A dose of good cheer . . .

There’s something about Americans.

They are everywhere, it seems. Sometimes by choice; sometimes by happenstance, often on orders and sometimes unwillingly. Americans travel the globe. Occasionally, they’re “ugly.” Almost always, when Americans “discover” a place, it is changed. And many would argue that change, though inevitable, is less than desirable.

There are other nationalities that also travel the globe; many of them English-speaking — Brits, Canadians, Australians. But there are French-speakers, Spanish-speakers, Scandinavians, Asians, and Africans. In fact, today, all nationalities travel extensively. Most travel rather inconspicuously.  Americans tend to stand out and are occasionally the brunt of jokes and the subject of pervasive and less-than-flattering stereotypes. 

But, there’s something about Americans.

On Christmas Day morning, on a beach in Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, Mexico, a group of Americans gathers to hang stuffed animals, matchbox cars, soccer balls, footballs, Barbie dolls, and an assortment of other toys from the palapas and beach umbrellas of a local hotel. They wear Santa hats, blinking reindeer noses and silly, floppy reindeer antlers, candy cane shirts, and an assortment of other red and green attire with their swimsuits and shorts.

The beach chairs and lounges are circled to keep the public at a distance. No one really seems to be in charge. At 8:30 am on Christmas Day, it is quiet on the beach. And then more people arrive, some with armloads of stuffed animals, some with plastic bags from the Walmart on the other side of the Mexican city. Some come with one or two toys. Many dropped off their “goodies” earlier in the week. Word spread about the event, and the crowd steadily grew larger.

Volunteers bring ribbons and scissors. There is a festive spirit. Onlookers gather.

Soon, a group of children begin to form a line, off to one side. Quiet, and well-behaved, they stand with their parents and older siblings. They watch. They wait.

This ritual began more than 20 years ago. On Christmas Day 2004, I was on that beach that Christmas Day. A woman named Marge from Nashville, TN, one of the original group of Santa’s helpers, asked volunteers to walk down the beach to find more children. “This is the best year ever,” she said, “and I’m not sure we have enough children for all the gifts.”

There is no publicity. This is not an organized effort. There is no tax deduction attached to these gifts. There were lots of pictures taken. There are big smiles on the faces of the adults. The children look on with wide-eyed wonder. There are tears. There are hugs. There is a sense of excitement. There are cookies and soft drinks and music on a beach in Puerto Vallarta on Christmas Day. And there is a sense of community.

Even though most of the children speak no English, and most of the adults speak little Spanish, there is no language barrier.

One man with a distinctively British accent and a camera pauses to ask what is happening. When it is explained, he makes no comment. But he remains to take pictures, staying on the fringes but joining in the palpable spirit of goodwill.

At precisely 11 am, four Mexican children are allowed to enter the “garden” of hanging toys, each one accompanied by an adult American volunteer with a small pair of scissors. As each child walks through, he is allowed to take his time to look, and then his selection is snipped from its ribbon hanger and handed to him. It is almost silent. There is no screaming, no running. There is a sense of reverence as the child clutches his selection to his chest and then is escorted to the other edge of the toy-filled enclosure.

Children of hotel employees, youngsters whose parents are beach vendors, and children who have come to the beach for a day near the water and the sun with their extended families are the honored guests. They are all Mexican children. That is the only requirement.

It is not their tradition. Christmas, in Mexico, is a deeply religious holiday, with a family-oriented emphasis. Santa Claus does not visit most Mexican children.

But where there are Americans, there are some traditions that are hard to break. In the United States, there are toys for children. So, where Americans gather at Christmas, there will invariably be toys.

There is something about Americans.

Note: I first wrote this nearly two decades ago for an online publication that no longer exists. I was thinking today about that long ago Christmas on the beach, and it seemed appropriate to repost this piece this year, at a time when the world seems to need a large dose of goodness and cheer. I don’t know if the tradition continues in Puerto Vallarta. I hope it does. But, whether the beach party is still held or not, it is a wonderful memory. I wish Happy Holidays to all, no matter what holidays you celebrate or where you celebrate them. And may 2023 be a good year for us all!

The Lowell Milken Center: Recognizing Unsung Heroes

The Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes occupies one of the newer buildings in Fort Scott, Kansas, situated across the street from its original location. Several century-old historic buildings in downtown Fort Scott, Kansas, were destroyed by fire in 2005 and have since been rebuilt. An adjacent outdoor park opened earlier this year and is a contemporary urban delight. The downtown still retains its former character, with traditional brick buildings and brick-paved streets, but the city’s history is being written with renewed vigor.

