Crossing, hikes across the moors, radar vigilance. Considerable leisure and too much boredom. Which is what had led my friend to an infraction of a trivial regulation, cost him his corporal stripes and earned him indefinite assignment of walking guard. I reminded him that deserting post now could result in at least days in the brig if not actual court martial.


One long look into his tired eyes of that haggard face convinced me he wasn't casually repeating the ubiquitous excusable anthem of the day -- wine, women and song for tomorrow we die. He was mouthing the universal silent despair of all soldiers, rarely uttered but at that moment demanding expression from one much wearied and unmindful of exposure. I emptied the canteen of its coffee and tramped beside my comrade to The Three Horseshoes.
There in that lovely ancient room of regional stone, we sat before a blazing fireplace, hound-dogs dozing at our feet, older country gentlemen (not another young face but ours to be seen) nodding salutes to Americans come in their hour of need. Tall mugs of black-and-tans, soldier talk of happy times shared, a few passes at the dartboard. One of the elders cranked up a phonograph and nostalgically listened to recorded tunes of his war -- Roses are Flowering in Picardy, It's a Long Way to Tipperary. Our amble back to camp in the cold came only after the pub closed.


No retribution on our arrival. One of our buddies had discovered my friend's absence, took his place as sentry. Nothing to report, no one else aware of the switch, no alarms or alerts. The substitute was happy to share the bottle of wine we'd brought from the pub. We were still awake at reveille and greeted officers and enlisted men with broad smiles.
Neither my errant comrade or I were casualties of war. If not so long as I, he reached a good advanced age. We'd meet occasionally in later years when travels brought one to the other's vicinity, and I observed he'd had a rich, full, rewarding life -- had lived before he died. His words that night at the sentry post echo on the recurring occasions when apprehension whispers Don't do this, don't do that, play it safe, act your age. Then I remember The Three Horseshoes, its restorative embrace. Admittedly with careful deliberation, I more often than not do it. I do it my way.




Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Marie and John Paul II


 courtesy Fotografia Felici, Roma

I had hoped to be in St Peter's Square for the canonization to sainthood of Pope John Paul II. Advanced age with inevitable setbacks dictate No. However, was fortunate in years past to have attended many of his audiences and honored to receive two personal blessings from him; was in Rome for his beatification ceremonies in 2011. But perhaps the most memorable encounter was on 17 September 1986 while traveling abroad with a sibling who'd recently suffered a stroke.

The trip had been planned a year earlier, but following Marie's stroke I adamantly favored the cancellation which her doctors urged. Marie's persistent argument that we go eventually won my sympathy for the elder sister who'd traveled little, was eager to share my familiarity with Italy, and was looking forward to a papal audience for which I'd obtained tickets in advance. I did not cancel, but began the journey with much apprehension. Marie was ghastly pale, walked airports and train platforms with much difficulty, breathing heavily. Though ingrained resilience of our Depression-era childhood and World War II generation prohibited expressing complaint and we shared many laughs, I silently wondered if we hadn't seriously blundered and if I'd have to face a medical crisis in a country where I had little experience with hospitals.

Concern induced me to contact the American Bishops in Rome regarding the tickets for the general audience. I'd attended enough audiences in the past to know that long hours under the sun (or rain!) in St Peter's Square could reduce pilgrims, hardy as well as frail, to fainting or more serious seizures. I also knew that a first-aid station, a medical vehicle staffed by a doctor, was at hand in the piazza during audiences, and asked if our general tickets could be changed to ones closer to that station. The Bishops Office graciously reserved seating for us in a section for the handicapped and sick.

Always an early arriver at audiences, I was pleased that Marie and I obtained chairs in the first row of the special section, very near the platform and chair from which His Holiness John Paul II would address the crowd. Marie was ecstatic. But as the section filled, new arrivals were not seated behind us but in front, our own row of chairs moved progressively to the rear. Until our row was eventually last. The first shall be last was my characteristic reaction.


I looked frequently at my sister's face during the hours of waiting for the Pope's appearance and throughout the audience. Drawn, drained of color, she was no longer the buoyant retiree from a successful business career I'd visited a year earlier. Unmarried, childless, I'd sometimes envied her the freedom from domestic stress which occasionally torments most of us -- thought her countenance free of those scars earned in marriage and parenthood. But now the visage, if wreathed with a smile in the presence of her Pope, was etched by pain and suffering.

