Saturday, December 31, 2011

A end of the year hike...

In Spring Creek
 Happy New Year Everyone!  I write this as the magic hour is fast approaching in the East, but I am in the West so I have a few more hours of 2011 to deal with.  What a year it's been.  It's been nice being back in the West.  Yesterday, my daughter and I went skiing.  It was her first time to ski out West and she did great.  Today, I went hiking with my son in Spring Creek Canyon, south of Karanaville, Utah.  This was the first canyon I hiked in Utah, just a few days after I moved here in 1993.  Between 1993 and 2003, I've hiked this canyon dozens of time.  It is always a good hike.  It was icy going in, but as the sun cleared the canyon, the temperature warmed and we hiked out in the mud.  I'll end the year with some photographs of the hike and one of my grandson.

Hiking toward the Canyon
As the canyon tightens
Spring Creek

With my grandson

Monday, December 26, 2011

Ain't Technology Wonderful (on the Southwest Chief)

Why did this turn sideways?  Union Station, Chicago
I’m on the Southwest Chief, heading west to Flagstaff, Arizona, where I’ll then drive north Southern Utah to meet the grandson.  I’m not really that old; I’m sure it’s just an honorary title!  Anyway, I figure that for a year in which I’ve ridden tens of thousands of miles on the train, this is a great way to end out the year.  I’m using my cell phone as a hot spot which is allowing me to share these photos from Chicago’s Union Station.  Ain’t technology amazing!  If I’m not around before hand, have a wonderful New Year’s Celebration!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas: The Meaning of the Incarnation

A Christmas Card from the early 1900s

I heard this story years ago and I share it with you today, because he shows the meaning of Christmas to those of us who follow Jesus Christ.  One year at Christmas there was home to which Santa delivered a train for Christmas.   On that Christmas morning this house looked like a disaster had struck.  Tossed across the floor were boxes and wrapping paper and bows, ribbons, and of course new toys.  In this particular house the most exciting toy was the train.  This boy loved racing the train round and round, as fast as it would go, but in the confusion, a discarded box got on the track, and the train derailed.

Bending down over the train, this young budding engineer kept trying to get it back on the tracks, but he couldn't get the wheels to seat properly.  Finally, his father realized what was happening.  “You know, you can’t do that standing up above it,” he said.  “You have to get down beside it.”  The father then dropped down on the carpet and lay beside the tracks and with his son by his side, proceeded to show him how to put the train back on the tracks.

That’s one way we can think about the incarnation, the coming of God, how God comes to us as a child.  The human race has derailed from sin.  We’ve all had a few boxes in our paths.  We need to be put back on the right track in life.  It just couldn’t be done from up above – God has to come down beside us in order to put us back on track.

May you have a blessed Christmas!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Evening Stroll through Town

Bed and Breakfast

Karen from Minnesota recently noted that I hadn't written about any hikes or canoe trips recently...  I realized I need to get out more.  I took this walk on Tuesday night.   We’re having unseasonably warm weather this winter!  The photos were taken a few years ago, on another unseasonable warm Christmas, when I walked around town with a camera and tripod.  On this trip, it’s just me and the dog, but I invite you to join us as we stroll through town a few nights before Christmas. 

This evening I found myself needing to “walk my mind to an easy time.”  The last few days have been stressful.  It’s a busy season and on Sunday, a friend committed suicide.  I need some air and since we’re having somewhat balmy weather for December (it was actually a few degrees above freezing when I set out) and there's no snow on the ground, I head out.  Unlike James Taylor, I don't have to worry about the sun burning my back and shoulders as it's already dark.  Before I get to the end of the block, the skies begin to spit sleet.  I like the way it sounds popping on my rain jacket.  At 6 PM, I hear the faint electronic bells from the Methodist Church ring out a couple of Christmas Carols.  My dog is with me.  I don’t even turn on my ipod to listen to a book, as I often do, as I need to clear my head.  Instead, I just walk and look and think as I head toward the city center.  It’s just shy of a mile to the old section of town.
It seems to me that there are fewer holiday lights this season.  Maybe the warmer weather is keeping folks from getting into the spirit. Or maybe it's the economy.  I don’t like gaudy displays of lights, but a well decorated tree visible through a living room window and perhaps a few electric candles (single blubs) in the rest of the windows and maybe a few white lights on an evergreen out front is tasteful.   I pass the funeral home, a homey old building and I think about Ray.  We’re the same age and he’s been in this business his whole life.  When he was in college, his dad had a heart attack and he had to take over the business.  Now, thirty-some years later, he’s still at it.  A lot of folks are stand-offish with undertakers, but I wonder if it’s not one of the highest callings in a small town as Ray has to bury his friend’s parents, his friends and tragically at times, friends of his own children.  Ray’s been busy this week, including handling my friend's remains.