Stories told at the Center are larger than life, brought to life in a way that is truly remarkable. The history of the Milken Center is as awe-inspiring as the lives of the featured heroes. Visitors are introduced to real people who lived seemingly ordinary lives, playing largely unknown and unrecognized roles in history. Their stories have been uncovered, researched, and retold by students, through art and drama, photographs and videos, essays and interactive displays. Their truths are as thought-provoking as they are disturbing. The history of the Milken Center is as awe-inspiring as the lives of the featured heroes.

In 1999, Norm Conard was a social studies teacher at Uniontown High School in rural Kansas. He had given his class a History Day assignment. One of his student teams learned of Irena Sendler, a Polish Catholic social worker who was instrumental in rescuing children from the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II. She buried the names of rescued children in milk jars hidden under a tree. It was, and still is, quite a story. Read a more detailed account here. The students found that Sendler was alive and living still in Poland. In 2001, Conard accompanied a group of students to Poland to meet with her. Several other trips followed, until she passed away in 2007. The student-written play about her deeds, “Life in a Jar,” has been performed more than 350 times, and it continues to be be staged in the U.S and Europe.

During his tenure at Uniontown High School, Conard’s students created more than 85 projects, telling the stories of other common people who performed uncommon acts. Those stories are now the focus and backbone of the Center for Unsung Heroes. New heroes continue to be identified by groups of students — from fourth grade through high school — who have been inspired to dig deep into history and to move far beyond the obvious.

Today, Norm Conard serves as chief executive officer of the Center and is also the director of the Life in a Jar Foundation. It was, after all, his classroom motto for the History Day project in 1999 that gave birth to the idea. That motto? “He who changes one person, changes the world entire.” The Lowell Milken Center was founded with the goal of creating ripples of influence that will engage even more educators and students in an effort to change the world. Megan Felt, one of the students who first identified Irena Sendler, is the center’s program director.

Plan to spend longer than you may originally intend at the Milken Center. It is no ordinary museum. It’s a place to discover the true meaning of heroes in a time when that word is often overused. It’s mesmerizing and unforgettable.

But the Milken Center isn’t the only reason to visit Fort Scott.

Before Kansas was even a territory, Fort Scott was a military outpost. It was established on the frontier in 1842 but the Army abandoned the garrison in 1853. The city was chartered in 1860, one year before Kansas became a state. Today, it’s the only such town to survive. Its military cemetery, one of 12 originally designated by President Abraham Lincoln, is listed as U.S. National Cemetery #1.

Our group spent that first night in Kansas at the Courtland Hotel and Day Spa. Situated in a building that dates to 1906, it was once a bustling laundry with a boarding house on its upper level. Proprietor Frank Adamson, a Fort Scott native, is only too happy

to offer insights into city history! He and his wife, a massage therapist, purchased the building as a location for her to open a day spa. They remodeled a portion of the main floor for the spa, with refurbished guest rooms on the second floor. Today, each room in the hotel is distinctive, filled with antiques and period decor to complement the architecture and honor the building’s history. A main floor lobby, office area and dining room retain the period charm of the past, and serve as a gathering spot where Adamson regales guests with stories of Fort Scott’s past.

A center of pre-Civil War turmoil between slavery proponents in nearby Missouri and local anti-slavery forces, this part of of the state was known as “Bleeding Kansas” until the end of the Civil War, even though Kansas entered the union as a free state in late January 1861, before the war began. As the U.S. Army’s district Headquarters, Fort Scott was a quartermaster supply depot, training center, and recruitment station.

At one time, it was a noted frontier city, one of the largest in eastern Kansas, and it rivaled Kansas City as a railroad center. All that now remains of that time is the original, restored Old Fort building, now relocated to the town square. But the stories that date to those times are fascinating, and visiting Fort Scott is like stepping back in time to a simpler era. Brick-paved streets, sturdy brick buildings, and stately period lamp posts reflect its history, but its people have their sights set on the future, and they’re doing their best to integrate the two.

We left Fort Scott and headed for Route 66 — The Mother Road. Only 13 miles of the unique highway traversed a corner of the state, but it’s impossible to escape the influence of the Route in this part of Kansas. Come along next Wednesday as we recreate a legendary road trip. We had great fun along the way and discovered more unique attractions in Southeast Kansas!

Living History

On a recent trip to coastal Norway and the Arctic Circle, my husband and I spent some time in Southampton before embarking on our cruise. The port city on England’s southern coast is delightful and welcoming, well worth a visit. As we discovered, it is full of history that we knew little about. It was the departure port for the ill-fated inaugural sailing of the Titanic, and it was also the port from which the Mayflower sailed in 1620 with its 102 passengers and 30 crew members.

