Saturday, November 19, 2022

#25: French Polynesia.

If there ever was a paradise on this earth, it is Polynesia. These islands, formed slowly over millions of years in a violent but invisible storm which still continues to this day; the inner crust of the earth heaving innumerable tons of liquid rock from the ocean floor, building undersea mountains which over these millenea have gradually appeared above surface of the sea. We in the west know as schoolchildren the story of the prehistoric era of dinosaurs, the ice age, man crossing the land bridge and populating the Americas; all the while these islands had been slowly making their way higher into massive testaments to Earth's power far into the sky in the middle of an otherwise vast and unpopulated ocean, one that would be known as the Pacific many years later. 

At some point humans came to know these lands. 

Why? No one really knows. Were they fleeing a bitter existence from a far away land? Seeking relief from famine, oppression, overpopulation? Were they driven by their ambition and curiosity, voyaging across the high seas in search of new lands to call their home simply because they could? The Polynesians came to inhabit what is known as 'the Polynesian Triangle', stretching on its three corners from New Zealand, to Easter Island, to Hawaii through the construction of massive outrigger canoes and an understanding of navigation that rivaled that of the most sophisticated of western navigators centuries later. As the Latins began to settle Italy and the Greeks brought 'civilization' to western Europe, the Polynesians pushed east into the unknown, settling in what we now call Samoa, Tahiti, Rapanui, Hawaii and finally New Zealand. 

For thousands of years these people would not know the afflictions nor the luxuries of the West. They would develop a culture isolated from any other influences than that of their mother: the land, which noruishes, provides and protects; and their father: the sky, which punishes, directs and inspires. Polynesia: this place with no written language until it collided with the west in the 18th century, remains a mysterious place. One which now as a visitor has a peace and solitude not just because these are islands isolated by thousands of miles from what we may now call modern civilization, but because of its people, living a simpler life removed from but inevitably clashing daily with fortunate westerners who for obvious reasons come here to experience this paridiscial way of living if only for a few days. 

Which brings me to our story. It is an odd feeling: one moment to be waiting at a food court in Los Angeles in a long line with travelers looking to order an overpriced pizza, to the next being on the same island which took men thousands of years ago months to reach in a death defying sail across the ocean. They brought with them their breadfruits, pigs, pineapples and chickens, eventually developing these islands into the livable utopia they are today, but we now found ourselves climbing down the stairs from the cabin of a 787 Dreamliner to the tarmac of Papeete International airport in the capitol of French Polynesia after what felt like a surprisingly short flight. Despite it been 5:30 AM, we were greeted by what Tahitians know westerners have come to expect of their paradise: flower necklaces, ukelele strumming men in native dresses, imposing wooden figurines resembling what hundreds of years ago were worshiped as Gods. 

It would be hours until we reached our first destination of Moorea, and we stumbled like zombies making our way through passport control, on a bus, and finally on a ferry which brought us across the channel to much smaller but still impressive island. As you move northwest through the Society islands, all of them become older. Tahiti, being the youngest, still boasts a pair of giant mountains which are quickly recognizable as dormant volcanoes; Moorea its older cousin is less recognizable as a volcanic island, the Caldera of the volcano long since collapsed and the ocean creeping in forming bays and a protective lagoon around the island. Still older, Bora Bora, Tahaa, and Raiatea sunken to the sea much more and are not at all recognizable as what was once a mighty volcano. And finally, atolls like Mataiva; now merely rings in the ocean, its mountain having sunk as its mass became so great it settled back into the crust of the earth. 

Through was is known as subsidence, what made these islands once so impressive eventually caused their demise as they sunk back down from where they came: their entire existence above the surface of the ocean mere blips in the course of the history of the world; but a long and fascinating lifecycle of birth, maturity and decline lasting millions of years for each one. And each one has its own unique story, which for the Polynesians has also become theirs: the youthful energy of Tahiti, the majestic and adventure filled Moorea, and the serenity and isolation of old Bora Bora. In all phases of this lifecycle nature has flourished here. Lush rainforests, coral reefs alive and teeming with stingrays, fish and sharks; humpback whales which stop here on their journey to and from the Arctic. 

To travel here offers the ability to truly become immersed in all of this. On the island of Moorea, our local guide Maui, who was no less energetic but quite a bit smaller than Dwane Johnson's Disney character who shares his name, gave us the opportunity to swim up from a distance to one of these whales who was making a stop here on her way up from the arctic for the winter. Protective regulations prohibit coming closer than 300 meters to these giants in a boat, but Maui explained that if the opportunity arose we could get out and swim towards them in the open ocean: a prospect at the time to me sounded both exhilarating and suicidal. But there we were, even though part of me secretly wished the opportunity never presented itself, the boat quickly moved to where Maui directed and as a few young ladies and Jenn indicated that they were going to the swim, so I decided that staying on the boat was no longer an option to survive with my pride intact.

