Friday, March 24, 2017

"Escape from Saigon" and a mini-memoir of April 1975

Michael Morris and Dick Pirozzolo, Escape from Saigon (New York: Skyhouse Publishing, 2017), 250 pages and a few photos.

I have fond memories of April 1975.  My senior year in high school was winding down.  The azaleas were beautiful early in the month, and I was in love with a woman with whom I felt I would spend the rest of my life (it didn't happen, but that's another story).  We attended Azalea Festival's functions. For her birthday, which was on the 13th, I gave her an opal necklace.  We made plans for the prom.  Working at Wilson's Supermarket, I had some cash in my wallet, as well as a recently issued draft card.  Thankfully, they hadn't been drafting in a couple of years, but the card was a reminder of the war.  While life held so much promise, there was a question that April of what was happening in Southeast Asia as the governments in South Vietnam and Cambodia were collapsing.  In this era before news became ubiquitous, I read the daily newspaper, watched the evening news and dug into the weeklies in the library: Newsweek, Time, and U.S. and World News Reports.  My idyllic life as a high school senior had the potential to be upended.  Among male friends, we discussed what we'd do if America decided to go back in to assist the South Vietnamese.  We watched as one city after another fell and as people streamed out of Vietnam.  I remember the horror when a plane full of orphans crashed.  As a nation we'd been out of Vietnam just two years.  A part of me felt we had an obligation and should do something to assure the safety of our friends in Vietnam.  Yet, the idea of going to war wasn't something I relished and Canada was always a possibility.
Escape from Saigon provides snapshots of the chaos occurring in the final month of the war.  Each day of the month, there is a new story told through a group of individuals: war correspondents, a former soldier going back to save the family of his Vietnamese wife, diplomats struggling to do what needed to be done, an ambassador who had checked out from reality, a Vietnamese pilot who deflects and another who pilots a helicopter filled with family to safety, and United States Marines assigned to the embassy.  Some of the stories were based on events that I recalled happening.  This book captures the horror and some of the heroic events that occurred that month.
I enjoyed this book. It was an easy and quick read.  My only complaint was that on at least one occasion, I felt the text jump out of the present (April 1975) and into the future to inform us what transpired.  Although as a reader one knows what happens (South Vietnam falls), keeping the suspense in the present is important as no one was really sure when it would occur and what would happen as the country spun out of control.
This novel was written by two different authors.  The two had worked together on non-fiction projects beforehand, but this is their first attempt at writing fiction together.  Despite having two authors, the story reads seamlessly.  Both authors were Vietnam vets.  Morris was in the infantry while Pirozzolo served in the Air Force assisting in the daily briefings for the press corps (which became known as the "5 O'Clock Follies").  
I picked up a copy of the book at a local reading Michael held in a club.  But I met him a week earlier, at a men's luncheon.  We were sitting at a large round table (that probably held 10 seats) and I was talking to the guy next to me about an email we'd both received inviting us to this book reading.  From what I read in the email, I was interested in the book, but being unfamiliar with the author, I wanted to make sure it was going to be an enjoyable read.  I asked the guy if he'd read and if the book was any good.  Another guy sitting at the table piped in and said, "Why don't you just ask the author?" He then introduced Michael, who was sitting across the table from me.  I am sure I was red-faced as I introduced myself.  I'm glad to report that I did find the book a good read.  

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Flowers and an Appalachian Trail book

Camellia
The flowers have been beautiful this year. The camellias are about done (I have two bushes left that are still blooming) and the azaleas are at their peak. While many of my azaleas took it hit with Hurricane Matthew dropping limbs and busting up the shrubs, they were still beautiful (even though there are gaps where they were broken up).



Azeleas

 more azaleas

Azaleas and dogwood

Raymond Baker, Campfires Along the Appalachian Trail (New York: Carlton Press, 1971), 120 pages including 6 pages of black and white photos and one map.


Raymond Baker retired in 1963, after running a diary for 33 years.  The following April, the 56 year old New Jersey man set off to hike the Appalachian Trail.  This book tells his story.  His niece, whom I know through church, lent me this book.  Knowing that I'd hike the trail, she thought I would enjoy it and I did.  The spring of the year always makes me long for the trail.  


