Saturday, April 25, 2009

My Father’s First Trip to Italy

In 1943 my father got an all-expense paid trip to Italy courtesy of the United States Army Air Corps. My dad, Dwight, told me this story a number of times before he died in 1985. His story was very funny and tragic at the same time and I always thought it would have made a good novel or film along the lines of "Catch 22". I’ll try to relate the story as best as I can remember, knowing full well that my father may have stretched the truth a bit here and there.

My father had been in "Cadets" as he called it, and upon graduation as a lieutenant, was assigned to a crew and a B-24 bomber. Dwight was the co-pilot. They started at an Army air field in Nebraska and flew the bomber in stages to Italy. The flight path included Puerto Rico, Brazil, Africa and finally Italy.

While on the ground in Puerto Rico, Dwight and his crew drank more than a few "rum and cokes" and found cases of rum to be an incredible bargain. Since they were flying a long-range bomber designed to carry tons and tons of bombs and armament, and they were heading to a war zone with a shortage of alcohol, they decided it might be prudent to take some rum with them. They shrewdly felt that some alcohol starved American airmen might also appreciate owning their own bottle. The crew of ten each bought several cases of rum; as many cases as they could afford. So many, in fact, that they were overloaded upon takeoff and forced to re-arrange the placement of some of the rum, and jettison some of the remainder before taking off for South America. At this point in the story, my father, who was an excellent mathematician would go over the calculations of what a bottle of rum might weigh, how many there were on board, and where they would be placed so as not to imbalance the airplane. (I always found this part of the yarn to be a little unbelievable, but I have never been a 25 year old going off to war, so I won’t dis-avow it.)

They landed rather heavily in Brazil and I imagine while there re-fueling, they sold a few cases and drank a bottle or two. They acquired a trained monkey from some enterprising Brazilian and took off across the South Atlantic for Africa.

They landed and re-fueled in Timbouctou, Mali, a Muslim country. Why that particular place, I don’t know. They had to drink their rum in secret and for the first time, without Coca-Cola and/or ice. They found the rum to be harsh and almost undrinkable. The locals were friendly but had rather sticky fingers and the warplanes had to have guards posted inside and outside of each one.

Dwight told me of his visit to the Casbah, the old quarter of any North African city. I am unclear whether this was in Timbouctou, or some other town in Morocco or Algeria. They went armed with their sidearms in holsters, and in large groups to the nightclub where they saw a remarkable dance by a remarkable woman. Unfortunately, I can’t remark to any great extent here. But, imagine a beautiful Arab woman wearing a veil and nothing else on a stage that was darkened to the point of being pitch black. Nothing was visible except the red tips of the American’s cigarettes. The Arab woman came out with a single lit candle in her mouth. She had other candles in her hands, and a candle or two stashed elsewhere on her person. Slowly she danced, and one by one, lit the other four candles. The candles would slowly burn down while she whirled about provocatively. One by one the candles would burn out and the stage would be dark again. When the lights came on, the woman would have disappeared. Dwight would always express his appreciation for this highly artistic dance and he always told me the other airmen, some of them unsophisticated, bumbling southern backwoodsmen who knew little about Arab culture, also showed great appreciation for this art form.

Eventually they ended up in Bari, Italy at an airfield from where they flew missions to bomb strategic targets in Italy, Austria, Yugoslavia, Romania and Germany. Dwight participated in a raid over the Nazi oil refineries in Ploesti, Romania, in an attempt to cut off the oil supply to the Nazi war machine. It was the largest daylight raid of the war and the Germans had it heavily fortified with anti-aircraft guns. The allies suffered tremendous losses when they attacked this target, but somehow, Dwight managed to live through it. In fact he flew his required missions, 35 or perhaps 50, I cannot remember. But the odds were not on his side for surviving even ten of the missions, but he came though physically unscathed.

A significant number of his crew did not survive. Some died torn apart by flak, others from Nazi fighter’s 30 caliber bullets. Others died in horrific fires. The crew watched other planes in their squadron plummet to the ground on fire, with wings missing and often with conscious airmen trapped inside. When a member of his crew died in battle, it was my father’s duty to gather up the possession’s of the lost flyer and send them along to his parents or his wife. Dwight reluctantly took possession of the flyer’s rum stash and sent along some of his own money to the relatives. At this time the rum was almost worthless. They tried to sell it to the Officer’s Club or to other flyers or ground crew. But because there was no Coca-Cola or ice in that part of Italy, they had few takers. There was an abundance of Italian wine, some captured German beer, a little American and Scotch whiskey, but no one drank rum straight and neat.