For sure, we were going up to a creature that is as peaceful and non-violent as a hippie in a rainstorm, but also one that is the size of 20 pick up trucks. We jumped out of the boat and watched from about 100 yards of this giant mama breached from the surface and made a splash in the sea that looked like an explosion. I couldn't help but wonder.... is she just having fun or showing her power to warn us to stay back? I didn't think of this too much as we paddled over to her in the open sea with our heads below water. Despite that apprehension, the small part of my brain that told me I was on a suicide mission to go up next to this beast, those minutes swimming underwater towards her were one of the most peaceful of my life. Her singing, loud enough to be heard far off, was one i'd heard in movies and documentaries, but nothing I'd ever expected to hear for myself; looking down in the ocean as the sea became a deep blue bordering on black. It was an environment where clearly I was the guest and no longer in charge. 

And then there was Bora Bora. Among the older of the Society Islands. Life here is simple. And I do not mean that to marginalize or make less of the people here who call this home. Even they will tell you so. They take pride in the simplicity of it all... the island way of living; the sea. The mountain called Otemanu which takes its names from the birds that would begin to fly off in disruption to warn when foreigners would sail into the otherwise peaceful turquoise lagoon. This island has like most places been thrust into the 21st century recently... being an American air force base in WWII (please give me that job), and as a result of the massive airfield left in its wake, the first international layover for many commercial airliners flying from the USA to Australia. 

But since then the commotion has died back down, but has left an infrastructure that allows Bora Bora to be both accessible and remote, a rare combination in our world or over-tourism and red eye adventures. A day spent in Bora Bora is like a thousand elsewhere. Knowing you are over 2,000 miles from western civilization (save the many resorts on the island) and waking up to the huge but dying mountain of Otemanu gives a peacefulness which I really cant describe. The reef. The rocky island. The coconut palms. It all just feels like this was what the Earth was meant to look and feel like before we came along, but somehow we were there enjoying and experiencing it all.  

On the morning we left, I was thinking of Jacob...  he was so excited from our Facetimes to see the sharks, the sting rays, the whales and the ocean; his childhood fantasies from Moana, Finding Nemo and the little Mermaid that we had just lived. It was with a child's wonder that we discovered Tahiti, and it was the same wonder in which we left. Those massive island mountains... some of them in their youth that will rival Hawaii in their awesomeness in mere millions of years, and others like Bora Bora which in that same time will be subterranean mounds hundreds of feet below the surface of the ocean; they all with their own story; a story which even though on our trip made time seem to stop was just a tiny snapshot in their history... not even a chapter in their lives as they have pushed up underwater for millennia, gasped for air for what seems to us forever but a tiny slice of this world's history, and now become heaven on earth as they fall back below. 

Monday, September 26, 2022

Part I - A Fireside Chat

Pendleton County, Kentucky

In the summer of 1934, Stanley Grimes was just past his 13th birthday. An energetic and slim young man with penetrating eyes, he had a sharp nose and thick dark hair that he wore slicked back which gave him the look of one of those Italian boys you heard about in the news those days making up the organized crime families just down the river in Newport, Kentucky. Stanley was the middle child to 8 siblings at the time and grew up on a farm in Pendleton County, Kentucky which his father Gilbert rented for $5 a month. In 1934, the country was still reeling from the worst economic crisis in its history: laborers were out of work, farmers had no place to sell their crops and if they could they were forced to sell them at prices less than it cost to plant and grow them. As a result, many farmers like Gilbert simply gave up and only grew what they needed to feed their families. Decent hard working people started to live like they were poor. Stanley's parents were in a fight for their lives. In those years, Stanley and his family ate what they grew: corn, potatoes, carrots... whatever the soil of Kentucky would yield; he was still in the height of his boyhood and didn't need much. He loved going with his mother down into Covington where the pace of life was quick and businessmen in their slick suits walked down the street clutching the Kentucky Post. Across the Ohio River he could see the progress in Cincinnati, distinguished by the imposing 49 story Carew Tower, just completed a few years before. One day, he thought, he'd work in a building like that. He'd send money back to his family or maybe even buy them a new Chevy Sedan. He hated that a man who worked as hard as his father could still be as poor as they were. 

He and many young boys and girls his age, colored by this economic blight brought on by factors of no fault of their own, were the ones who made up what would become known as the Greatest Generation. A boy like Stanley of 13 may have gone down to the grocery store in Butler, Kentucky,  asking for 25 cents a day to bag produce or to help in any way, only to be answered that no jobs were to be had. The grocer probably needed the help, he just didn't have the money to pay. His older brother Dewey had been working as a farmhand at Ms. Beckett's for 10 cents an hour, her parents aging and no sons in the house. Sometimes he'd let his brother work for him on the weekends and pay him half the 10 cents, a sum that Stanley would collect with excitement to save up for an ice cream in town. But what could a boy of 13 really contribute to the family?