Baker heads out on the trail with no tent, only a ground cloth so that he could wrap his sleeping bag in when sleeping outdoors.  He often stayed in shelters.  During the spring and summer as he hiked, he was frequently met by his wife and family members for extended breaks from the trail.  He covered a lot of miles, especially since he did not carry a stove and would build fires to cook his meals.  The time to build fires would cut into the time spent hiking.  He also, apparently, didn't carry a flashlight.  I am pretty sure that flashlights of 1964 were heavier than the dual AA battery I light I carried 14 years later.  


The Appalachian Trail in 1964 wasn't as popular as it was in 1987.  He only saw a few folks from the trail's beginning on Springer Mountain, Georgia to the Smoky Mountains, 160-some miles to the north.  There were not a host of folks setting out to hike the trail in 1964.  The exception, which was still happening when I hiked, were soldiers on maneuvers in the mountains of North Georgia as well as hikers in popular spots like the Smokies and White Mountains.

Like my journals, he does take notice of the wildlife, especially birds.  He loved the whippoorwill, and spoke of listening to them was better than counting sheep to fall asleep.  He once counted the bird making its high pitched cry 180 times in a row (53).  I found his fondness for such birds odd, as there were a few times that I awoke from a deep sleep when a whippoorwill started making its call just twenty or thirty feet from me. It'd scare you enough that you couldn't go back asleep for a long period.  And, I've been know thrown sticks in the direction of such birds, trying to encourage it to find another place to disturb the peace.  Another bird that had not changed their tactics during the years that spanned our hikes were the grouse.  A mother grouse would step out in front of you and run as if it had a broken wing, as it led you away from a nest.  When you were safely away from the nest, the bird would suddenly take flight and circle back around.  Baker noticed this on a number of occasions.  He didn’t seem to have a problem with bears, but wrote how he was warned over and over about snakes, but didn’t see that man dangerous ones (I saw a couple of rattlesnakes when I did the hike).  


In 1964, the trail had not yet been protected as a National Scenic Trail, that forbid motorized vehicles or, as Baker referred to and complained about them, "Scooter Bikes."  That protection came in 1968.  I supposed both of us meet someone famous along the trail.  I met a Paul Laxalt, who was running for President (he dropped out early in the 1988 primaries).  Baker met William O. Douglas at Sunset Pond in New Jersey.  Douglas was a Supreme Court Justice and would later write the foreword to this book.  

It was wonderful reading this book.  I recalled many of the shelters.  Thankfully, the cabin on Blood Mountain (highest point on the trail in Georgia) was in better shape when I hiked than when Baker went through.  The shelter had originally been built by the CCC in the 1930s.  However, it still wasn't critter proof as I remember lying very quietly as a skunk searched for food inside the shelter in the middle of the night.  Like Baker, I found many people very generous and willing to help as I hiked the trail.  
My other late blooming camellia (with stripes)


Friday, March 17, 2017

An Afternoon in the National Gallery

Coming into Union Station
After getting off at the train in Union Station, I dropped my bags at the ClubAcela Lounge after getting off the train at Union Station.  The lounge is a nice perk which is available to anyone holding a sleeping berth (as I had on my next leg) or traveling first class.  It provided a safe place to leave my bags without paying and outrageous fee.  I then caught a quick bite to eat at a Japanese fast food outlet in Union Station and headed out across Columbia Square and down toward the Capitol, upon where I turned south and along the mall to my destination, the National Gallery.  I was probably 14 or 15 years old the last time I was here, so this promised to be a treat.  


Stuart Davis painting
By the time I arrived, I had nearly four hours to explore before they closed.  I decided to forgo the modern art section (which is in a separate building) and stick to the huge gallery that was build during the depression.   However, I did catch some modern art as their was a special exhibit on the work of Stuart Davis.  Although I didn't really recognize the name, I realized I had seen some of his work and, back in my 20s during a creative time of life, I had tried to imitate some of his abstract art which he created during his jazz period.  I still remember the piece, which I titled jazz, and gave it away an admirer some three decades ago.  While I found his work interesting, I really wanted to spend time with the the gallery's vast collection of art from the Hudson River School.  I have never tried painting with oils, but I have admired how such artist are able to capture light.  At my old age, I'll stick to the camera!  

