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Elisha and the Chariots of Fire

Chariot Sculpture, Tel Megiddo, Northern Israel

It’s a bit presumptuous of me to suggest to anyone how to pray about the current world situation and the seeming chaos in Kabul.  However, in this instance, since I know we are all working to see a more peaceful outcome in Afghanistan with as few American and allied losses as possible, I thought I would venture sharing some of the concepts that have come to me.

As I think about our courageous U.S. military personnel and diplomats surrounded by hostile forces in Kabul – and consider in particular the plight of American civilians, our allies, and Afghani interpreters and advisers cut off from this relatively confined U.S. contingent – I keep returning to the story of Elisha and his young servant surrounded by Aramaean forces in Dothan – as related in II Kings 6. 

The Bible is not specific as to who the vengeful Aramaean (or “Syrian”) king is in this story; however, by triangulating this episode in the prophet’s career with other accounts in II Kings and non-biblical sources, one can speculate that the most likely culprit was Hazael of Damascus, the same king who erected the monument known as the Tel Dan Stele sometime after 843 BC, a facsimile of which we have on display at Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC. The fragments of this monument are significant, for they represent the earliest reference from a non-biblical source suggesting an Israelite king named David as a real historical figure.

The Tel Dan Stele is a typical Iron Age battlefield “war trophy” erected by a victor to boast of his defeat of an enemy, and it was installed in the extreme northern settlement of Dan (near the current Lebanese border) a little less than 100 years after David’s realm split into two kingdoms, following the reign of his son Solomon. The Prophet Elisha’s career probably took place during this turbulent period, when hostile neighbors, such as the Aramaeans, began encroaching upon the more fertile lands of the Galilee and Samaria, the bread-basket of the Northern Kingdom of Israel.

As the King of Aram-Damascus, Hazael was incensed with anger against Elisha and wanted him silenced one way or another, because Hazael held the Israelite prophet responsible for thwarting his efforts to capture and kill the king of the northern Kingdom of Israel.  Moreover, Elisha had prophesized about Hazael’s death. 

Hazael sent a contingent of chariots – the most terrifying shock-and-awe weapon of the Iron Age – to compel the surrender of the lightly fortified hilltop town of Dothan and capture this meddlesome man of God.

The Bible tells us what happened next; and I’ll let the Bible speak for itself in describing the dramatic scene that unfolded (II Kings 6: 15-17, from the King James Bible):

And when the servant of the man of God was risen early, and gone forth, behold, an host compassed the city both with horses and chariots.  And his servant said unto him, Alas, my master!  how shall we do?
And he answered, Fear not:  for they that be with us are more than they that be with them.
And Elisha prayed, and said, Lord, I pray thee, open his eyes, that he may see.  And the Lord opened the eyes of the young man; and he saw:  and, behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha.

The Bible goes on to say that, through prayer, Elisha asked the Lord to temporarily blind the Aramaean force, allowing not only Elisha and his servant to escape from Dothan, but even to lead the now confounded enemy into Samaria, where it would be captured and then treated humanely as POWs.  The Aramaean force never knew what hit it.

In a sense, this episode in the life of the prophet teaches us about “vision” and “revelation.”

The Bible doesn’t provide any more specifics about how Elisha prayed or how this resulted in God sending in the relief force of the “chariots of fire.”  One thing was clear from Elisha’s calm response to his fearful servant’s exclamation, however.  The prophet had complete confidence that God would come through for them.  Elisha was simply unphased by the existential threat that the Aramaean force posed.

This tells me several things:  First, Elisha refused to put limits on what God could do in this and any other situation.  He didn’t outline what course God ought to take; and he had complete faith that God would reveal to both of them the right result – at the right time.

Second, I’d like to think that Elisha refused to give much countenance to the menacing physical evidence arrayed before him.  He was not alarmed by the overwhelming force that the angry Hazael had sent to dispatch him.  Elisha simply but firmly knew that spiritual power always triumphs over the physical obstacles that the world sometimes places before us.

Last, the story seems to suggest that Elisha either saw the relief force that God had provided before his servant did, or he knew that it had always been there.

The result – really a revelation from God – was that the “chariots of fire” appeared at the decisive moment.

During the siege of Dothan, Elisha never stopped to advise God which type of relief force to send in.   He didn’t pray for infantry armed with spears and slings. . . for archers. . . even for chariots.   It never occurred to him to release a carrier pigeon back to the capital in Samaria asking for authorization to negotiate with the enemy or for “rules of engagement” should the town’s security perimeter be breached. 

Elisha simply prayed that God would open his servant’s eyes and accept the principle of God’s permanent protective presence – a truth that Elisha knew had been with them all along. 

* * * * *

Dear friends: I’ll leave this discussion for now with one of my favorite passages about God’s enduring protection:

Psalm 139
If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.

May God bless each of you and our fellow Americans, friends, and allies currently serving in harm’s way.

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Kipling’s Lament

Kabul International Airport – August 2021

I admit that I am transfixed by the events now unfolding in Afghanistan.

Seeking some elusive perspective, I just re-read Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem, “The Young British Soldier,” which was based on the English storyteller’s experiences reporting on failed British Army campaigns in Afghanistan during the latter part of the 19th Century.  The gruesome ending to Kipling’s poetry — sad advice he gives to soldiers finding themselves isolated on the battlefield — tends to get most of the attention (you’ll have to Google the poem to read that part).   However, I believe that the following verse captures more aptly how some U.S. military personnel might be feeling right now as they continue to serve our nation at the frayed end of a strategic tether, thousands of miles away from home:

If your officer’s dead and the sergeants look white,

Remember it’s ruin to run from a fight:

So take open order, lie down, and sit tight,

And wait for supports like a soldier.

Wait, wait, wait like a soldier.

Clearly, our U.S. soldiers, marines, and airmen, who have remained in Afghanistan or have just been redeployed to it, are doing their level best to extract their fellow Americans, NATO allies, and Afghanis during this crisis.   Viewing yesterday’s YouTube footage from Kabul of the turbulent “fog of war” (as 19th Century military theorist Clausewitz would put it), I keep thinking that at least some of these Taliban-surrounded Americans may be experiencing the same sense of fear, disappointment, and lament as expressed in Kipling’s sobering poem from 130 years ago.

I couldn’t help but reflect as well upon my own experiences during an analogous air evacuation of U.S. personnel and allies decades before.  Together with a subsequent stint as a combat support group commander, managing airlift operations from the tarmac, I’m sitting here imagining all the complex tasks and herculean strain that our people must be experiencing at this moment in time.  The teams now working around the clock in Kabul are no doubt facing challenges exceeding those described below.     

It seems like yesterday, but 46 years ago, I played a minor part in flying approximately 1,000 Vietnamese orphans & civilians and dozens of State Department personnel, in six plane loads out of Saigon.  During an additional evacuation flight, we were forced by small-arms fire, surface-to-air missiles, and the enemy siege of the airport to abort our mission and return empty handed to our departure base back in the Philippines. 

During the last few sorties flown into Saigon before North Vietnamese artillery chewed up the runway, we encountered thousands of civilians on the tarmac attempting to climb onto the aircraft as we started our engines and taxied out for take-off – just like the scene in the above photo taken at Kabul airport.

For the operation in Saigon in April 1975, we removed passenger seats from the aircraft in order to cram as many evacuees as we could into the cargo hold of our large C-141 transport.  We secured these mostly unscreened passengers with tie-down straps pulled snugly across their legs, as the oft sandal-footed refugees sat down on the cold metal flooring. You could feel the uneasy mixture of their trepidation and relief.   

Saigon – April 1975

To deal with the potential of uncontrolled Vietnamese rushing the aircraft — or with a terrorist attack by a lone Vietcong infiltrator — each crewmember was issued a Smith & Wesson revolver, which was loaded with three rubber bullets and three hard-point rounds.  The weapons were to be used in the event that any individual posed a hazard to our departure.  Clearly, the revolvers would have proved insignificant had we needed to repel a large angry mob or thwart an organized attack. 

Fortunately, of the hundreds of flights flown by the Air Force, Marines, and Army to transport thousands of our Vietnamese allies out of harm’s way, I don’t recall hearing of any crew member having to discharge his sidearm at an unruly evacuee.  Crowd control was accomplished through old-fashioned American persuasion, calmness, and confidence.       

Improvised during a three-week period by those military and State Department personnel who remained in Vietnam during the late Spring of 1975, the much larger air evacuation of Saigon, for all its missteps and faults, seems to have been a far less chaotic operation than the one now taking place in Kabul.

I should pause here to say that the purpose of my sharing of these perspectives is not to assess which Administration bears the greater responsibility for the failure of U.S. policy in Afghanistan or which actions might have precipitated the events we are now witnessing.  The finger-pointing has already begun and will continue until sober mainstream military historians sort it all out many decades from now. After 46 years, we still haven’t come to an agreement about the Vietnam War!

By comparison with the events of 1975, it seems safe to say that Washington was caught flat-footed by the swiftness of the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan.  As always, it is now up to U.S. aircrews, ground troops, and diplomats in the combat zone to react and improvise, as they always have done, in order to pull this chestnut of an unexpected “Dunkirk” out of the fire and return safely home to their families.  I am certain they will make us proud.      

May God protect our young, extraordinary American men and women, who are courageously hanging on in Afghanistan during this particularly hazardous moment in U.S. history.  And Godspeed to our Afghan friends and allies – all too few now to whom we can extend wings of salvation.

. . . wait for supports like a soldier.

Wait, wait, wait like a soldier.

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Alpine Dreamin’: Chamonix and Mont Blanc, France

The September-October time frame is often when Suzanne and I travel to Europe, usually to get in some Alpine hiking and sample the local culture and hearty cuisine. The weather is typically spectacular in late fall, and it’s nice to visit these spots just a few weeks before they close down, as the mountain resorts get ready for the ski season. Alas, due to the ongoing pandemic, we were unable to make the journey this time around.

However, just this week, I was able to retrieve, sort, and edit some of our video footage and photos from a fun trip that we made to the French Alps exactly three years ago this month (September 2017). Better late than never, eh?

Hopefully, you’ll be able to take some hikes on your own this fall. When you have the time, feel free also to travel with us back to this gorgeous part of the world — where modern mountaineering first began in the 19th Century. When hiking around, be careful of the ice, the paragliders, and the ferocious Alpine wildlife.

Click on the following links to begin your virtual Alpine journey:

Chamonix & Mont Blanc, France – Highlights (Video) It’s posted in HD; so check your YouTube settings (e.g., the sprocket) for optimum viewing.

Chamonix and Mont Blanc, France (Photo Album)

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Dance of the Desert: Masada and the Amazing Archaeological Expedition of 2020

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Dance of the Desert – the theme I chose for this blog post – is a celebration of life; it’s not a dirge for the dead or a lament for barren, long-lost lives.

At least that’s my take from spending two weeks digging on top of a mountain in Israel during February with a happy group of young and “more senior” archaeologists, students, and international volunteers – all members of Masada Expedition 2020 (see the links to my videos and photos below).

Led by Dr. Guy Stiebel (Professor of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University), this season’s dig at Masada at first glance seemed less concerned than one might expect about discovering new evidence regarding what happened to the 967 men, women, and children, who Romano-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (a contemporary living during the events) claimed were awaiting their fate at the hands of the Tenth Legion, as the Romans breached the citadel’s walls in the year 73 or 74 of the Common Era ((CE); (AD for Christians)).

(Spoiler alert:  Josephus reported that all but a few of the rebels committed suicide rather than submit to the Romans.)

Given the symbolic importance of the mountain to the modern state of Israel – “Masada shall not fall again!” – the fate of nearly 1,000 Jews who sought an elusive state of independence from an outside power on top of that remote promontory nearly two-thousand years ago serves as the subtext for just about any scholarly or scientific investigation there.  Moreover, because the so-called “Masada Myth” (a story disputed by some scholars) remains so indelibly intertwined with the creation narrative of the modern nation of Israel in 1948, the mountain’s popularity has grown to the point that it is now the most visited archaeological site in the entire country.  Nearly 7,000 tourists from around the world make the pilgrimage to the top of this spectacular shrine to “freedom” every day.

With this in mind, expedition director Guy Stiebel’s mission for this round of Tel Aviv University-sponsored investigations (first initiated in 2017) is properly focused not so much on how the rebels and refugees died, but on who they were, and perhaps more importantly, how they lived and survived during those harrowing times of the Great Revolt (66-74 CE).  By using a combination of the latest in scientific methods and old-fashioned physical labor (provided by archaeology students and history buffs like me), Guy’s teams have made a number of fascinating discoveries – not only about the diversity of those living on Masada during the revolt and the nature of their refugee-camp living conditions – but also about later inhabitants, such as Christian monks, who led monastic lives in long-forgotten caves serving as silent cells of devotion.

It was great fun to be working outdoors in a such a stunning setting with an enthusiastic group of professional scholars, students, and retired folks.  A real international “geek-fest,” the participants (about 30 my first week and two dozen my second) represented the nations of Australia, the U.K., Ireland, Spain, Canada, the Netherlands, the U.S., and Israel.

I have to admit that it was the most physically demanding, sustained activity that I have participated in during the last 20 years.  However, the extra time spent at the gym in the months leading up to my departure for Israel was well worth the investment and helped prepare me to accomplish my tasks without injury – and left me asking for more.  The result is that the rigorous work, intellectual discourse, and fun on top of the mountain and below in the classroom were nothing short of exhilarating.  In addition, I accomplished my personal goal of walking up both the “snake path” on the eastern side of the mountain (about 1,000 vertical feet) and the less challenging Roman siege ramp on the western side.

The days were long.  Pottery washing (of the previous day’s finds) at 6:15 AM, followed by breakfast at 7 AM.  After collecting personal gear and expedition equipment from the office at the base of the mountain, catch the first gondola at 7:50 AM.  Back down off the mountain, with the equipment and the day’s pottery finds secured in the office, around 3:30 PM.  Shower, rest; then coffee and chocolate at 5:45 PM, and a lecture by a visiting scholar at 6 PM.  Dinner at 7 PM (every meal 100 percent Kosher).  Archaeology class (mandatory for Tel Aviv University students) at 8 PM.  Guy then conducts his nightly “pottery readings,” categorizing, and recording of “finds” from 8:30 PM until sometime before midnight (a bit blurry-eyed by then, I would attend only two of these late-night sessions).

I thoroughly enjoyed each of the evening lectures and the personal one-on-one conversations with Guy Stiebel, who is clearly the world’s leading scholar-archaeologist not only regarding Masada, but also with respect to the Roman military system and Judea during the Herodian and Roman periods.  The personal interest he took during his busy schedule was a real treat – showing me for instance how to employ “sensory” archaeological techniques, such as “tasting” pottery to distinguish between rock and man-made items (hint:  the real stuff is salty), ascertaining whether you’ve dug down to a dirt-packed floor or bedrock by listening while you tap on the surface with your trowel (although quite hard, dirt floors make a thud, whereas bedrock rings with a “ting”), and identifying imported terra sigillata by lightly grazing the pottery across your lips (e.g., the broken edge of the imported item is rather smooth and doesn’t cut your skin like a Judean-made object might).

These were learning experiences that I will never forget (although I expect that I will have little opportunity to put such skills to use back here in Northern Virginia).

Unfortunately, I failed miserably at Guy’s efforts to teach me how to identify pottery by period and culture (at least within any reasonable margin of error).  It took me a couple of days just to get the hang of distinguishing between a rock and something other than a rock (no duh. . . that’s pretty important, Bruce!); and a few more days to recognize the difference between basic Byzantine pottery and stuff that wasn’t (which might have had something to do with the fact I was combing around in the Byzantine stratum at the time).

Then, I learned from my area supervisor that ancient Judean pottery-making techniques, while adequate for creating functional items, left an imperfect tell-tale black membrane between the outer and inner layers when the clay was fired in the kiln.  During the second week, I got around to recognizing the difference between basic storage pottery and that used for cooking (the items used for cooking looked a bit chard . . . now you’re thinking I’m a bit slow on the uptake. . . and you would be right). 

Finally, I came around to accepting the fact that a handle or a rim of a jar, because of their unique designs, were more useful in identifying items than a mere chunk from the side of some pot.

To be honest, watching Guy and the other experts quickly identify freshly dug-up “finds” during the day — or witnessing them sorting and recording mounds of pottery during the late-night “readings” — was akin to watching an alchemist turning lead into gold.  At the time, I recalled the old farm-yard adage about the pig looking at a wristwatch:  he knows something’s going on inside there; he just can’t figure out what.  Now I know how the pig felt.

On a more serious note, I particularly valued the leadership, organizational skills, and mentoring provided by Angela Hodson, who, as both my area supervisor and the Expedition’s administrative officer, was privy to very little sleep during her month at Masada.  Although I was a newcomer to archaeological field work and an unknown quantity as far as Tel Aviv University was concerned, “Angie” and her colleagues treated me with extraordinary kindness and generosity of spirit throughout.  In addition, I learned a great deal from the young archaeology students, who tirelessly worked on their hands and knees alongside me.

In short, I had a blast during my time with Masada Expedition 2020!

* * * *

VIDEOS and PHOTO ALBUM

A Note on the Photos and Explanatory Comments 

While the photos, captions, and videos will provide you with a sense of what it’s like to work on an archaeological site in Israel, I need to be circumspect about providing any cogent summary regarding the major “finds” and the functions of the individual areas.  First of all, I’m obviously not an expert.  More importantly, for reasons related to intellectual property rights and administrative restrictions vis-à-vis the governing Israeli authorities, the publishing of archaeological finds and making judgments about the function of specific areas on Masada fall under the purview of Dr. Guy Stiebel and Tel Aviv University.  Guy will be publishing his reports in the months ahead; and he will be coming out with a new book on Masada later this year.

Due to these sensitivities, as you review my photos, I ask that you not download them or post them on social media.  However, please feel free share a link to this blog post with friends and interested colleagues.

Clearly, I take full responsibility for the information, videos, photos, and comments in connection with this blog entry; and they do not necessarily reflect those views, perspectives, or conclusions of Dr. Stiebel, his staff, or Tel Aviv University.

When you are ready to experience Masada Expedition 2020, just click on the links that follow:

Dance of the Desert:  Masada (introductory YouTube video)

Dance of the Desert:  Masada and the Amazing Archaeological Expedition of 2020 (picture album on Google Photos with commentary)

NOTE:  In order the read the entire caption for each photo, I suggest that you click on the little “i” in the circle (“Info”), which is located on the top right-hand corner of your screen.  In fact, it’s probably useful to keep that “Info” panel open as you advance through the photos.

The Snake Path, Masada (YouTube video of the last four minutes of the scenic hike)

Bucket Brigade (YouTube video demonstrating how the Area B team moved a lot of earth and rock.  Watch out for those buckets!)

Top of the Mountain:  Roman Ramp, Observation Tower, and Western Palace (YouTube video “finale” for this presentation on Masada Expedition 2020)

I hope that you will enjoy the photos, videos, and music!