It is a charming city, and there was a distinctive air of festivity when we were there, buildings festooned with the Union Jack and banners in the streets. Smiling likenesses of Queen Elizabeth II greeted us everywhere we went, and the mood was distinctively celebratory. The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee was officially proclaimed for the long weekend of June 2 through 5, with special events planned to continue for at least a month. We arrived in Southampton on Sunday, June 12.

When we returned to Southampton 17 days later, we found that little had changed. England was still celebrating the queen’s 70 years on the throne. We found that to be true as we journeyed north to Suffolk and spent a few days in London before boarding our return flight to the United States on July 5.

Little did we expect that only about two months later, we would hear the news of the queen’s death. And we could not imagine, at the time, the outpouring of grief from around the world that would greet that news. As I watched news coverage from around the world in the days before the state funeral on September 19, I was pleased that we had been fortunate enough to visit Elizabeth’s England while she was still queen. Sadly, we did not take a tour of Windsor while we were there. But, watching the funeral procession make its way through London, I recognized many of the streets we had so recently traversed.

I felt, oddly enough, that I had been witness to history simply by being there. Forty years or so have passed since a previous trip to London. But, like Rome, Paris, Tokyo, Buenos Aires, and other world capitals, London is an eternal treasure. Much of it remains the same, but it is more diverse and infinitely more crowded than when I was last there. Modern steel and glass buildings, whimsical modern art, the London Eye and the London Shard, and both the cable cars that whisk passengers above the Thames and the RIB boats that carry passengers at high speed on the river somehow complement rather than compete with slow-moving river taxis. They have become nearly as iconic as double-decker buses and traditional black cabs.

London may be unique in the world. For one, it is the home of a monarchy that, by all accounts, seems alive and well, especially today after its record-setting ruling queen has passed the crown, along with the orb and sceptre of the title, to her son, King Charles III.

I watched the ceremonial events of the past week in awe, with an awareness that an event of this magnitude will not happen again in my lifetime, perhaps never again. I was up early to watch the funeral on my large-screen TV, along with an estimated four billion viewers worldwide, deemed to be the largest global television audience in history.

Some of us around the world watched the queen’s coronation on early black and white television; many more have tuned in to watch royal weddings and funerals of world leaders in real time and full color. But this was different, somehow.

More than one million Britons lined the procession routes to pay tribute as the cortege bearing the queen’s flag-draped coffin made its way from Balmoral, Scotland, to Edinburgh, and later from Buckingham Palace through London to Westminster and back, and, finally, to Windsor

There were poignant moments amidst the traditions and prescribed ceremony. The outpouring of public love and respect was acknowledged by the royal family as they greeted well-wishers who laid flowers outside various palaces. They endured public scrutiny and performed their prescribed roles tirelessly and flawlessly for 11 days. The military, church leaders, government officials, and representatives of other nations, rose to the demands of duty and tradition.

And now we will all move into a future that is still to be written, by a monarch who has waited a lifetime to become king surrounded by family members who have demonstrated that they are, in a very real sense, as human as the rest of us.

That’s something to be remembered, within and beyond the United Kingdom.  

Why Travel — Take Two

Today I’m sharing, with a bit of nostalgia, some of my favorite photos from the past three years; 2019 took us to Bermuda, Alaska, Maine, Cuba, on a Mediterranean cruise, and then on to a delightful road trip through Croatia, with a final couple of days in rainy, flooded Venice before flying home on Thanksgiving Day. We were thankful to be home, sharing turkey and reheated stuffing with family after a long journey.

This past November we spent a few brief hours on Thanksgiving Day with dear friends on Florida’s Gulf Coast. We met them years ago on Cabbage Key — but, that’s another story. What is pertinent and what seems fitting is that just as one chapter in our book of travel stories ended on Thanskgiving, the next began to take shape with a similar celebration. For us, it was another reason to be thankful, despite the somewhat complicated travel timing and logistics.

We are hungry for new experiences since the world shut down in March of 2020, and we have no fear of becoming satiated. This year, our travel plans — yes, we’ve made tentative plans through early 2023 — will take us to both familiar destinations and entirely new places.

Had previous plans jelled the way we hoped, we would now be packing for a voyage from Buenos Aires to Antarctica, followed by calls at Rio de Janeiro and several other Brazilian ports, before a trans-Atlantic crossing to Barcelona by way of Cabo Verde, off the coast of West Africa. But plans do not always work out the way we envision them. Sadly, that entire itinerary was scrapped more or less at the last minute because South American tourism has not yet fully rebounded from the global pandemic. As you know if you follow my blog, bookings were changed multiple times during the past two years, as (at last count) 16 cruises were canceled or altered so drastically that we decided to forgo them.