Inness, "Lackawanna Valley"
One of the photos I enjoyed was George Inness’ work, “The Lackawanna Valley,” which he painted in 1855.  Although he was influenced by the Hudson River artists, I find this painting more “open” than most of the others from that movement.  Everything is bright and the painting depicts progress.  There’s a train coming out of the valley, reminding us of the country was becoming interconnected.  And there’s a boy, sitting on the hill, watching and perhaps wondering, like those who admire the work, where all this was leading.  When it comes time for me to check out, I hope I can do it like Inness.  He was traveling in Scotland and, according to his son, watched a sunset, threw his hands in the air, and proclaimed, “My God! Oh, how beautiful!”  And then he died.  


Church, "El Rio de Lux"
I was also amazed by the paintings of Frederic Edwin Church, also from the Hudson River school, who took his talents into the Amazon jungles in the mid-19th century.  El Rio de Lux (The River of Light) hangs in the gallery.  It is an amazing painting with so much detail.  The variety of plants and birds flourishing in the humid landscape.  Church traveled all over the world, including the arctic, making sketches.  He painted El Rio de Lux at home, in his studio, twenty years after traveling in South America, using hundreds of sketches that he’d made.  

But the highlight of my time in the National Gallery came when I stepped into a room with only four large paintings.  (One of the things I like about this museum compared to others I’ve been too, especially the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, is that the walls of the National Gallery are not overcrowded.  Such spacing allows you to enjoy each painting.  This set, by Thomas Cole, I’d read about fairly extensively in a book by a latter-day Thomas Cole, titled The Journey of Life: A Cultural History of Aging in America.  I don’t think the two Thomas Cole’s are related.  One writes academic history on aging and the other explored again through his paintings.  

In the first painting, titled childhood, features a small child in a boat, steered by an angel, emerging from a womb-like cavern in a boat.  The sun is just about to rise over the horizon.  The painting shows the promise of a new day as the child begins his exploration of the world.






In the second, titled “Youth”, the child is older and is able to take the helm and guide the boat.  He’s dreaming big as there is a castle in the sky  The angel is still present. But she lets the boat continue was she watches from the bank.  Like the first, there is a lot of optimism and hope.  






In the third painting, the colors darken and storms rage.  It is titled “Manhood.”  The man in the boat has lost his rudder and is approaching roaring rapids.  In the distance is the sea.  He prays.  There is still an angel in the painting, but she’s up in the sky, far away.  This dark view of adult life may have come from Cole’s on life, for he died young, in his forties.  This is a time of trial and the man, as depicted in the painting, is helpless.

The final painting, titled “Old Age”, has the boat out on the sea as the sun sets.  The man is older and an angel is beckoning him to come.  His time is over and all is calm.  You can only see a bit of land as the boat floats out into the depths, into eternity.  


Cole painted two sets of these paintings.  The first was commissioned by a man in New York state, who died before he finished.  His heirs did not want to "show" the paintings publicly, so he painted a second series from memory.  The second series hangs in the National Galley.  The first is in a museum in Utica, New York.

I spent a long time looking at each of the paintings.  I really liked them, but the more I looked and thought about them, I began to think that he had missed something important.  In the paintings, the man is always alone, except for an angel.  There are no parents to guide the infant, or a community to help the young man as he goes in search of his dream.  Nor are their peers or a spouse to help the man as an adult or to comfort the man as he ages.  Certainly Cole captures the idea of divine providence (as represented by the angels), but his paintings focus on the individual and forgets the community.  Maybe I am just cynical, but a problem in America is the cult of the individual. One of our recent candidates for President titled her book, It takes a Village to Raise a Child.  Too often we get hung up on the individual and forget that we depend on others and they on us.
I enjoy watching artists work!
The gallery closed at 5 PM. I walked back to Union Station and enjoyed the lounge as I waited for my train to Savannah. We boarded a little after 7 PM. After stowing my stuff in my roomette, I headed to dining car where I enjoyed a wonderful Flat Iron Steak dinner while talking to a guy who used to be an Amtrak police officer. He had a lot of interesting stories! Then it was time to sleep.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Overnight on the Train

South Bend, Indiana
I wake up and realize the guy in the seat beside me is gathering his stuff.  Looking out the window, I see we're running alongside a river.  It must be the Ohio.  I pull out my iPhone to check the time.  It's 4:45 AM, we're approaching Pittsburgh.  