* * * *

One last observation about my experience in Israel:

Despite continued trials in the region, life goes on with gusto in the modern state of Israel – particularly on the part of the more youthful segments of its population.  A nation of unexpected diversity, it’s amazing how the seemingly chaotic Israeli democracy continues to flourish in perhaps the most turbulent corner of the planet.  I believe that this can be attributed in part to the thirst by its younger generation to live life to its fullest, despite whatever tomorrow may bring.  However, the principal reason for the continued success of the Israeli nation remains the commitment held by a majority of its citizens to the central concept of “freedom” symbolized by Masada.

During my nearly three-week stay in Israel, I dodged the beginning stages of the Corona virus (some Korean tourists on Masada were later quarantined. . . but we had avoided them at the time); students conducted a mass rally near the Roman fortifications at the western foot of Masada, demonstrating for the return of Israeli soldiers captured by Palestinian terrorists; the nation held its most divisive but inconclusive election in years; and Hamas-supported militants fired several salvos of missiles from Gaza at targets in Israel located to the west of us (happily, all out of range).

At times, while working, I would look up and catch glimpses of Israeli F-16 fighter-bombers, having just taken off from airfields located in the nearby Negev Desert, flying on low-level routes through the Judean mountains to the west, or over the Dead Sea to the east.  Several, no doubt, were en route to targets in Gaza and Syria.

One day, I noticed several of the pilots rocking their wings with typical Israeli military swagger, as they roared past the tourists and archaeologists a short distance away.  As a retired USAF pilot, I watched with some envy as these Israeli combat aviators were obviously violating fairly common flight safety norms, I sensed, in order to provide a brief salute.

By performing their own Dance of the Desert in the brilliant blue sky, it’s as if these pilots were signaling to those of us standing atop this historic and sacred monument, “Don’t worry. . . we’ve got this.  As far as we’re concerned, Masada shall NEVER fall again!”

I watched one such flight of fighters suddenly drop out of sight over the sun-drenched horizon, and I thought to myself:  “Clearly, the Spirit of Masada lives on today.”

* * * *

Warmest regards and shalom!

– Bruce

* * * *

P.S.:  You are always welcome to visit other blog entries on this site — BruceSlawter.com.  They are usually listed to the right of your screen; but depending upon your device, you may have to scroll down to the bottom of the page before they appear.  Cheers!   

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“You Die, I Fly”: My Brief Encounter with George H.W. Bush

Bush Flying

As President George H.W. Bush was making his final flight home in December 2018 after the state funeral held for him in Washington, D.C., I recalled that he often considered death to be serious business – well sort of.  By this, I mean that one of his primary duties as Ronald Reagan’s Vice President before himself being elected President in 1988 was to represent the United States at the funerals of foreign heads of state.  In this capacity, he made dozens of trips abroad to pay our nation’s respects to world leaders – both friends and adversaries, alike.

Bush’s trips representing the U.S. during foreign funerals became so routine that he used to quip among his staff that his motto as Vice President had become “You die, I fly.”

In retrospect, Bush was doing a lot more during these trips than just attending ceremonies for the recently departed.  He was making contacts, explaining U.S. policy, and seeking out the views of foreign leaders regarding the events unfolding at the time.  These experiences would serve him well during his single term as President from 1989 to 1993, when he deftly managed one of the most critical periods in U.S. diplomatic history.

Most importantly, the insights he gained during his trips to the Soviet Union in the early 1980s, and the relationships he established with Russian counterparts – particularly with emerging newcomer Mikhail Gorbachev – would give Bush first-hand knowledge about the inside workings of Moscow’s changing political climate and the confidence to manage peacefully and constructively the end to the Cold War.  Bush would play a key role in facilitating the peaceful unraveling of three Gordian knots during this period:   (a) the re-integration of Eastern Europe into the West (including German reunification), (b) the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and (c) the safeguarding of Soviet loose nukes.

The tone that Bush set as President clearly paved the way for nearly two decades of U.S.-Russian cooperation in important areas, ranging from nuclear arms control and nonproliferation to combating nuclear terrorism – mission areas in which I would have the privilege to play a small role.

Bush would make three trips to the Soviet Union during the early 1980s to attend the funerals of Soviet leaders; and our paths would cross briefly in November 1982, during the first of these visits – which commemorated the passing of Leonid Brezhnev, the long-serving General Secretary of the Communist Party and Chairman of the Presidium of the USSR.

In 1982, I was serving at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow as the most junior attaché in the U.S. Defense Attaché Office.  As a C-141 transport pilot, one of my responsibilities was to oversee the flight operations of U.S. Air Force aircraft transporting U.S. dignitaries to the Soviet Union. Therefore, after Brezhnev died, I became in effect a forward operating base commander in Moscow for planning and executing the arrivals, departures, and care & feeding of several aircraft and about 50 aircrew and support personnel about to descend upon us in the dead of winter.  Vice President Bush, Secretary of State George Schulz, and Senator Bob Dole would each be flying in on their own aircraft, and this small fleet of VIP aircraft would be arriving at different times within the next 24 hours.

In retrospect, managing just three aircraft and Bush’s fairly small delegation doesn’t seem like such a big deal.  By comparison, in the late 1990s, during my second posting to Moscow, one of President Bill Clinton’s summits with Russian President Boris Yeltsin featured 12 aircraft and an entourage of nearly 500 staff, cabinet heads, security personnel, and low-ranking advisors.

However, the Brezhnev funeral much earlier in 1982 took place during the darkest days of the Cold War; and due to the suspicious nature of the Soviet state, the U.S. delegation, by comparison with the Clinton era, kept to a relatively low profile.  Moreover, our access to the Russians’ flight planning and ground support organizations was fairly limited.  The White House Presidential Advance Team and Secret Service were already en route to Moscow on commercial aircraft – they were expecting concrete answers to a host of security and protocol questions on their arrival – and we really didn’t know what to expect by way of cooperation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the airport authorities, or the KGB.

In short, it all worked out.  Obviously pleased that the U.S. was paying tribute to their most long-serving leader since Josef Stalin, the Soviets opened doors and gave us unprecedented access to the necessary facilities and personnel, including the airport tarmac, refueling equipment, flight planning facilities, and even their historically closed security services.  It was an amazing example of U.S.-Russian cooperation – if only for a brief moment before slamming our access shut after the last USAF aircraft took off several days later.

My personal encounter with Vice President Bush was so brief that it barely bears mentioning.

Air Force Two arrived in the middle of the night in a bone-chilling, snow-filled blizzard called a “Buran.”  After helping the Russian marshaller (the guy with the orange paddles) park the aircraft (for some reason, the 89th Military Airlift Wing from Andrews AFB was so picky about such details), I helped guide the mobile stairs to the front door of the Boeing 707 – ensuring that the operator wouldn’t be disabling one of the aircraft’s wings in the process.  I then quickly tested the integrity of each frozen step, as I negotiated my way up to the door near the cockpit.

Like clockwork, as I reached the top of the stairs, the front hatch opened. The lead agent for the White House Advance Team and I then slipped into the warm interior of the cabin, and we quickly briefed the Vice President about what to expect as he left the aircraft.  Already bundled up in his warm overcoat and scarf, Bush took a breath, cracked half a smile, and said, “O.K., let’s do this.”  He then deftly slipped pass me and eagerly bounced down the stairs to his limousine, now waiting below.

It was all over before I knew it.  I didn’t even have time to advise him on the burning foreign policy issues of the moment. “Maybe next time,” I thought.

A few minutes later, as I was helping some White House Communications Agency personnel load up their gear into my Embassy-provided Suburban, we were approached by a gaggle of snow-covered “White-Walkers.”  Several had AK-47s strapped to their shoulders.  I thought: “Oh-oh, now it begins.”

To my relief, one of the gun-toting apparitions pulled off his hood.  Noticing the logo on the hood of the Suburban, he then asked in Russian, rather sheepishly, “Is this automobile a Chevy?”

I replied in the affirmative; and two of the Soviets then proceeded to run their hands across the body of the car, mumbling the Russian equivalent of “Wow. . . . WOW!”

I asked why they were so interested in the van. They replied that they had served as automobile mechanics during World War II. They would always be grateful that the U.S had sent over so many Chevrolet trucks under Lend-Lease to support Soviet operations against the Nazis.

One of the Russians then confided, “I always believed that Chevrolet made the best engines.  Gee, I had no idea they were still in business.”

* * * * *

According to the Air Force Two flight crew, George H.W. Bush had a good sense of humor and treated everyone with legendary kindness.

Later on, when serving as President of the United States, Bush was absolutely beloved by his Air Force One aircrew (which then flew a specially modified Boeing 747 that had been built for Reagan).  The crewmembers were so devoted to the President that they presented him with a special Bible on his last day in office in 1993. Today, that unique Air Force One Bible – together with the family Bible that Bush used when he took the Presidential Oath of Office in 1989 – resides on display in the Museum of the Bible in downtown Washington, D.C.  Years later into my own retirement, I am currently serving as a volunteer tour docent at this amazing institution and monument to the religious faith shared by many of our Presidents, including the quiet but unwavering belief in Almighty God that served George H.W. Bush so well throughout his entire life.

* * * * *

Back earlier in 1982, the Air Force Two aircrew transporting then Vice President Bush to Moscow for the Brezhnev funeral presented me with a small memento for this important occasion – a deck of cards.  Bush enjoyed playing on his long flights, and the flight stewards always kept a few unopened decks for special occasions.  The aircraft commander said that there was another deck somewhere, and the small package (which contained two decks of “official” Air Force Two playing cards) wouldn’t be missed.

At the time, I recall being so busy that I considered the event as being relatively minor.  With little thought, I crammed the small package into the pocket of my winter coat as I exited the warm cabin to supervise the refueling of the aircraft from outside.  Looking back years later, Brezhnev’s passing and Bush’s arrival was indeed noteworthy – for it clearly marked the beginning of the end of the Cold War.  In retrospect, I’m so glad that I was given this small memento and managed to squirrel it away for safekeeping all these years.

* * * * *

After the funeral at the National Cathedral in December 2018, I prayed “God’s speed” for George H.W. Bush on his final flight home to Texas.  I then decided to open up one of the sealed packs of Air Force Two playing cards, which had been laying untouched in a drawer of an antique buffet in our house for several decades.

Keeping with Bush’s love of a good-natured jest, I noticed several interesting cards in the deck.  Each of the four “Aces” bears the seal of the Vice President of the United States.  No surprise there.

And what of the two “Jokers” among the cards?

They are labeled “Congress,” of course:  one for each House.

Cards

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The Lewis Family in Wales (1783-1868)

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Cymru am byth

Introduction and Apology  

The following notes and photographs with respect to the family of William Owen Lewis, my Welsh forebearers, were based in part upon information gathered in August 2005, during a visit to Monmouthshire in southeastern Wales.  Data from several British birth, death, and marriage certificates, plus a fairly rudimentary family tree provided by my aunts on the Lewis side of the family, offered essential clues.

There was constant drizzle during our brief search for my Welsh roots.  Unfortunately, I  was negligent in protecting my camera from the elements; therefore, the photography provided here is rather substandard.  I am embarrassed because Wales is truly a beautiful country, and my photos simply do not do it justice.  I guess this means that I need to make another trip to the land of legends, wizards, and red dragons in order to get the photography portion of this presentation right.

Background on My Nearest Welsh-American Relatives 

Like many U.S. citizens, I consider myself to be just a typical “Heinz-57” American.  Since DNA results suggest that roughly 75 percent of my ancestry is rooted in the British Isles (the rest being mainly Germanic), I’m fairly certain that I have more Welsh in me than just the well-documented Lewis line discussed here.  Clearly, the most recent ancestral connection to Wales goes through my maternal great-grandfather, one William Owen Lewis, who emigrated to the United States with his father (another in a long  line of William O. Lewises) in 1868 at the age of 13.  After father and son arrived at the port of Philadelphia, they made their way through the established Welsh Tract of Pennsylvania until they established temporary roots in a coal mining community in Mercer County.

Both father and son worked in and around the coal mines (and possibly the oil fields) of northwestern Pennsylvania for about a decade.  According to family folklore, my great-grandfather, while just a teenager, first found work keeping track of the geese used to detect methane gas in the mines.  Before long, he figured out that it was a much safer profession selling sandwiches to the miners.  He then bought a broken-down wagon, set up shop, and became an American Capitalist.

At about sixteen years of age, my great-grandfather William met a young school teacher two years his senior, named Albertina Richards; and she began teaching the illiterate Welsh newcomer how to read.  Albertina herself was from a long paternal line of Welshmen by the name of Owen Richards (the Welsh evidently weren’t too imaginative with their first and middle names), who had arrived in America during the colonial period.   On her maternal (English) side, Albertina is the fourth or fifth great-granddaughter of a Colonel Joseph Ball, the paternal grandfather of George Washington.

After their studies together were completed, Albertina and William decided to get hitched; and sometime in the 1880s, they moved way out to Rawlins County, in northwestern Kansas, where William built a wood and sod house on a homestead in the middle of the bleak prairie.  My grandfather Don Lewis, the family’s second son, was born in a sod dugout that served as the family’s shelter until the house was built.

Ever the fast learner and always re-inventing himself, William Lewis soon discovered it was better to run the local cooperative for dairy products and grain than farm himself.  A successful businessman, this once illiterate teenager from Wales became the local justice of the peace and served multiple terms as a Republican in the Kansas House of Representatives.

“Judge Lewis” retired from politics after he made the fateful decision to side with Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive “Bull Moose” Party in 1912, and he was voted out of office for his sin.  He did however found a long line of successful Kansas lawyers and sometimes politicians.  Most of them were named — you guessed it — “William Owen Lewis.”

My grandfather Donald Sydney Lewis married a young lady named Martha Rather, whose parents were immigrants from the eastern part of Germany (Brandenburg-Prussia).

My grandparents Don and Martha Lewis raised nine children on the prairie house that Don built for his family near Atwood, Kansas.  My mom Bernice was exactly the middle child.  She used to joke that, until she was ten years old, she thought her name was “Damnit,” because it always took a while for Grandma Martha to run through all the other kids’ names before she got my mom’s right.

Don Lewis farmed his land and kept his family together until the Dust Bowl of the 1930s wiped them out.  One by one, the family relocated to Washington State to seek jobs, usually with Boeing, as the nation began ginning up for the Second World War.

Both my grandfather Don Lewis and his father William kept two Welsh traditions alive during their sojourns in the New World:

Coming from a long line of Welsh “woodmen,” they loved carving wood and making all the furniture required for their families.

And they always loved to sing and play on the piano their favorite Welsh hymns.

For my part, I suppose that I inherited my love of rousing hymns and a strong, heartfelt melody from my Welsh ancestors.

While I’ve always loved the feel of wood grain, the only “woodman” skill I actually mastered was fashioning skateboards out of pine planks found in the dumpster of the local lumber yard.  In Venice, California, where I grew up, we had few hardwood forests; but we had plenty of hard pavement.

1st church

County Monmouth, Wales

The places we visited were associated with three individuals, each named William O. Lewis (which sometimes makes it confusing).  To keep it simple, I’ll refer to this triad of grandfather, son, and grandson as William I, II, and III, respectively (although William I’s father was also named William, but never mind that for now).  William I (1783-1867) lived near the town of Trelleck, in the northeastern corner of the county, near the city of Monmouth.  William II and his son William III (my great-grandfather — the future “Judge Lewis” of Kansas) lived in the following three places before the family emigrated to the United States in 1868:  Shirenewton (located about eight miles south of Trelleck), St. Woolos (16 miles to the west of Shirenewton near the seaport of Newport), and the village of Mynyddyslwyn (ten miles northwest of Newport).

Roadmap of Southwest Wales

Monmouthshire (or “County Monmouth”) is situated in the southeastern corner of Wales, defined on the south by the River Severn and the Bristol Channel, on the east by the River Wye (which marks Monmouthshire’s boundary with the English county of Gloucestershire), and in the northwest by the Brecon Beacons.  During part of the 19th Century, Monmouthshire was administratively combined with the County of Glamorgan to the west.  Since the time of the Norman invasion and through the Middle Ages, this combined region of southeastern Wales has traditionally been known as Gwent.

Due to its geographical accessibility and the attractiveness of its port towns, Gwent was the first part of Wales to be subdued by the Normans after they invaded Britain in the 11th Century.  While it took the Normans and their successors nearly two centuries to conquer all of Wales (the task completed by Edward “Longshanks,” later known as “the Hammer of the Scots”), this southeastern corner of the country assimilated relatively quickly into the new Anglo-Norman culture of the Middle Ages.  Since then, Gwent has remained as the most “Anglicized” part of Wales.

The Briton-based language of Cymraeg (Welsh), however, never completely died out.  Despite this, Wales did not become officially bilingual until the 1990s.  Today, one can observe road signs everywhere in both English and Welsh.  Welsh is spoken mainly in the more isolated northern and central villages of the country; and less than 10 percent of those residing in Monmouthshire consider themselves fluent in the language, although it is taught in the schools.

Today, Wales is considered one of the historically Celtic countries of northwestern Europe, which includes Ireland, the Isle of Man, Scotland, Cornwall, and Brittany.

Based upon the historical orientation of Gwent toward England, there is a strong likelihood that the Lewis Family of the 19th Century, although clearly Welshmen, spoke English as their primary language.  They probably kept the Welsh language familiar to them through poetry and music.  Most likely, they did not consider themselves as culturally distinct from any other subject of the British Crown.  Also of note, Lewis is an extremely common surname in Wales, perhaps following Smith, Jones, and Williams, in terms of numbers.  During this period, the Welsh region of Gwent, despite the advancing industrial revolution, remained one of the poorest regions in the United Kingdom.

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Young Welsh men routinely enlisted in the British Army, and they served the Empire in campaigns fought in several corners of the world.  The most famous Welsh unit is known as the South Wales Borderers (called the 24th Regiment of Foot before 1881).  The unit, with rosters containing common Welsh names such as Lewis, distinguished itself in North America, the Napoleonic Wars, and Africa.

Comprising 30 percent of the 24th Regiment, Welsh soldiers played prominent roles in twin battles against the Zulu nation in January 1879.  Approximately 1,400 British soldiers (perhaps as many as 400 Welsh) were slaughtered by 20,000 Zulus at Isandlwana; and later that day, 140 British soldiers (mainly Welsh) withstood an onslaught of 4,000 Zulus at a nearby river crossing and supply post, known as “Rork’s Drift.”  Two Welshmen received the Victoria Cross for their bravery at the latter engagement.

Always impressed with this fabled saga in Welsh history, both battlefields in the KwaZula-Natal were mandatory stops, when I took my family to South Africa in 1999.

Rork's Drift0002

Proud Descendants of Zulu Warriors, Who Defeated the British Here at Isandlwana 

 

Rork's Drift0001

Makeshift Redoubt at “Rork’s Drift,” Where Welsh Soldiers Held Off 4,000 Zulus

Later that year, I made a brief visit to the Museum of the South Wales Borderers in Brecon, Wales.  Identifying myself as a U.S. military officer and student of military history, the curator kindly granted me access to drawers in the unit’s archives, which were filled with hundreds of “after-action reports” and observations written by hand on everything from fine stationary to newspapers and toilet paper.  Isandlwana was such a devastating defeat for the British Army that they wanted an account from every survivor, from captains down to privates.  Just as I started to rummage through the accounts, the curator said she had to go to lunch.  She asked me politely to shut the door to the archives when I was finished.