On a hot Thursday in June of that year, there had been some excitement that the president was going to address the nation. Roosevelt was going to talk about what was being done by the government to make times better. Stanley remembered this man from the TVs in the windows of the stores down in town: his big smile and cigarette holder riding around in a fancy car claiming that 'happy days were here again'... the song he heard on the radio was catchy and Stanley may have found himself humming it while walking down the road on the way to school in those early years of the 1930's. Stanley's dad was not a political man, but who could not have been swept away in the Roosevelt dream? The days of big banks and unbridled greed which threw the country into this terrible situation were over, and now this man of the people was going to make things right. All day and for the past few weeks, June was unbearably hot that year. Many days had pushed 110 degrees, driving people to sleep on their roofs, front porches and front yards to escape the heat in their houses. The most popular spot in town for young men like Stanley became the banks of the Licking River which provided a brief escape from the oppressive heat.  

When Stanley got home that evening, his mother Laura had dinner cooking and the house was a commotion as one would expect a small farmhouse accommodating 8 children including the new baby Junior. The house smelled of cornbread and beans, a meal that Laura served up most nights to the Grimes family. After bread, eggs and milk for breakfast and cold cornbread for lunch, no one was surprised that cornbread followed for dinner. Stanley ran to the kitchen, grabbed a big spoon and stirred the beans. With 10 mouths to feed, it seemed something always had to be cooking in that tiny kitchen and Stanley got to know what it was like to feed a small army: fetching bags of cornmeal and 1lb cans of Heinz beans from the local grocery, ensuring all was stored after dinner, bringing the used cans back down the road to collect a penny for each 5. He did not know it now, but these skills would serve him down the road feeding the 140 men of Dog Battery in the years to come.

After dinner, Gilbert tuned to WLW on the radio and the family listened as the broadcast tuned over live to the White House and the nasally voice of that New Yorker cut into the airwaves:

"It's been several months since I talked to you..." he said. 

And he went on to talk about things which began to lose Stanley and his brothers: reciprocal trading agreements, gangster crime, the regulation of securities exchanges. But then he delved into the heart of his message: The three goals of the government, he said: Relief. Recovery. Reform. He began to talk of farmers. Of how many thousands of people like his dad would have lost their farms had it not been for the relief programs passed by the congress. He talked about how special interests and rich men in Washington were upset by what he was doing, but that the fight that he was fighting was for the worker and not for the men with money. Stanley, looking around the room at his family could not help but smile... he knew that the people that Roosevelt was talking about was them. 

He began to speak of devotion to public service, of fair minimum wages, of the elimination of child labor. All this was well and good, but still foreign until he gave a real example: The White House, he said, was very old. It was built "when the Republic was young", but this summer they were installing wiring and plumbing to keep the house cool even in the heat of the summer. On hearing this, Stanley wiped the sweat from his forehead and thought of how nice it must be to have a house that was capable of cooling itself down on a hot Kentucky night like this one. This, Roosevelt said, illustrated the progress needed not just in the White House, but what was needed to bring the country into a modern era and face the new challenges plaguing the country in the 1930's. He then began to close by describing a trip he was ready to take:

"I plan to land at a port in our Pacific northwest, and then will come the best part of the whole trip, for I am hoping to inspect a number of our new great national projects on the Columbia, Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, to see some of our national parks and, incidentally, to learn much of actual conditions during the trip across the continent back to Washington."

He paused a moment... and to close his adress in his staccato phrasing and New York accent: 

"While I was in France during the War, our boys used to call the United States "God's country"....  Let us make it and keep it "God's country".

A barking voice came on the radio: 

"Thank you, Mr. President. On behalf of Powell Crosley and WLW radio, we hope you have enjoyed this Fireside Chat of President Franklin Del..." 

Gilbert switched off the radio as Laura began to call all the children to bed. 

That night in the bedroom with Bobby, Dewey and Henry, Stanley began to think of how with all of Roosevelt's fancy new relief programs, maybe he could do something to help. The president was obviously on their side. He wanted to help families just like his. There must be something out there. Stanley closed his eyes. What could he do beyond being an extra hand in the kitchen or finding an odd job around town from time to time to help the family? 

Across the ocean, a storm was brewing. Just as with Roosevelt, a young and charismatic leader by the name of Adolf Hitler who was also hailing himself a man of the people and the worker was on the rise. Young boys just like Stanley sat by their radios too in Frankfurt, Heidelberg and Berlin, listening to this man speak of how hard times were coming to an end and how their nation too was on the brink of a new modern era. They did not know that in just a few days this man was to order a massive purge and assassination of a 100 of his political detractors in what would become known as The Night of Long Knives; they did not know that the designs of this man went far beyond modernization and relief from the Depression, that because of this man their lives would become inescapably intertwined with other kids like Stanley. 