I turn left on Broadway, and walk in front of the Episcopal Church, an brick edifice built in the 1890s.  It’s a lovely chapel.  Across the street is the old Presbyterian Church, with its large white columns and the steps leading up to the sanctuary.  It was built in 1853 and served the congregation until a year or so ago when the faithful moved outside of town into a new church.  Today it’s being reclaimed as a community center and I’m thankful they've placed wreaths on the double doors in the front. It keeps it looking like a church.

Next, I walk by the local bed-and-breakfast, a beautifully restored Victorian home, tastefully decorated with white lights.  As I cross Broadway at the courthouse, a majestic brick building that was constructed in the 19th Century, I notice the sleet has turned to rain.  At the corner of Broadway and State (in most towns this would be Main Street) is a life-sized Nativity: camels and wise men, sheep and shepherds, angels and the holy family.  It’s amazing how many folks in town who never go to church insist on keeping the Nativity at the corner of the courthouse.  It’s not only in the South that you find ornery folks who don’t want the government or the ACLU telling them what to do.  Last year, or was it the year before, someone stole Baby Jesus and everyone got upset.  Smugly, perhaps too much so, I thought to myself that if we keep him in our hearts and not on display where he creates an ongoing controversy, no one would be stealing him and he’d do a lot more good.
Courthouse (nativity to the right of the photo)

After passing the courthouse, I cross Church Street and look in at the folks having dinner at the Seasonal Grill, our fancy local Italian Restaurant.  When I moved here, this was a printing shop, but that closed and reminded empty for a while.  Then, a couple years ago, a family renovated the old brick building, creating a delightful restaurant.  Next door is Richie’s, where they ground their hamburger fresh daily.   I suspect the burger that isn’t fried on the grill goes into the next day’s soup.  They are closing up for the evening; a guy places the chairs on the tables as another guy was mopping the floor.  Tomorrow morning at five, Sandy will be opening up, making coffee and the day’s soup as well as setting the chairs down as she prepares for another day’s business.  Next is the music store and I spot Steve in the back, sitting by the piano with a student on the bench playing.  The appliance store is still open and Tim is measuring a large screen TV for a sharply dressed woman with a short pleated wool skirt and dark tights, who looks on intently.  I don’t know her, but wonder if this is what her family will find hanging on their wall Christmas morning.  The windows in the jewelry store are lighted, as well as the used clothing store with beautiful dresses displayed in front, but both are already closed.  The lights are also out at Kimmy’s Kitchen, except for back in the kitchen where I see a few girls working, probably making fudge for the Christmas season.   I stop at the Second-Hand Corner, a favorite store to rummage around in, and examine the tools and the musical instruments in the windows.  

As I cross Jefferson Street, I look down the block.  A gang of folks are outside the Old Town Tavern, smoking cigarettes.  It’s been a couple of years since Michigan instituted a ban on indoor smoking, forcing the addicted to brave the elements when they want to light up. Next to the tavern is the pharmacy, but I’m sure Dave has gone home for dinner by now.  His home is one of the nicely decorated ones I passed on my way into town.  Across the street from the bar and pharmacy is the sporting goods store, where I’ve brought a few rods and have examined a number of rifles and shotguns, just because its a guy thing to do. Next door is the dry cleaners.  I  remember there are a few shirts and a suit there, with my name of it, waiting to be picked up.  I walk by the other jewelry store, it’s window showing potential Christmas gifts, and then by our local coffee shop where a few patrons are enjoying  lattes.   I pause at the smoke shop, thinking about how robust good tobacco smells and how terrible it is for you.  The craft store is also closed, as well as the knitting store, but the new tattoo parlor next door, in what used to be a Thai and Chinese restaurant, is open.  “Would I really want those guys sticking a needle in me over and over?” I wonder.  At the corner of Michigan is another Italian place, not quite as swanky as the place at the other end of the town, but they have good subs and pizzas.  I cross Michigan and walk by the old grocery store.  It’s been nearly five years since they’ve closed up shop.  I continue walking as the rain turns to snow, heading passed Ace Lawn and Garden Center and to the old CK&S trestle over the Thornapple River. Last year, for Christmas, I added an old CK&S boxcar to the train under my Christmas tree.  The trestle is the last structure standing for the railroad that went bankrupt in 1937.  After they stopped running, the trestle was continued to be used by the Michigan Central to serve the manufacturing on the north side of the river, but the Central closed and pulled up their tracks in 1984 and today, the trestle is a walking bridge.  I stare a few minutes into the dark waters swirling around the pilings and wonder if we’ll get any snow, to speak of.  But as I turn to walk back to town, the snow stops. 

At the library, I see Ed is at the front desk talking to Gerardo.  Gerardo is British, but his grandfather was from the Gold Coast which is now Ghana.  I once hosted a visitor from Ghana and thought Gerardo might like to meet him, so I invited him to join us for lunch.  As the guy from Ghana had never been to a Mexican restaurant, we headed over to the Mexican Connection.  It was a truly international experience, a white guy treating an African and an African-Brit to a Mexican lunch at a restaurant run by Colombians.  There’s not much diversity here, but that day there was!  Also at the library are a group of guys playing chess by the front windows.  If I didn’t have a wet dog with me, I might be tempted to join them.  I keep hoofing it down the street, passing the town hall and police station and the sculpture that many think is obscene.  I just think it’s ugly.