On this same research trip, I visited another military museum in Cardiff Castle.  After identifying myself, I was taken to a dimly lit storage room and was shown a particularly amazing war trophy.  I was astonished as the curator unfurled a slightly tattered “Stars and Stripes.”  He said it was seized by Welsh soldiers at the Battle of Bladensburg, right outside of Washington, D.C., during the War of 1812.  A few hours after their victory in 1814, the British soldiers would be torching the White House.

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During the lifetimes of William I and II, the County of Monmouth experienced significant growth in population, employment opportunities, and squalor due to the advent of the industrialization and the development of coal mines and iron mills in the region.  Judging from their signing of marriage and birth certificates with an “X,” one has to assume that both William I and William II were illiterate.  However, both were skilled craftsmen who worked with their hands in the plentiful forests of the region and the village workshops or local factories to create wooden objects required of the rapidly expanding economy.

William Lewis I is identified as a “Hoopmaker” when he married a widow named Susan Hemmans [perhaps “Hemmings] in 1848 – William himself having been widowed sometime earlier.

At first, I thought that a hoopmaker was merely a tradesman for making wooden hoops for women’s dresses or barrels for shipping.  However, the flared dresses that one usually associates in the U.S. during the antebellum period, while popular in the 19th Century in Europe, tended to use whale bone, not wood; and barrel makers were called “coopers” (although hoopmakers at times provided the wood components used by the coopers in their barrel making).  Hoopmakers were distinct from carpenters.

Researching the term “hoop maker” a little further on the internet, I came across some sites explaining the importance of wooden hoops for hoisting and attaching sails to ships’ masts and the craftsmanship required to make these intricate devices.  Evidently, between 1750 and the 1870, a hoopmaker (or “hoop shaver” and “woodman,” as noted on documents referencing William Lewis II’s occupation) was a highly sought-out trade, which required precision in selecting, cutting, shaving, and bending oak and other Welsh hardwoods through the use of steam or heat.  I also recall reading that Admiral Horatio Nelson insisted that British warships be outfitted with wood from the forests of Monmouthshire, as the county provided the most most reliable source for timber in the U.K. at the time.  (The only other major European source for ship masts were situated along the southern Baltic coast.)

Evidently, well-crafted hoops were in great demand during the Napoleonic wars; and Newport, located approximately 15 miles away, was a growing port city with an expanding shipbuilding capability.  Given his age at the time, this begs the question:  Could the young woodman, William Lewis I, have fashioned with his own hands some of the mast hoops used by Nelson’s fleet during the battle of Trafalgar in 1805?

Evidently, the skill was important enough to be passed on to his son, who was also listed as a “hoopmaker” on a subsequent census.  Regardless as to whether William I and William II crafted intricate wooden devices for ocean-going ships, beams for coal mines, or wooden inserts for women’s dresses, their skills with wood were evidently in high demand throughout the last 100 years of the family’s residency in southeastern Wales.

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We began our brief passage through Monmouthshire by traveling from the Cotswolds in neighboring Gloucestershire (the presumed origin of my Slaughter (sic.) English ancestors).  Our objective was to get as far west as possible toward our final destination at St. David’s on the extreme southwestern coast of Wales.  As such, we only had the afternoon of one rain-swept day in August to visit several of the villages associated with the Lewis Family.

Map 2

Satellite Photo of Trelleck from “Google Earth”

Heading south from the city of Monmouth, we first stopped in the town of Trelleck, where William Lewis I, a widower, married the widow Susan Hemmans in the parish Church of St. Nicholas.  Evidently, William and his new bride lived approximately three miles southeast, in a locality written on the wedding certificate and his subsequent death certificate as “White Leigh.”  William I’s home, which one suspects was a very humble dwelling, was located either on a landed estate or in very small hamlet spelled today as “Whitelye.”

Harolds Stones

“Harold’s Stones” by Photographer Francis Frith

In the past, Trelleck was spelled as “Treloch” after the “Three Stones” located in a field outside of the town.  According to several references, these monoliths were a recognizable feature, as travelers approached the town from the south by horse, foot, or cart.  Referred to as “Harold’s Stones,” after the last Saxon king who was killed during the Battle of Hastings, these important prehistoric religious objects were most likely erected as a small astrological calendar and temple by the same pre-Celtic culture that built Stonehenge, situated on the Salisbury Plane, approximately 60 miles to the southeast in England.  Archaeologists have now determined that these ancient builders transported the famous “bluestones” of Stonehenge from modern-day Preseli National Park in Wales, located 90 miles to the west of Trelleck.  The monoliths which William I routinely passed by as he came to town on business or to worship may have originated from this same source.  The presence of the monument suggests that the area around Trelleck has been continuously inhabited since circa 2500 B.C.

Bluestone

Bluestone in Preseli National Park on the Western Part of Wales; from the Same General Quarry Used by the pre-Celtic Builders of Stonehenge (Represents a clearer view of what one of Trelleck’s Three Stones might have looked like)

According to a brochure available in the Church of St. Nicholas, the town of Trelleck has been in existence since the Anglo-Saxon period.  During the 13th Century, the town was larger than Newport or Chepstow, but it was mostly destroyed in 1291, as a result of a raid following a dispute over deer poaching.  Its population and importance diminished further as a result of the Black Plague in the 1350s and a Welsh revolt for independence 50 years later, led by fabled Welsh freedom fighter Owain Glydwr.  Today, it is a sleepy little hamlet situated in the middle of humbly maintained farmland, with less than a hundred structures.

Pub

Lion Inn Pub, Trelleck

 

St Nics

 Church of St. Nicholas, Trelleck

The Gothic-style Church of St. Nicholas, where William I and Susan Hemmans were married in 1848, was constructed between 1225 and 1272, although the remains of an old Saxon church built during the 7th Century no doubt served as part of its foundation and furnished some of the stonework.  Today, St. Nicholas is considered an “Established Church,” meaning that it is affiliated with the Church of England.  As was the case with a majority of churches in England and Wales, St. Nicholas was no doubt forcibly converted from being a Catholic house of worship to Protestantism by Henry VIII during the early part of the 16th Century.  St. Nicholas probably settled into its current Anglican conventions of worship following the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, after the English Civil War.

St Nics interiorInterior of  St. Nicholas Church

(Note the Norman-built stone pillars, still standing after 750 years)

 

Trump Turret

Tump Terret Castle Mound

Another point of interest in Trelleck is “Tump Terret” (not to be confused with “Trump Tower”), a forty-foot-high mound located about a quarter of a mile south of the church, which contains the remains of the local “motte and bailey” castle.  Built by the town’s Norman overlord in the 11th Century, it once featured a wooden fortification on the top of the mound, and soldiers’ barracks, enclosed by a fence and a moat, around the bottom.  Situated on the west side of the main road leading north into town, the “castle” served the Normans for about 100 years until it was destroyed by a Welsh attack.  It wasn’t too difficult to negotiate the weeds and thistles to get to the top of Tump Terret for a photo.  The mound has obviously been left untouched for centuries; and according to a brochure in the church, there remains a local legend that calamity will overtake anyone who attempts to excavate it.

South of Trump Terret

The South Side of Trelleck, taken from the Top of Tump Terret, Looking East

Due to time constraints, we were unable to visit the tiny hamlet of Whitelye, located approximately three miles southeast of Trelleck, where William Lewis I actually resided.

 

Shirenewton

Shirenewton’s Main Thoroughfare, Lined by Lovely Stone Cottages

After wandering around Trelleck for more than an hour, we headed south down scenic Welsh roads to reach the town of Shirenewton, where William Lewis II lived between 1849 and 1855.  The town was the birthplace of William Lewis III (the “Judge”) in 1855.

Today, Shirenewton has a much larger population than Trelleck.  Although clearly a bedroom community for nearby cities, such as Newport, Cardiff, and Bristol, the town appears to also serve as a location for upscale summer cottages, given the maintenance of its neatly laid out buildings and lovely gardens.

According to the town’s website, Shirenewton means “Sheriff’s New Homestead,” and the locality was formally established by Walter Fitzherbert, the Sheriff of Gloucester, around 1100 A.D.  The town’s Welsh name is Trenewydd Gelli Fach, which means “New Homestead in the Little Grove.”  Other ancient names for the village include Nova Villa, which suggests that these crossroads were once the location of a Romano-British villa.

St Thomas

Shirenewton’s Church of St. Thomas a Becket

According to a marriage certificate, in 1849, William Lewis II (my great-great grandfather married Anne Highley (also spelled “Heyley”) in the parish church, St. Thomas a Becket’s, in Shirenewton.   William Lewis III (my great-grandfather) was most likely christened here.  The building is dominated by an excellent example of a Norman fortified tower.

According to the town’s website, the church was built at the end of the 13th century by Humphrey de Bohun, the Norman overlord.  Situated in the center of the village, the tower commands an elevated position overlooking the Bristol Channel.  A census taken in 1851, when William II lived in Shirenewton, indicates that the town’s population numbered 933 inhabitants.

St Woolos

Bridge Crossing the River Usk From St. Woolos to Newport

Sometime after William III’s birth in 1855 and before 1859, William Lewis II and his family moved to the town of St. Woolos (spelled St. Woollos on birth certificates of subsequent children), which was a bedroom district for laborers working in the factories and docks of Newport across the River Usk.  While we don’t know where William II was employed, the above contemporary sketching suggests what the city of Newport might have looked like, as he crossed the river on his way to work from St. Woolos.  Given the rapid expansion of mines, factories, and shipyards in south Wales during the Industrial Revolution, one wonders what sort of Dickensonian conditions the members of the Lewis Family may have experienced during this period of uncertainty.

Brecon Beacons

Mynyddyslwyn and Nearby Towns, with the Brecon Beacons in the Background

For some reason, William II and his family resettled in the village of Mynyddyslwyn, located in the foothills of the Brecon Beacons, approximately 9 miles northwest of St. Woolos.  This district of rapidly growing settlements housed the workers employed in the nearby coal mines and steel factories.  The story of the family’s long presence in Wales ends here, as within two or three years after this, William II and William III (and perhaps other members of their family) emigrated to the United States, where they first settled in Pennsylvania.

Our brief journey in August 2005 to several of the geographical points of interest associated with the Lewis Family during their last century in Wales also ends at this point, as we had to head out that evening towards our destination at the cathedral town of St. David’s, located on the spectacular and rugged extreme southwest coast of Wales.

St Davids

St. David’s Cathedral

Welsh Coast

The Spectacular Pembrokeshire Coast of Southwestern Wales

If you’ve been watching the costume drama Poldark on PBS and have seen the spectacular views of Cornwall, just double it to get a sense of the beauty of Wales.

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Wales remains a fascinating country with gorgeous scenery, a long history, and friendly people experiencing a proud revival of their ancient language and heritage.  I hope to visit again this enchanting land of the Red Dragon and the Lewis Family origins.

 

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The King James Bible Translators and “The Overthrow of Stage-Playes”

King James Bible Facsimile - 2 - Copy

Looking back four centuries, no one would ever imagine that the authors of the two greatest literary achievements of the English Renaissance – the King James Bible and the collective works of William Shakespeare – nearly came to blows over their respective visions for the English language.

In 1604, 54 of England’s top scholars, divines, and clergymen were chosen by King James I (Queen Elizabeth’s successor) and Robert Bancroft (then Bishop of London) for the six companies of translators that would work diligently on their sovereign’s “New Translation” of Holy Scripture.  The product would serve as the official revision to the Bishops’ Bible – a version which had been “authorized” for use in English churches by Queen Elizabeth I in 1568, but which no one really liked.

Forty-nine translators representing traditional church officials and the stricter “Godly” party (later called “Puritans”) would live long enough to see the project through to its completion in 1611.  Several translators would be so dedicated to their work that they would ask to be carried into committee meetings on their death beds.  The end result is that these saintly scholars produced one of the most extraordinary masterpieces ever written in the English language.

But weren’t the works of the Bard of Avon also in this category?

Well, these rather stuffy Bible scholars didn’t think so.

While we can’t ascertain what every King James Bible translator thought about contemporary literary giants like Shakespeare and Marlowe, most scholars today believe that it was uniformly negative.  Moreover, we can conclude from the evidence that these single-minded creators of the KJB – authors of arguably the greatest collaborative literary work in English ever published – were. . . . err . . . fuddy-duddies when it came to the popular culture of their day.  They simply did not believe it worth the time of any Christian of substance to read fiction, attend stage productions, or to indulge in English poetry.

Let me put it this way:  Imagine three of the top minds among the Bible translators (one each from Oxford, Cambridge, and Westminster) playing Jacobean Jeopardy, and the Final Jeopardy Category before the commercial break turns out to be “Shakespearian Protagonists.”  Each one of these learned contestants would be utterly stumped when Sir Alex Trebek revealed the answer as, “This emotionally depressed character, who bears the same name as the title of the play, poses the proposition, ‘To be or not to be. . . that is the question.’”

Hint, guys:  The correct response isn’t “Who is the Apostle Paul?

To conclude from their seeming lack of interest in the English Stage that these Bible scholars were geeky academics and not worldly men would be unfairly off the mark.  Their universe was that of international scholarship and wide-ranging religious and political debate.  They spoke, argued, and corresponded with English academics and colleagues throughout Europe in the Latin of Cicero.  A number of them were fluent in the more modern languages of German, Italian, and Spanish, as well.  Moreover, as true Humanist scholars – the latest trend in academic learning, which was responsible for the earlier birth of the Renaissance – they also possessed a detailed comprehension of the original languages of the Bible, such as Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.

In short, these guys were world-class polymaths (translation:  they knew a lot of different stuff).  The problem was that they just weren’t comfortable reading lascivious novels and sonnets or going to seedy London theaters.  Moreover, several of the KJB translators considered stage plays as direct moral threats to society.

While public libraries during the English Renaissance, which tended to be located at universities, possessed few but a growing numbers of books, each translator had his own private library of printed material, plus a number of ancient handwritten manuscripts.

David Norton, in The King James Bible:  A Short History from Tyndale to Today, cites that, while college libraries typically possessed only 250 to 500 books at the turn of the 16th and 17th Centuries, some translators possessed many times that amount in their personal collections.  George Abbot bequeathed over 2,000 books to Lambeth Palace at his death; and Robert Bancroft, the King’s “project manager” for the new Bible translation possessed three times as many books in his clerical library.

Norton provides a list of translator William Branthwaite’s books in his personal library.  Of this respected Greek scholar’s numerous holdings – which run the gamut from the major religious treatises of the day to an exhaustive list of ancient Greek writers and the works of the early church fathers – only one category is conspicuously absent:  English literature.

Modern researchers were excited when they first thought that they had discovered among Branthwaite’s collection a copy of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (BTW:  Geoff’s stories are all fictional).  But this book turned out to be a religious tract written in Middle English by one of Chaucer’s contemporaries.  There was just a smidgen of poetry in Branthwaite’s library, but it was mainly of a religious nature.

But what about the wonderful plays and sonnets of the likes of Marlowe, Spencer, and Shakespeare?  Weren’t any of their great works in these scholars’ libraries?   As the Bard of Avon might have eloquently put it himself:  Fuhgeddaboudit!

Perhaps the most famous of the King James Bible translators who was actually quite repulsed by the emerging English theater of Shakespeare’s day was Oxford don John Rainolds – the very man credited with putting the idea of a new Bible translation into the monarch’s head at the Hampton Court Conference in January 1604.

Although Rainolds was the titular leader of the Puritan party, which opposed both the episcopal polity of the Church of England and the Bishops’ Bible as a sloppy translation (the latter view shared by King James himself), there is no reason to suspect that high church officials and the other men of letters differed substantially from Rainolds in their “unappreciative attitude” toward the English stage.  Rainolds was one of the King James Translators who virtually “died with his boots on” rather than abandon his post.  His integrity was such that he was a highly respected academic leader, and he served as an example for all who worked on the New Translation.

In a 1599 treatise opposing dramas and comedies and all that other rubbish brazenly being presented in the London theaters or peddled at the book stalls around St. Paul’s Cathedral, Rainolds complained that playwrights “. . . meditate how they may inflame a tender youth with love, entice him to dalliance, to whoredom, to incest, inure their minds and bodies to uncomely, dissolute, railing, boasting, knavish, foolish, brainsick, drunken conceits, words and gestures.”

So one can reasonably surmise from this that, had Rainolds reviewed A Midsummer Night’s Dream for his local Oxford PBS station for instance, he most likely would have given it a “two thumbs down!”

One of his chief objections seemed to be that male actors always played women’s roles (as this was about 50 or 60 years before women could legally appear as “players” on the English stage).  Rainolds even cited the Book of Deuteronomy to buttress his argument:  “The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the LORD thy God.”

The Bible scholar never seemed to be impressed by the fact that Shakespeare often cited scripture in his works — usually based upon Rainolds’ beloved Geneva Bible — or that the subtext of his dramaturgy tended to feature Christian moral themes.

The strong views held by Rainolds and his like-minded colleagues as to what should be done with the English stage in general, and to Mr. Shakespeare in particular, can be aptly summed in the title of his 1599 diatribe.

Rainolds called his polemic, The Overthrow of Stage-Playes:  Wherein [it] is manifestly proved that it is not only unlawful to be an actor, but a beholder of those vanities.

Thank goodness that this dedicated Oxford professor and the other King James Bible translators never had to contend with Renaissance ROKUs.

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The Bard and the Man of La Mancha: Inventors of the Modern Imagination

St Crispen's Day

Kenneth Branaugh’s Henry V

_________

Only he who attempts the absurd

is capable of achieving the impossible.

 

Miguel de Unamuno, summing up Cervantes’ The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote

 

Several years ago, in 2016, Euro-America celebrated the 400th anniversary of the death of two of the most influential literary geniuses of Western Civilization.  The first, William Shakespeare (1564-1616), the Bard of Avon, is well known throughout the world as the greatest playwright of the ages, the father of the modern English theater, and the quintessential poet of sonnets.  The second literary giant, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547-1616), is perhaps less recognizable by English-speakers; although he is, in many respects, Shakespeare’s literary equal.  Also a playwright (although a far less prolific one than Shakespeare), Cervantes excelled in writing great tales – whether in short-story format or in full-length books; and he is credited with creating the modern European novel in the early 1600s, after which many novels since then have been patterned.

Traditionally, the death of both writers is commemorated on 23 April.  However, the two writers did not die on the same day.  The confusion over the dates has unfortunately been perpetuated by many wishing to believe for sentimental reasons that these two literary giants passed on at the same time, just like our second and third presidents, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (4 July 1826).