Eventually Dwight ended up with more than half of the Puerto Rican rum in Bari, Italy. The cases of rum were in his tent, under his bed and made to serve as tables and chairs. As time passed and the Allies began pushing the Germans up the Italian peninsula, two things happened. One, an old ice plant was resurrected in Bari. And two, a Coca-cola plant was shipped to Naples from Atlanta and was put into business for the pleasure of the American soldiers. The result was that Puerto Rican rum shot up in value from, shall we say, 10 cents a bottle to two dollars a bottle. Dwight was suddenly, literally, sitting on a fortune.

His allotted missions flown, Dwight boarded a troop ship back home to the U.S. It was something like a two or three week trip and Dwight spent his time playing poker and other games of chance with his winnings. Dwight always said he wasn’t a gambler, and playing poker with his shipmates didn’t signify as gambling. It was more like a sure thing.

He arrived back in Denver, Colorado and he and my mom were able to buy their first house with cash. It must be said that a house in Denver in 1946 could be purchased for around $3000, but still, it was a lot of money then.

He and my mom made a trip to France, Austria, England and Italy in 1964 and it was his only return visit. He lost many friends there. He swore that motorcycle and jeep accidents claimed the lives of at least as many airmen as the Nazis. The young soldiers, often with a fatalistic feeling that their number was soon to be up, generally drove dangerously drunk, and recklessly even while sober.

As I said, my father was never one to let truth get in the way of a good story and I doubt all of this is true. But I think most of it is. Understandably, I don’t think I ever saw him drink a rum and coke. He told me the story many times and it never changed in the major details. He, and anyone who could verify the truth are long gone. I could kick myself now for waiting so long to write it down. I wish I had tried to get it on paper when he was alive because I think it’s a marvelous story, factual, partly factual or pure fiction.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Into the Fiery Furnace

Arches National Park, as one might imagine from its name, is well-endowed with natural arches, windows and bridges. Actually, all those three features are one and the same thing, as I recently re-learned on a ranger-led hike into the ‘Fiery Furnace’. The most bizarre concentration of fins and narrow slot canyons, I know I felt like a rat in a maze. The red sandstone and a hot day complete worthiness of the name.
DeeDee and Ursula, old friends from Bozeman/Livingston days, visited last week on their way back to Montana from Zion National Park. DeeDee was celebrating a birthday and requested a special hike, but unfortunately, an ankle injury prevented her participation. Doug resisted calling in sick at the hardware store. So, Ursula and I joined the 20+ other eager Furnace-walkers, and I was surprised to also see our nightly rental guests in attendance. We were in the good hands of Ranger Ann, a young interp ranger who reminded me just how stimulating giving guided walks can be. It brought back memories of my years in Yellowstone.

I had taken this hike 10 years ago, when my balance, lower back, and knees were non-issues. Ah, the curse of aging. In addition to our nightly rental guests, who had two kids (ages 5 and 7), there was also a family from Israel, a family from British Columbia, a Green Bay Packer family, and an assortment of others. At our first stop, as Ranger Ann was describing some of the flora and fauna, there was one kid scribbling all over the rock on which he was sitting. He was hidden by his father. As we assembled to depart and Ranger Ann saw what he had done, she spoke to them and made them rub sand over the graffiti to remove it. Right on, Ann!

National Parks have strict rules about destroying natural features. It’s just not tolerated. In addition, you can’t remove any natural feature from the Park. That includes a tiny rock, one little flower, one bird feather, etc. The basic idea is that if each and every one of us did that, there wouldn’t be anything left for the next guy. Simple, but oh so hard to put in to practice. I know.

Having led ranger-led walks and hikes for several years, I know they aren’t for everybody. I love to hike alone (except for the accompaniment of a canine companion), but it’s very easy to miss things. Without this hike I wouldn’t have known that there are actually shrimp in tiny pools that lay eggs that stay dormant for as long as 30 years until the pool fills again. Or, that the scrub jay can make a call that mimics a rattlesnake. I wouldn’t have seen the pack rat skull that one of the hikers found and we passed around. And I wouldn’t have seen the shared excitement on everyone’s faces as we rounded every fin, or side-stepped along the ravine, or sucked in our stomachs through the tight places. Ursula and I volunteered to be the sweeps, and we got to see it all.

It is strongly recommended that you go through the Fiery Furnace on a ranger-led hike, at least the first time. However, you can get a permit to do it yourself. You have to watch a 5-minute video (what exactly can you learn in 5 minutes), and have backcountry skills. But you aren’t given a map. And GPS aren’t reliable back there. We saw quite a few people wandering around with permits strapped onto their daypacks. Some were folks who looked like they just walked out of the shopping mall. One guy, in a very German accent, asked us if we “knew the way out”. In reply, we asked him “don’t you?” He answered “NO”. We then suggested that he follow us, but he went the other way. He might still be wandering around.