I cross Michigan again and began the walk back through the old section of the city, on the opposite side of the road.  The hardware store that takes up 2/3s of a block, with a section devoted to paint, another to bicycles and another to knickknacks.  The brew pub comes, in a building that was the old furniture store before its renovation.  They have a nice banquet hall upstairs and above it, hanging from the roof, is the ball they'll drop at midnight on New Year's Eve.  I look into the window at the bar and the stainless steel brew tanks.  If I didn’t have my dog with me, I might stop in for a “State Street Stout” or to sample whatever seasonal brew they have on tap.  I cross Jefferson Street again.  Next up is one of a number of hair and nail establishments the town has, followed by our local health food store.  There’s a florist and Christian Bookstore combo, and I wonder how's Norm doing.  He's been fighting cancer lately.  Next to the florist is an antique store with some metal toy trains in the window that look neat, and next to that is a variety store that has a Confederate flag blanket to sell.  As a Southerner, I don’t particularly like seeing such flags down South, but I really get offended at seeing them up here.  I wonder what Billy Yank, the statue that used to be in front of the courthouse and now is in the park, would think about it.  The radio station is dark, but broadcasting on remote and I listen for a few minutes to Christmas music that’s played on the speaker outside their doors.  I pass a photography studio and a framing shop, and a real estate office before crossing the Church Street and pausing by the theater in front of the Courthouse to see what’s playing.  It doesn’t look like I’ll be going to the movies this week as none of the four playing seems interesting. 

Crossing Broadway, I pick up my pace as I enter the newer part of town.   The street is lined with banks, insurance agencies, gas stations, a car wash, an auto part stores and a Family Dollar Store, all sprinkled between fast food joints: Pizza Hut, Wendy’s, Subway, Big Boys and McDonalds.  On the other side of the street is a strip mall: Kmart, clothing stores, more restaurants, another dollar store, a bank, a “rent-to-own” racket and a supermarket.  Further down the highway, after the county jail and sheriff’s office is Burger King and KFC.  I walk on out of town, toward the industrial area to the west of the city, turning on Cook Road, as I hear the bell from the courthouse, a good mile away, toll seven times.  I've been gone an hour.  Down below, to my left,  is Fish Hatchery Park, affectionately known as “Goose Poop Park” as the Canadian Geese seems to like the lakes where fish were once raised.  The ponds are not even frozen, which seem strange. The ball fields, playground and tennis courts are all dark.  At the corner of Green Street is Mt. Calvary Cemetery, where the Catholic faithful are planted.   I turn down Green Street, walking pass the cemetery and then the front entrance to Fish Hatchery Park, and up the hill by the hospital and into the residential section of town, toward the house with a Moravian Star hanging, like a beacon, from the front porch.   

Going inside, I shed my Stetson and wet raincoat.  My dog shakes himself off.  He’s got that wet dog smell.  I plug in the Christmas tree and set a fire in the hearth at the other end of the room and enjoy its warmth. 
Downtown of "My Town"

Saturday, December 17, 2011

I'm dreaming of a long hike...

Entrance to St. John's harbor, Newfoundland

I’m letting Bing Crosby dream of a White Christmas, I’m dreaming of a long hike… 

This past week, I received an email from Backpacking Magazine.  I get at least one email from them a day, most of which ends up in my junk mail folder.  But this email made it through and instead of deleting it without looking, something caught my eye and I read it.  The email announced a contest to send six selected readers out on hikes that would be featured in the magazine.  I certainly don’t expected to be picked out of the thousands of responses they’ll receive, but since I’ve been doing such dreaming about what a next trip might look like, I decided to write down my thoughts.  Even if not chosen, this is a hike I’d enjoy and hopefully maybe before I get to old I’ll take the walk. The photo was taken by me this past September when I was on a ship that stopped for a day in St. John’s, Newfoundland.  I have placed my response into their categories (although I may not have answered them in the way they'd want). 

Detail the route you’d like to hike—what’s its name, where is it, and why does it deserve coverage in Backpacker?