Part of the confusion over their dates of death can attributed to the fact that, in the early 17th Century, churches recorded dates of burial, not dates of death.  Historians therefore have had to adjust the burial dates by one or two days to provide for greater accuracy.  Spanish historians now believe that Cervantes was the first to pass on, and the date was 22 April 1616.  English historians believe that Shakespeare probably died on the then calendar date of 23 April 1616.  However, the Spanish and the English used different systems for charting the passage of the year.  By 1616, Spain, a Catholic country, had adopted the new-style Gregorian Calendar, which is used throughout the modern world today.   England, however, was in the middle of the throws of the Protestant Reformation, and the nation was still using the old-style Julian method for keeping track of dates, which was 10 days off of the Gregorian version.  Thus, by converting the date of Shakespeare’s passing to our current calendar system, Shakespeare actually died on 3 May 1616, a full 11 days after Cervantes.

While these are interesting issues worthy of “Final Jeopardy” answers, the two literary geniuses themselves would probably sum up this foregone discussion of their deaths by one word:  “folly.”

Shakespeare and Cervantes shared a lot more in common than just dying about the same time – namely their love of a good story and their uncanny ability to take some basic yarn and mold it into an amazing new creation.  However, they differed in how they first happened upon the stories that inspired their creativity.

Both writers emerged into greatness from humble families, who were engaged in “the trades.”  Shakespeare’s father was a glove-maker, wool-speculator, and small-town mayor.  Cervantes’ father was a barber-surgeon.  Despite their non-aristocratic origins, both Shakespeare and Cervantes received arguably the best education one could get in 16th Century, short of having a private tutor or attending university.  This included a mastery of Latin and at least an introduction to ancient Greek – both hallmarks of the Humanist educational systems in vogue in both nations at the time.

Shakespeare, it should be noted, was first and foremost a “player” (actor); and over time, he became an affluent “gentleman” in English society from the proceeds of his published works and from his occupation as part-owner, full-time actor, and chief playwright for the premier English theater company, the “Lord Chamberlain’s Men.”  Like Cervantes, Shakespeare’s chief source of inspiration was the amazing modern world emerging all around him.  The epicenter of Shakespeare’s existence was the hustle and bustle of London, the most rapidly growing mercantile city in the world.  However, Shakespeare never traveled abroad.  Much of the grist for his plays therefore was derived from the ancient Latin poets he loved from the days of his youth and from the books of tales and histories that he bought from the bookseller stalls located around St. Paul’s Cathedral, or that he borrowed from the libraries of his aristocratic patrons.  By all accounts, Shakespeare was almost as voracious a reader as he was a writer.

Although Cervantes also wrote plays and acted in a few of them, he could never seem to make a living from his literary talents alone.  Equally ambitious as Shakespeare in his determination to rise above his humble beginnings, Cervantes tried repeatedly to break into the higher rungs of Spanish society by pursuing various careers as a soldier, accountant, purchasing agent for the Spanish Armada, and tax collector.  Of the two writers, Cervantes perhaps led the more interesting life, although he never achieved either Shakespeare’s wealth or renown in his own lifetime.  As a soldier, Cervantes fought in the wars of the Eastern Mediterranean against the Turks, distinguishing himself with heroism on several occasions as a naval marine.  He was wounded three times and lost the use of his left hand at the pivotal Battle of Lepanto in 1571.  After a long convalescence on the island of Sicily, Cervantes was captured by the Turks while sailing for home; and he was made a slave for five years in Algiers, until ransomed.  Years later, back in Spain, Cervantes was thrown into prison several times because of false accusations advanced by banking colleagues.  Moreover, he survived several close calls with the Spanish Inquisition.

No doubt, Cervantes’ inspiration for his imaginative tales can be found in his world experience, his exposure to different cultures, and from the many stories that he collected during his travels and imprisonment.  He claimed to have begun the first part of his most acclaimed work, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, while serving one of his sentences in a Spanish dungeon.

The one notable trait that Shakespeare and Cervantes held in common was that, while each man was proud of his literary accomplishments, neither took himself all that seriously.  Each writer could see elements of irony or comedy in each tragedy or drama he composed. . . and even in his own life.  This may be explained by the notion that both Shakespeare and Cervantes held their true religious and philosophical views close to their chests, and they may have carried throughout their lives an inner conflict with the prevailing religious order of their respective homelands.

Most historians give at least some substance to the theory that John Shakespeare, Will’s father, was a secret Roman Catholic living in a Protestant society.  The evidence of John Shakespeare’s “recussancy” is twofold:  first, a “spiritual testament” was discovered in the rafters of the family home in Stratford-Upon-Avon, which was issued by the notorious Jesuit Priest Edmund Campion and signed by Shakespeare’s father affirming his allegiance to the “true Catholic faith”; and second, researchers have discovered an impressive record of fines paid by John Shakespeare for his repeated failures to attend Protestant church services, which was required by law.

Some historians believe that the non-Conformist sentiments of the elder Shakespeare rubbed off on the son; and a few have gone so far as to assert that the playwright was a “crypto-Catholic,” seeing evidence in his compositions.  That may be reading too much into all this.  What is clear, however, is that Will Shakespeare felt comfortable in the presence of known Catholics in late Elizabethan Protestant England.  He may even have gotten his  his start in the theater while working as a tutor for a Catholic family residing in the north of England, and several of his wealthiest patrons were prominent Catholics loyal to the Protestant Queen.

While Shakespeare often pushed the limits of Elizabeth’s censors, he was smart enough to steer clear of religious and political controversy (often seen as one and the same in Tudor and Jacobean England).  Several of his histories – such as Henry IV Parts I & II, Richard III, and Henry VIII – were even overtly propagandistic in supporting the claims of the Tudor Dynasty.

The one time that Shakespeare and his company of players almost lost their heads was when they were influenced by aristocratic conspirators, including the noted Catholic Earl of Southampton (Shakespeare’s most wealthy and loyal patron), to stage one of Will’s earlier plays, Richard II, in the Globe Theater, as a symbolic kick-off to Essex’s failed insurrection against Elizabeth in 1601.  The play happened to feature the disposing of a properly anointed king – not a particularly wise plot line to be highlighting just as a poorly planned coup was about to go awry.  Shakespeare and his colleagues managed to escape the dungeon and scaffold.  The players were a rather entertaining bunch (no Netflix back then), and this factor evidently worked in their favor.

Several years later, after the failed Gunpowder Plot of November 1605 – the 9/11 of the reign of King James I perpetrated by Papist-terrorists – Shakespeare would over-compensate for his earlier lapse of judgment during the Essex rebellion by quickly writing Macbeth, a play which supported James’s legitimacy as the Protestant King of England & Scotland and, at the same time, clearly promoted the theme that bad things tend to happen to murderers who attempt to assassinate divinely appointed monarchs.  James came to the throne in 1603 favorably inclined toward the London theater.  He even took over the patronage of Shakespeare’s company, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and renamed it The King’s Men.  James liked the English theater infinitely more after Shakespeare and his company of players performed Macbeth for him in 1606.

The evidence for Cervantes’ inner religious conflict is far more circumstantial.  The most interesting theory among a growing group of scholars is that Cervantes was a descendant of a Conversos, a Spanish Jew forced by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand to convert to Roman Catholicism in 1492.

The notion is that Cervantes, as a “New Christian,” had rediscovered his Jewish roots during his journeys abroad and imprisonment in North Africa and Spain; and this voyage of self-discovery influenced the vision expressed in his writings about a future Spanish society in which differing religious views – Christian, Muslim, and Jewish – could be accommodated, as they had been under Moorish rule back during the Medieval period.  Some Jewish scholars go so far as to assert the claim that Cervantes was a “crypto-Jew,” and that his writings often reflect themes featured in the mystic strains of Judaism found in the Kabbalah.

While proclaiming Cervantes as a clandestine Jew is perhaps more of a stretch than asserting Shakespeare was a secret Catholic, there are some patterns to the trajectory of Cervantes’ life and themes in his writings that indicate he might have been aware of family connections to the Jewish world of pre-1492 Spain.  First, there were thousands of Conversos living in Spain during his lifetime, and one of the most common professions permitted of former Jews was that of Barber-Surgeon, the trade that Cervantes’ father was evidently quite successful at.  Next, Cervantes may have been forced to seek a profession abroad as a soldier, because he could not advance in Spanish society as a “New Christian.”  Lastly, while Cervantes was a noted war hero and was moderately successful as a bureaucrat in Spain, he was denied several prestigious positions as an adjutant in Spain’s overseas outposts because of an apparent stain in his background.  Reminiscent of later Nazi race-based criteria in the 1930s and 1940s, possessing such a “stain” in 16th Century Spain usually meant that one of your grandparents was a Jew, and that aspect of one’s background was disqualifying.

Even the name used in Cervantes’ fabulous novel, Don Quixote of La Mancha, is postulated as a secret joke that Cervantes played on himself – one related to his suspected Sephardic DNA.  Scholars searching for such a link in Cervantes’ ancestry believe that he invented the word Quixote based upon the Aramaic term for “Truth” often used in Jewish literature; and La Mancha, rather than being a region in Spain as most of his readers surmised, signified the “stain” of his Jewish blood.  Therefore the hidden title of Cervantes’ work could be interpreted as The Ingenious Gentleman, Sir Truth of the Blood Stain – referring to the albatross that the author had to bear throughout his life, although he always remained loyal to the Roman Catholic faith in which he was raised.

Several other instances in Cervantes’ great novel support this interesting speculation about the writer’s self-recognition of being a descendant of a Jewish Conversos.  The first is a lengthy discussion of religion between the would-be knight-errant and his “squire” Sancho Panza, in which Panza proudly proclaims his family roots as “Old Christian.”  His master responds to this proclamation with deafening silence – signifying that he himself is a “New Christian” or descendant of a Jewish Conversos.  The second instance is a comic passage in which Don Quixote’s ideal of womanhood, the prostitute he calls “Dulcinea,” is described as preparing pork for a meal.  All readers in early 17th Century Spain would have recognized this practice of preparing and eating pork as a stereotypical caricature of a  Conversos overcompensating in order to publicly prove his or her bona fides as a “New Christian.”

Perhaps the most convincing evidence of possible Jewish influence on Cervantes’ writings in general, and on Don Quixote of la Mancha in particular, is the use of the Old Testament genre of the epic journey made by the protagonist, who first appears as a flawed anti-hero, but who grows in grace over time.  This central character often ends up where he first started, although he has been transformed for the better by the challenges he has faced.

Regardless of whether or not one accepts the various theories regarding Cervantes’ possible Jewish origins, anyone considering the tale of the author’s tragicomic hero recognizes in Don Quixote the Biblical stories of Old Testament patriarchs, such as Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses.  Each character faces the rejection of friends and family, and years of self-imposed exile and wandering in the dessert.  Each man experiences exhilaration in his “quest” for an ideal . . . and each shares a common desire with Cervantes’ unlikely hero to reach out to the cosmos.

* * * *

Commenting on Cervantes’ Don Quixote, 20th Century Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno wrote, “Only he who attempts the absurd is capable of achieving the impossible.”  Clearly this observation applies to Cervantes and Shakespeare alike – writers who lived amazing lives, often took risks, and possessed an extraordinary capacity to bring to life both serious and ridiculous characters, who often embarked on impossible quests that audiences over the last four centuries would never have imagined for themselves.  Some of us happily went along for the ride; and by doing so, we were inspired to seek out our own improbable adventures.

_________

To commemorate the achievements of these two giants of modern European literature, please consider treating yourself to a live performance of one of Shakespeare’s plays, or watching a movie version on Netflix, or ordering one of the many translations of Cervantes’ pivotal novel about the “Man of La Mancha” from Amazon.

If you don’t feel like sitting through an entire Shakespearean production or wading through Don Quixote’s adventures, you might try watching one of my favorite feature films, Shakespeare in Love.  Another outstanding drama about the early English threater, Anonymous, promotes the interesting but easily debunked theory that the writer of Shakespeare’s plays was not Shakespeare at all, but the Earl of Oxford.  Lastly, you might consider streaming to your flat-screen TV Kenneth Branaugh’s recently produced bio-pic about Shakespeare’s final years, “All Is True.”  The title of the film is aptly taken from the subtitle for one of the Bard’s last plays, “Henry VIII.”  During one fateful performance of the play in 1613, a cannon used for special effects sparked a fire in the thatched rafters overhead, and Shakespeare’s beloved Globe Theater burnt to the ground.  Shakespeare went into retirement shortly thereafter.

If you are fortunate enough to live in the Washington, D.C., area, please give consideration to attending in April one of the annual birthday celebrations of William Shakespeare at the Folger Shakespeare Library, located near the U.S. Supreme Court.  Or better yet, get yourself a ticket for one of the great performances staged year around by  DC’s Shakespeare Theater Company.

As far as Cervantes goes – if a revival of the 1964 musical Man of La Mancha ever comes to your region, sell everything you own and take the family to see it.  In my view, it is the perfect Broadway musical of all time.  You will come away from the performance singing and soaring!

Lastly, I invite you to click on the links indicated in this paragraph to view YouTube videos of two of the most impressive performances related to Shakespeare and Cervantes ever recorded.  The first is the St. Crispin’s Day “Band of Brothers” Speech delivered by Kenneth Branaugh in his 1989 remake of Henry V.  The second video features the performance by the incomparable Brian Stokes Mitchell of “The Impossible Dream” during the 2003 Tony Awards.

Whether or not you take me up on any of these suggestions, the most important advice that these two inventors of the modern imagination would probably have given to any of us living today would be “to remain inspired.”

To this imagined counsel, I would add the following:

  • Never forget that the world is your stage
  • Achieve the impossible by pursuing the absurd
  • And with your last ounce of courage, keep reaching for those stars! 

 

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Everything is Normal: Oh, the Joys of Traveling in Russia!

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In 2005, congressional staffers, in their ignorance of what it took to get the job done in the Russian Federation, griped about all the “vacation travel” my Energy Department teams were taking as we set out to secure Russia’s “loose nukes” during the post-Cold War period.   At the Secretary of Energy’s prompting, I sent an earlier version of this piece — a collection of travel vignettes — to the House Appropriations Committee, based upon my most recent business trip to Russia.  This rather sarcastic account of what it was really like to travel in post-Soviet Russia became a must-read on the Hill; and after the piece circulated among interested members of Congress, we never received complaints about expending travel funds again.  Enjoy traveling with me one more time to the “people’s paradise”!

______________

Sometimes, just getting there is the hardest part of doing business in Russia.

During my four-year stint as director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s warhead security program for the Russian Ministry of Defense, I completed 30 round trips to the Russian Federation (including dozens of internal trips).  In March and April of 2005, in order to jump-start the process of upgrading the security of warhead storage facilities under the control of the Strategic Rocket Forces (SRF), I led a small group of technical experts to nine sites in just eight days.  Many of the travel hiccups that I have tended to experience during my 25 years traveling across the former Soviet Union somehow occurred during this concentrated eight-day period.

The purpose of these historically significant visits in early 2005 was to verify the eligibility of the sites for security upgrades under the Department of Energy’s Material Protection, Control, and Accounting Program – and to begin designing the required security enhancements.

During this particular trip, we and our SRF escorts crisscrossed thousands of miles and seven time zones, often in antiquated commercial aircraft, between cities such as Moscow, Yekaterinburg, Irkutsk, Krasnoyarsk, and Kazan.  We also made one day-trip from Moscow to a site located near the city of Kostroma by mini-van.

In most cases, after flying to the nearest city, the journey required additional transit time in a rented bus or mini-van along roads in various conditions in order to get to the site.  With one exception (the lengthy trip across Tatarstan described below), this additional transit portion took between one and four hours each way. (Seven hours’ travel by bus was required to get to other sites that I had visited on other occasions.)  For two of the nine site visits completed in the early spring of 2005, we ended up traveling overnight without stopping at a hotel until the following day in order to make our observations during the strictly controlled window for our observations.

With this background in mind, here are the top seven rather humorous but all-too-true travel incidents that we experienced during this relatively short period.

The Major Loved His Cognac

Several times during this eight-day trip, the flights were “open seating,” and it was every man for himself after waiting in the arctic wind at the bottom of the stairs.

As usual, the flight attendants took their time before allowing the passengers to board. I chose my seat on the rather grungy, dimly lit Tupolev-154 (a transport similar to the Boeing 727) for a four-hour flight from Yekaterinburg to Irkutsk, which took off at midnight.

After settling down in my seat for about five minutes, I noticed some liquid seeping up through the bottom of my coat. I stood up and saw that my seat was oozing with beer. I moved to another seat, which seemed to be dry. My neighbor was a Russian army major. After take-off, he offered me some chocolate. We struck up a friendly conversation in Russian.

The major then bought a bottle of cognac from a stewardess and immediately drank half of it before offering me some, which I refused. After a while, he got sick and threw up. I watched with detached amazement as a robust chunk of vomit bounced off the sleeve of my winter jacket, ricocheted through the opening between the seats in front of us, and then landed on the one piece of edible food — a biscuit-that one of my fellow U.S. team members was just about to feast on.

Fifteen minutes later, despite my feeble protests, the stewardess sold the Russian major yet another bottle of cognac. Rather than deal with my now obnoxiously drunken companion, the stewardess directed me to take a seat at the back of the plane, next to the people’s toilet.

The major continued to raise a drunken commotion in the cabin until descent — when he suddenly and mercifully passed out.

The Saga of the Carry-On

Due to its size, the wide-body Illushin-86 offers a more comfortable flying experience than the Tupolev-154; however, the aircraft does offer “quirky” cultural experiences of its own.

Passing through the boarding gate at the airport near Krasnoyarsk in Siberia for an early flight on “Krasno Air” (of course), I walked about 300 meters across the ramp in the middle of a gaggle of about 200 passengers struggling with their carry-on bags. After waiting alongside the aircraft in the bone-chilling breeze for about 10 minutes, a matronly stewardess finally waddled down a few steps of the stairs, scowled at the passengers, and then, with a reluctant sweep of a hand as if she were swatting Siberian mosquitoes, signaled to the shivering masses that the race to the seats had begun.

At that point, the drill was for everyone to quickly climb up a set of stairs to a special cargo hold located at the rear of the aircraft, drop off one’s carry-on bag, and then ascend another set of stairs to the main cabin. This seemed simple enough for departure. The problem, however, was deplaning at the end of the flight.

Upon landing in Moscow, the passengers were directed to exit via a narrow jet-way connected to the front of the airplane at the passenger level. You guessed it:  Complete gridlock leaving the aircraft, as those passengers with carry-on luggage stowed down in the cargo hold (e.g., most of us) had to first fight their way toward the aft stairs, descend into the bowels of the jumbo jet to retrieve their bags, and then cycle back up the stairs, fighting their way along the aisle in the cabin against the other salmon swimming against the stream, before exiting the aircraft at the forward jet-way.

The Tempest in the Teacup

Earlier, while the Il-86 was cruising along, I was taken to task by a stewardess because, when she came by to retrieve my dinner tray after the meal service, I had wanted to retain my teacup. I hadn’t yet been served a hot beverage (Russians tend to wait until the end of the meal before serving tea or coffee). Nelzya! Mustn’t separate cheap plastic cup from cheap plastic tray!

My Russian seat mate laughed as the stewardess abruptly thrust the tray back into my hands with its trash and leftovers. As she stormed off, he whispered to me as if we were involved in a conspiracy: “You see, the technique is to give up everything, and then later ask the girl carrying the teapot to provide you with a new cup, some sugar, and something to stir it with.”