The Fiery Furnace is one of those hikes that, no matter how many times you walk it, you are bound to experience something new. So, Julian, are you and Gwenda ready for a little Fiery Furnace when you are in Moab in a few weeks????

Day 26 Saturday July 18, 1987 Larne, Northern Ireland

Since the last entry of Nancy’s Journal, several weeks ago, tragedy struck. Fergus, the scallywag, stole the little journal from a side table where I had left it. He took it out to the yard and chewed on it for a few minutes. Luckily, he got bored fairly quickly, before rain or gust scattered the journal to the four winds. I was able to tape it back together, but as you can see from the pictures, it will never be the same.

Day 26 Saturday July 18, 1987 (entered Monday) Larne, Northern Ireland

Well so much for getting better weather. We woke up to a cloudy sky, showered, and rode into town for breakfast. The Butter Churn was earliest opening at 9 am. I had pancakes (with no syrup) and a scone. Doug had chicken alronet and a scone. By the time we left the cafe it was raining of course. We decided to do laundry, but was easier to drop it off and let them do it (2.25 pounds).We wandered around town to kill time. Doug bought a pint of Bushmill’s and we decided to shop at the numerous produce shops for dinner supplies for another salad.

After picking up the laundry and heading back for camp we decided to take a bicycle ride to Carrickfergus to see the castle, rain or not. And rain it did - it barely waited till we were out of town. And not much past that is where the real trouble started. Doug blew a tire. Since we weren’t carrying a pump, it was back to town in the pouring rain. We walked along the road a ways and were overtaken by a temporary checkpoint by the Queen’s army. Two trucks of very young soldiers with rifles and dressed in camouflage were stopping all vehicles and checking IDs. They waved us on though saying that we didn’t look as if we were carrying anything illegal. I decided to ride on back the rest of the way into town, get some groceries and wine and meet Doug later at the bike shop.

I putzed around looking at each and every produce shop, waiting til I saw Doug coming up the street. Luck was not running our way. And it was still raining. After finishing my shopping, stopped at the bike shop, but Doug had left because they couldn’t help him. I figured he was in great mood by now. When I got back to camp our neighbors informed me he was near the shower block taking the wheel apart. It appears the problem of the spokes that had been replaced was never cut down inside the wheel, so it wore a hole in the tube, and what was worse, shredded the side of the tire. So the tube could be repaired but a new tire was definitely needed. I rode back to town to check any likely store (met a cyclist friend who was extremely interested in our Yankee bungee cords. He bought four at 40p each). Back to camp again to report the latest news. But Doug was gone. Neighbors now informed me that the husband , Tom, called a bike shop in Carrickfergus , who had the replacement mountain bike tire, and he took Doug down the 14 miles to get it. Unfortunately, I had all the money.

I went back to the town to cancel the tire I had ordered, and then Maureen invited me over for coffee. She and her sister/brother-in-law and kids yakked til Doug and Tom got back. He got a new tire/ tube for 6.50. Well, the world was beginning to be brighter. And it had stopped raining and was even sunny for awhile. Had more coffee with the neighbors again, yakked about N. Ireland, etc. and arranged to come back later with the Bushmill’s. We went to the playground area whipped up our salad with Newman’s dressing, had sandwiches and drank wine. After cleaning our one dirty dish, we headed back to Tom and Maureen’s for party time. They kept feeding me vodka and lemonade. Very sweet. Tom bought out some Guinness, warm, of course. Tom and Doug polished off the Guinness and Bushmill’s then all felt it was time to hit the pub. All but me. I know I wouldn’t get up in the morning if I had any more. So I put myself to sleep. Didn’t hear Doug come into the tent, but did hear it start to rain and gale force winds during the night. What else??

As you can see Fergus has also take the little yellow English/French Dictionary out to play with, as well as the Castarede French Verbs, and the Marling Menu Master for Italy, and a magazine or two.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

French as He is Spoke Redux

I have come across a few blogs lately that are very interesting to me. Mostly about other non-French people living in France. Here's a blog about a British couple trying to improve their French. I could not be more sympathetic to their plight. Especially the part about persons of a certain age struggling with a new language. The link is below.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Been There? Done That?