The East Coast Trail hugs the rugged shoreline of the Atlantic from Cape St. Francis to Cappahayden, Newfoundland for160 miles. In the future, the trail will be extended to run the length of the coastline of Newfoundland and Labrador.  Its location, near the confluence of the arctic Labrador Current and the tropical Gulf Stream provides contrast.  From the cliffs, icebergs and whales can be observed as a variety of birds take flight.  The plant life is diverse and the marine life is abundant in the tidal pools.  There is even a wave driven “spout-geyser.” The trail is steeped in history.  Vikings set foot here centuries before Columbus and European fishermen working the Grand Banks found safety in the harbor that’s now St. Johns. Small fishing villages dot the shoreline (some providing opportunity to stay in bed-and-breakfasts along the trail).  Other fishing villages have been abandoned.  Their remains stand as a testimony to the past.  At the entrance of the harbor to St. Johns is Signal Hill, where the first trans-Atlantic radio signal was sent. Eight lighthouses dot the landscape as the trail passes through four provincial parks and three ecological reserves. 
 My plan is to travel overland to Newfoundland, taking the train to Nova Scotia where I will board a ferry to Newfoundland. I will cross the island by bus.  While hiking, I will camp in approved locations along the cliffs and shoreline (with the hope of observing the Northern Lights) as well as staying in some of the bed-and-breakfasts and hostels along the way.  Although I have not extensively studied the maps, my gut feeling is that two weeks would allow one to cover the 160 miles of trail at a pace that allows for some exploration.  In an attempt to learn about the island’s culture and natural history, I will read some of the rich literature of Newfoundland such as Wayne Johnston’s novel, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, and his memoirs, Biltmore’s House, Alistair MacLeod’s Island and Annie Proulx, Shipping News.  

 Tell us why you are the best hiker for the job
 I am a seasoned wilderness traveler.  I have hiked the entire length of the Appalachian and John Muir Trails, as well as numerous canyons in the Southwest, many of the trails in the Sawtooth and Boulder Mountains of Idaho and the Beartooths of Montana.  I have also done a number of long distance canoe trips including one to the James Bay in Northern Ontario.  I enjoy writing, especially when I can connect the history and the people I meet with the natural setting of the terrain I‘m covering.  I keep a journal with me most of the time, especially when hiking.  I am a decent photographer.   In 2011, I was blessed with a four month Sabbatical which allowed me to travel overland from Indonesia to Europe (mostly by train).  Coming back home from Europe on a ship, I spent a day at St. Johns.  From the harbor, I set out on foot for Signal Hill, which is how I discovered the “eastern-most hiking trail” in North America.  I am itching for an opportunity to get back and explore the Maritimes.  

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Children of the Changing South

Foster Dickson, editor, Children of the Changing South: Accounts of Growing Up During and After Integration (Jefferson NC: McFarland, 2011) 189 pages.

This was a personal book for me.  In 1963, my family moved to Virginia where I started the first grade in a segregated school.  When I was nine, we moved back to North Carolina where the schools had been integrated, but only slightly.  They were “neighborhood schools” and mine was over 95% white.  Then, as I began the 9th grade, court-ordered busing forced the school district to ship students around the country in order to achieve a 70% white, 30% African American mix.   Reading these essays by those who lived through integration, I recalled many of my own experiences.  

Foster Dickson, a teacher in Alabama, assembled a collection of essays from African-American and white authors who had grown up during and after the end of the segregated South.  Those writing the essays came of age from the late 1950s through the early 1990s.  The older ones lived through the movement; the younger ones recall what their parents experienced and how it is now to live in a world that has changed.   These essays point out the cost of segregation.  As horrible a system it was, there were losses even for those who benefitted the most from change.  Ravi Howard’s essay “Elevator Music” recalls the iconic Ben Moore Hotel in Montgomery, a center of the black community and a place where his parents bumped into Martin Luther King, Jr. in the elevator.  After integration, the hotel went out of business and is now abandoned.   On the other side of the equation, white students left their traditional schools as many fled (taking their money and support with them) to the private academies that began to dot the South.  This shift left the public schools much poorer.

Fear was a common experience that crossed racial boundaries.  I remember in my own life, how afraid those of us who were bused from Roland Grice to Williston in the 9th grade were when we were transferred to a school in a strange part of town.  Many of the African-American writers also wrote about their fear, as Lean’tin Bracks explained in his essay “Covered Walkways.” “If the Ku Klux Klan-type people would blow up four little girls, then it was open season on us… Will the police come to help us or hurt us?”  Others recalled the experience of cleaning ladies, both African Americans who worked in the low paying jobs as well as white women who by availing themselves with such low-cost labor were allowed to break into new fields.  Leslie Haynsworth’s essay looks at the economics of cleaning ladies and she wonders if she would avail herself of such services if they still existed.  Another contributor, Becky McLaughlin, tells about her parents joining a Presbyterian Church in Arkansas during a time of family turmoil.  Her parents not only became involved in church, but her father who’d been a crop duster moved the family to Africa where he worked as a pilot for the denomination’s mission board.  Coming back to the States four years later, she spoke of how hard it was to re-enter society that was still holding on the vestiges of Jim Crow.  Another “white” contributor spoke skeptically about his family’s “Indian blood,” wondering if there might not be a dark secret in his past.   An African-American contributor wrote about the absence of vacations and swimming opportunities for her people and how, when her family moved around the world (her father was in the military), they tended to stick close to the base and not tour around because of a “Jim Crow” mentality. 