About five minutes later, right on cue, the stewardess with the hot beverages came strolling down the aisle juggling a scalding pot of tea just as we hit some turbulence.  She skillfully poured me some tea, and she also poured my Russian neighbor some — yes, into a newly minted plastic cup, each item provided without hesitation, including a plastic fork.

As he was stirring in his sugar, my seatmate leaned over to me, grinned, and with a twinkle in his eye said, “That’s how you beat the system in Russia!”

A few moments later, my neighbor with the inside track on stewardess etiquette suddenly began to giggle uncontrollably as he pulled the fork out of his piping hot tea. He looked at me, then pointed down to his cup. The teeth of his fork had just melted off and were in the process of dissolving in his gurgling beverage.

The Refrigerator with Wheels

The large bus that the Russians rented for our seven-hour round trip between Krasnoyarsk and a strategic rocket forces site seemed adequate — that is, until our return journey later that evening, when the sun set and the temperature dropped to well-below freezing.

As we attempted to bury ourselves in our winter coats and hats, the driver revealed to us that the bus could only travel faster than 40 kilometers per hour if the heater was turned off.  It was a choice of either adding several hours to our return journey while remaining warm — or continuing to travel at max warp-speed across the bumpy highway in what now seemed to be a meat-packer’s refrigerator. Evidently, the old bus had been relying on solar radiation for internal heat, and now that the sun was no longer available. . . . well, life in Siberia is sometimes difficult.

Our Russian military escorts insisted on going faster, so we hunkered down and pretended to be stalwart icemen.  My toes were saved from frostbite by a team-mate who handed me a set of chemical glove warmers, which I placed into my boots. When I got back to D.C. several weeks later, I went to the nearest REI outlet and relieved them of most of their stock of foot warmers. Except for the months of June, July, and August, I never again traveled to Russia without these life-saving essentials.

The Speeding Mini-Van

During our long road trip between Moscow and Teykovo (located north of the city of Vladimir), we spent 11 hours (round trip) dodging trucks and potholes in order to get about an hour’s time on site. On the way back, all of our Russian escorts abandoned us by jumping into the lead van with the intent of speeding back to Moscow ahead of us.

About two hours later, as our own driver carefully negotiated the obstacles, we approached the disabled mini-van of our Russian companions, who, in the dark, foggy conditions of the evening, had managed to blow two tires on the same side of their auto, as it ran over one of hundreds of large unmarked craters in the highway.

To show our solidarity with our obviously chastened hosts, we stood watch with them on the edge of the highway for another hour, observing trucks with marginally functioning headlights hurling pass us, until our drivers finished changing their tires.

The Grand Caravan

My favorite:  As we were about to exit the plane after completing another late-night flight — this time to Tatarstan — our stewardess casually informed us that we weren’t exactly where we thought we should be. The plane had diverted to a field located in the eastern part of the “republic,” about 300 kilometers away, due to some accident at our intended airport near the city of Kazan.

After exiting the plane, we were directed to walk across the ramp to a dimly lit terminal, where we were kept in the dark about what was happening. After about two hours (around 1 AM) the passenger hall literally went dark. One remaining airport employee told our military escorts that the aircrew had gone to bed and would probably return at 11 AM the next day. No one made any attempt to find a hotel for the stranded passengers or to provide food.

Realizing that we would probably miss both our window for visiting the SRF base and our return flight later that evening, we decided to hire some local taxis.

After about 90 minutes, one of our escorts and an interpreter returned from the nearby town with one bona fide taxi and two “Gypsy cabs.” We jammed ourselves and our bags into the tiny Russian sedans, and the cars took off as we were forced to ride sideways, our arms and legs overlapping like contortionists from the Moscow Circus.

Twenty minutes later, we realized that this wouldn’t do; so we commandeered with a “tax-free incentive” another car and driver, the vehicle having been selected on the narrow criteria that it was the only one parked at the dark intersection of Sadsack Shossee and Barren-abad Bulivar.  No worries, though; no breathalyzer test required!

With our newfound Russian-deluxe comfort afforded by the additional vehicle, our unlikely caravan, like a herd of camels bobbing their way to some distant watering hole, galloped off on a four-hour night-time journey across the breadth of the autonomous Tatar Republic.

Our goal during this Mr. Toad’s Ride across the hilly steppe was to link up with a bus — allegedly waiting for us at Kazan (our intended arrival airport) — before that dubious form of vehicular conveyance had wandered off. We still had several hundred kilometers to go before then. During most of the journey, I struggled, mostly in vain, to keep one blurry eye on my fearless but anonymous driver, just in case he decided to take an alcohol-induced snooze while driving in the middle of the two-lane roadway.

Arriving at Kazan airport right after sun-up, we thankfully transferred to our awaiting bus for another two-hour drive to the SRF site. We managed to return to the airport at Kazan just in time to make our evening flight back to Moscow. We were back at the Marriott Grand in the big city 36 sleepless hours after we had arisen the day before.

The Luggage Militsia

Not to worry.  Back at Moscow’s Domodedevo Airport, when it’s time to leave the baggage claim area inside the terminal, the professional “luggage police” are always at your service to prevent passengers from making the critical mistake of retrieving someone else’s precious items.  (Russian women are usually chosen for the really tough jobs like this one, as they never take any crap from anyone.)  Shame on you if your baggage tag happens to get separated from your checked luggage!  Which is what happened to one of my U.S. team mates.

Unfortunately, my American colleague was “caught” trying to exit the baggage area without a tag on his luggage; and his punishment was being forced to open his suitcase and, with 100 other passengers jammed in the exit queue behind him, to verbally confess to all present that the contents indeed belonged to him.

“Whose clothes are these? Yours? Are you sure? O.K., fine – zip it up! You are free to go.”

Really, what was he supposed to say?  “Oh my goodness. . . some saboteur has gotten into my luggage. The bag is mine; but the dirty underwear belongs to somebody else!”

___________________

. . . So what happened with the Russian nuclear storage sites?

Well, the time we spent at each of the nine nuclear weapon storage sites was indeed sufficient to make our observations and begin designing the security upgrades.

Two years later, having built up considerable trust with our Russian partners, and having improved and institutionalized our methodologies, we had added dozens of nuclear sites to the list of cooperative projects.  We were well on our way to installing modern security systems at 84 storage facilities in Russia, securing thousands of otherwise “loose nukes” –  until such time that they could be properly dismantled.

Unfortunately, years later in 2019, one has to conclude that all of this effort is a thing of the past.  Well, at least I’ll always have the distinct smell of cognac-barf to remember!

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Walking on the Moon. . . in Your Skivvies

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U.S. Air Force Academy Class of 1973

 

Walking on the Moon. . . in Your Skivvies 

A Remembrance of Boot Polish, a Father, and Armstrong’s “Giant Leap”

by

Bruce D. Slawter, Colonel, USAF (Ret.)

Veterans Day 2019

I will never forget the moment when man first stepped on the moon.  It was shortly after one military call-to-formation that was equally memorable.  Approaching 2100 hours, it was time to hit the showers after the evening lecture on Air Force Heritage, and the “uniform-of-the-day” (or evening I should say) was nothing more than cotton briefs, flip-flops, soap in a plastic dish held in the left hand, and a small white cotton towel draped over the left arm like a waiter.

* * * *

I was about halfway through Basic Cadet Training (BCT) at the Air Force Academy; and I have to admit that, looking back five decades, my initiation into cadet life seems a bit of a blur.  Known by Academy grads simply as “Beast” (for BCT), I can recall just a few “happy” details about my “summer vacation” in 1969, which began a mere 10 days after I graduated from high school.  I remember, though, the experience as punctuated by all of that constant shouting by angry strangers – those upperclassmen ostensibly masquerading as modern training officers, but who seemed better suited to have served under the likes of General Torquemada during the Spanish Inquisition.

For some reason that I couldn’t understand at the time, I could never do anything to please them.  “You worthless smack, get down on all fours.” Holding a variation of the basic push-up position until one was about to pass out was the preferred form of “inducement to learning” back then.  Since all basic cadets were by definition dehumanized smacks, any new cadet was subject to a command to “hit it” at any arbitrary moment.  In this respect, you can say that the corporate culture for the entering class of 1973 was one of equal opportunity.

Moreover, there was the constant running everywhere on the 7,300-foot-high Rocky Mountain plateau.

By this I mean that, as a stubby, short-legged fellow, one of my greatest challenges seemed to be all that incessant running, whether it was done in formation transiting the hard “terrazzo” of the Cadet Area (main campus), wading through the muddy creeks of the obstacle course at Jack’s Valley, or just being forced to scale one of those sloping Colorado embankments with an M-1 rifle held high overhead as punishment for failing to keep one’s chin locked in place and eyes fixed straight ahead.  “Slawter, you dumb wad!  I warned you before about gazing,” remarked one upperclassman with what I thought was uncharitable hostility.  “Do you want to buy this place?”

Not sharing my tormentor’s enthusiasm about developing my peripheral vision – or his humor, for that matter – I remember being more concerned about being sent home in disgrace, because I hadn’t yet discovered the technique for making the toes of my ravaged combat boots shine like mirrors made from ebony.

* * * *

I’m sure that every American man or woman who has ever gone through a form of basic military training has considered his or her particular experience far worse than anyone else’s.  However, Beast in the summer of 1969 occurred mid-point in the Vietnam war, not too far removed from the Tet Offensive; and reports were flooding in about the North Vietnamese torture of downed U.S. Navy and Air Force airmen.  Most of us would become pilots, if we didn’t wash out over the next four years; and there was no end to the war in sight.  Our trainers thus believed that they had special sanction to make the next 12 months as “challenging” as possible, including the capstone Survival, Escape, Resistance, and Evasion (SERE) training, which was designed to prepare us for the POW experience that everyone hoped to avoid.  Over the years, cadets have lost their physical qualification for pilot training as a result of the “realism” encountered during Academy SERE training.  Moreover, it was always considered best to weed out those who were perceived as not possessing “the right stuff” during the first few weeks of Basic Cadet Training.

* * * *

I can’t recall exactly why we had returned from field training to the main campus the night before.  Maybe it was because we were so filthy, and we just needed to refresh and get our muddy uniforms cleaned up.

I was so distraught about being incessantly hazed for not having shinny boots that, on the march back to our dormitory, I whispered to a fellow classmate, Gary Clemente, “What did you do to get your boots looking so good?”  Unlike most of us, Gary had several years’ experience in the Air Force as an enlisted man.  Identified as a promising future leader, although he had been a lackluster student in high school, Gary had spent the previous year at the Academy’s Prep School, honing his academic skills.  The prep school guys always seemed to have the inside track on how to survive that first year.

Although Gary was as exhausted as I, that night he risked cadet purgatory by sneaking into my room after taps, with a flashlight and a small bag.  He asked for my boots.  Trusting this more experienced fellow, I felt around for my boots in the dark, and handed them to him.

I then watched in silent wonderment as Gary pulled out a can of Kiwi boot polish, two cotton balls, a small vial of rubbing alcohol, and a cigarette lighter.  My jaw dropped as this wizard skillfully poured the alcohol over the toe piece of one boot, and then lit it with his cigarette lighter.

Poof!  The boot fired up in the dark like some amazing flambé dessert.  I remember the bright blue and yellow flame shoot up like a Saturn booster about to be launched from its pad at Cape Kennedy.  And I can recall that mystical aroma akin to Cherries Jubilee – except that the cherries were replaced by the pungent smell of caramelized leather.

Holding his flashlight in one hand and using a cotton ball smothered in boot polish with the other, Gary quickly started making tiny little circles on the toe, gradually expanding his motion like a practiced surgeon to cover the rest of my boot.  After about half-an-hour, he applied his alchemy to my other boot.

In the morning, my boots looked spectacular; and thanks to Gary, the expected abuse from upperclassmen – at least on that front – ceased.

* * * *

Another issue – this one external – continued to weigh on me:  My father had stopped talking to me about six months earlier – after I had accepted my appointment to the Academy.  As a World War II veteran, he had been blown nearly in two by a mine while attacking entrenched Japanese positions in the Philippines.  Although he was severely wounded and had initially been left for dead, the piece of shrapnel aimed at his heart was caught by his breast-pocket Bible; and this miracle gave him a few more decades with us.

Typical of many soldiers who had experienced traumatic wartime experiences, my father seldom spoke about his time in the Service, except to say, “It’s not like in the movies.  War is no fun.”

Dad was clearly disappointed with my decision to enter the Academy, although he never mentioned anything one way or the other about it.   Just the silent treatment.  I could tell.  A gentle being, Dad would never utter a word to hurt another person’s feelings; and he would never tell even a white lie just to make you feel good.  The most honest man I ever knew, it wasn’t in his DNA to lie.

Whether it was in silent protest – or just to maintain his solid record about never attending any school event during my entire growing up years – Dad did not attend my high school graduation.

That summer, the only training officer who did not engage in the collective harassment – at least not directed at me – was a Cadet First Class Bjorklund.  A tall, handsome Swede that looked like Steve Canyon, he always seemed to glance down at my nametag as he passed by for morning inspection, never stopping to berate me for some fabricated infraction, like the others.  He was the chief training officer for my flight of new cadets.  No doubt, he already knew everything about me in advance.

One day, during one of the inspections, Bjorklund decided to quiz me on some trivia. . . seemingly another mind-game played by the upperclassmen.  However, in this instance, Bjorklund started to ask random questions about the landmarks of my home neighborhood in Venice, California.  Of course, he always knew the answers in advance.

Then one day, right after we had gathered for morning formation, Bjorklund asked me if I knew what business was located at a particular intersection in neighboring Santa Monica.  It was my dad’s automobile repair business!  A light then came on in my head, as I gave him his expected reply.  “Right answer, Cadet Slawter,” he said.

My morale first soared to new heights – and then took a brief nosedive – as Bjorklund walked slowly around to the rear of my rigid frame, my chin-locked head facing forward.  I instinctively waited for the blow.  Then, he circled once more to my front.  With his nose now less than six inches from mine, I could see a brotherly grin form on his boyish face.  Astonished, I couldn’t help smiling back.  I recognized that Cadet First Class Bjorklund had just informed me in his own nonverbal way, “Don’t worry, your dad is now O.K. with all of this.”

Much later, I learned from my mom that Bjorklund, a cadet who had also hailed from southern California, had stopped off at Dad’s repair business for a tune-up of his new Corvette.  It happened just as I was being processed in at the Academy in Colorado.  Bjorklund was about to head back after taking some leave back home.  Evidently, Dad struck up a friendly conversation with the self-possessed senior cadet; and he spent 2-3 hours learning first-hand what the Academy was all about.  Sensitive to my dad’s fears, Bjorklund re-assured him that I would be receiving the best preparation imaginable for anyone entering the military – plus a first-class college education.  That did the trick.  After basic training, when I could make calls home, Dad started talking to me again.

Because Fourth Class Cadets (freshmen) weren’t allowed any vacation time before Christmas break, Dad overcame his fears about flying to join me for Thanksgiving dinner in the Cadet dining hall.  And what a wonderful Thanksgiving it was!   Dad had never been on a plane before, except for the C-47 that had transported him home on a stretcher after he was severely wounded 25 years before.

In June 1973, Dad was so happy that he bought tickets for the whole family, including his brother and my grandmother, to attend my Academy graduation – and my marriage to a beautiful young woman named Suzanne the very next day.

. . . And one year later, he even made it down to Del Rio, Texas, on the Rio Grande, to attend my graduation from Pilot Training.  Dad bought himself a ten-gallon hat to celebrate.

* * * *

During that night in the summer of 1969, I have to admit that it was a comical sight:  several dozen cadets, each with shaved heads, lined up on both sides of the long hallway, standing in a ridged brace in flip-flops, skimpy USAF-issued briefs, soap, and towel.  I thought, “Why are they having us wait so long before marching off to the showers?”

Then, Cadet First Class Bjorklund announced, “Change of plans, gents.  You’ll get your showers a little later.  Now, we have a little surprise for you.”

Bjorklund then commanded “At ease,” and he asked each of us to file one-by-one into the Squadron Ready Room, a small lounge used only by upperclassmen.  The TV was on, and you could see a poor but clearly identifiable black and white video feed from the “Eagle,” the Apollo 11 Lunar Module, sitting on the surface of the moon.

Jammed shoulder-to-shoulder into the small room, Bjorklund told us to relax, sit on the floor, and watch history being made.  As we sat down mostly naked in our collective scent of sweat-laced dust and bar soap, he said, “Cadets, this is what your training here is all about.”

After an interminable 15 minutes, the Squadron Ready Room suddenly went from muted conversations to complete silence.  It was approaching 9 PM at the Academy, 20 July 1969.   Neil Armstrong opened up the door of his spacecraft, and after a few minutes, we watched him descend down the stairs carefully but boldly.  I think each of us held our breath as Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon and uttered the immortal words, “That’s one small step for man. . . . one giant leap for mankind.”

* * * *

Years later, a number of graduates of the Class of 1973 (those of us who entered the Academy that summer of 1969) would be inspired to become test pilots, and several would fly to the fringes of space.  Two would rise to the ranks of America’s Astronauts and pilot the Space Shuttle.  Another classmate would never make it into space, but he would save 155 lives by landing U.S. Airways Flight 1549 safely in the Hudson.  His name is Sully Sullenberger.

Several decades before then, several of us from the Class of ’73 would be thrown into the chaos of real-world military operations.  It was during the period of America’s “strategic retreat” – a byproduct of our failure in Southeast Asia and self-doubt as a nation during the post-Watergate years.

In April 1975, in an effort to save some of our South Vietnamese allies from Communist death camps as enemy forces surrounded Saigon, President Gerald Ford, with little backing from Congress, ordered into operation the greatest wartime evacuation since the British miracle at Dunkirk in 1940.  Several hundred thousand refugees would escape the North Vietnamese noose in a major air-sea campaign led by U.S. forces; and over 50,000 would be flown out by U.S. fixed-wing aircraft in just three weeks’ time, during two seamless phases – Operation:  Babylift and Operation:  New Life.

Dave Cleland, a close friend and classmate was on his “dollar ride” – his first-ever operational flight after qualifying as a C-130 “Hercules” copilot.  Taxiing the tactical transport aircraft towards the terminal after landing at Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut airport as the North Vietnamese Army closed in, one of the C-130’s engines was hit by a mortar.  Dave and his crewmates barely escaped with their lives as they egressed from their fiery cauldron and ran to another C-130 about to take off.  Dave explained to me later that, although he had always been in perfect health, he started experiencing heart palpitations and began failing flight physicals right after that experience.  Several years later, I sadly learned that my friend had suffered a fatal heart attack, and I could understand why.