"Getting off in Pittsburgh?" I ask.

"Yeah," he answered.  He was asleep last night when I boarded the train in South Bend.  I was pretty tired myself.  I vaguely remember train stopping at Elkhart, and totally missed Waterloo, along with longer stops in Toledo and Cleveland and a number of quick stops in smaller towns.  We pass the Emsworth Lock and Dam.  I'm surprised to see the barges are still running on the first of February, but then it's been a warm winter.


“Live in the 'burg?" I ask.


"No,  Philly."


"But you're getting off here?"


"Yeah, I gotta catch another train. I have a two hour layover.  You from here?"


"Nah, but I lived here for three years when I was in school.  It's a great city."


We talk for a few minutes.  The train slows down and then pulls away from the river.  I learn he's a long haul truck driver.  They found a beer in his truck when it was being serviced.  He said it was left over from New Years, but it's a violation and they terminated him.  But it's okay, he says, as he's already has another job with another trucking company lined up.  


As he talks the train swings to the right and soon we're running over the bridge across the Allegheny River.


"Those are the Three Sisters," I say, pointing out the identical bridges below us crossing the river.  The train slows, stopping at the Pittsburgh Station underneath the massive building that used to house offices for the Pennsylvania Railroad.  The conductors and engineer change crews here, providing a fifteen minute break.  After all the passengers are off, I get off and walk for a few minutes along the tracks enjoying the fresh air.  Most passengers are  still asleep, but there are a few on the platform enjoying one of the infrequent smoking breaks.  It's odd to be outdoors in the predawn hours on the first of February without wearing a coat.  When the conductor shouts, "All Aboard," I step back up and take my seat and am soon asleep.  
Boarding in South Bend


I'd boarded the train the evening before in South Bend, Indiana. There, I'd had a long wait as I turned in my rental car at 6 PM, in time to get a shuttle back to the station, but the train didn't arrive until a little after nine.  I had brought a sandwich for dinner and ate it in the station.  It wasn't a very fancy meal.  I spent the rest of my time sitting along the back wall reading Robert Harris' Pompeii while looking up every few minutes when the crossing gates just outside the station would begin to ring in announcement of another train.  The ringing was followed by the horn of a train coming closer until it whisked by, followed by the waning sound of the horn and the clacking of the wheels.  This was the main line serving trains heading from Chicago east to New York, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.  The station was never very busy and only a half dozen of us who board in South Bend when Amtrak arrives.


I wake up a little after seven and in the dark can make out a river that parallels the tracks.  According to the time table, we must have already stopped in Connellsville and are beginning the long slow climb over the Alleghenies.  The river appears deep and slow, with just a few rocks, but I know that'll change as we gain altitude.  There is a dusting of snow on the ground and the trees are barren.  Occasionally I'll spot a pine or cedar, frosted with snow, but it's mostly hardwoods of some variety.  In the dark, it's hard to tell the specie.  I take my book and notebook up to the snack car for breakfast, ordering a breakfast burrito and coffee.  Sitting at a table, I eat, while watching the scenery change.  There are more cedars and the river is running faster with rocks.  The ground is now covered with snow with more falling.   

The train slowly winds its way up the tracks, its wheels at time squeaking against the rails.  We reach the village of Confluence.  The morning is gray, foggy, and wet.  Only a few cars are on the roads.  As we gain more elevation, the river becomes smaller and swifter.  We run through the first tunnel.  On the top of the hills are a large number of electrical windmills.  Mountain laurel is seen along the hillside.  We enter another tunnel, a longer one, and when we come out I notice that the river has changed directions.  We're heading downhill, but the engineer holds the train back, going as slowly downhill as we did uphill.  The sun is now attempting to burn off the fog and it's golden reflections can can seen in the ripples of the creek below.  As we lose altitude, there is less and less snow on the ground and the train picks up speed.  By the time we reach Cumberland, the snow is gone.  We're a bit early, so I step off the train and enjoy the fresh air.  It feels more like spring than deep winter.   