At the end of the audience, John Paul II rose and walked toward the section reserved for the sick. He approached the first row, began to greet and bless individually the sick and the lame, some so severely damaged that my instinct was to look away. I watched him embrace, hold to his chest children and adults, stricken souls some of whom seemed unaware of where they were -- whom our secular world would label madmen, lunatics, blathering and slobbering idiots. Whom we hide away, refuse to gaze on. John Paul II cradled them in his arms.
     "He's going to come to each of us, bless us all," Marie said.
     "No way," I answered. "The first few rows, maybe. But then he'll stop, never get back here to where we are."
     "He's going to bless us all," Marie insisted.
I watched the white-robed figure move resolutely through the ranks, touched by his compassion for maimed brothers and sisters in Christ. And felt I shouldn't be in their midst, hale and fit, a fraud among those meriting presence. I confided this to Marie. "But you have to be here, or I couldn't be," she said. It had been explained at the American Bishops Office that anyone admitted to the section for the sick had to be accompanied by a caretaker.

The Pope was in the row ahead of us, near enough to reach out and touch. I watched with awe his ministering caresses and heard the gentle words -- in many languages -- lovingly bestowed on the crippled, the blinded, those brain-damaged or physically deformed. Awed that he somehow broke through their fierce isolation, effected a positive change in their faces.
And then he was before us.
I took his extended hand, realized I was foolishly speaking imperfect Italian rather than English to acknowledge his blessing. He moved to Marie, who sat very still, her eyes locked to his. John Paul II placed his hand atop her head, whispered a prayer. The sustained moment seemed an eternity. Marie to me looked bathed in radiant light. She was to swear ever after that the encounter with her Pope, no matter the second stroke and heart surgery which came much later, was what gave her victory over affliction and granted an auxiliary 16 years of pleasure in life.

If lucky, one has looked on a person or two whom he knows as sainted, even though Rome will never hear of him or her. I hold a few such, never celebrated or canonized, close to my heart. But even if unable to attend the ceremonies in Rome this April, or unable that September twenty-eight years ago to foresee his official elevation to sainthood in my lifetime, Marie and I knew a saint when we saw one. Once we'd left St Peter's Square and returned to the convent-pensione where we lodged, a nun said she'd seen us receive the blessing and asked how it made me feel.
     "His Holiness looked at me as if I were the only person on the face of the earth. The world fell away," I answered.
     "He makes everyone feel that way," she replied.



Saturday, March 1, 2014

MY WORLD WAR II NOVEL - it's long history

MY WORLD WAR II NOVEL
It's long history

"Well written, but we daren't publish it," was the typical response of editors who read my book when first completed in 1950. Living in New York City at the time, I made the round of numerous publishing houses, only to hear variations on the same thing -- profanity was censored, could not be printed; and not only language used by men in combat, but the story itself touched on subjects too raw for print. Having published articles and short stories in newspapers and a few magazines, and won a Superior grading in Creative Writing at Biarritz University, France, the rejection of the manuscript was huge disappointment for someone who'd believed since childhood that he'd author books.

I made no attempt to revise the manuscript. Yes, it contained a few words which one didn't often hear in public at that time. And which the young man who penned them had never heard before entry into the military as an innocent youth. The events of the story, if alien to civilian readers, were nevertheless based on some happenings I'd witnessed, others which had been related to me by fellow soldiers, a few which were rumors that could easily be believed as truth in that madness of the savagery in Europe. I'd not written to shock but merely to express haunting recalls seldom, if ever, revealed by veterans of that mid-twentieth century maelstrom -- we returning warriors sometimes dubbed a silent generation. Eschewing compromise to soften what was written, resigned to the fact that it would never be published, I put the manuscript in a drawer where it remained for 50 years.

Writers are unable to not write. Through the years there was publication of other books, short stories and articles, a four-year stint as newspaper columnist. But it wasn't until the new millennium, using technology, that I began to reconsider the manuscript buried beneath clothing in a bureau drawer. Books-on-demand were a news item, and among my e-mails were solicitations from online publishers. Did And Come to Dust merit the time it would take to reread it? I did so, and quickly realized that the person who'd written it no longer existed! Like the editors so many decades ago, I was shocked -- but not at the language or story, we lived now in a society where foul language was heard and printed everywhere, and where no event was too notorious or salacious not to be reported, even celebrated, in the media. I was shocked remembering the young veteran, who and what I was at that  time, who'd written the manuscript, his need to expunge trauma never vocally revealed by himself or other comrades. Through undergraduate and graduate work via the GI Bill of Rights, I'd had daily contact with scores of veterans taking advantage of the opportunity to study. We gathered frequently in our rented rooms or dorms, in bars, at games. Bonded brothers sharing drinks, comfortable with each other as we could never be with American civilians. Discussions through many long nights, yet seldom a word about the war. I knew a few who seemed seriously disturbed despite affected bravado, and whom I mutely considered Walking Wounded. Was it our silence regarding what we'd seen, human dissolution negating speech, which drove me to the typewriter?