About a week before Dave’s dramatic introduction to combat, another ’73 grad, a recently qualified co-pilot on the larger C-141 strategic transport (known as the “Starlifter”), was on his second of eight evacuation flights into Vietnam (two had to be aborted due to the intensity of the battle being fought below).   Flying bigger targets than the smaller Hercules, C-141 pilots were instructed to enter Vietnamese airspace at the aircraft’s maximum ceiling (39,000 feet) to avoid the deadly shoulder-mounted surface-to-air missiles issued to enemy grunts below.  Upon reaching the confines of Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut Airport, aircraft commanders were to then perform an improvised maneuver not found in the flight manuals:  to pirouette their 150-ton behemoths into a tight downward corkscrew, spiraling like a rock racing down to the surface, with engines at idle and spoilers fully deployed, hoping to pull out of the curling dive at the precise point on short final, just in time to drop the flaps and landing gear before touching down.  This air-show stunt worked fine during the crew’s first flight to Saigon.

It didn’t go so well the second time.

The C-141 was about to coast into Vietnamese airspace on the next day’s run from Clark Air Base in the Philippines.  When it was his turn, this newly minted C-141 co-pilot jumped out of his seat to make his way down to the small latrine located under the cockpit in the avionics bay.  Just then, the navigator siting above him in the cockpit alerted the aircraft commander that the acquisition radar of a high-altitude SA-2 surface-to-missile system, just deployed by the North Vietnamese as part of their noose tightening around Saigon, had locked onto the aircraft.

Without warning, the pilot banked the aircraft nearly 90 degrees and began a rapid nose-dive down toward the Mekong Delta to get below enemy radar.  As the pilot began his violent maneuver, the unsuspecting co-pilot, just shutting the door to the latrine below in habitual modesty, noticed the handle suddenly break in the fully-locked mode.  He was stuck in the coffin-sized toilet for the duration of the flight.

The co-pilot then began pounding on the ceiling of his confined space for rescue, but there was no reaction from the cockpit above.   For a second, he wondered if someone even noticed him missing .  .  .  whether a co-pilot was as redundant as an extra cargo tie-down strap on crashing airplane.

No longer was this co-pilot concerned about keeping his boots as shiny as Gary Clemente had taught him.   Instead, his passing thoughts were: “What will they tell my family?  Will I go down in history as the first aviator to be killed in combat in a commode?”

Suddenly, he heard a shout, “Sir, stand back!”  Splinters flew as he bore witness to his savior, a quick-acting loadmaster, hacking the door into pieces with an emergency ax, as if he were fighting back an advancing Birnam Wood of Vietcong.

The co-pilot managed to jump back into his seat just in time to lower the flaps and landing gear on final approach.  Right before he touched down in a picture-perfect landing, the aircraft commander, who had been Bob Hope’s pilot during his many USO tours to Southeast Asia, leaned across the console, and with his characteristic coolness, asked, “What were you doing down there, co-pilot?  Looking for a new Road to Saigon?”

* * * *

Five years later, that co-pilot, now the chief pilot of his squadron and a flight examiner aircraft commander, led a two-ship mission across the Pacific and Indian Oceans to Pakistan.  By then, I had learned to always keep the latrine door of the C-141 slightly ajar.

It was three weeks into the Iranian Hostage Crisis, and our mission was to pre-position in the desert several Delta Force helicopters for a possible rescue mission inside Iran.

The last leg of our journey called for a circuitous route from the Philippines through the Strait of Malacca and around Sri Lanka.  In using that longer flight plan, we had hoped to avoid detection by the Soviet navy and land-based Indian radar sites.

I had previously made two flights into Tehran transporting Americans out of Iran before the Ayatollahs returned and shut things down for good.  During my first mission, flown at night, the Iranians ordered that the approach, landing, and airfield lights be turned off on our final approach, tempting us to land at a parallel military strip, where our aircraft and crew could be impounded.  Departing on my second flight from Tehran in a blizzard with little visibility, Iranian air traffic controllers deliberately tried to vector us into the granite of the 13,000-foot-high Alborz mountains located just to the north of the city.

Therefore, as our two C-141s departed from our home base in southern California for our trip half-way around the world, I was highly doubtful that our aircraft with our sensitive cargo would be receiving a warm welcome when we touched down near Karachi.

My fears were realized when I learned from the sole American meeting our C-141s upon landing in Pakistan that militants had just burned down the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, and another group was rioting at the U.S. Consulate in Karachi, just a few miles away.

Before we offloaded the helicopters and bedded down for a sleepless night, we repositioned our two aircraft – now painted in camouflage livery and looking like giant lizards – behind a decrepit hangar that only partially masked our presence.

I looked back as we drove off toward our dingy hotel, located on the edge of nearby Karachi.  The dark green noses and towering whale-like “T-tails” of our two C-141s stuck out like sore thumbs from behind the small beige-colored hangar.  I thought of a riddle circulating when I was a kid:  “How do you hide an elephant in a cherry tree?  Answer:  You paint his toenails red.”

C-141B

Lockheed C-141B “Starlifter”

* * * *

Several months later, I began a four-year sabbatical from aviator duties, which featured my first of two postings to U.S. Embassy Moscow.  While studying Russian with the State Department, I learned of the dramatic news of the failed attempt to free the U.S. hostages in Tehran.

Disaster struck at a place called “Desert One,” which was located inside Iran, several hundred miles away from where my team had previously dropped off the Delta Force helicopters.   In the confusion of a windstorm, one special forces helicopter (not one of those flown in earlier), careened into a EC-130 Hercules, which was specially equipped with bladders containing jet fuel for the final assault team.

The rescue mission, Operation:  Eagle Claw, was aborted, as eight U.S. servicemen became engulfed in flames.  Their chard remains, including that of close friend Charles McMillan, another ’73 Grad, were released by the Iranians several months later.

There was no King Harry to give a rousing Saint Crispin’s Day speech on that lonely desert in Iran. . . and there are few from that band of brothers who care to remember America’s dystopic Agincourt.

Most pilots and navigators of that era had already bailed out of the Service due to force cuts, and more would leave to seek a better life for their families after that low point in our collective morale.

Still, a few of us who lived through those events would remain . . .  we dazed and disenchanted few. . .  for no apparent reason other than we had become accustomed to a larger sense of family – our military family – and perhaps because of that false sense of adventure and illusive concept of American patriotism.   We would “bugger on” (as the Brits would eloquently put it) until America’s first military-aviator President, George H.W. Bush, redeemed our souls and refreshed our spirits by leading us to a swift and limited victory in 1991, called “Desert Storm.”

But that would be more than 20 years after America’s astronauts, backed by the best minds and the best technology of the age, would first conquer a more distant and desolate desert.

* * * *

Back in 1969, after the shadows of the Rampart Range had blanketed the Cadet Area in summer dusk and scent of pine, the morale of the Class of ’73 buoyed upward as we watched those amazing pictures from the Lunar landscape.

Looking back 50 years, I am convinced that those images of that first walk by Neil Armstrong carried many of us through the rest of Beast and well into our careers.  I give credit as well for my survival during that demanding first year at the Academy to the many acts of kindness shown to me by classmates, upperclassmen, and faculty members.

But I will never forget those lifelines tossed to me that summer by Basic Cadet Clemente and Cadet First Class Bjorklund.

And yes, we all made it to the showers after watching that astonishing historical event on the distant Lunar surface.

Marching out of the Squadron Ready Room in our flip-flops – wearing our skivvies and our American pride as our only spacesuits; and bearing our soap dishes and towels as our navigation aids to the stars – I am certain that each of us felt that we, too, were walking on the surface of the moon.

_________________________

Postscript:

Several months after I first circulated this story, my wife and I attended a book talk by noted Evangelical author Max Lucado at DC’s Museum of the Bible, where I volunteer as a tour docent.  My wife had read several of his children’s books to her students; and I was interested in what Pastor Lucado had to say, although I had known little about the author beforehand.  While I am not an Evangelical myself, I do share many of the beliefs and values common to most Christians – most notably a love of the Bible.  In addition, I believe that one should always be open to new ways of becoming closer to God.

Briefly introducing the premise of his latest book, How Happiness Happens, Lucado remarked that one of the many ways in which the Bible teaches us to be happy is to reach out to others.  There is always someone whose need is greater than our own.  Sure, in some instances, we can offer something tangible.  However, more often than not, it’s just a matter of listening – and encouraging.

While most of us have heard this message before, I found Lucado’s talk to be both inspiring and a gentle reminder of this important Biblical principle; and the book talk caused me to consider this message in a new light – and to remember the example of someone I had the privilege of knowing two decades earlier.

Driving home that night from the Museum of the Bible, I suppose that I wasn’t very good companion for my wife; for I was deep in thought recalling a young friend, who I had left out of the foregone essay.  His name is Jonathan Briese, and Jonathan was an Eagle Scout along with our son Andrew in our local Boy Scout troop.  Let me tell you about him now.

Jonathan had dreamed of becoming a U.S. Coast Guard Officer.

In the summer of 1995, while sitting on a rocky promontory in the middle of a lake during a canoeing trip in the Adirondacks, Jonathan asked me, as a serving officer at the time, to write a recommendation for him to attend the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut.  Without hesitation, I replied that it would be my honor to do so.

As the sun was setting over the calm waters of Lake Saranac, I then asked Jonathan if, in return, he could remember to do something for me – if it turns out that he was indeed offered an appointment to the Academy.  He responded immediately, “Sure, Colonel Slawter.”

Jonathan listened intently as I told him the story about Cadet Clemente and Cadet Bjorklund – what their help had meant to me; how I learned the essential cadet survival skill of shining my combat boots.  I asked him, when he entered basic training at the Academy, to try seeking out the kid in his unit who was struggling more than he was.  He should do this although he was about to collapse with fatigue – or he was ready to give up, due to his own discouragement.  This would help give himself the strength to persevere.

Jonathan said he would try his best.

As Jonathan returned to camp, I remember feeling somewhat hypocritical having given him such advice.  Looking back on my own lengthy military career, I realized that despite all of my excuses – the stressful command environment, the priority always given to “mission accomplishment,” the overseas assignments, the managing of egos, or just the blatant career “coup-counting” – in practice, it was advice that I had only honored in the breach.  I was ashamed that I hadn’t tried harder to find the extra moments in each day to be a better listener and to provide encouragement, particularly to those who served under me and looked to me for leadership.

In any event, that evening would be the last time that I would have a conversation with my young friend.

Several years later, just a few months after I had retired from the Air Force, I received the devastating news that Coast Guard Cadet Second Class Jonathan Briese had suddenly died due to a reaction from a sedative used in an elective medical procedure.

Although I had already separated from the Air Force, I put on my “Class-A Blues” for Jonathan’s funeral – and that would be the very last time I would wear the nation’s uniform.

I sat dazed in the pews of the synagogue until the eulogy got to the part about my young friend’s achievements at the Coast Guard Academy; and then my eyes welled up with tears.

Evidently, a number of Jonathan’s classmates had written tributes to the young man, and the theme was always the same:  Beginning with his basic training, Jonathan had indeed made a consistent effort to reach out to the weakest cadet in his unit, offering practical support and encouragement, no matter what the circumstance.  Because of his reputation of always being willing to lend a hand to others while struggling with his own challenges, he had just been elected “company morale officer.”

Jonathan had been looking forward to training incoming cadets that following summer during a cruise on the famed “Eagle,” one of two sailing ships still in service in the U.S. military.  It was his chance to teach them everything he knew.

My young friend, however, had already set sail on a voyage of a different nature.

Wrapping up the eulogy, the Rabbi noted that Jonathan seemed to have developed a particular specialty during his brief time at the Coast Guard Academy:  It was teaching new cadets how to make their boots shine like mirrors made from ebony.

– BDS

We Were Soldiers - Final

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America’s “Aprils of the Fives” and the End of World War II in Europe

First posted in May 2015, during commemorations marking the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII in the European Theater, this blog essay features first-hand accounts from veterans and family members of the “greatest generation” who participated in the historic events, most notably the link-up between U.S. and Soviet forces on the Elbe River near a charming Medieval German town called Torgau.  The piece also includes my thoughts about my closest relatives, who fought in in the Pacific Theater, plus an aside about my own brief experience in another conflict several decades later.

The concept of “patriotism” is often hard to define; and most service men and women do not consider themselves to be more worthy patriots than any other U.S. citizen.  Still, I hope that this piece will convey some sense of what it means to be an American, either in a combat zone or busy on the home front, who experiences war close up. . . and of our pride for having served the greatest country that has ever been.

After reading the essay, you are invited to visit a photo album featuring photos of the veterans who returned to the Elbe River for a reunion back in 2015 by clicking on the link located at the very bottom of this page.

Warmest regards,

Bruce D. Slawter

Colonel, USAF (Ret.)

September 2, 2020

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America‘s “Aprils of the Fives” and the End of World War II in Europe

May 2015

Every history buff carries in his hip pocket a list of important dates in American history – or even what he considers to be a particularly noteworthy month.  For me, the month that holds the most significance will always be April . . .  not every April . . . just the “Aprils of the Fives” – those Aprils running from 1775 to 1975, for which the accompanying year ends with the digit “5.”

One might ask, “O.K., how did you come up with this Fibonacci-like formulation of America’s Aprils of the Fives?  What’s the big deal?”  I’ll try to explain.

 *  *  *  *  *

Earlier this month (May 2015), millions across the globe commemorated the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in the European Theater.  On Friday, May 8th, thousands of Americans and Europeans – along with the rapidly diminishing numbers of veterans of that terrible conflict – attended events marking the surrender of Nazi Germany and the end of Europe’s most devastating war.  In nearby Washington, D.C., the ever security-conscious FAA even permitted an aerial parade of 56 WWII fighters and bombers over the Mall near the Washington Monument and down the Potomac.  And on Saturday, May 9th, the Russians and the other nationalities of the post-Soviet states staged huge parades and solemn ceremonies marking their victory over Fascist Germany.  (They do it on the 9th of May of each year, because the final German instrument of surrender wasn’t actually signed until after midnight, Moscow-time.)

While the importance of this month’s commemorative events cannot be overstated, it’s interesting to note that the war for most American GIs serving in Europe effectively ended on April 25, 1945, when the lead elements of the U.S. Army’s 69th Infantry Division, having just defeated stubborn German resistance in the nearby city of Leipzig, linked up with the USSR’s 58th Guards Division at various points along the Elbe River.  Centered on the picturesque town of Torgau in the German state of Saxony (situated within the Moscow-dominated German Democratic Republic throughout the Cold War), this historic 40 kilometer-long bridge-head, which linked U.S. and Soviet forces during the last weeks of the war, effectively sliced the remnants of the Third Reich into two parts.  Moreover, it sealed the ring of Allied forces closing in on Berlin.

More soldiers would die before the official surrender of Nazi Germany would take place on the evening of May 8/9 – mainly Soviets.  Relatively few Americans would lose their lives after the link up on the Elbe – thanks to the good sense of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who acquiesced to the Soviets in their expectation that the honor of storming Berlin go to them.  Eisenhower also realized that, in accordance with the London Protocols signed in the fall of 1944, which specified the zones of occupation after Germany’s defeat, he would be compelled to cede back to the Soviets most of the territory that U.S. and British forces would have had to fight across in order to reach Berlin.  Nevertheless, Hitler would commit suicide five days after the historic meeting of Allied forces on the Elbe; and the Nazi capital would capitulate after only seven more days of resistance.

Several years earlier, in a speech given after the Battle of El Alamein in November 1942, Winston Churchill cautioned the Allies that this early British victory in the Egyptian desert was ” . . . not  the end.  It is not even the beginning of the end.  But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”  During the decades after the end of World War II, veterans of the famed 69th Infantry Division and their children would fight over bragging rights as to which small group of American soldiers was the first to make contact with the Soviets along the Elbe – and the debate is still not settled.  However, back then on the evening of April 25, 1945, as word about the link-up spread throughout the 69th like wildfire, every “grunt” could agree that the surrender of Nazi Germany was close at hand.  Members of the division had been in a state of near-continuous combat since the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944; and most soldiers were bone-tired of the futile but still deadly German resistance.  However, as U.S. soldiers became aware of the link-up with the Soviets, morale shot up to Alpine heights.  Each battle-weary G.I. in the 69th – from the top of his unshaven head down to his mud-caked boots – believed that he had actually made it through the terrible furnace of war.  He knew that, not only was this the beginning of the end, it was indeed the end of the end; and soon, he would be heading home.

 *  *  *  *  *

I have always believed that the “Spirit of the Elbe” fostered by American and Soviet soldiers back in April 1945 was the penultimate example of what could be achieved when Americans focused on “converging interests” rather than divergent political differences.

While I always possessed an understanding of the broad contours of the U.S. and Soviet campaigns in the European Theater, I had never visited the area of the historic conversion of forces, nor had I ever met any of the participants.  Last month’s 70th Anniversary of “Elbe Day” (as it has been called in east Germany for decades) appeared to be the last opportunity I would have to visit the actual scenes of these initial meetings and talk with the last surviving veterans who participated in the operation.  Thanks to the gracious efforts of Tom Slopek, the President of the 69th Infantry Division’s “Next Generation Group” (whose principal members include the sons and daughters of the GIs who have since passed), my wife and I made the pilgrimage to Torgau in April and were included in the handful of American representatives attending this solemn but upbeat 70th Anniversary of the end of the war Europe.

* * * * *

In retrospect, I suppose that I had mixed motives for attending this year’s event.  As a long-time student of Russian military history, I of course had a particular interest in the subject matter; moreover, I felt that I needed to honor both the American GIs and their Soviet counterparts who served and bled in Europe.  However, deep down, I suppose that I traveled to Torgau to honor my own family members as well – those members of “the Greatest Generation,” who served in other theaters of the war and on the home front, and who have long since passed on.

Two of my closest male relatives saw the horrors of war up close.  My father, Sgt Bernard Slawter of the U.S. Army’s 23rd Infantry Division (known as the Americal Division, because it was formed on the island of New Caledonia in the South Pacific ), survived the conflict; but he was severely wounded in early 1945 and initially left for dead on a lonely battlefield in the Philippines.  When mortuary crews were about to bag up his unconscious body, they noticed that a large chunk of shrapnel intended for his heart had been lodged in the torn remains of his breast-pocket Bible.  My closest uncle, Sgt Claud Lewis, was a member of an elite U.S. Marine commando squad.  Having just been awarded the Bronze Star for heroism on Iwo Jima, Uncle Claud was busy rooting out suicidal Japanese soldiers savagely defending their fortified caves on Okinawa, just as the war in Europe was winding down along the Elbe.  Both men bore the physical and mental scars of that war throughout the rest of their lives.

Given the complexities of the Pacific Theater during World War II and current regional political sensitivities, I felt that there was little likelihood that a similar commemoration would be held on the obscure battlefields where my father and uncle fought and bled.  So I held one for them privately at Torgau.

Lastly, I thought that I would also go to the now serene countryside of Saxony and Brandenburg to honor my late mother, Bernice Lewis Slawter, a Boeing riveter and descendant of a grandmother who was born in a village located just to the east of Torgau.  Mom’s job was attaching tail sections to B-17 bombers in Washington state, before the aircraft were flown to Europe; and she performed this task with her usual Teutonic dedication and attention to detail.  She rightly believed that she also had a hand in winning the war against the Axis.