If you have been there and done that and would like to give us some advice, go ahead. We're in the planning stages of a short jaunt to Venice this July. We are aware that it may not be the best time to go, but it's the time we have available. Do you know a favorite place to stay? Favorite things to see and do? Places to avoid? A favorite restaurant? How to deal with a car? How to get around? Do you have a favorite memory you'd like to share? If you've got answers, we're ready to listen. Leave a comment, or if you'd like our e-mail address, just ask.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

La Belle France

Nancy and I went to Mont St. Michel in 1987. It was our introduction to one of the real beauties of La Belle France. It is a tad touristy, which is to be expected in this day and age. We walked all over the little island. We went back in the evening after dinner on the mainland and climbed to the highest point we could to watch the sun go down. We took a bottle of wine to help us appreciate the sight, and I had a calvados or two in a bar before we rode our bikes back to the mainland. I remember I could hardly stay on my bike. I learned just how powerful calvados is.
These other two photos remind me of what I like about France. Around almost every turn is some gorgeous sight or an architectural oddity. I have no idea where this church is or why it was built. Maybe someone knows.

And, without a doubt, around every corner is a bar with tables and chairs out on the sidewalk. Generally, someone would be sitting there with a coffee or a glass of wine. I don't know how this works. I assume the bar owner doesn't own the sidewalk, and often the traffic patterns are altered by the tables and chairs. But no one bats an eye at the arrangement. Does the bar owner pay the city for the right to put his tables and chairs there? Or is the arrangement grandfathered in? (Marek, Shirley, do you know? ) In any case, it is one of the little differences that make France so interesting. Can you imagine a bar like this in the States, other than in New Orleans maybe? In most of the rest of the U.S., there would be no door standing open and tables and chairs on the city owned sidewalk. And if there were dining on the sidewalk, there would have to be a railing around the area to restrict non-drinkers, and there probably wouldn't be any alchohol on the sidewalk anyway. We're kind of uptight about those things. Meanwhile, on the other side of town, illicit drugs are being sold on the street corner.

And what a beautiful photo. Green umbrellas and the contrasting red of the wall, lights on in the bar, the very colorful tables and chairs. And the menu on a chalkboard. Very inviting, n'est pas? (Remember kids, click on em' to enlarge em'.)

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Four of My Favorites

Here are, for your viewing pleasure; the guy who canes chair bottoms in the Mirepoix market; a young honey sales-lady at the Rose Festival in Camon: a gypsy with his squeeze box in Carcassonne; and a lovely old lady, also at the Mirepoix market. All these are from the summer of 2007.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

A Wealth of Visitors

It’s always fun to have visitors. It’s enjoyable to be the local expert and act as tour guide to a region that is still new to us. And it is always interesting to see a place though the eyes of those who are new to it. The summer of 2009 appears to be shaping up as the year of the visitors. It seems we might have four groups, more likely three, visiting us this summer. They are coming a long distance; an eight hour time difference and a significant investment in time and expense. We are flattered.

The first group comes in July; my sister, her husband and their youngest daughter. Peggy and Tony have visited us before during the summer of 2007. Apparently we were good enough hosts that they will be coming again and bringing Katie. They have expressed an interest in going back to the Abbey for dinner, and how could we refuse? That first year, we visited Carrcassonne, Montsegur, and the cave art at Niaux, the markets in Mirepoix and Lavelanet and some other spots. They went on their own to Albi and the Toulouse-Lautrec museum. We are better equipped to be tour guides now and have a few more places in mind to take them and send them. Peyrepertuse is high on the list of new places to show them. And perhaps a trip to the Mediterranean Sea or the Pont du Gard.

The second group comes in late July and leaves in early August. These are friends from Moab and they share with us a connection to the National Park Service. Before visiting us they will be taking a hike around Mont Blanc. Imagine that. Unless they spend most of their time circumnavigating the peak at a very high elevation, it’s going to be a long walk. I suspect they will enjoy cooling their heels in Leran for a little while. They haven’t been to France before and we will escort them to the appropriate places. We’ll send them alone to Carrcassone and a few other locations that we’ve already been to enough times.

Both of these groups have their airline tickets in hand and are coming barring some unforeseen incident.

My old high school and college buddy, Bill and his wife Kathy, are planning a visit. She is a former employee of United Airlines and so they fly on standby at some kind of sweetheart rate. So they will just appear on our doorstep some afternoon in mid-August. They plan to stick around till we leave on August 27. We’ll save some exciting explorations for their visit. Perhaps a visit to Barcelona? A trip into the Pyrenees? Maybe we’ll get to ride the Little Yellow Train? Perhaps a two week visit to the Leran bar?

Then some friends in Colorado have inquired about coming to France to visit at some point this summer. We’ll see how that goes, but either way, we should have a richness……….a wealth of visitors.