If we have learned anything through it all, it has been to embrace possibilities, to grab at every chance to be with family and friends, to not put off trips for no good reason, and to never give up on dreams. Opportunities to travel are sometimes fleeting, and there is no journey not to be savored.

I look forward to what is to come. But, during the past 20 months, I have also looked backward, back to past journeys as well as at some of the trips not taken. My husband and I are now reconsidering some of those itineraries. Our trips closer to home have been interesting and fulfilling, and we are happy to have had an opportunity to explore our new home state and its neighbors. We plan to do more of that!

It has been interesting. Not in any cosmic, earth-shattering way, but from a personal perspective. I came across a tattered, aging journal as I was sorting travel memorabilia, with notes from a driving trip through France and Spain many, many years ago. I was in Tarragona, a medieval Mediterranean port city in northern Spain. I was living in France at the time, and had not long before returned from a trip through the Middle East.

The entry is dated May 31, 1966. I read the words with wonder:

“I passed through Andorra, one of the smallest countries on earth, and thought, ‘I could be happy here.’ This happens often — the feeling passes in time, and even more quickly if I stay to try to shape reality from the dream. . . .”

It was just a brief entry, and it surprised me.

My younger self had not yet become a storyteller. I like to believe that the intervening years have taught me. Reading what I wrote then, I wondered about the circumstances. I cannot now recall them, except to say that I had hoped to return to Andorra briefly this spring, when a planned road trip through the Basque country of France and Spain would have put us close enough for a side trip to that intriguing small nation in the Pyrenees. That trip is one of those that has not yet materialized.

For many reasons, I am eager to be on the move again. Time seems to move faster today than it once did, and 24 months, for me at least, seems far too long to be essentially “at home.” My realization is that I am at least partially defined by the places I travel. Getting gone seems even more essential now. The road trips, brief flights and short cruises have simply been teases.

I have changed in the years since I first visited Andorra. I wonder if it has. Would I still be happy there, or was that the illusion of a younger me, a dream now withered and unimportant?

What about you? Are you ready to travel again? Do you yearn to meet new people, savor new sights, taste new foods and make new friends? I hope so, and I wish you safe travels and lasting memories, no matter where you choose to roam.

But, I hope you’ll continue to come along with me as I pack my bags for distant destinations.

Hungry for the tastes of travel . . .

More than the rush of excitement that greets us when we near a port, more than the thrill of sitting in a winged torpedo on the tarmac waiting for clearance, more than a sunrise on the horizon that signals another day in another place — what surpasses all of that, in my mind, is the variety of food that traveling allows us to experience.

The colors and flavors of foreign treats — whether a great meal, an after dinner “digestif,” or a perfect little chocolate on the pillow — these are the pieces of the travel experience that are hard to duplicate at home. The thrill of a new taste in an unfamiliar place is hard to describe. If you’re traveling close to home, it’s really no different. Keep your eyes open for the unexpected — we have discovered some of the best food in the unlikeliest of places — sublime fried catfish at a general store in back road Arkansas, for instance, an unforgettable steak dinner at an aging saloon in Ingomar, Montana, for instance, and the best fried green tomatoes ever at a ramshackle marina in the Florida Keys.

And, one lucky summer, an absolutely wonderful lobster roll at, believe it or not, a McDonald’s in a small Maine village. The only thing better than the taste was the price!

Traveling lifts us out of our ordinary existence into a realm of wonder that we want to repeat again and again. The cities, the food, the people, the monuments and the history, the natural beauty of different locales, the promise that no matter how many times we return to the same place, each experience will be different — that’s why we travel.

But, when we travel, the simple acts of sampling unique foods and sharing distinctive experiences with fellow travelers and with strangers destined to become newfound friends is an immense pleasure. Yes, we enjoy visiting renowned restaurants and seeking out special taste treats from unique cultures. “Peasant food,” however, the everyday fare of real people in diverse destinations, is what truly draws us, as do street fairs, farmers markets, food trucks. and Ma and Pa eateries.

People, of course, are always a part of the best food experiences, whether we’re ordering something from a food cart or a market stall, or struggling to make sense of a menu in a foreign language. We have perfected the art of pointing with a questioning expression — it always works! Being just a bit unsure of what it is we have ordered is truly part of the fun. And we have found locals typically quick to help translate and interpret.

Another aspect of the fun, for me at least, is my attempt to recreate some of the dishes we have enjoyed on our journeys once we return home. On a trip through Portugal in 2019, I was enamored of that country’s tomato soup in all its regional variations. I discovered an infinite variety of great tomato-based broth during our three weeks there. From the coasts to the cork forests, and from north to south, Soup de Tomate is a Portuguese staple on nearly every menu. It can be a hearty, filling stew with sausage and beans or a richly-flavored broth topped with poached eggs.