*  *  *  *  *

We met a number of outstanding people during our visit to Torgau – and they all had fascinating stories to tell.  Accomplished men and women in their own right, these folks are doing their best to preserve the “Spirit of the Elbe” and to honor the contributions of the wartime veterans.

First and foremost among the superstars we met in Torgau was Chester A. Yastrzemski, the sole American veteran of the 69th Infantry Division able to make this year’s trek to Germany.  An active 89-year-young ex-baseball player (like his hall-of-fame nephew Carl Yastrzemski), “Chet” eventually went into law-enforcement after playing semi-pro baseball; and he retired a few years back as the Police Chief of Southampton Village on Long Island.  Chet was only 18 when first went into combat.  With his characteristic straight-forward frankness, Chet told me that, as a young army private, he was just doing his best to follow orders.  “The officers had all the maps,” he said.  “The battle lines were a bit confused.”  He said that he never knew his exact location, until his unit ran into the Red Army.  A modest man, I’m sure Chet did much more than he let on.  We’ll have to pry some more stories out of him on another, less emotional occasion.

Next on the list of notables was Tom Slopek, the aforementioned President of the 69th‘s Next Generation Group.  A Ford Motor Company Executive and Engineer from Akron, Ohio, Tom is doing a terrific job preserving the heritage of the 69th through the children of the original veterans of the unit.  Tom’s father was a member of a tank destroyer battalion, when American soldiers made contact with the Soviets near the medieval town of Torgau.  According to Tom, this initial “meeting” wasn’t particularly friendly, because the Soviets were too busy lobbing artillery rounds from the other side of the river into the quaint walled town to notice that U.S. soldiers had just entered it.  Realizing that the shelling was being conducted by their Soviet “allies” and not by the Germans, fast-thinking GIs searched the town for some linen and eventually found some iodine in a local apothecary with which to fashion a large U.S. flag.  The Soviets only stopped their shelling when the GIs managed to scramble up the highest turret of the castle and drape the makeshift “Stars and Stripes” over the walls.

Ted Agne, president of The Communications Strategy Group, Inc., of Marblehead, Massachusetts, also traveled to Torgau with his wife Paulette to represent his father, a rifleman in the 273rd Regiment of the 69th Infantry Division, the unit that sent out three separate patrols on the 25th of April to probe for German resistance and find the Soviets.  Among his many interests, Ted is a fellow admirer of Winston Churchill.  Working with Churchill’s granddaughter Celia Sandys, Ted was the principal American fundraiser for the WWII museum in Whitehall, London, known as the “Churchill War Rooms.”

During our visit to Torgau, Suzanne and I also had the pleasure of meeting American screenwriter and filmmaker Nancy Ruff.  Nancy’s father was the driver for First Lieutenant Albert Kotzebue, whose American patrol near the town of Strehla (located about 30 kilometers southeast of Torgau) was cited in U.S. Army reports as the first unit to make contact with the Soviets.  Nancy’s late father was the first U.S. soldier to shoot up a green flare into the sky over the Elbe, as a pre-arranged signal to the Soviets that the Americans had arrived.  Nancy hopes to retrace her father’s wartime movements across Europe and to make a documentary about it.  Having a rent-a-car at our disposal, and Nancy arriving in Torgau by train, Suzanne and I took the opportunity of driving her down to Strehla to experience the very spot on the Elbe where her father sent up the green flare, and where his patrol commandeered a wooden skiff and paddled across the river with the butts of their riffles to greet the Soviets.  Tom Slopek performed faithful service as our guide, showing us the location where Nancy’s father launched the flare and crossed the river.  Tom also found the small village museum where we could see the famous little boat that the soldiers used in crossing the Elbe.

Key to the success of the relatively small American participation in the 70th anniversary – a festive occasion overwhelmed by Russian, Ukrainian, Kazakhstani, and German participants – was Marian Wendt, a Member of the Bundestag (German Parliament), who was elected from the town of Torgau.  Barely 30 years old and yet the equivalent of an American congressman, Marian is a major advocate for a strong trans-Atlantic alliance; moreover, he is an essential supporter of the efforts of the 69th Next Generation Group to preserve the Spirit of the Elbe and the memory of the U.S. soldiers who fought to liberate his county from the Nazi regime.  A busy man dealing with thorny emigration and national security issues back in Berlin, Marian graciously took the time to chauffeur our small group of Americans to several historical venues around the town.  The Americans joked, “What’s wrong with this picture?”

While there were hundreds of post-Soviet nationals at this year’s event, a good number were re-enactors wearing WWII-style uniforms, who were there just for the fun; and others were academics or nonprofit reps, each with his own agenda.  However, there were also several Soviet veterans and currently serving officers from the former Soviet states in attendance.  Just like the Americans, these individuals came solely to commemorate the event and honor those who served.

The ranking Russian general in attendance was the commander of DOSAAF, a quasi-military organization from the old Soviet period, whose function is to train “weekend warriors,” who might someday be called to serve in the Russian armed forces.  Long considered a “club” for such military sports as skydiving and marksmanship, think “Sea Scouts Meet Rambo,” and you’ll get the picture about what this organization is all about.  Lower-ranking active duty military personnel from Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan were also in attendance.

Perhaps the most enthusiastic and numerous group in Torgau for the festivities were everyday German citizens.  The pastor of the Protestant church in Torgau, where Martin Luther gave one of his very first sermons during the Reformation, presented the benediction; and local schoolchildren serenaded the large crowd with several sweet-sounding songs that they had learned for the occasion.

Due to U.S. differences with Mr. Putin over his invasion of Ukraine, official U.S. government presence was kept to a minimum.  The senior U.S. official in attendance was the U.S. ambassador in Berlin, John Emerson.  The highest-ranking U.S. military officer was a colonel, the army attaché; and he was supported by a small color guard.  While I was glad to see the ambassador and the handful of U.S. soldiers in uniform, I thought to myself that the U.S. government could have used this opportunity to mend some fences if it had provided more senior diplomatic and military representation.

As is the case with American GIs from that era, the number of living Soviet WWII veterans able to attend such commemorative events is rapidly diminishing.  I found just three former Soviet soldiers who were anywhere near the front at the time of the historic link up.  The Soviet counterpart to American Chet Yastrzemski during most of the ceremonial events was one Nikolai Mikhailovich Belyaev, who is featured in the photo standing next to Chet.  I asked Nikolai Mikhailovich why he was wearing a black uniform of a Navy Commander.  He said that, after taking part in the storming of the Reichstag in Berlin, he was offered an appointment to one of the naval academies; and he decided to make a career of the Soviet Navy after the war.

Another terrific person that I met at Torgau – and  perhaps the one with the most interesting family story  – was Jeff Thau, a fellow retired U.S. Air Force colonel, now living in Dayton, Ohio.  Jeff’s father, Chaim Thau, was also a participant at the famous meeting on the Elbe.  He is even featured in the iconic photograph often seen in the history books (which was actually staged for the press, the day after the first actual series of contacts took place).  However, in this famous photo, Jeff’s father is not wearing an American uniform but a Soviet one.

Chaim Thau, you see, was a Polish Jew; and he fought in the Polish resistance against the Nazis after the Wehrmacht overran his country in 1941.  Later in the war, when the Soviets retook parts of Poland and captured Thau, they were about to execute him (as they routinely did with most Polish partisans).  However, the Soviets soon discovered that Thau was not only fluent in Polish, but in Russian and in German as well.  Accepting an offer he couldn’t refuse, Thau was given a Soviet uniform and served as the unit’s interpreter for the remainder of the war.  Given his instincts for survival, Thau was obviously a resourceful individual.  Making his way to the West after the war, Thau eventually emigrated to the United States, where he became a U.S. citizen and raised a family.  As I compared notes with Jeff Thau (Chaim’s U.S.-born son), we realized that we both had served at the same U.S. Air Force base in southern California during the 1980s.

During our visit to Torgau, I also learned of the unusual story of Joseph Polowsky, a veteran of the 69th Infantry Division, who is the sole American veteran buried in the local cemetery.  A member of Lt. Kotzebue’s patrol when it linked up with the Soviets at Strehla, Joe would survive the war.  However, his life as a civilian would become a controversial footnote in the history of the Cold War, as Joe would enthusiastically embrace the “Spirit of the Elbe” as a clarion call for “world disarmament.”  Falling under the scrutiny of Senator Joe McCarthy for “Un-American Activities,” Polowsky was eventually befriended by Nikita Khrushchev and GDR leader Walter Ulbricht, who cynically used his idealism as grist for Moscow’s propaganda mill.  However, Polowsky would remain true to his vision of world peace.  After he died in 1983, at his request, the troubled anti-war activist was buried in his beloved Torgau.  Polowsky was further honored when the local gymnasium (high school) was named after him.  Among the small group of Americans visiting the cemetery was Polowsky’s son (also named “Joe”), who had never known his father and was visiting Torgau for the first time.

After paying our respects to Joe Polowsky, we then wandered over to a section of the cemetery where several dozen wooden crosses marked the resting places of some of the last German soldiers to die in the war.  Most were killed resisting the pincer movements made by U.S. and Soviet forces converging on Torgau.  We were accompanied on our stroll by an elderly German.  He said that he had been forced to fight in the German army at the age of 15, as youngsters and pensioners were hastily rounded up, issued weapons and uniforms, and sent into the fray.  As we walked through this sad section of the cemetery, someone pointed out a marker for a particularly young German soldier.  The inscription on the cross indicated that he was a line “rifleman,” and that he had died on April 25, 1945 – in effect the last day of the war for any combatant fighting in that part of Germany.

The German soldier, Private Joachim Wesner, had not yet reached his 12th birthday.

*  *  *  *  *

So the end of WWII in Europe in April 1945 was perhaps one of the most salient examples of this concept of  “America’s Aprils of the Fives.”  What other noteworthy events in American military history also took place during an “April xxx5”?  Several come to mind:

First, every schoolchild knows about Paul Revere’s Ride; and many Americans can recite the fact that “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” which launched American colonists into their long War for Independence, occurred in April 1775, at Lexington and Concord (take you pick).

Not every American Patriot back in the early years of the Revolution had been inspired by (or even read) Cicero or the writers of the enlightenment, as it is often suggested in the textbooks.  American rebels, however, were all deeply conscious of their heritage as free Englishmen – loyal subjects of a legally constrained monarch, whose forefathers, during the English Civil Wars and the Glorious Revolution of the previous century, had achieved a form of limited self-government and legislative representation.  Few American citizen-soldiers were inspired by lofty philosophical ideals – at least at first.  However, every farmer, lawyer, and store clerk who took part in this initial action in April 1775 was motivated by the conviction that he could not permit the actions of a tone-deaf government located in a distant capital to roll back those laws that guarded his freedom and protected his independence.

Next on the list of notable “Aprils of the Fives” is the end of the American Civil War and the assassination of our most revered president, Abraham Lincoln, both occurring in April 1865.  Those of us who have been participating in the Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War here in the “Old Dominion” are conscious of the fact that the surrender of General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to General Ulysses S. Grant’s forces took place in an idyllic little village located in south-central Virginia, called Appomattox Courthouse.  Several days later (also in April 1865), Confederate General Joe Johnston surrendered another sizable Southern army to William Tecumseh Sherman in North Carolina.  Sporadic fighting would continue for several more weeks.  The very last land battle of the war was the  Confederate victory at Palmito Ranch in Texas, occurring on May 13, 1865, after the failure of a truce brokered by Union General Lew Wallace (the future author of Ben Hur) and Confederate General James E. Slaughter (possibly a distant ancestor).  However, for all intents and purposes, the American Civil War came to a close in April 1865.

Lincoln’s “Let ‘Em Up Easy” policy and the magnanimous terms of surrender offered by Grant to the defeated Southern armies in April 1865 facilitated the relatively peaceful reconciliation between North and South.  Some historians would argue that the Lincoln-Grant formula for managing the surrender of those Southern forces remaining in the field had prevented years of guerilla warfare on the part of hard-core Confederates, who otherwise might never have laid down their arms.  While post-war reconstruction of the South would prove extremely difficult — and African Americans would suffer dearly for this for many decades to come — the end of the organized fighting bought time for the nation to pass the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, which established the legal framework for furthering Lincoln’s vision for formerly enslaved Americans.

Returning to the European Theater during World War II, it’s important to remember that it was in April 1945 when the U.S. army “liberated” the huge German concentration camp at Buchenwald.  While intrepid Jews, working with underground networks, had been passing information to the Allies about what was going on in the camps for several years, it wasn’t until Buchenwald was opened for shocking visitation by battle-hardened GIs and the international press that the world would learn about the full extent of the Nazi atrocities committed against the Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, and homosexuals of Europe.

It was also in the early part of April 1945 when U.S. forces landed on the island of Okinawa and thus initiated the last battle of World War II.  Lasting for three more months, the horrific fighting on Okinawa would become the bloodiest battle ever fought in the Pacific.  U.S. forces would incur 82,000 casualties, including over 12,000 battle deaths.  The Japanese would lose over 100,000 soldiers in battle deaths, mainly because they refused to surrender.  Between 30,000 and 100,000 civilians would also die on Okinawa – many by committing suicide at the urging of the Japanese propaganda machine.

*  *  *  *  *

The last of the Aprils of the Fives on my list of historic happenings marks the end of the Vietnam War, which occurred on April 30, 1975, with the fall of Saigon.  This event holds particular significance for several million Americans who served during that time frame, including this writer.

58,000 Americans had died by the time that U.S. military involvement officially ended in Vietnam on August 15, 1973.  The U.S. withdrawal was completed seven months after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords.  In the agreement, the parties agreed to a cease fire, the return of POWs, the withdrawal of U.S. forces from South, and a peaceful political process – including free elections – whereby the South Vietnamese would be able to determine their own political future.  It would not take long before the North Vietnamese began violating this agreement.

President Richard Nixon provided guarantees to the leaders of South Vietnam that the U.S. would come to their aid with American air power if the North violated the accords.  However, shortly after the last U.S. soldiers had departed in the summer of 1973, the North Vietnamese started moving forces south of the demilitarized zone; and within the year, Nixon had resigned as president, because of Watergate.  Newly installed President Gerald Ford, with no Congressional support whatsoever for U.S. re-engagement in Vietnam, could do nothing but watch the North Vietnamese gradually tighten the noose around the South.  The final battle in Vietnam would take place as North Vietnamese forces completed their encirclement of the Republic of Vietnam’s capital city of Saigon, in April 1975.

I was a newly minted C-141 Starlifter copilot at the time.  One morning, sitting in the cockpit of our long-range jet transport at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, the pilot and I were just about to start our engines for our flight to Hawaii and then to California.  The Command Post radioed that we needed to re-file our flight plan, as we were now heading to Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut Airport.  A large C-5 Galaxy carrying a group of orphans for adoption in the U.S. had crash-landed several days earlier.  We were flying to Saigon in order to evacuate the survivors.

What we didn’t know at the time was that “Operation Baby Lift” – while it involved at least some orphans – was also President Ford’s pretext for quietly beginning the full-scale evacuation of Americans and allies (including key South Vietnamese personnel), before they were captured by the Communist North Vietnamese.  Our aircrew was one of the first to be used in this sustained effort.

Events moved rapidly.  Just as we had taken off from Saigon with our first load of evacuees for our flight to Clark Air Base in the Philippines later that evening, we learned that President Ford had announced that a maximum effort would be made by all available U.S. fixed-winged transport in the Pacific to evacuate as many Americans and Vietnamese as possible.

Our relatively brief eight-day cargo mission from California to Japan would turn into a month-long deployment to Southeast Asia and the Pacific.  My aircrew would fly a total of six round-trip missions into Saigon as North Vietnamese forces closed in on the kill, and we evacuated over 1,000 American and Vietnamese civilians.  During most of the flights, we had to use tie-down straps to secure the mass of passengers to the bare cargo floor.  Several days before the fall of Saigon on April 30, as the runway became too chewed up by artillery rounds to land safely, our mission changed from emergency extraction of civilians from war-torn Saigon to transporting refugees from the Philippines to relocation centers situated throughout the Pacific.

I was a fairly naive “brown-bar,” at the time.  Like Chet Yastrzemski fighting with the 69th Infantry Division in Germany during WWII, I was just following orders.  I was trying my best not to screw up.

The complete narrative of the fixed-wing airlift portion of the evacuation of Saigon in April 1975 needs to be told – but let’s save that for another occasion.  (See the blog post, Walking on the Moon . . . in Your Skivvies, for details about my one combat “screw-up.”)

*  *  *  *  *

After attending this year’s Elbe Day events in Torgau, my wife and I eventually made our way to Dresden, from where we took a two-hour train ride to Prague.  Our second-class compartment companions included a very friendly German family from Hamburg.  They were dressed in the jerseys of the German national hockey champions; and they were headed to Prague to cheer on their team during the international playoffs.

After exchanging the usual pleasantries and joking about who would win the hockey tournament, the father of this very amicable German family said that, yes, he knew Americans quite well.  He had been to our shores several times.  In fact, just last month, he had taken his family to Disney World and to the Gulf Coast of Florida . . . to ride the dolphins.  His wife, with her eight-year old son asleep in her lap chimed in:  “Yes, we really loved the dolphins.”

I thought, “O.K., I get it about the dolphins.”  But what struck me as significant about this exchange came next:  The Dad in the family repeated that he believed he understood Americans quite well.  But –

“Why,” he asked, “are Americans so patriotic?”  He said he couldn’t really understand that part of our culture.

Americans, he began lecturing me, are so strict these days about preventing people from entering the country.  It’s such a head-ache filling out all those forms in order to come to Florida.  Your government wants to know everything, even about my parents and grandparents.  And how about those long lines at your passport control?

Most importantly, why do you always feel that you need to have your flags flying everywhere?  All of your schools have them, your government buildings, sports arenas, even your homes.  I don’t understand it.  And you Americans are always singing your national anthem. . . at sporting events, speeches, in your schools, you name it.  Everywhere you go, one hears it.  And why do you always have to say, “God bless America. . . God bless America.”  It’s crazy!

My frank and friendly interlocutor continued by saying that, although he was born in Germany and lived in Hamburg, he really didn’t consider himself a German, but more as a European, perhaps even a “citizen of the world.”  Again, yes, he knows America well, but he just can’t fathom all of that  patriotism . . . all that “God bless America” stuff.

Before changing the subject, I thought to myself, “Nope, you probably never will.”

*  *  *  *  *

My wife and I returned to the Washington, D.C., area a few days before the Victory in Europe commemorations began.  On Friday, 8 May 2015, on the way back from our three-year-old grandson’s preschool musical program in Warrenton, Virginia, we decided drop by the Manassas Airport to see several vintage WWII bombers take off – a B-24, a B-29, and two B-17s – and we watched the aircraft join up with the formation from other airports in the area and head toward downtown Washington, D.C.

During this solemn weekend, we also visited Arlington National Cemetery to lay some flowers on the grave of my wife’s mom and dad (her mom served in a munitions factory during WWII; and my wife’s father died upon returning home from Vietnam in 1967).

I also got up early one morning to hang my American flag out on our front porch.

As I placed the flag in its holder, I took a few moments to think about some of the extraordinary stories that I heard this past April of the Fives – those about the veterans of the 69th Infantry Division, who had linked up with the Soviets along the Elbe.