On-line publishing with books on demand -- not printed until ordered -- was in its infancy in year 2000. Dust was accepted by the first firm to whom I sent the manuscript, Writers Club Press, an imprint of iUniverse.com. Work was involved. Though I elected not to revise, convinced that a septuagenarian hadn't the right to alter words written by a youth, hours were needed to correct typos in the first proof sent me. Much time, too, on the cover design incorporating one of my drawings. These tasks were but partially finished as the date approached for a long-planned trip to Italy to which I was committed as tour guide. Telephone conversations to the editor with whom I was working concluded with my accepting her assurance that proofing of text and format would proceed well during my absence, and that the cover design already submitted would be used. Alas, that first edition (published 2000) retained some of the uncorrected typos and sported a cover which was not the one I designed, utilizing merely a small vague detail of the full drawing. All authors are thrilled to hold their printed book in hand, as I was, despite disappointment that its printing was not all I'd hoped it would be. Though sales were modest, initial reader response was mostly positive, not surprisingly from veterans but unexpected from women who considered the book a love story, not a war story. (In later years, two more of my novels were issued by the same publisher, printing of both excellent).

That first edition of Dust, however, drew one harsh echo of the censorship objections which had come from publishers to whom it was submitted in 1950. And cost me the loss of an internet friend, never met, of whom I'd grown fond after years of correspondence focused on mutual interests in the arts, travel, genealogy, and mysticism. She'd owned and read others of my books, and was familiar with photos of my paintings and sculptures posted on the web. Following an abrupt halt to her frequent communiques, I enquired, concerned, if she were ill. The reply was caustic and damning. How could a man whom she'd believed wrote with grace, and whose graphic works she thought betrayed spirituality, were indeed in churches throughout the land -- how could such a man pen what she'd read in And Come to Dust? I was instructed not to contact her again. I did not, sadly aware that she was possibly but one of other reader/friends who'd pose the same dilemma.

2010. E-books had arrived. Contacted online by the publisher Smashwords, I studied their submission guidelines and began what was for me a steep learning curve of turning the Dust manuscript into digital format which could be downloaded. Hand-held readers and tablets by various manufacturers and online booksellers requiring different specifications necessitated strict adherence to the Smashwords guide successfully meeting these demands. The e-book was finished and distributed without the typos in the original paperback edition, and with the cover I'd always wanted it to have. That cover, however, was only seen by subscribers who downloaded the book, did not appear on newsstands or was something that could be handled as well as seen. On the Smashwords profile page, I created a brief video book trailer, which also appears on YouTube. The lower price of e-books over printed one widens readership, and for Dust won enthusiastic comments. Again surprising me with appreciative e-mails terming it a love story rather than war story. Offered free for soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan by Ebooks for Troops, the downloads by men and women in service there elicited Thank Yous which I value highly.

In 2013, Smashwords announced formation of a program with The Educational Publisher, Inc., Biblio Publishing to produce printed books from e-book manuscripts. Though I'd not previously considered a third edition of And Come to Dust, the opportunity for a book without the typos and disappointing cover of the first edition triggered correspondence with the President of The Educational Publisher. Submission of the e-book manuscript for conversion to print was soon followed by reading proofs, being once again engaged with fictional characters created 63-plus years ago. The re-acquaintance this time came with recognition that the protagonists and events were indeed honestly founded on what a war had bequeathed the generation which Roosevelt proclaimed "has a rendezvous with destiny."


Many things -- more than I'd ever have believed possible -- come late in life. Now in its second print edition as well as being an e-book, Dust forces me to look at the youth who wrote it and the man he's become. That long journey, paths taken, fellow travelers. If gladdened to be free of the demons which produced chapters scribbled decades ago, I believe or want to believe that the Second World War for me helped foster compassion for the human condition which has bestowed riches garnered later. Not displeased with where I am today, must it not follow that every step along the way brought me here.


(Of the two printed editions and the e-book, my favorite format of And Come to Dust is the last. All three editions continue to appear, and likely will remain, on internet sites. If interested, my recommended choice is the Biblio Publishing's 2013 paperback at https://bibliopublishing.com/BiblioCart/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=7&products_id=363&zenid=ringch9gdd18hqr5kuehdinc16








Wednesday, February 5, 2014

WINTER - WAR AND PEACE



St Ouen de Breuille, France - 1944

Snow today this winter of 2013-14 in Santa Fe. To be greeted enthusiastically since local falls have been scant this year and the area is experiencing continued severe drought. But in these so-called Golden Years of advanced age when I can no longer shovel the huge drifts on the north side of our home and gallery entrance -- and hired help never do removal to my standards -- I can't help but wish that the moisture was rain here in the city, snow restricted to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains where the skiers would love it and from where the spring runoffs benefit all of us here below.

