Wednesday, August 28, 2019

#24: 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

Monday, June 10, 2019

A Letter to Scott

The high arches at Union Station remind me of your time. Those high sweeping cement pilasters a monument to a different era. A time when it seemed people weren't so uptight and bickering about everything there was to bicker about as we go about our daily lives. This was not a time in which I lived, but it's one which captivates me. I can hear the notes from the band echoing off of those heavy cement walls. The trumpet, the cello, the saxophone; the jazz. The women with their short bobbed hair and sequined dresses dancing to the bright sounds. The men, cigarettes in hand with a slick suit and tie, standing back. Taking all of it in.

You thrived in this time. Maybe you idealized it for me. You so ironically ennobled for me a time in which you seemed to despise so much. 'Boats against the current,' you said of these people, 'beating on, but borne back ceaselessly into the past.' Would that you had known today it is your time we wish we would be borne back towards? That it may have only gotten more dismal as the years have passed? That you exited this world right before we found our absolute worst?

We (I?) wish now that we could only be brought back to your time. This time that you were drowning in and so disillusioned by. This time that crushed even a dreamer like your Jay. If a time like this, after the boom of a roaring decade, could not bring hope to you, what should? You: The dreamer. The idealist. All this must have just been a facade to you. All this concluding with Jay's dreams brought silent by a gunshot in a swimming pool. But you should have seen that if you could have lived nine more decades, that the boat would have been borne back into your own time. 

Why was your present so hard for you? I wonder what you would think of me far further down the dark road that you saw yourself upon. What land might you have seen New York now? Originally the green and empty canvas to the generations before you, but in its heyday you saw already in shambles. I wonder what you would have thought of the smoke rising from lower Manhattan in the early years of the new century, but also what you would have thought of the bright pillars of light that rose only days after. Maybe there's tragedy and hope in every generation. Maybe I'll just sit in Union Station and dream about your jazz the same as you sat there dreaming about something else you found better; and while we were dreaming, other stuff was happening - not all good, not all bad.. Maybe there really is nothing new under the sun.

Monday, November 19, 2018

The Casita

The road from Las Vegas through the Mojave Desert is long. It is straight, and it is peaceful; one can go over 110 miles per hour in their car through these roads without attracting the attention of so much as a ground squirrel.  Not that I would have done this on my trip out to Desert Hot Springs this particular weekend. But it is possible. The roads - I swear they are the ones out of that scene in Forrest Gump where he just runs into the horizon and eventually has to turn back because they appear to lead nowhere. I flew down these roads, but unlike Forrest my Google maps told me they did lead somewhere. So I pressed on.

By the time I had arrived at this place, the desert "casita" according to air b&b, it was darkening. It was getting dark and the heavy locks on the gate and the instructions which I could not pull up on my phone on account of the bad reception and my memory failing made it difficult. This place I finally arrived at after sundown on Friday night; it was totally silent. The thousands of cars pouring into Las Vegas on I-15 in the northbound lanes as I flew the other way were not looking for silence. But as a resident of Vegas, one begins to need this silence to stay sane. The ring of the slots, the music pouring from the clubs, the engines of the jets flying in and out of Mccarran... it makes for a constant drone, one that stays with you even as you lay in bed at night.

These sounds now became the crackle of gravel underneath tires; the chirping of crickets; the clank of metal on metal as the locked clicked and the big gate swung open. These were the new sounds that broke the silence of this Mojave Desert evening. As I arrived, for a moment my mind wondered to the recent prison break in Los Angeles a few days prior and my curious study of a map about where one might go if they where running from the law; they probably wanted silence, too. So I went into the house with a dog and a backpack and a Beretta in my hand and put that out of my mind - because silence and seclusion is good, but it's also good to have an insurance policy.

The house smelled of old wood and books and gave the sort of comfort that is unique when you know it is the only roof around you for miles. It was simple and small and had a clawfoot tub in the middle of the front yard which had a hose running to it in some attempt at a hot tub I suppose. There was a record player with a bunch of old records: Ella Fitzgerald, Gershwin, the soundtrack to My Fair Lady. Clearly the owner had class or was desperately trying to appear that way. So I put on the Ella and felt truly high class as I cracked open Michener and a bottle of wine; I lit a fire and Abby lay at my feet on the porch as the sun set.

By the time Greg and Veronica arrived that evening it was dark and I'd been through the Ella twice and a few chapters of Michener which were very long chapters and half the bottle of wine and stoked the fire three times. I also found out that you could flip the record to hear more songs. Marvelous. The headlights came down the road so bright and I squinted as they lit up the front of the casita like it were some criminal being interrogated. I hoped it was them because those escapees from Los Angeles still lingered in my mind.

This place was so far from Las Vegas. All those people I'd passed going the other way. The bright lights. The activity. But here: the stars. Millions of tiny bright pinpricks against the darkness. We dragged out the cheap telescope and a camera and tripod through the cactus far into the yard and I showed Greg how to take night time pictures which did not turn out correctly. But the stars put on a show. Just a few hundred miles away, Luxor pierced into the sky with its bright vertical spotlight. But here: God showed His light. Ella sang her songs. The fire burned. I escaped.