I imagined Chet throwing around a baseball in camp during a lull in the fighting, and his boyish surprise upon learning that his division had linked up with the Soviets . . . and then his sudden realization that he might be heading back home to Long Island before he knew it.

I imagined Tom’s dad and Ted’s dad wondering when the Soviets might quit lobbing mortar shells at them . . . and whether seeing the makeshift Stars and Stripes on the castle wall would indeed make them stop.

I imagined a wide grin forming on the face of Nancy’s father, as he observed that green flare accelerate into the sky over the hamlet of Strehla . . . saw it hang in midair for a brief moment, then watched it drift down to the surface of the Elbe like a colorful melting snowflake.

And I thought I saw the wheels turning inside the head of Chaim Thau (Jeff’s dad), as he leaned over that demolished bridge near Torgau to shake the hand of the first American GI that he had ever met – and wondered, “Hmm. . . How do I become you?”

I also thought of Joachim Wesner, the 11-year-old German soldier, who was killed in combat on the last day of the fighting in the Torgau area; and I began to see why Joe Polowsky fought, with every fiber of his being after the meeting on the Elbe, to end all wars.

I imagined my mom shooting rivets into the tail section of one of the B-17s that I had seen taking off from Manassas Airport.  And I could see my uncle Claud, vigorously jumping up and down and waving his arms vigorously, trying to convince those Japanese civilians on Okinawa not to be fearful of Americans – not to jump off of those cliffs.

Then, I thought of my dad, who – probably because of his own wartime trials – waited fearfully for my return home from my brief combat experience in Vietnam.  I felt the love of the hug that he gave me on the day of our reunion; and I felt the blow when I received the news the next morning that he had suddenly passed on.  That was 40 years ago, this month.

Lastly, I recalled the self-styled “non-German” German on the train ride to Prague, the hockey fan who had come to Florida to ride the dolphins with his family and thought that he knew Americans quite well, although he couldn’t fathom the patriotism part.

I thought to myself:  yes, my friend — you’re right!  I really don’t need to say out loud “God Bless America,”

. . . because I know — deep down in my heart — that He already has.

______________

Photo Album

By clicking on this link — Elbe Day 2015 — you will be taken to a Google photo album featuring a presentation on the 70th Anniversary of the historic link-up between U.S. and Soviet forces in eastern Germany in April 1945.  Suzanne and I journeyed to Torgau in beautiful Saxony in April 2015 to participate in this solemn commemoration.  The photo of veteran “Chet” Yastrzemski and his Russian counterpart located at the top of this blog page was featured in New York City papers several days after the event.

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Trip to Bavaria and the Südtirol (2014)

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This year’s late-fall trip to Europe took us back to two of our favorite locations – southern Germany and northern Italy.  These regions feature some of the most spectacular scenery on earth – the Bavarian Alps and the Italian Dolomites – which you will see in the landscape photography presented here.  An additional plus for us was the wonderful hospitality that Suzanne and I always experience in this corner of the world.

Historically and culturally, southern Germany, Austria, and northeastern Italy are linked as German-speaking regions.  At one point during the early medieval period, three southern Germanic districts – Bavaria, the northern Tyrol (located in modern Austria), and the “south Tyrol” or Südtirol (located in modern Italy) – were ruled as a single political entity.  Much later on in European history, the Hapsburgs would control the Tyrol and the Südtirol as part of the Austrian empire – right up until the end of World War I, when Italy was awarded the Südtirol by the Treaty of Versailles.  Thus, throughout the Südtirol and the Dolomite mountains reside today upwards of half-a-million Italian nationals, who claim German as their preferred language.  Moreover, the region seems to have the sights, sounds, smells, cuisine, and overall tidiness of Bavaria and Austria.

Sound confusing?  I’ll add one more cultural oddity:  Within this sea of hundreds of thousands of German-speaking Italian nationals living in the Dolomites, one can find another cultural group residing in five remote valleys, who speak the modern derivation of the Latin used by former Roman legionaries 2,000 years before.  Numbering only 50,000, these people are called the Ladina (or Ladins), and they are working hard to preserve the language and folk traditions of their oft-forgotten community.

Despite this cultural confusion, the Italians have pretty much sorted things out.  As a region representing three interspersed linguistic groups, the Südtirol of the spectacular Dolomiti features towns, each with two-to-three different names, and trilingual signs on its roads & buildings and in its museums – in Italian, German, and Ladina.  Sorry for the inconvenience. . . we’d love for you to visit, but there is no more room on our signs for English.  Ciao!

Enjoy the photography!

– Bruce

Click on the following link when you are ready to view the presentation:

 

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Trip to Norway (2013)

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The Lustrafjord, Norway

Welcome to this year’s presentation!

Suzanne and I spent 14 glorious days in gorgeous Norway in late July and early August 2013; and you are invited to enjoy the video versions of the photography with us by clicking on the links below.

You’ll notice that I’ve created a few more videos than last year’s presentation on Switzerland and Italy.  Not to worry – each segment is much shorter in length.  Hopefully, you will experience fewer buffering problems as you stream the videos; plus you can come back often to view more content.  Perhaps this will make the experience a bit more interactive and enjoyable for you.  (Depending upon your computer, connection, and media viewer, it could still take 30 seconds or more before the video will start playing.  The videos run best on Apple platforms; so if you have an iPad or Mac, try to use either one of these.)

The videos are presented in the order in which we traveled across Norway; therefore, you will be able to go on a virtual journey with us – just as the actual trip unfolded.  Most segments show maps at the beginning; so you will never get lost.

For you fans of the History Channel’s hit series Vikings – O.K., even you’re not – you should begin by viewing the scene setter for our own latter-day Viking quest by clicking on the link entitled Vikings:  Preview of Upcoming Episodes.  Who knows?  These whacky outtakes might eventually see the light of day.

You all have busy schedules; so if you only have time to watch just a couple of the videos, I would encourage you to go straight to my three-part “documentary” on the Norwegian efforts to sabotage the Heavy Water production facility in Telemark that was so vital to the Nazis’ quest to develop an atomic bomb during WWII.  The “trilogy” is titled Tribute to the Heroes of Telemark.

To round out this year’s program, I have penned four short pieces for those who would like to read a little more about the information presented in the videos and the music.  Links to these brief summaries are provided at the bottom of the following program guide.

Enjoy your journey!

– Bruce (April 2014)    

Program Guide (Just click on the links to view the videos)  

Vikings – Preview of Upcoming Episodes

Journey Through Norway

Part 1 – Welcome to Oslo!

Part 2 – The Adventurers

Part 3 – Folk Museum

Part 4 – Borgund and Solvorn

Part 5 – Jostedal Glacier

Part 6 – Aurlandsfjord and the Flam Railway

Part 7 – The Naerofjord

Part 8 – Bergen

Part 9 – The Hardangerfjord

Part 10 – Troll Sightings!

Tribute to the Heroes of Telemark (Act One, Act Two, and Act Three)

* * * * *

To read more about Norway, the music, and the video presentations, click on the following links:

Musical Credits

Of Trolls, Frogs, and Mr. McGregor’s Garden (A story about Edvard Grieg, Norway’s greatest composer)

More on the Telemark Nuclear Sabotage Efforts

A Timeline of Norwegian History – Brief Highlights

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If buffering becomes excessive or your media viewer can’t play or interrupts the video, click on Difficulty Viewing Videos? at the very top right of this page.

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NOTE:  The videos in this blog are for non-commercial, ad-free private viewing by invited friends and family. They are not for broadcast.  If you have not been invited to view the videos, kindly honor this policy.  The rest of this blog is available for viewing by the general public.  Contact Bruce Slawter via “Leave a Reply” below, if you have any comments, questions, or requests.

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Trip to Switzerland & Italy (2011)

Ballet in the Air
Ballet in the Air, Zermatt, Switzerland

O.K., I know that I’m over a year late putting this one together — but I believe it’s worth the wait.

With the encouragement of my son Andrew and his selling to me of his older but refurbished iMac (a transaction for which he claims to have taken a substantial loss), I have endeavored to take the “joy” of viewing your parents’ travel pics to a new level. So for the 2011 trip featured in this post, when you click on the links located toward the bottom of this blog entry, you will be streaming high-quality videos of still photography with music and special effects.

For you armchair film critics: yeah, I realize that the modest home-grown videos featured throughout this blog are probably not up to the standards of someone like, say, Ken Burns.  In fact, my production values are so low that I would hate to think what might happen if the venerable documentary film maker were to get wind that I was using the “Ken Burns Effect” named after him for panning in and out of still photos.  Ken’s so touchy about these sorts of things that he’d probably throw a tantrum, yank out his beard, and most alarmingly, block PBS from re-running his series, The Civil War, during pledge weeks.  So don’t worry. . . my lips are sealed.

On the other hand, I don’t think that I’m hyping this too much by promising you that this year’s journal of our most recent trip to Europe is definitely not your grandmother’s photo album of her honeymoon with “Gramps” in the Poconos.

In fact, you should strap on you seat belt — and turn your speaker volume up — especially for the first video, during which you will be joining us for a high-altitude hike around the famed Matterhorn. Make sure that you don’t look down.

Our trip to Europe in 2011 was planned so that Suzanne and I could really stretch our legs getting in some high-altitude hikes (that is, “high altitude” for Virginians).  Therefore, the presentation features photography of the Swiss Alps around Zermatt and the region of the Italian Alps known as the Dolomites.  Prior to reaching Zermatt, we made a brief stopover in Lausanne, a French-speaking city serving as one of the historic centers of Reformed Protestantism in the 16th Century and the present host-city of the International Olympic Committee.  We also managed to visit some of the wonderful lowland sights of northeast Italy — such as Venice and Verona — between our more extended stays at our two Alpine destinations.

Here’s a welcome note to those of you whose excuse for not being impressed by a lot of background detail is that you got your only exposure to history from your off-season high school coach (re: my comments on the historically challenged in my first blog entry, Trip to the Aegean (2008)):

  • Hooray!  You will be relieved to know that I have provided relatively scant information in the way of historical context in this three-part video.

But gee. . . . you know that I can’t help myself from providing just a few historical observations.

So. . . . class. . . . it’s time to get out those spiral notebooks with pictures of the Beatles on the cover (or maybe it’s the Bieber now) — before we head over to the gym for some volleyball.

Switzerland

First, it’s easy to overlook the fact that Switzerland (the first stop on our journey) has been a stable, independent republic for a very long time, although its present geographic territory wasn’t fixed until 1848. Based initially upon a defensive alliance beginning with the Old Swiss Confederacy in 1291, the nation grew into a multi-lingual nation-state by the 19th Century with a Federated system of power-sharing between the various cantons (provinces) and the central government. One afternoon, while enjoying some lunch with a Swiss couple in a mountain-side restaurant, Suzanne and I learned that Switzerland would be celebrating its “National Day” the following day, which was August 1st. Our table mates laughed as I congratulated them on their holiday and asked how long Switzerland had been independent. They protested in typically good-natured Swiss fashion: “That’s unfair. Everyone knows about your 1776; but we’re not certain about ours. It was probably sometime during the Middle Ages, right?” In any event, Switzerland continues to be a stable and wealthy country, although with an extremely high cost of living. It definitely bears further examination to fully grasp why the Swiss continue to be so successful.

Venice

Second, many of you have already visited the fabulous international heritage site of Venice, Italy (our second major stop); so there is little that I, as a humble graduate of Venice High School in California (“Go, Go, Gondoliers!”), can add to the general knowledge of the place. However, the one major point that jumped out at me as Suzanne and I wandered through labyrinthine passages, visited museums, and rode the Vaporetto water transports was that the wealth of this water-borne city-state, which created its many splendors during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, was generated as a direct result of the nature of the republic’s governmental structure and sense of national purpose. The Venetian state, as I briefly note in the presentation, was the most stable and long-lived republic in history. While it was clearly an unequal representative democracy, with only the members of the top 200 or so families enfranchised to participate in the highest levels of the body politic, the fairly lean Venetian form of government, for over 1,000 years, tended to get its priorities straight: the business of the state was to promote commerce, and commercial success was linked to maritime power. Sure, there was some downside to the Venetians’ fixation on maintaining commercial superiority: they exploited the Crusades and the decline of the Byzantine Empire; and they punished their highly skilled artisans severely, such as the glassmakers of Murano, for divulging the technological secrets of their factories.  However, most strata of society, for a number of centuries, benefitted greatly from the stable government and its emphasis on commerce.  Even the Jews, many of them having been expelled from Spain in 1492, found safe haven in Venice and thrived under the system.  Arguably, this Most Serene Venetian Republic (as it was officially called) was the most salient example in world history where so-called “trickle-down economics” seemed to work.

The Dolomites

My final historical observation concerns the spectacularly beautiful region of northeastern Italy, known as the Dolomites — the last stop on our European journey during the summer of 2011. While the entire region has been an integral part of Italy since the Treaty of Versailles broke up the Austro-Hungarian Empire after the First World War, for most of its history, the valleys and towns of the Dolomites have been controlled by different political entities. Up until the time it was dismantled by Napoleon Bonaparte, the Venetian republic dominated the southern third of the Dolomites, and the Austrians ruled the northern part until the end of WWI. The remaining areas fell under the suzerainty of lesser principalities, until Italy became a united nation in the 19th Century. Thus, even today, one can hear three distinct languages spoken in the various parts of the Dolomites. German is typically spoken in the northern part (the region known as the “Sudtirol”), and Italian continues to dominate in the southern area around Cortina d’Ampezzo (where we had our lodgings). A third language — Ladin (apparently resembling modern Romanian) — is still spoken by about 30,000 Italian nationals living in five small valleys scattered throughout the Dolomites. While the entire region is rather upscale in nature (due to its popularity among Europeans as a year-around outdoor destination), we momentarily thought that we had overshot one brief leg of our journey and had crossed the border into Austria (“The hills are alive…ah…ah…ah”), as we entered the pristine German-speaking town of San Cassiano while descending from one Alpine pass.  Although we were still well inside Italy, the town resembled a quaint Austrian village.  Even the cops writing parking tickets wore Germanic-looking uniforms.  (Luckily we were able to evade their Teutonic diligence.)  But we loved the entire region – both the Italian-speaking and German-speaking parts.  Suzanne and I both gave the Dolomites our top vote for a return visit with the entire family.

Blah, blah, blog — Time to see the movies!

The total running time for the entire album is about 35 minutes; however, you’ll need to view it (at your leisure, of course) in three segments.

NOTE:  The videos in this blog are for non-commercial, ad-free private viewing by our family and friends. They are not for broadcast.  If you have not been invited to view them, kindly honor this policy.  The rest of this blog is available for viewing by the general public.  Contact me via “Leave a Reply” below, if you have any comments or questions.

Click on the following links when you are ready to view the videos.  Don’t be afraid to turn up your speakers or headphones.  If you want to view a particular scene a little longer, just click on the pause button.  If you experience buffering, either hit the pause button (and count backwards from 99) or back out of the site and re-click on the link on this page.  Most of you are veteran web-surfers; so you know what to do.

If buffering becomes excessive or your media viewer can’t play or interrupts the video, click on Difficulty Viewing Videos? at the very top right of this page.

Enjoy your journey!

– Bruce

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Trip to France and the WWII Allied Invasion of Normandy (2010)

Saving Private Niland
Saving Private Niland

For another fascinating visit to Europe (really, do we go on any that are boring?), Suzanne and I drove from Paris down to the Dordogne region of southern France to look at 35,000 year-old cave drawings (such as those in the Lascaux area), visit Medieval chateaux marking the battle lines of the Hundred Years’ War, and paddle kayaks down the scenic Dordogne River, which meandered peacefully through the rolling French country side. After visiting the south of France, we made our way up to Brittany and Normandy, before returning to Paris.

In addition to pictures of the Dordogne, this photo album features photography of the Loire river valley and, most memorably, the battlefields associated with the D-Day invasion of Normandy in June 1944, including the site of the first engagement of the fabled 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, known in the superb Steven Spielberg series as the “Band of Brothers.”  (The series was based upon a book by the same title, written by the late Stephen Ambrose.)

Since my first posting of this photo album on Picasa, Dick Winters, who led “Easy Company” in many of its European engagements, has passed on; and efforts by others to have him awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his courageous leadership on D-Day appear to be fading away. However, thanks to funds raised in the U.S. — including nearly $100,000 collected by 11-year-old Jordan Brown selling commemorative bracelets — on 6 June 2012, a 12-foot-tall $250,000 bronze statue of Winters was erected on the site of the assault he led against a German artillery battery near Utah Beach, on that fateful day in 1944.

In this presentation, I offer my take as to why so many Americans lost their lives while assaulting the other major landing point for U.S. seaborne troops — Omaha Beach — despite one of the heaviest aerial and naval bombardments of enemy defensive positions in history.

I also walk you through the story of the U.S. rangers who first scaled the key German artillery position at Pointe du Hoc — and then, with reduced numbers, had to defend the position for two more days until relieved.

Lastly, I include as a brief footnote to this major event in U.S. military history the true story of the Niland Brothers — a poignant tale upon which another outstanding Spielberg production, Saving Private Ryan, was based.

When you are ready to view the presentation, click on the following link:

Trip to France (Photo Show)

Tips for viewing photo albums on Google’s Picasa:

1.  Click on “Slideshow” at the top left of your screen, right underneath the title.
2.  As soon as the opening photo comes into view, immediately click on the pause button located at the bottom of the screen.
3.  O.K., once you have paused the presentation, click on the “+” sign (also at the bottom) to increase the time for each slide from its default of 3 seconds (which is way to fast) to perhaps as much as 6-8 seconds.
4.  Select “F11” on the top row of your keyboard (for PCs) to fill your entire screen with the picture.
5.  Now click on the “play” button to resume the presentation.
(The other option is just to advance the slides with the arrow keys.)

Explore a Little Further

After viewing our web album via the above link, if you would like to dig a little deeper into some of the subject matter, I’d recommend that you view the following presentations by clicking on the links to them:

Prehistoric Cave Art
Click on the above link to reach a beautiful interactive site featuring a tour of the cave paintings of Lascaux in the south of France.  To select English, move your cursor to the left edge of the screen, and then down to the bottom of the pop-out menu to click on the English flag.

Pointe du Hoc
Watch a nicely done YouTube video about the Ranger assault on Pointe Du Hoc, which includes President Ronald Reagan’s speech on the 40th anniversary of D-Day.

Band of Brothers Engagement at Brécort Manor

For an excellent portrayal of Easy Company’s assault on the German guns at Brécort Manor, check out Episode Two of the mini-series, Band of Brothers.  You’ll probably have to stream it from Netflix or some other online movie company.  WARNING:  Contains graphic violence and language.

Tank Demonstration
Click on the above link to view my short video of a WWII armored vehicle demonstration at the Airborne Museum in Ste.-Mère-Eglise.  WARNING:  Contains footage of stupid photographer almost getting run over by tank.  (I’m not telling who that photographer was. . . . but it sort of explains why this video segment is a tad wobbly.)

Enjoy!

– Bruce

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