Eureka: What an experience

I don’t quite know what to say about Eureka Springs. It’s equal parts history, natural beauty and distinctive character. And for a quick weekend getaway, it’s a delight! There’s a lot to like about this small town (population only about 2,100) in the beautiful Ozark Mountains of northern Arkansas. It’s unique, and in some ways it feels stuck in time. That, too, is part of its mystique. It has charm, for sure.

Eureka Springs was first settled in 1879, and named on July 4 of that year. There are wonderful old homes — many of them now B&Bs — that rival San Francicsco’s “painted ladies.” Log cabins, imposing stacked stone family homes and simple, single-story cottages exist along steep inclines and winding lanes. There are pizza places galore. There are casual diners and a few fast-food outlets; there are fine dining places with white linen tablecloths and attentive waiters. Old-fashioned bars attract a biker crowd come to ride the high curves and twisting back lanes. A local brewery and plenty of watering holes with more than their share of character and characters attract lively, friendly crowds.

On the labyrinthian streets, you’ll find historic buildings housing trinket and t-shirt shops, underground grottos from which the “healing waters” once flowed freely, an old-time photo parlor that proclaims “Weddings Performed” and distinctive hotels and eateries. Street art and street musicians coexist in the small downtown. Public sculpture and old memorials are much in evidence, as are the public buildings and hotels with historical plaques.

A well-preserved Carnegie Free Library is a commanding presence on one of the main streets, and it’s still in use. The old depot and railroad roundhouse are attractions at the edge of town; a popular excursion takes visitors on a four-and-a-half-hour trip over restored Eureka Springs and North Arkansas track. You can also book a lunch or dinner expedition ride to enjoy a trip into the past in a restored dining car. Along the way are extraordinary scenic vistas.

For a first-time visitor, an orientation ride on the “hop on-hop off” Eureka Springs Transit is a must. Ride the four different routes for an overview of Eureka Springs. It’s as much a local public transportation staple as tourist aid, taking passengers almost anywhere in, and out of, town. Its price is more than reasonable at $6 a day for unlimited time and distance. You’ll rub shoulders with local residents toting grocery bags, and others on their way to work or heading home after a long day.

The varied routes are perfect for exploring at your own pace, and it certainly beats walking up and down steep hills on foot, or trudging long distances in unfamiliar territory.

Drivers are helpful and knowledgeable, even willing to “bend” the schedule a bit so a rider can hop off and grab a free paper, or snap a cell phone photo of a giant sculpture from just the right angle! Stops are plentiful along each route and trams run every 20 to 30 minutes all day long, so there’s ample time to explore a site — or several — should you choose to do so.

We drove to Eureka Springs — it’s a pleasant four hour trip from our home. We traveled through pretty country on curving two-lane state highways. But, once there, we parked the car and rode the tram. It brought us to Thorncrown Chapel, where we were entranced with the architecture and the story of this inspiring place. The soaring wood and glass structure is perfectly integrated with its natural surroundings. The tram also brought us to the famed Passion Play site, with its recreated ancient Jerusalem stageset and other themed attractions. The 65-foot high Christ of the Ozarks statue, reminiscent of similar works in Rio de Janeiro, Lisbon and Havana, towers above the surrounding forest, but is perhaps more impressive from a distance than it is up close.

The downtown trolley station is well-situated for a walk around town. Visitors can enjoy lunch, browse funky shops, visit the historical museum or simply admire wall murals and interesting architecture. Spend as long as you like, knowing that another tram will arrive within just minutes. On a walk about town or in any neighborhood, you’ll find something wonderful around almost every corner: a grotto carved into a hillside, an iron fence dripping with flowering vines, the suggestion of a face in a towering old oak, a lush garden with a bubbling fountain, whimsical yard art decorated with strings of lights, or a house clinging to a cliffside over a massive boulder. There is beautiful statuary and whimsical signage.

We could have disembarked for a visit to the Crescent Hotel, built in 1884 and known for its resident ghosts and always-fully-booked ghost tours. Its site, at the crest of the highest hill in Eureka Springs, is reason enough to want to spend some time there (which we did, later the same day, when we returned for pizza at the fourth-floor Sky Bar. The view was mystical, with a haunting landscape of moving mist that shrouded the mountains all about us. Gleaming white in the distance, the Christ of the Ozarks watched over the setting with outstretched arms.

Although experiencing Eureka Springs can feel a bit like entering a time warp, being thrust into the long-ago culture of a small town is magical, if a bit disorienting. Residents insist that everybody knows everyone else, and that no one bothers to lock their doors. We stayed just two nights at The Bridgeford House, a charming B&B conveniently located on Spring Street. Its location put us only a few steps from the trolley stop, and we were greeted by waves from friendly passengers as we enjoyed breakfast on the front porch, served with a smile by Innkeeper Will Lawlor, who is himself a relative newcomer to Eureka Springs. We enjoyed chatting with him, and sharing our impressions of this interesting historic destination.

Is Eureka Springs worth a visit? Absolutely. It’s nothing if not unique!

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. Mock dogfights were staged over the Pacific with naval pilots from a nearby port. 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. The fighter group was deactivated on November 10, 1945. 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.

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 1944.

Looking back . . .

During the past few months, I have spent many hours trying to organize travel photos and make sense of my travel notes and journals.

I have also spent hours poring over newly-discovered recipe books and cards saved by previous generations of family. They are nothing if not enlightening, filled with tasty treats meant for celebrating with family and friends, and also packed with ideas about how to “stretch” food enough to get through hard times. Some of them surprised me, and a few made me weep.