A sun-lover, I not only think but dream of warmer climes during the cold months, envying the snow birds headed south, remembering long bright days in the Yucatan, in Greece, southern Spain, the Amalfi Coast. Once while on burnished sands under a palm tree on an island beach of Oahu, I considered whether the citizens of Hawaii were the wisest of all Americans. Blessed by the sun!

As boy and teenager, after-school and Saturday jobs frequently meant working in the cold -- assisting an uncle at his stall in open Broadway Market, peddling pendants and pins at football games in Oriole Stadium, hawking Christmas ornaments for a merchant of same in downtown Baltimore. Hadn't it sometimes felt invigorating then, and did the aversion to winter wait until senior years. Ah, no, one is fairly certain when it all began.

There'd been many days and nights when we'd not had quarters, were bivouacked in a wooded area near the French-Belgian border. Foxholes and pup-tents, continuous heavy snowfalls, knee-high drifts to slog through, meals from canned tins while sitting on frozen stumps or the ground; all fires, even cigarettes, banned because light might attract strafing Wehrmacht planes or snipers. Attempts to sleep while shivering in full uniform during nights upon the frigid turf. Consumption of confiscated calvados by those who "liberated" it did little to warm. I'd been alerted by a medic that my toes were developing frostbite. On a hill above us was a deserted chateau, off limits because its approach had been mined by German soldiers before they'd abandoned it during their retreat. More than the lure of a seductive woman, it offered sheltering embrace and warmth if it could be won.

The soldier beside me in our shared pup-tent uttered profanities through chattering teeth about our unit's inability to move forward, seek cover in appropriated farmhouses. I barely heard him, aware that numbness was claiming me, that though bombs and shelling had not struck, the cold winds were hissing Casualty. When I managed to sit up, my tent mate, alarmed that an attack might be underway, fearfully demanded "What?"
"I'm going to the chateau."
"You can't. It's mined, Off Limits. Orders."
Never one to risk the Brig by disobeying Orders, or to voluntarily seek peril to life or limb, survival instinct determined that the landmines were less a threat than oblivion in the snow. I crawled out of the tent and started up the hill.

Stakes and colored ribbons had been set into the ground by US Army Engineers ascertaining where the mines were buried. I inched slowly, cautiously forward, uncertain of every step. No thought of turning back -- moonlight silhouetted that chateau on the hill, a lighthouse at the end of this immense rough sea of white. A sudden noise behind me broke the silence. Turning apprehensively to look, I saw my tent mate crawling on his belly. Luck was with us. Either the engineers' markings were absolutely correct or most of the mines had already been defused, and we arrived safely at the chateau. Easy to gain entrance, despite boarded doors and windows and signs posted by lawful owners and our army that the property was Off Limits.

Mostly devoid of furnishings, the salons and many rooms of the multi-storied abode held clear evidence of recent Nazi occupation. With found candles, we observed obscene crude drawings scrawled hugely on walls, empty bottles cluttering floors, even a few personal items left behind by soldiers in hasty withdrawal. Chairs had obviously been sundered for use as firewood in the grand salon's large fireplace, and by collecting scattered remnants we soon were standing before blazing, healing warmth. My comrade's canteen proved not full of water but calvados he'd been hoarding, its scalding intake a wondrous flow through innards too long wracked by chill. I found a rug or coverlet made of sheepskins and laid it on the marble floor fronting the fireplace. Stripped of wet uniform, warmed by fire that burned through the night, the war went away for a while in blissful sleep.

There was no Disciplinary Action the next morning. Instead, I saw a few of our Headquarters' officers and non-coms being led up the hill by engineers with mine detectors monitoring their advance. Obviously, our absence had been noted and smoke from the chimney indicated where we were. Once inside the chateau, no officer or the First Sergeant questioned me. They began a thorough inspection of the stately structure. Before the day was over, a road had been cleared to the chateau, army trucks arrived with gear and furnishings -- desks, filing cabinets, field switchboards and phones, cots -- and the building was officially requisitioned as Battalion Headquarters.

That was there not here, then not now. Comparing reaction to winter's cold that time in that place to Santa Fe today is pointless. The mind insists that New Mexico's known a mild season, been spared the onslaught of arctic air which has plagued much of the nation. Granted. But the body argues. Then was youth, now is old age.