Other versions range from a nicely-spicy dish of seafood and rice to a simple, creamed tomato puree served as a starter course for a family dinner. Made with fresh, flavorful tomatoes, the various tomato soups were always tasty, filling and uniquely satisfying. Accompanied by crusty bread, cheese and olives, those meals were often “write home about” memorable. I asked for recipes whenever it was possible, and I am still trying to decide which is my personal favorite!

Global versions of “fast food” have their own kind of appeal — not the golden arches sameness or “choose your own filling” sandwich shops that Americans seem to favor — but the traditional, quick and easy street foods that sustain busy people throughout the world. One can get a slice of pizza, an empanada, a taco, a burrito, an egg roll, or a gyro in great cities around the globe; roasted corn, hot roasted chestnuts or fries with unique dipping sauces in European capitals and isolated villages. Ice cream, gelato and fruit smoothies are staples at casual stands and walk-up windows in warm climates, and open-face sandwiches and pastries are almost magically available from a world-class airport to an isolated beach along the Mediterranean. Food is a universal need, as well as a treat that brings people together to experience the joys of life.

So, I hope to lure you into the habit of sampling local fare wherever you may roam. It takes little effort to seek out distinctive food experiences, whether you’re in a world capital, visiting a charming small town, or traveling a country lane. Usually, these delightful destinations have no neon signs. Instead, a hand-written menu on a chalkboard may offer the only clue to treasures that lie within. Put aside the guidebooks and pay little heed to online reviews.

Peek through the windows of a diner, or step inside a tiny bistro. If seats are full, and people are smiling, join the crowd. On a road trip, we often pull into the parking lot of a local diner filled with local pickups and a smattering of 18-wheelers. Eagerly embrace your personal spirit of adventure, and you’ll likely reap the rewards of good, wholesome food served with a smile.

In the same way, wherever you may live, pay special attention to the push-cart vendors, the food trucks and the out-of-the-way lunch counters and snack bars. You may not always be delighted. There’s no guarantee.

But, if nothing else, you’re likely to have great stories to tell. And the best travel souvenirs, by far, are the stories you can repeat over and over again.

Traditions . . .

This has been a year — or at least a few months — for examining past traditions. When the future seems uncertain, there is something comforting about remembering the past, getting lost in nostalgia, and returning to happier days full of memories of family, friends, fun and tradition.

It has been especially true during all the holidays of the year: Valentines Day, Mardi Gras, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Labor Day. Halloween, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas and New Years — many of those special times normally full of family celebrations and traditions have passed us by since 2020.

In the days leading up to fall holidays, few of us would have believed that the “norm” in 2021 would once again be another scaled-down version of Thanksgiving dinner. It may not have been potluck shared by extended family at socially distanced outdoor picnic tables in a state park, (yes, that happened the previous year), but for most it was, once again, a small table not heavily laden.

Many of our holiday celebrations, those that actually were held, have been accompanied by masks and elbow bumps, but no hugs. Who would have predicted that we would spend last Christmas alone, despite the hopeful news in 2020 that two effective vaccines were ready to be delivered nationwide? Who then would have believed that “the abundance of caution” against large family gatherings would continue for a second Christmas? Who could have imagined yet another mutated virus wreaking havoc with family get-togethers and travel plans now and for the foreseeable future? Yet, that is exactly what has occurred.

May you live in interesting times . . .

Depending on your upbringing and mindset, that phrase has alternately been considered a blessing or a curse. Although there is little evidence that it originated with the Chinese, and even less that it stems from a Yiddish expression or a rabbinical interpretation, it persists in the minds of many of us as a warning that we should never get too comfortable. Life is not to be taken for granted.

Our times — this past year and three quarters, and still today — are nothing if not interesting.

Many of us are still hopeful that we will once again be free to travel freely. But, with the return to mandated masking in many places, extensive travel disruption attributed to ill employees, and persistent warnings about travel, gatherings and testing, we are again uncertain. We hope that we will continue to care for others, by being mindful about where we go, what we do and how we act. But, as this last year has taught us, life is fragile. I am now even more convinced that we must savor the traditions that have brought us here.

For me, that means being with friends, not via face time, Skype or Zoom meetings, but up close and personal. It means sharing good times, welcoming the births of new babies and celebrating graduations and promotions. More importantly, it means being together to comfort one another during sadness and hard times. Working remotely may not be a great hardship. But, being continually remote — from family, friends and business associates — is devastating.