The chirping crickets in the tall Kentucky grass outside sang Stanley to sleep from the open window as his mind began to wander... "God's country..." he thought. His teacher at school told of how the Licking River joined the Ohio, which flowed into the Mississippi and then into the vast Gulf and Ocean at New Orleans. What a big world, he thought, as he closed his eyes and sailed down it in his dreams. 

Thursday, July 28, 2022


Mostagenem, Algeria. February 1943. 


0150 Hours


The recently promoted Sergeant of Dog Battery, Stanley Grimes knew it his duty to stay back and man the 50 calibre while his young recruits enjoyed their first days overseas at the bars in downtown Mostagenem, an area where a soldier with a few whiskeys in him could find his night going sideways in quick fashion with the local girls who seemed like goddesses after those weeks on the boat and even more back in training in Virginia and New Jersey. Despite it being February it already felt like summer in Algeria and the sandy beaches and commotion in town of all the freshly arrived troops made for an excitement that even though a war was going on inevitably led to a feeling among the men that this was some form of extended vacation in the exotic tropics of Africa. Just months earlier, Casablanca had enthralled the country and now Stanley and his men were walking those same shores as Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in the film. But Stanley had a young bride at home and a sense of duty which kept him at that gun while his friends went down the hill and had their fun. As the gunner on the 50 cal, he maneuvered  the barrel down towards the harbor of Mostagenem and saw the ships anchored quietlytheir lights dark under the blackout orders but could vaguely be made out against the moon which caused the Mediterranean to glimmer and the moorings of the ships to occasionally flash as the inevitable one or two lights from the city reflected on their metallic surface. The night was silent apart from the faint sound of the surf against the rocks down the cliff side at the shore.


The crew and mission of a 50 calibre in an anti-aircraft battery was a special one. This was a gun not meant for heaving flack shells randomly into the sky during a raid, their large bullets were meant to make calculated volleys at enemy aircraft that would slice into the fuselage and bring the target down as they came in too close for the 90 mm Bofors AA gun to hit. Tracer rounds let the gunner of the weapon know he was close or off target. These guns had a crew of four: a gunner, an assistant gunner, an ammo man and a water man. This night Stanley sat in the gunner’s chair and looked into the night sky and down at the harbor. He thought of his training in Ft Bragg, where he learned the basics of combat; how to handle a side arm and his M1 Carbine. He remembered the drills in which blank rounds were fired over his head to simulate the stress of combat. But even more-so now: his classroom training back in New Jersey in which he learned what an ME-109, Ju-87, Ju-88 and FW-190 sounded like in the sky, what they looked like, how they maneuvered and attacked. As the Sergeant and gunner it would be his call when to engage even though there were C-47s and friendly aircraft overhead at seemingly all times. He kept an eye on those ships. The glimmer of the sea under the waxing moon which he wished would hide its face beneath the clouds. 


0212 hours


From the battery Radio Man: 


"Red Alert! Red Alert! Red Alert! Able Battery Sector 547 reporting 15 miles northeast of Mostagenem. Enemy aircraft. 15-20 Ju-88s incoming at a heading of 195 at 4000 feet. Repeat: Enemy aircraft incoming! This is not a drill! Over.


Stanleys fingers tensed on the trigger and his adrenaline began pulsing. This was it. What all those years away from home and in training had been leading toward. As if an actor repeating his memorized lines, he called out:


"Examining Gun!" as he checked the sights of the 50 cal and that a clear view was established, "In order!" He called to his 3 man crew. 


Stanley's assistant gunner, remembering his until now unused training after nervously fidgeting with the weapon called out in succession: "Bore and Cables in order!" Indicating the weapon was ready to fire and could maneuver in any direction necessary to shoot. 


The number three or ammo man now checked that the ammunition chests were in order and the 50 cal bullets were loaded in the weapon and more was on hand to feed if necessary. "Ammunition in order!" he shouted. And now on to the next man


The number four man was in charge of the water chest. This man ensured that the weapon would stay cool when in action and in checking turned the crank to be sure that water was circulating properly in the machine. 


"Water chest in order!" he yelled to Stanley. 


This quick drill; this one which they had practiced so many times in Virgina over the past several months, was now a reminder that they were now in Africa; that German aircraft would soon be overhead; that this was not a game or training. As Stanley felt the cool steel of the trigger on his fingers, he remembered Mary Lou. Of how they got caught on that country road in that storm last summer when Deweys car had broken down in Indiana and how beautiful she looked in her dress soaked in the rain; of how he hated Indiana but now how much he wished he was back there. He looked up at the sky and pretended he was back there for a moment. 