Many of these essays are creative and they are all a joy to read.  I was reminded of the aroma of curing tobacco and found the “third person perspective” used by Kathleen Rooney to describe her “first-person experience” to be especially effective.  Preceding the collection of essays is an introduction by Foster Dickson, in which he reviews recent historical and literary studies of the South, starting with W. J. Cash’s work in the 1940s.  Foster also notes how the Civil Rights movement in the South paralleled the movement for Women’s Right, the changing political landscape, and the “rebranding of Dixie” into the Sunbelt.   Foster also provides insight into each of the essays.  This book captures a number of voices of people who have experienced the Civil Rights movement, first hand.  One of the more obvious weaknesses of the book (in addition to the$35 cost) is that all the contributors are well educations and most of them are in higher education.  There seems to be an overweight of “English professors” among the contributors, which makes for great writing and enjoyable reading.  However, the selection of contributors leaves voices out.  Having been raised up during the Civil Rights movement, I remember the large number of drop-outs (of all races).  Obvious these folks, as well as high school graduates who didn’t go on to further their education are not heard in this book. 

Saturday, December 10, 2011

"Class Dismissed: Goodbye Mr. Biggs

I have been so busy lately that I've not been around much.  This morning, as I was reading through the news feed on my facebook page, I came across a post from an elementary school classmate of mine, informing those of us who attended Bradley Creek Elementary School, that one of our teachers had died.  

Nearly a decade ago, when writing the article that I have at the bottom of this page, I did a quick search to see if I could find Mr. Biggs and failed and had assumed he'd died  (I wasn't even sure if his name was Briggs or Biggs).  I wish I could have gotten up with him.  He might have been proud to know that I have yet to spent time behind bars. I'm pretty sure that's what he expected from a group of us (or maybe he'd just been heartbroken over our failed criminal justice system).  We gave him hell!  In the obituary, I learned that he wasn't captured in the Philippines (as I seemed to remember), but in China, where he was a Marine assigned to embassy duty in Peiping.  And he was captured on that fateful day of December 7, 1941. Seventy years later, he would die on that same day.  I also didn't know that he stayed in the Marine Corp for 20 years and retired in 1959, having received three Presidential citations and having become a decorated hero during the Korean conflict. God bless you, Mr. Biggs!  For more of my memories of Mr. Biggs, go here and here.  I realized that in these posts, I identified him as Mr. Briggs!  
Below is an article I wrote from a newspaper in Utah, back when I had a monthly column there... 

From the Spectrum, January 17, 2003.
I've had the privilege of knowing two men who survived the fall of the Philippines in World War II. Both men, in their youth, endured three years of horror as Japanese Prisoners of War.
            My first encounter was as a fifth grader.  At a time when almost all elementary school teachers were women, Mr. Biggs was the only male teacher at Bradley Creek Elementary School.  Tall and lanky, we privately called him Mr. Chips.  He did resemble the character from the movie.  I can’t recall much of his story, but I remember he had enlisted in the military as a teenager, only 16 or 17 years old.  Stationed in the Philippines on the eve of the Second World War, he was captured at the fall of Bataan.  The rest is history.  After the war, he went back to school and became a teacher and, by the bad luck of the draw, ended up with a host of mischievous boys. I regret now that I can recall more of my misdeeds than his experiences. 
            My second encounter with a survivor of the fall of the Philippines was Kanarraville resident John Lee.  Most people his age can recall what they were doing when they heard Pearl Harbor was attacked.  With a grin in his eye, John once told me he was in a gin mill in Manila during the early morning hours of that infamous December day.  Suddenly lights went up as officers and military police herded everyone back to their duty stations.  While other ships headed for the open ocean, John’s ship, the submarine tender USS Canopus, was ordered to stay put.  For several months, both the Army and Navy depended on the ship’s extensive machine shop.  At one point, the sailors of the Canopus, who had no combat training, were given rifles and pressed into duty as infantrymen to repel a Japanese landing party.  Before the fall of Bataan, they scuttled their ship and were transferred to Corregidor, a fortified island in the mouth of Manila harbor.   There, the sailors were assigned to the Marines who guarded the beaches.  Against a constant bombardment, they held the invaders off for another month. With little ammunition and few rations, and all their big guns out of commission, the island surrendered on May 6, 1942.
            John talked rough, but had a gentle heart. He adored my daughter and all other children and adopted many stray animals.  When eating out, he always asked for a doggy bag and saved a choice piece of meat for his four legged companions.
            Ironically, the hearts of both men who experienced the horrors of war and inhumanity at the hands of their captors were softened.  One dedicated his life to children and another tenderly cared for animals.  With Mr. Biggs, I missed an opportunity, but with John I was given a second chance.  We owe our freedom to their sacrifice and, in their memory, should strive for a more humane world.
John died this past week, his final battle being cancer.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

"A Day that Lives in Infamy": Two Stories.

For my generation, it was where we were when Kennedy was shot.  For later generations, it would be where they were when the Challenger exploded or on 911.  But for those of my parents’ generation, their defining day was December 7th, 1941.  This post contains two stories of where people were at on that day, as Roosevelt defined, that lives in infamy. 