This past year, I lost several acquaintances to COVID. Many others in my circle of friends and family have been ill with the virus. Others, both vaccinated and unvaccinated, have tested positive recently, with varied symptoms and severity, with — presumably — the Omicron variant. I am learning more than I ever wanted to know about the SARS-CoV-2, commonly known as COVID-19.

Humans were not meant to be solitary animals. That is only too evident today, with increasing concerns about not only mental health, but the economy.

The path forward seems clear. We must not forget these past months, nor the shutdowns, the fear, the toll it has taken on lives and livelihoods. But, we also must not give up hope. Let’s don’t ever forget what makes life worth living. Let’s all honor those traditions that we missed so much in 2020 and were hesitant to resume in 2021. Let’s not return to the place of isolation and alarm. Let’s be smart rather than complacent, but let’s go on living our lives with confidence

Yes, COVID-19 is a scary disease. But all diseases are scary. And those who are sick need to be comforted, not left alone. No matter what or how you celebrate the special days that are to come this year, may holidays that are meant to bring us together in the coming months continue to bless you, uplift your spirits and prepare you for what lies ahead.

That is my wish this second day of the new year.

Two decades ago . . .

Over the past 20 years I have written many times about the events of September 11, 2001, and about feelings and my memories of that day. There is no need to write more. Twenty years is a long time; and still today the stark reality of what occurred that day is as sharp and as painful as ever. Today, I will spend some time remembering, as so many of us will. It is one of those life events that simply cannot be set aside.

Whether we would choose to or not, we who lived through the hours of 9-11, and the long days that followed, can never forget. So, today, as I gather with new friends to commemorate the loss and the sacrifices of that day, I thought I would repost just one piece from the past. As the note at the end explains, it was prompted by the reaction of a then-11-year-old boy who was upset by a morning radio report. I wanted to give him some comfort and some hope at the time. I can only hope it did, and that, in some small way, it might comfort others as well.

Here, then, with just a couple of changes, is what I wrote on September 11, 2019:

Dear Children:

Posted on September 11, 2019 by Adrienne Cohen

Some days are just not like all the rest. They can be different from all others for just one person, for a family, for a whole country, and sometimes for the whole world. Days worth remembering can be happy days or they can be sad days.

Often, good things happen even on sad days.

On September 11, 2001, something terrible happened in New York City. Two skyscrapers were destroyed; two separate airplanes flew into the buildings. People in New York watched in horror. Others around the country, even in other countries, watched via television, and were stunned.

You have probably heard people say, “Never forget.” On the world’s clock 18 years ago, time stopped for some people. The details aren’t quite as important as the feelings and the memories that people have of that day. It started much like any other, with families waking up, having breakfast, and getting ready to go to work, or to school, to take a trip, or to have fun with friends.

But then it all changed — and it changed very quickly from a normal day to one that would be remembered in a very different way. In New York City, and in Washington, D.C., and in a field in Pennsylvania, four separate airplanes crashed, three of them into buildings filled with people. Many people in those planes and in those buildings died.

It was, and it still is, a very sad day.

Never Forget

Your parents and grandparents, and the parents and grandparents of your friends who lived through that day and the weeks that followed have many different reasons for wanting to remember. Some want to honor friends and family members. Others want our country to remember, so that nothing like this will have to happen again. Some look at the day as a piece of history that ought to be studied. Nothing quite like it had ever happened before.

It was a sad day. But it was also a time when many strangers helped and hugged one another, and when an entire city, a whole country, and most of the world came together in shock and sadness, and almost immediately began to take steps that would prevent something similar from happening again.

If you feel like crying today as you hear some of the stories, or if you don’t understand why all adults can’t just agree that it’s over and move on, or if it makes you afraid in some secret place in your head that something bad might happen to you, know that you are not alone. Adults sometimes feel all those things too. Everyone does! 

The truth is that people sometimes act badly, and life can be cruel. But more often, when truly terrible things happen, most people react differently; they act in really good ways. They try hard to keep others safe and to make them feel better. That is exactly what happened on this day 18 years ago. Some very normal people almost became superheroes on that day.

The adults who lived through 9-11 are getting older now. But their children, and the children whose fathers or mothers, aunts and uncles, grandparents, neighbors and friends were hurt or killed on 9-11, are growing up, and they continue to help other people and to help mend the world in ways they might not have done otherwise.

That’s what we should remember. So, when you hear those words, “Never forget,” know that sadness has another side, and hope and goodness really do exist.

Always.

It’s okay to remember the sadness of 9-11, but we can all go on, working to make all tomorrows better, brighter and happier for us all. That’s exactly what we need to do now. We need to go on and work hard to make tomorrow not only different, but better and brighter for everyone.