0229 Hours


Stanley leaned into the silence of the night. The hum he heard he was not sure was in his imagination or the enemy he'd been training to see all these years. And then it began. Able Battery positioned to the northeast up the coastline began reporting with their 90mm's. At first Stanley heard the shots and could see the muzzle-flashes lighting up like fireworks in the night. Then in the air he saw the explosions. One after another they went off and the night became day. As the flack lit up the sky he could see even at several hundred yards three tight V formations of Ju-88s bearing down on the port of Mostagenem. His adrenaline rushed at the thought of them getting nearby and his training raced through his mind of how many bombs they heldthe speed at which they traveled, and when and how they attacked their target. These were the infamous ‘Schnellbombers'  (fast bombers) that were versatile enough to serve as bombers, dive bombers, fighters and night fighters (and towards the end of the war, human torpedos). They were among the most menacing craft in the Luftwaffe and after all these months seeing them in the sky brought him almost to tears of fearfulness. In some way he was glad that most of his buddies were down in Mostagenem at the bars. They were safe. This was a job for the Sergeant of the battery.  


As the formation passed Able Battery the sickening feeling approached him: he was next. Whether they were after his position or moving on to the harbor he could not have been sure. Dog Battery, positioned 5 miles to the southwest on the coast would be the last line of defense before the bombers were over the port of Mostagenem. He and a few 50 cals and the big guns of the 90mm AA. It was his time. 


The night, now brilliantly alight with red tracers, blue incendiary rounds and blanketed with the bright yellow and orange flickers of the flack explosions made Stanley wonder how any sane pilot would keep coming at them; how these planes had pilots whose mothers cared about them and that their mission seemed all but suicidal. A few hundred yards from shore a round from Able Battery had made its mark: he could see the wing of one of the planes catch fire and he watched in wonder as it banked right and dropped towards the sea, out of sight.  He felt sorry that they had made the choice to fly into this storm of steel. But now he began to finally understand why he was here: in this life and death conflict neither side was heading back. 


Stanley's mind raced back to the trainings he had on the distance and angle to fire on a Ju 88 traveling at a given speed. His finger squeezed the trigger and the weapon issued its ordinance deafeningly into the sky and he watched as the bright red tracerevery 5 shots flew upwards where he had aimed. He could see his Battery mates reporting with their 90mms as the V formations began bearing down on the ships moored in Mostagenem. As he saw the 88s dive and the ships catch fire in the harbor he no longer felt sympathy for those German pilot's mothers. He squeezed the trigger of the 50 cal and hoped he'd find a target in the sky if only to save one of his American brothers on those ships in Mostagenem. His ammo man exchanged the box and the water man kept cranking while the barrel began to glow red


What was only 12 minutes seemed like hours and the rounds Stanley fired into the sky he was never sure made their mark. But the might of what he and all of the batteries of the 67th CA put in the sky made him feel like America could not lose. The news articles he'd read of the German advance being turned back in Russia. Stalingrad. Kursk. It was soon to be over he thought. America had a foot planted in Africa and after a few more months he would be home. As the barrel cooled on the 50 cal and his heart rate came down, Stanley thought of Mary Lou. That little house in Kentucky. How funny it was that a boy like him was in North Africa shooting at German planes. But it would all be over soon. 

Postcard From SSGT Stanley Grimes to Mary Lou Grimes c. March 1943

Thursday, July 1, 2021


My hope from this series is that we would be able to remember a journey. It's a journey which colored a man's life. Which I knew from his stories as a child lit up his eyes, but in a way which expressed caution. This journey he was careful not to relate as 'fun', because it wasn't. What is fun about not knowing if you would have your life in the morning? If you are going to come across a man dismembered from the waist and wonder what his mother would have thought at the sight? No, this journey was not fun. But it was one which defined a life.

My grandfather passed away at the age of 90 in the year 2009. He joined the military in 1941 and served overseas in the second world war for 4 years. He deployed to North Africa only 3 days after getting married, but maintained a commitment which brought him back home to a wife in Kentucky who waited for his return. They would go on to raise a beautiful family, two daughters and two sons, one of whom would be stillborn and one who was my father. This family has now produced 7 grandchildren 10 great grandchildren and a legacy which will walk this earth forever.  

In the year 2006, I started a journey of my own. Much less epic that his, but one which shaped my life in different ways. One of my freshman year English class projects was to create a 'multi genre' themed piece of writing which captured something close to me about which I wanted to learn more. After much thought, I chose 'Pop'. I was always intrigued by his stories. The way those few years shaped his whole life. About what a humble man he was even though he'd been part of the most epic struggle in human history.

If he were around now, I feel I may have the knowledge to let him know just how much I appreciated his story. Sure, I loved the man, but I did not know what a giant he was until after he had passed. He was in a generation that saved our whole race from tyranny. That stepped up and served because it was the right thing to do. That lived a life which served a greater good and not oneself. Pop was a hero. And I always knew it, but I knew it because he bought me toys at the 99 cent center, that he gave me a crisp new $5 bill from the bank every time I went to his house, that he walked me through his garden and plucked the best tomatoes he'd grown that year for me to bring home (although I didn't have the heart to tell him I didn't really like tomatoes). I always new, but boy how much more do I know now. 