After Cumberland, I head back to my seat.  The train runs quickly along the Potomac River.  I continue reading Pompeii, picking up where I left off last night.  A little over an hour later, we make a short stop in Martinsville, West Virginia, a neat looking old town.  On the north side of the tracks is an old abandoned roundhouse.  The business district is on the south side.  Our next stop is in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.   I look for the old hotel where I stayed and other familiar scenes from when I was here while hiking the Appalachian Trail.  The strop is short and soon we're crossing the river and heading into a tunnel.  
Harpers Ferry





C&O Towpath (south of Harpers Ferry)


Below Harper's Ferry, the train parallels the C&O canal, it's stagnant water covered in a green slime.  The train makes its last stop in Rockville, before pulling into Union Station fifteen minutes early.  I have a quick lunch in the food court and then head out to the National Gallery.  Tonight, I'll have better accommodations as I've booked a sleeper for the trip back to Savannah.



Back in Savannah

Monday, February 27, 2017

Pompeii, A Book Review


Robert Harris, Pompeii, (2003, New York: Random House Paperbacks, 2005), 279 pages, one map. 




Since I was a child, I have been fascinated with the story of Pompeii, but I was a bit reluctant about reading a historical fiction account of the events of 79 AD, when the town was covered by a volcanic eruption.   After all, I knew the ending.  Several towns east of Vesuvius was buried by the eruption.  However, my men's book club group decided that we needed a break from the serious history we'd been reading and decided on this book.  I'm glad that we did.  This is a fascinating story that centers on Attilius, the "aquarius" or engineer overseeing the "Aqua Augusta," an aqueduct providing water to the towns along the Bay of Neapolitan (now Naples). Attilius is a young man, but a fourth generation engineer, who has been assigned to this particular aqueduct following the disappearance of the previous aquarius. 



Strange things are happening around the Bay of Neapolitan in the days leading up to the eruption.  Almost all of the cities (except for Pompeii) have lost water, or have received water that was so rank with sulfur that it is unfit for drinking and bathing.  Attilius' job is to find out why and to correct the problem.  At the city of Misenum a fleet of the Roman navy is anchored.  Pliny, the Roman philosopher, has recently been made Admiral of the fleet, which is relaxed as the empire is at peace.  Attilius obtains Pliny's support, which is critical and carries the weight of the emperor.  The cities are also in the midst of a religious holiday.  No one is interested in helping until they learn of the power behind Attilius' task.  As he puts together a team of men, oxen and supplies for the journey up the mountain to the aqueduct, the reader is provided with a view of Roman world. Those with power and money enjoy the finest things such as 200 year old wine (which has to be mixed with more recent wine as it is not very tasty).  There are brothels, of which Pompeii is especially known.  And then there are slaves.  One of the slaves, responsible for his master's tanks of eels, is sentenced to die for letting the eels die (which happened because of the sulfur in the water).  He is sliced so that blood is flowing and thrown in another tank where he's eaten by eels.  His mother, also a slave, naturally goes berserk.  Attilius who is presented as an honest and compassionate man, finds such behavior offensive and tries to care for the mother, but doesn't get too involved.  He stays focused on his task of fixing the aqueduct.



As a reader, we know that Vesuvius is a ticking time bomb.  The story starts two days before the eruption and ends the day afterwards.  But those living in the pleasant towns along the coastline have no idea of their fate.  The mountain has always been dormant.  Twenty years earlier there was a great earthquake (which destroyed and created a real estate opportunity in Pompeii, but no one had connected the earthquake to the volcano.  Pliny and Attilius are both men interested in observing nature.  As the story unfolds, they both began to have their suspicions as to what's happening.  To help the reader understand what is occurring inside the volcano, Harris begins each chapter with a quote from scientific studies of volcanoes. 



There is a surprise ending to the book and I won't spoil it.  As I got more into the story, I couldn’t put the book down, but had to keep reading.  The author was able to hold my attention with a compelling story while providing information about the Roman world, the geology of the volcano, and the engineering of the water systems (which survived the eruption (they were on the opposite side of the mountain and were in use for another 400 years).  And he's also able to weave a love story into the pages of the book.  I highly recommend this book.