Note:  What prompted this? I  heard this morning from my grandson’s mother that he had a “pretty emotional reaction” to a morning radio show mention of losing friends on 9-11. She also noted that her memory of that day centers on morality and resiliency, and that she would share this video with him. I’ll share it too, for anyone else who needs something inspiring and uplifting today. 

Read the original post here.

Long may it wave. . .

 

Today is a day for waving the flag. It always has been. On this most American of American holidays, Old Glory — the red, white and blue — is displayed prominently everywhere. Along with the fireworks, the hot dogs and brats, sauerkraut and beans, potato salad and beer, it is a quintessential American holiday. I love it, and so do most people I know.

Other countries also have national holidays, and they’re wonderful as well. But this one is mine. I am an American, above all, and I celebrate the history of my country and the heritage of my forebears who worked to build and preserve this nation.

This weekend I will celebrate! With outdoor concerts and picnics, with old friends and new acquaintances, on the lake and in the park, I will celebrate. Here in Hot Springs Village, the celebration has continued since Friday, culminating in a “beach party” and fireworks over Lake Balboa tonight. I have enjoyed it all, but at some point in the celebration, I will pause to remember why.

I will celebrate the freedom that was proclaimed for us all 255 years ago, and won anew in skirmishes that extended for years, until a decisive battle was won against the British in September of 1814. It was the battle that led to the penning of the poem that was to become our National Anthem.

And it was the tattered American flag flying over Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor “in the dawn’s early light,” that inspired Francis Scott Key to write those words. How different history would have been had it been the Union Jack that he saw.  However, it was not until 1931 that The Star-Spangled Banner was adopted as our national anthem.

Have a wonderful Fourth of July everyone.

 

 

 

 

77 Years Ago — Another Time and Place

A new fighter group was activated on June 1, 1943 and was assigned to the Los Angeles Air Defense Wing, IV Fighter Command, of the United States Fourth Air Force at March Field, California. One week later, three squadrons were assigned to the group, each with a cadre of 40 enlisted men; The squadrons were led by captains, while a lieutenant colonel commanded the group.

The group moved to Van Nuys, California, in August, and by mid-September, each squadron had a roster of between 40 and 44 officers and from 189 to 217 enlisted men. Training intensified in October to include mock dogfights in the air over the Pacific, with the three squadrons flying out of separate fields in Southern California.

Sadly, during training, a number of aircraft crashed and several pilots were injured or lost their lives.

Just after Christmas, the 364th Fighter Group passed muster and was deemed ready to engage an enemy. At that time, men assigned to the group did not know where they would be going. The question was answered when, on January 13, orders were received and the next day, the entire group departed California on a troop train bound for New York, arriving five days later. The men received final physicals and 12-hour passes on a staggered basis until, at about 8 p.m. on February 1, all were boarded onto another train, then transferred to ferries in New York Harbor, arriving at a cargo dock under cover of night.

A first-hand account of that night is in the history book of the 364th, produced in 1991 by those who had survived the ensuing months and years of war, and finally were ready to share their memories of it.

“We had time to guzzle hot coffee (viewed now in retrospect as a fabulous luxury) and doughnuts proffered by the Red Cross. The more enterprising, though perhaps not too security-minded, of the squadron were able to learn from the M.P.s that our ship was the Queen Elizabeth, that we would go unescorted, and land in Glasgow in seven days. All of which predictions proved correct.”

The ship, planned as a luxury transatlantic liner, had been outfitted earlier as a troop carrier, and she did, indeed, sail to Europe with precious cargo, but with no military escort. The men of the 364th Fighter Group, now part of the 8th Air Force in Europe, boarded a train immediately upon disembarkation for transfer to Honington Field in Suffolk, England, “where both officers and enlisted men were quartered in more luxurious quarters than we had ever had in the United States of America.”

Mission No. 1 was flown by two of the squadrons of the 364th Fighter Group on March 2, 1944, less than one month after arriving in England. They “supplied withdrawal for bombers returning from Germany.” The account of that first mission notes: “Lt. Kenneth Nicholson had to abort. Returning on one engine, he belly landed the P-38. The plane was the only casualty.”

During the rampup to D-Day, operations for the 364th Fighter Group were “costly,” with the loss of 18 pilots in May and 137 planes aborted. It was just the third month of combat for the group

On June 5, 50 P-38s were a part of Mission 62, termed an “area support mission” in the official records. The invasion fleet had departed from the English coast, and “Neptune” had begun. Missions 63 through 117 were flown in the 10-day period from June 6 through June 15. The following day, the three squadrons of the 364th Fighter Group returned to flying “normal” combat missions.