Though this multi genre project, I set out to record a video interview of him. I sat down with pop for an hour and spoke with him about his journey in the war, his life, his stories that I'd always heard but never recorded. It was a clunky interview. I now listen to it and laugh at my sometimes silly questions, the self centered way in which I felt I knew his story (I was a WWII 'guru' after all) and just wanted him to fill in some minor details. I wish that I could go back and do it again, but often life only affords us one time to do things like this.

So I now have this interview, and despite its faults, it's one of my most prized possessions. It's not just a story of a veteran of World War Two... it's pop. In his element. With granny in the kitchen and the wind chimes making those familiar clangs which I knew so well from all of the days I spent there. As a freshman college student looking to fulfill a piece of my English project, I didn't notice those things at the time. But now as I look back at it, they fill me with so much joy and bring me back to Granny and Pop as they lived on West High Steet. In the home in which they raised my father and the Grimes family of whose name my son now carries on. 

This story follows a man's journey which in terms of years was just one small slice of his life. But on the whole, colored all of his decades as it did for the hundreds of thousands of men and women who served in those few vital years. I hope that through this we will be able to remember him a little more. To remember his friends, his brothers in arms and those who they left behind at home like pop's young bride Mary Lou. This was a time which we all stood together. A time which defined everything. But more so, I just want to remember pop. His smile. His unrelenting love for garage sales. His overflowing toolshelf. His artistic ability which inspired my dad, my brother, myself. His ability to take naps at any hour of the day on that comfy couch in the family room. This is for you pop.


I have tried to recreate a story which is as faithful to pop as possible. Some aspects of this story forever must be relegated to our imaginations: I do not know what was cooking in pop's house the hot summer night of June 17th during Franklin Roosevelts fireside chat. I do not know what specific projects his CCC group worked on in the summer of 1936 in Arizona.

Through his recounting, first hand accounts of those that were with him and in a few cases, personal experiences of my own, I've tried to retell a story which could have been pop's. I have been careful not to create a new or alternate history, but I have at times made him come to life in ways which I can only say although informed by my knowledge of him as a man and of the history of the time, came purely from my mind.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Vida Colorado: State of the Union

Don't worry folks, this isn't a political post. I am not going to weigh in on the ripping up of speech transcripts, a refused handshake or any other shenanigans which you see tuning into the news these days. This State of the Union is about the small and obscure corner of the internet I have been working on for almost ten years now that I call Vida Colorado.

It all began as a diversion as I sat alone in my temporary home in Ken Caryl as a brand new Coloradan just after I moved here. Jobless and with few possessions, I was ready to start a new phase of life and had no idea where it was going to head. Ten years has aged me in ways I never could have known and brought me to places I would never have dreamed. I married my wife, started a career, moved to (and back from) Las Vegas, traveled to so many beautiful places, welcomed my son into the world, and maybe most significantly, saw Taylor Swift live in concert.

This blog has evolved over all that time along with me: in subject matter, in my writing style, in my use of SEO and digital marketing. Over the last 10 years over 35,000 visitors have stopped by... no, it's no Buzzfeed, but not terrible engagement for a guy that doesn't really know what he's doing and is just having some fun. First of all: thank-you. I don't keep this up for the page views or for any sort of popularity or recognition, but it is nice to know that some of you are reading and have stayed engaged. It's humbling if nothing else to know that you want to keep reading. Midway through this whole thing I totally revamped this into a travel blog, and per the graph below, you have been much more engaged. Turns out you like hearing more about sunsets, road trips and good wine rather than my political rants. Message received.

But in addition to the totally different subject matter, I've tried to keep to some general theme. So in 2016 my blog began to become more of a single story than a random assortment of thoughts that popped into my head. Given my tendency towards ADD this served to both keep me engaged with consistently writing posts, and you engaged with actually caring and reading, or at least that's what the data seem to show. But now that story is over (for now), what's next?

More posts will follow that you could call a 'preface' and/or 'introduction' to this story, but I'll provide a brief status update on where this stands. It's one which exists mostly in my head right now and I am not rightly sure how it will end up. It's the story of my grandpa, 'Pop'. I first thought I had a good idea of what this would look like: a story of a World War II soldier, colored by some first hand accounts and some books that I've read on North Africa, Italy and the Western Front in 1944-1945. But the more I began to dig, the more to this story I found was there.

There were the letters. A whole shoebox full of love letters that he wrote to my grandma during his time away from her after having married her days before shipping out. The newspaper articles in the Brookville Democrat which captured how he and his neighbors may have felt as war began to rage thousands of miles away. The 'morning reports' from his unit commander that told what he did every day of the war during his three years in Africa, Italy and France. This hole was deep, but how incredible it has been to dive in. I thought I wanted to write about World War II. But now I know that it's Pops story I want to tell.