A few years ago I was visiting with my aunt, my mom’s oldest sister, trying to gleam as much information as I could about my mother’s early life.  Unlike a lot of people with Alzheimer’s, my mother never talked much about her childhood and I was curious.  I asked Betty Ann about the attack on Pearl Harbor and how the family heard about it.  Betty Ann said she, along with my mother and their other sister, were cutting through the woods and fields to Beulah Hill Missionary Baptist, where the family worshipped.  As they passed a neighbor’s house, the neighbors yelled for them to come and listen to the news on the radio.  This was an area that didn’t have electricity until after the war, so I assume the radio was battery powered.  I remember my father’s father telling me about them having two batteries for their truck.  One was in the truck charging while the other was used to run the radio.  I asked Betty Ann if they were going to an evening service, but she insisted it was the morning.  I didn’t press the issue even though I knew it had to be later in the day as this was on the east coast and the attacks occurred in Hawaii in the morning (which would have been the afternoon in North Carolina).  So either they were going to an evening service or coming home from a long-winded morning service.

My grandfather had spent most of that fall in High Point, taking a welding class.  The family had been waiting for the Christmas break from school to move to Wilmington, where my granddad had lined up a job building Liberty ships at the new shipyard.  The day before Pearl Harbor, on December 6, the shipyard launched its first ship, the Zebulon B. Vance, named for a former governor of the state.  A few weeks later, my granddaddy and his family joined thousands of other families from farms around the state in a migration to Wilmington where they lived during the war.
John was a man I knew when I lived in Utah and I was proud to call him a friend.   In the late 1930s, he worked for the CCC, and then he joined the Navy.  In the early morning hours of December 7, he along with host of other sailors and soldiers, were feeling pretty good in a dark Gin Mill in Manila, in the Philippines.  “All of sudden,” he said, “the lights were turned up and MPs and SPs were there with their nightsticks drawn, kicking and cussing and knocking us with the sticks, ordering us back to our duty stations.”  The news of Pearl Harbor had just arrived and all American bases were on high alert.  “It was a hell-of-a-way to begin a war,” John later recalled. 

John was assigned to a submarine tender that had a problem with its shaft and was being refitted.  As his ship could only make a few knots an hour, it was decided that they would not try to run the blockade.  Instead, the ship became a machine shop for the Army fighting in the Philippines.  Once the ship was out of supplies and could no longer provide support, it was taken out into the harbor and sunk, in an attempt to keep the Japanese from entering Manila Bay.  The sailors then dyed their navy uniforms to make them camouflaged.  A Marine was assigned to three sailors and they became foot soldiers.  Being Navy, they were evacuated from Bataan before the surrender and fought a few more months from Corregidor, where they surrendered after running out of ammunition.  John spent three and a half years as a POW working as a slave in a coal mine in Japan.  Until his death, ten years ago, he still had nightmares of the horror he endured.  

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Musings as we begin December

Taken on a morning hike back in October

December 10th is my eight blog anniversary. If I don’t say something now, I’ll forget it.   Eight years—that’s a long time to tell tales and try on occasion to be entertaining.  I am honored to have you reading this.  Thanks!  I always have plans to write more than I ever do.  One day, maybe I’ll collect the stories together for a memoir for my kids and nephews and nieces.   On another positive note, I was honored when Hilary at "Smitten Image" highlighted my post titled "They Shoot Canoes, Don't They" as a "Good Read" in her blogs of the week.

It’s been a little over two months since I have returned home and back to work after a four month Sabbatical.  My time away was incredible, but it also feels good to be back on familiar ground.  The past four years had been so busy that when I left in the spring, it took a while for me to slow down and enjoy and realize that the dream of a sabbatical had come true.  It seems odd to have left not long after the leaves had finishing to bud out, only to come back as they were changing.  Now the leaves are gone and we’ve had two small snow storms, nothing major, but enough to remind me that I missed out on summer (that’s okay as it was plenty hot in Indonesia and Southeast Asia.   I need to dig out my skis and wax and be ready to explore the woods when we get the first major snow of the season.

The two months have flown by and now the tree is up and we’re counting down the days to Christmas.   I have a number of crèches (or nativities).  Hopefully, none of them are as bad as those in this blog that highlights the worst nativity scenes imaginable.  Check it out.  I think my dog might like the one created out of Spam!  Another sign that Christmas is almost here is Judy’s posts of decorating the governor’s mansion in home state of North Carolina.   Check it out. 

May December be a blessing to you.

Monday, November 28, 2011

"They Shoot Canoes, Don't They?" More of Sage's Canoe Tales

Sage, on the Black River, Summer of 1975

 This is another of post about my early canoe adventures.  Unfortunately, I don’t have many photos from this era of my life.   As for the title of this post, it comes from a book by Patrick McManus that I came across many years after this event.  When I first saw the book,  I thought he’d stolen my story!

Walking out of the store with a bottle of Coke in one hand, I ripped open a bag of peanuts with my teeth and shook a few in my mouth.  Looking up, I saw a Chatham County sheriff’s car over by our vehicles. My stomach knotted as I walked over to where Larry, my uncle was waiting.  The deputy, wearing a protective rain cover on his billed hat, walked up from the other direction.