Once again, from the history of the 364th Fighter Group:

“Major Brad McManus led off the first section of the 383rd at 0330 hours with 16 planes flying. The take-off was in a blinding rain and trying to make formation over the base was a challenge to say the least. . . .

“On the day’s last mission of the 8th of June, Lt. Loren Wilson (383rd) was heard to say over the R/T, ‘Hell, B.B. (his flight leader, Lt. B.B. Wilson) I’ve lost you. I’m going back.’ Lt. Wilson never returned to the base and a crashed P-38 was later found south of London. This was the only loss the Group suffered while flying 321 sorties.”

Today, on the 77th anniversary of D-Day, I cannot help but return to the entries that detail this one American fighter group’s part in that war. Just last week, on Memorial Day, we paid tribute to those who lost their lives, not only on D-Day, but in all the battles waged by this country against foes around the world.

However, for me, World War II remains unique. My father was there — first in California to train with the newly-formed fighter group. He was on that five-day troop train journey from the West Coast to the East, and he was on board as the liner decked out in battleship grey, the ship he called “the Lizzie,” made her way unescorted from New York to Scotland. He was there at Honington on June 6. He was 25 years old. Even though he did not fly, I know he waited with concern for planes and pilots to return from each mission. I know he grieved when they did not return as scheduled.

He did not talk about those days, nor did he talk much about the war, or about other battles in other wars. I suspect he carried vivid memories of the war years, but he chose not to share them with me. But the pride he felt about being a member of the 364th Fighter Group during World War II was something he never hid.

The last Mission of the 364th was flown from Honington on May 6, 1945, not quite two years after the fighter group’s activation. During its short life span it achieved a remarkable record, flying P-38s and, later, P-51s. My father returned home from England in July 1945, with the expectation of being transferred to the the Pacific Theater of Operations. Thankfully, the war ended before he received his orders. The fighter group was deactivated on November 10, 1945.

So, now I try to piece together the stories I wish I had heard from him, and I share his pride in the unit, and the service members — all of them — who played a part in the effort that culminated in D-Day 1945.

Decoration Day

Today is Memorial Day. It was proclaimed so only in 1971, by an act of Congress, to be celebrated on the last Monday in May, but the tradition of decorating gravesites and paying tribute to those who died in battle, or as a result of injuries sustained in service, goes back a lot further in time. Some say it was always a Southern tradition. It is true that May 30 was celebrated as Decoration Day, beginning in 1866, following a declaration by U.S. Gen. John A. Logan, who took his inspiration from the practice of cleaning and decorating relatives’ graves each spring, especially the gravesites of Confederate dead.

I was privileged last Friday to be one of a small group who volunteered to place flags in a single section of the Little Rock National Cemetery for Memorial Day. In a little more than two hours, our group of nine decorated more than 1,800 headstones with the small, simple reminders that a nation still honors those who died in wars fought to defend the freedoms we now enjoy.

The day was first celebrated nationally in the United States in 1868, during a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., where both Union and Confederate dead are buried. As the years passed, it came to be known as Memorial Day, and after World War I, the same date was celebrated across the United Kingdom, and elsewhere in the world as Poppy Day or Remembrance Day. The tradition continues, but in many places, the date has come to be celebrated not as a tribute to those who gave their lives in service to the country, but as a party weekend that signals the beginning of summer.

Perhaps there is room for both.

I choose, each Memorial Day, to take at least a few moments to pay tribute to those who died so that my family and I can live in peace and enjoy the coming summer’s activities. As the proud daughter of a retired military officer, the wife of another former Army officer, and the descendant of many men who served honorably in war and peace in our country’s past, I cannot forget the sacrifices of those who served, both at home and in foreign lands and did not return to enjoy the privileges that they won in battle.

I have written before about my visits to battlefields, and my feelings. I could not help but recall, as I planted small flags aside the headstones of men and women I did not know, those other visits and those other feelings. When the work was done, I took a few moments to walk alone among other markers at the Little Rock Cemetery. Sadly, there were not enough volunteers this year to place flags at all the headstones — many of them date to the Civil War. Separate burial grounds of Confederate and Union soldiers have been incorporated into the grounds of the National Cemetery.

The markers and their inscriptions are telling. Spanish American War, World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Gulf War. History is alive in this somber place. Veterans from all services who have markers here served in all the battles this country has been engaged in — from that war between the states to foreign battles in which we had no stake. Most of them did not die in battle; they died as old men, but they served, and that service changed them. I am sure that, until the end of their days, they took pride in their service, knowing that what they did allows the rest of us to live our lives in relative peace and prosperity until the end of our days.