So as I tumble down into this hole, know that I haven't closed the doors on Vida Colorado. This next story I have to tell will be the most significant one I've ever told. And since I did not live it myself, I can't just bang it out as if I were recounting sailing in Ha Long Bay, or crossing over the Tiber River at sunset, or finding a foxhole in Belgium 75 years after all of the shells fell quiet. Thank you for being engaged and going on this journey with me. I will always remember the chilly day in November 2009 when pop left us here on earth, but I hope I can help his story live on, if even in a small way.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

#24b: Belgium. Bastogne.

Pulling off of the road, I was not sure what to expect. As 'war memorials' go, usually there is some sort of informational signage or plaque to help guide you around. Here I was in what was maybe the most anticipated historical place of my entire life and I wasn't sure if the small gravel area was for parking or a place for tractors to turn around. But there across the street I was justified: a small stone monument to E Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th PIR; the names and service numbers of 14 boys, all more than ten years younger than me, who had died in the forest behind me. I stood and read their names. Some I recognized from the series: Warren H Muck, Alex M Penkala, Donald B Hoobler, but most I did not. Their sacrifice would not be known to Hollywood.

I turned and walked back across the small road and went into the woods. There seemed to be a path although no signs led the way. I half expected to be shouted down by an angry farmer for trespassing. The forest was bright at the edges. The needles created a soft floor which muffled footsteps and made the whole place eerily silent. I intersected with some sort of trail and followed it back, not sure where it may lead, but feeling that this was more appropriate than simply wondering through the forest. As I got deeper into the woods it became darker and I began to notice that the trees all seemed to have been planted in symmetrical rows; this was not random wilderness, it was the work of human minds. Walking down the rows made me feel as though they stood watch on either side of me. Still the needles covered the ground and the only sound as I began to pick up my speed was the occasional twig cracking underfoot or a bird calling in the distance. And then finally I saw one. This is what I had been looking for. A remnant of Easy Company. The hole did not look accidental although it was worn around the sides and partially caved in throughout the years. A foxhole. Where the men of Easy slept, kept watch, lived for all of those freezing days and nights during the siege. 

It was odd, this hole. Standing alone in forest. Maybe all of the other foxholes had caved in. Maybe this was a rear foxhole for an officer. A little confused, I kept walking on, looking for more traces of Easy. And soon, just near the road on elevated ground, foxhole after foxhole. Maybe ten feet apart just inside the woods from the road. Dozens of them. Larger ones that two or three men could occupy at once in front of the clearing looking down across an open field towards the tiny German occupied town of Foy where perhaps slightly less miserable men stood watching back at the men of Easy who had dug into the frozen woods of Bois Jaques. I began to see some sense of attempted order that came out of what became the Siege of Bastogne. Some lines and defensive perimeters were vaguely distinguishable, but overall the men in the Bois Jaques were sharing it with their enemy - in a few instances they would even walk through each other's lines on patrols or bathroom run in total confusion. This winter, the coldest in decades, with snow coming down on the undersupplied and battle weary E Company, brought men to their breaking point. I tried to imagine what it would have been like to crouch in one of these foxholes when German artillery began to pound The Bois Jaques. To be totally reliant on luck, or fate, as to whether that simple hole would protect you. On this summer day it was difficult to imagine that time that the men of the E Company endured for twenty-five miserable days: constant motor, rocket and artillery fire, attacks by German infantry, and even two bombing runs by misguided American P-47s.

Bastogne was a thorn in the side of the entire German offensive during the Battle of the Bulge. This offensive that Hitler had thrown more troops into than that of the initial invasion on the Western front in 1940 which brought on the downfall of France: it was Hitler's last gamble of the war and totally caught the Allies by surprise as they made preparations for the final push into Germany. The thick red and blue arrows on battle maps indicate the movement of these massive armies into Belgium and the Allies' attempt to halt them. These lines and maps have always fascinated me. To visualize the handiwork of brilliant military minds maneuvering armies of hundreds of thousands of soldiers across the fields and forests of Europe. But not until walking through this forest had I appreciated what it looked like to be a soldier on the ground fighting for their life in this massive chess game. This forest could have been the backwoods of Meadowcrest at my childhood home in Cincinnati (and many times as a kid I ran around those woods pretending it was), but to see the foxholes, the perimeters, the field in front of Foy, the makeshift crosses set up in the forest; it made the whole battlefront seem much more human.

Breaking down my tripod, I made my way back towards the edge of the woods. Still the needles created an unusual silence as I walked. It reminded me of the silence that settles in after a newly fallen snow and how the Bois Jaques in December 1944 must have been similarly silent during the intermittent breaks between the artillery fire. How it must have made the onset of such a deafening assault all that more terrifying. I lit a cigarette (sorry Jenn) and thought about those men as I hiked down the little road through the forest back to the car. Even those that survived never got to leave Bastogne peacefully walking down this road like I was: they left by charging down the field at Foy, on to their next trial, digging in again against a fierce and determined enemy who had nothing to lose. Pushing back at that thick red arrow on the map as the Fifth Panzer Army attempted to break the Allied lines and reach the sea. They never would. And the men at Bastogne, the heroes now etched into the stone on that little monument next to the nondescript gravel pullout where I now met my car will always remind us why.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

#24a: Belgium. In Flanders Fields

I'd have to imagine that they thought we were insane. The birds. With their tiny brains, flying overhead and looking to make a nest or forage for food over the once peaceful fields of Flanders, Belgium; but finding this an untenable task given that we had blown to hell every tree or useful remnant of life in sight. Us, the 'intelligent' species, sitting in rat and lice infested holes among our own waste and corpses hurling steel and lead back and forth at each other for reasons most of us were scarce to even really understand.