“Ya’ll boys ain’t going to run that river today, are you?” he asked my uncle in a slow drawl. 

We plan on it,” Larry answered.    

“That ain’t a good idea,” he continued.  “We’ve gotten a lot of rain and that river is angry.”

“We’re going to check out the gauge before we put in,” Larry assured the man.

 “Well, if ya’ll boys go down that river, I ain’t gonna go lookin’ for you,” the deputy said.

“We’re not asking you to,” Larry responded.

The deputy looked at the canoes on the two cars, then padded his pistol and said, “I ought to save ya’ll boys lives and shoot some holes in those canoes.”

“Please sir, don’t do that,” my uncle responded.

It was in the spring of 1975 and my brother, my Dad and I had met up with Larry at a country store and gas station outside of Pittsboro, North Carolina with the thought of running the Haw River.  None of us had ever been on the river, but Larry had talked to some who had and we had a plan to run it if the water wasn’t too high.  We drove over to the US 15-501 bridge and parked beside the road and walked down the slippery back to check the gauge.  The river was running at 3 feet above normal.  Larry’s sources had told him not to try to run it in an open canoe if the river was more than six inches.  A few years later, I would run the river when the gauge was at 3 feet, but then I was in a kayak and had sharpened my paddling skills a bit.  It was an incredible run with an eight foot standing wave below Gabriel’s Bend swallowing us whole and then spitting us out.  We could have never run that river successfully in open canoes.  That deputy was right; he’d probably been looking for us as that river would have eaten our boats and struggling in the middle of boiling water.  But on that day a few years later, I was in a kayak and the river was a blast. 

Although he was my uncle, Larry always seemed to be more of an older brother to me and he was much closer to my age than to my dad’s age.  When he graduated from high school in 1969, he joined the Navy and spent four years as a corpsman and somehow managed to stay out of Vietnam even though for half his enlistment he was assigned to the Marine Corps.  When Larry got out of the Navy, I was in high school.  He started attending a Community College and would later transfer to Appalachian State. Unbeknownst to each other, we both purchased a canoe within weeks of each other and through our college years we often paddled together.  The failed Haw River expedition was just the first of many.
Knowing we couldn’t safely run the Haw, we decided to try the Rocky River, which parallels the Haw.  The Rocky River eventually merges with the Deep River which later merges into the Haw form the Cape Fear River.   I’m not sure how we decided on the Rocky River.  Maybe the deputy suggested it, but I remember we looked at maps at the Haw River Bridge and decided to check it out.   From the bridges, the Rocky looked promising, so we dropped the boats and shuttled the cars and began the run.  If the water had been much lower, we’d be walking much of the river.  There were lots of ripples and rock gardens and some short and exciting drops.  Larry and my brother were in his canoe; my father was in the back of mine.  It was the first time we’d paddled and, as far as I knew, my dad had never paddled a canoe on a river. 

At one of the last pieces of fast water before we got to the 15-501 bridge, we were swept up into the trees.  I thought things were going ok as I got low in the boat and tried to steer us back into the flow, when I realized my dad was out of the boat and holding onto the canoe with one hand and to a tree with another.  I never figured out how he got out of the boat without me knowing it, but I tried to stabilize the boat as he crawled back in.  But as he let go of the tree and jumped into the boat, it rolled and we were both in the freezing water being swept downriver.  Larry was yelling for us to hold onto our paddles and he and my brother were collecting stuff from our boat that was floating downriver.  At the bottom of the fast water, with everything collected and the water dumped from the boat, we got back in and fifteen minutes later arrived at the bridge.  We’d talked about going further down the river, but with my Dad and I both being wet, we decided that might not be the thing to do.  As for my canoe, it had a ding on the keel that continued to remind me of the Rock River. After this canoe was stolen, I would often look at the keels similar looking canoes tied on top of vehicles, hoping to find my old canoe.

Over the next few years, Larry and I would often paddle together.  Sometimes my brother would join us (my father never did join us on these trips even though he did on occasion paddle with me).  We did several trips along the Black River, including an overnighter where I was in the bow as we floated down the river while fishing upstream.  In a quiet but serious voice, my uncle instructed me not to move.  I wasn’t sure what was up, but the out of the corner of my eye, I realized we were about to bump up to a log.  Curled up on the log and looking at me, at eye level, with his tongue darting in and out, was a fat Cottonmouth. Had we bumped the log, the snake would have been in the boat.  Larry safely maneuvered us around the log.  On another trip, we explored the Uwharrie River (where we were surprised to find a dam that required a difficult portage).  And then there was long day my brother and I joined Larry for a long paddle on the South Fork of the New River.  It rained so hard that day that we had to regularly stop and dump the water out of our canoes and the only respite we found were under bridge abutments.  Like trolls, we ate lunch under one such bridge.     

In the spring of ’76, Larry called me and asked if I would be interested in a kayak.  He’d just purchased one and a friend of his had another one to sale.  I brought the boat and we then began another chapter of our lives. 

Friday, November 18, 2011

"The Only Way to Cross" A book review and a photo from my summer cruise

Sage on the deck of the deck of the Eurodam
As I indicated in an earlier post, in late August at the end of my round-the-world trip, I boarded the Eurodam in Dover, on the Southeast English Coast, heading for the North Atlantic and eventually on to New York.  The 17 day trip took me to several European ports, Ireland, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland (see photo), Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.  I had just two printed books with me (I had some audible books on ipod which I listened to while in the ship’s gym and occasionally on the crow’s nest while scanning the waters through which we sailed).  My bound books were The Atlantic (which I’ve already reviewed) and this one.  They were both a treat to read at sea.   For those interested, I'll be back to my canoeing adventures soon.

John Maxtone-Graham, The Only Way to Cross: The Golden Era of the Great Atlantic Express Liners—from the Mauretania to the France and the Queen Elizabeth II (New  York: MacMillian, 1972), 434 pages, black and white photos, bibliography and index.

Maxtone-Graham wrote this book nearly forty years ago, at the end of an era.  When it was published, the age of the great steamships crossing the Atlantic had just about come to an end.   There were only a handful of ships making regularly scheduled runs from Europe to the United States.  The book ends with the launch of the Queen Elizabeth II, which the author suggests might be the last of the great ships.  He failed to foresee the growth of the cruise business. (Today, the QE2 has been replaced with a newer ship, the Queen Mary II, which makes the Atlantic run from the Spring through Fall).  Most ships today that cross the Atlantic are on repositioning voyages, moving from summer cruises on the Baltic and Mediterranean Seas to the Caribbean Sea or to the Pacific through the Panama Canal.   Although the cruise business continues to thrive, the airplane has replaced the ship on the trans-Atlantic passage.  Furthermore, the ships that remain are not truly steam ships as they are powered with diesel engines. 

The Only Way to Cross covers the development of the great ships of the twentieth century.  These ships served duel purposes, transporting the rich and famous in elegant staterooms to the poor immigrants in the less favorable parts of the ships, such in the stern above the turbines.   He discusses technological development such as the shift from piston driven propeller shafts to turbines, which allowed ships to increase their speed and efficiency.  Also explored is hull and prop designs.  As the century began, coal was a major source for fuel, which required longer docking in the port to replenish one’s supply.  For this reason, the great shipping companies early in the century desired to keep three major liners in service, which allowed them to have a ship leaving Europe and New York the same day each week.  A regular schedule like this allowed them to secure mail service contracts.  As companies sought to update their fleets early in the century, the White Star line built three “four-stacker” ships for this service: the Olympic, Titanic and Britannic.  The Olympic was a success; the other two met their demise early in their career.  The Titanic sank on her maiden voyage and the Britannic, which never carried a passage as it was launched as Europe entered the Great War and used as a troop hospital ship, struck a mine and sunk. Interestingly, the author tells the story of Violet Jessop, who was a stewardess on the Titanic and a nurse on the Britannic.  She survived both.   Later, as oil replaced coal, and the turbines became more efficient, the speed and the turnaround time for each ship allowed the companies to meet the same schedule with just two ships (As an example, Cunard’s Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth).

Maxtone-Graham has a love for ships.  Throughout this book, he constantly adds tidbits of knowledge.  One was the need for “four-stacks” on ships.  Early on, there was a belief among immigrants that the four-stack ships were superior which is why the White Star Line put four stacks on ships even though they were only using three stacks for exhaust.  We also learn about the naming of ships.  In the 19th and early 20th Century, the White Star Line ended the names of their ships with “ic” (such as Titanic), while the Cunard Line main ships ended in “’-ia” (such as a Berengaria, a ship built by Germans but received and renamed by the British company after they obtained the ship at the end of the World War I).  Although much of the Atlantic business was handled by British firms, they had strong competition from German, French, Dutch, Italian and American shipping interest.   The post war “United States” was one of the fastest liners ever built.  It was built through cooperation from the Navy and commercial interest.  The thought was that the ship could easily be converted to haul troops in the event of war.   Another area explored is on board dining and the author notes the advantage chefs on the trans-Atlantic trade had (in comparison to restaurants) as they could purchase the best (and cheaper) food from two continents.  Another interesting tidbit is the rise of the cruise business during Prohibition, as some of the great ships from earlier in the century were converted and used to take Americans out into waters were they could legally drink.

The author spends much time discussing ship disasters.  He examines the Titanic sinking (and some of the myths such as it had not been said that the ship was “unsinkable” but “practically unsinkable.”  The Titanic demise brought many safety improvements to the industry, but then there was the Great War and torpedoes were another danger.  Also a problem was fire as seen in the demise of the French ship, “Normandie,” that was in New York at the outbreak of World War II and being converted to serve as a troop ship.   She caught fire and rolled over on her side in port.  As the author points out, ships are most vulnerable to fire in port, where civilian firefighters with seemingly unlimited pumping capacity, can easily capsize a ship by dumping too much water into the hull.  

For anyone who loves ships, this book is a must read!