Flanders today is a beautiful part of Europe. Its rolling green pastures reminded me of the midwest where I grew up. Of family trips driving through Indiana; of small towns where the worst traffic on the road would be a tractor pulling a big cart of hay. As you drive through Flanders in 2019, you would never imagine that this was the setting for the most horrifying battleground in human history almost 100 years ago during the First World War. You wouldn't imagine that as your tiny Peugeot (or whatever that European car was named) flew down those roads, it at one time would have been interrupted every few miles by 6 ft wide and miles long ditches; fields of barbed wire and millions of shell craters that made this peaceful farmland look like the surface of the moon after weeks upon weeks of artillery barrages of a proportion never known. You wouldn't imagine that millions of men died here in those fields. That many of them are still buried in mass graves beneath your feet; each country did their best to bury their own in proper gravesites, but out of necessity, both sides were forced to bury their enemies just to rid themselves of the bodies piled up in newly captured trenches as the inches of fields were fought for in Flanders.

This beautiful farmland requires an imagination to make the transformation in your mind back to this time - as now over 100 years later the Belgians have gone back to their normal lives and apart from the cemeteries and monuments dotting the fields, it barely looks different from the quiet mid-western countryside. Winston Churchill after the war even proposed leaving some cities like the beautiful Ypres (ee-pruh) in ruins to remember and memorialize the devastation of the war. The Belgians balked at this idea (rightly so). Their response was to rebuild as quickly as possible to show their resilience in the face of the devastation (imagine if after September 11th we had left the 15 acres of ground zero rubble to sit there as a monument to the destruction caused by Al Qaeda. Winston, you had some good ideas over the years, but this was not one of them). But the devastation is certainly worth remembering.

Let me try to put this in perspective: in the battle of Verdun a few miles south of here, 60 million artillery shells were fired over the course of 10 months. OK... well that's just a statistic if you are like me. Unrelatable. Doesn't mean much... kind of like when they say the world economy is $80 trillion - that's quite a bit more than the $30 I have in my wallet I guess... Let me help: 60,000,000 shells / 10 months = 6,000,00 shells per month. 6,000,000 shells / 30 days = 200,000 shells per day. 200,000 shells / 24 hours = 8,333 shells per hour. 8,333 shells / 60 minutes  = 138 shells per minute. That's more than two shell impacts PER SECOND FOR TEN MONTHS. An incessant and terrifying ear shattering drumroll of artillery explosions for ten months straight. Many that weren't killed were driven insane (ever heard the term shellshock?). 70% of men killed in these battles were killed by this artillery.  It was September 11th every few days for almost a year. These are the statistics that move you. They are ones which had never been known before and haven't been known since. But they are ones which when you walk through the fields of Flanders, chills go through your spine knowing that not long ago this is what happened beneath your feet.

The peaceful and mostly untouched town of Bruges in Northern Flanders, among others, evaded the wrath of this artillery fire as it managed to escape the front lines of the war. Its chocolate, postcard worthy canals and charming old town square a symbol of what many towns may have looked like in Belgium had they not been showered in this barrage of steel. It was and still is a gem of Flanders and as a result probably a little too crowded by tourists pilling in to admire its beauty (and waffles and chocolates). But Ypres further south which found itself in the crosshairs totally leveled in the war is also a beautiful sight. Its Menin Gate hosting a ceremony every night for the last hundred years to commemorate the fallen which saved the city from capture. Hundreds of people turn out to watch each evening to carry on this tradition (I was there on a Sunday night and was 5 rows back because I did not arrive an hour early). Ypres is a monument to this time. But also a monument to the resilience of the Belgians, who were essentially just collateral damage in a conflict of which they had no interest in being involved.

I certainly take for granted that 4,000 miles west of this place, I have not nor will ever experience what being the 'collateral damage' in a conflict like this would be like. That as Americans, we as a country were enraged to the point of mobilizing our entire nation's armed forces because a purely military target on our homeland was attacked a few decades later. This 'day that will live in infamy' for the USA... it was just another day if we put it on the same yardstick as what the Belgians dealt with for four horrible years during the Great War. But life has gone on. The birds fly; flowers grow; the graves stand peacefully silent.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
     That mark our place; and in the sky
     The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
    Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
        In Flanders fields,

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
    The torch; be yours to hold it high.
    If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
    In Flanders fields.

In Flanders Fields - John McCrae