One — Fried Oatmeal — brought back childhood memories of what I thought at the time was the best breakfast ever, served hot and crispy from my grandmother’s cast iron frying pan. It was Fried Cornmeal Mush, the leftover “raw material” from a Sunday cornbread or stuffing dish or perhaps leftover breakfast grits from a previous morning. Served with butter and syrup, it was a favorite way to start a day. However, cold cereal was much more common!

This particular card — one of a collection of recipes in a box that was obviously a promotional effort for Gold Medal Brands — notes that “This is a good way to use left over porridge.” I could not help but remember my grandmother’s refrain, “Waste not, want not,” as I pored over other cards in the sturdy wooden box.

Interspersed with the printed cards, there are traditional Scandinavian treats, some no doubt passed down from generations past. There are Polish and Russian dishes with beets, cabbages and potatoes. Many are hearty and filling, healthful and full of vegetables, but not overloaded with meat. Some are simple egg dishes. The desserts, I found, tend to be less sugary than today’s versions, and many rely on fresh fruit and spice for flavor and punch rather than chocolate and refined sugar.

There are many recipes for sweets made rich with butter and cream. Some of the old recipes required spending hours in the kitchen, and intensive preparations for holiday observances. Others were quick and easy, no doubt meant for times when there were more important things to think about, when food counted only as simple sustenance.

Hand-written recipes sometimes had notations — “easy or fine, or from Aunt Ida, or Papa’s favorite,” and I have found interesting notations even in familiar well-used hard-cover cookbooks, the standard reference for any cook back in the day. One made me smile: “Too much work!” Another simply bore a single word: “NO.” Many of these recipes are reminiscent of “Sunday dinners” and holidays, and of life well-lived in small towns or on farms throughout the flyover states. That is my heritage.

Others of those tattered recipe cards, however, bear the stigma of more difficult times, when food and funds were scarce, resources and pantry reserves were slim and many of the men were off fighting wars in foreign lands. There are notes about sugar substitutes — sugar was one of the first products to be rationed during WWII. But rationing followed in 1943 for meat, butter, margarine, canned fish, cheese, canned milk, fats and oils. Fresh food was often in short supply simply due to the season or to transportation snags.

From the war years, there are numerous ideas for Jello molds, salads and simple puddings. And there are “ration recipes” for meats.

Celebrations were more somber and homemakers “made do” in innovative ways in the effort to use available food stocks and to preserve a sense of hope during those lean days. Epidemics, wars, weather, the economy and a shift from farms to cities all seemed to align against a comfortable existence during much of the 20th Century. But family life continued.

A “Hard Times” Recipe for Cinderella Crisps

The Secret: Magically turn ordinary white bread into extraordinary tea crisps. Scrumptious!

The Recipe:

6 slices trimmed white bread, each cut in 4 strips

1 can (14 oz.) sweetened condensed milk

2 2/3 cups (about) Baker’s Angel Flake Coconut

Using two forks, roll bread strips in sweetened condensed milk, coating all sides. Then roll in coconut. Place on well-greased baking sheet and bake at 375 degrees for 8 to 10 minutes. Remove at once from baking sheet. Makes about 24.

I will confess that this is one I have not, and probably will not, try. Please let me know if you do!

Moving on to New Experiences

Today I take it as a personal challenge to try to make healthful, good-tasting meals out of simple ingredients. I also have some recipe cards that became my “go-to” resource when I was a young bride with little kitchen experience to guide me. Perhaps not surprisingly, I still occasionally refer to them. I read recipe books with as much delight as the latest novels, but I tend to make up recipes as I go along, instead of adhering strictly to the directions. Although I like good food, I do not love spending unnecessary hours in the kitchen.

I collect recipes from my travels and love recreating the tastes of faraway places when I return home. I like to experiment with new flavors and seasonings, and I think meals should look appetizing, smell wonderful and taste great. Most of the time, I think meals should be prepared fresh, not pre-packaged or ordered as take out. I take as much delight in preparing a meal for two as I do planning a holiday open house. Those holiday gatherings have been in short supply this past year, haven’t they?

Perhaps before too many more special days pass, we will once again be able to celebrate together, with hugs and laughter, with old folks and babies, with new-found friends, and especially with family. This pandemic year has taken its toll. Hopefully we will get beyond it and look forward to the good times to come!

For now, it’s enough to remember.

Revisiting Rouen

Last May I wrote about a 2018 visit to this city in Normandy against the backdrop of the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landing. We were still in the early days of the pandemic. Two months ago, the world marked the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. Today we are engaged in another battle against a formidable virus. On November 11, we honored those who serve or have served in our military. Today, we still await a definitive answer to the question of who will be our next president. Through all of this, I cannot help but remember my visit to Rouen. It serves as a reminder that generations of our forebears survived wars, devastating plagues and years of civil unrest. They endured. And so will we. Rouen adds new perspective to contemporary history. Perhaps we should learn from it.

The heart of a great city

William, Duke of Normandy, became King of England in 1066 following his victory at the Battle of Hastings, and the course of history was forever altered for two nations, if not for the entire world. Known today as William the Conqueror, his coronation was held at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day, but soon after his investiture, he returned to the capital of Normandy.

Considered a military genius, he was a descendant of the Viking Rollo, was uneducated, lacked culture, and spoke little English. He returned to England to quell periodic uprisings, but he spent most of his reign on the continent. He died near Rouen at the age of 60, in 1087, and is buried near the coast, at Caen, France, in the The Abbey of Saint-Étienne which was founded in 1063.

Another Duke of Normandy, who also held the titles of Duke of Aquitaine and Gascony, and Count of Anjou, was born in England, the fifth son of King Henry II and Duchess Eleanor of Aquitaine. He led a turbulent life, rebelled against his father the king, and formed an alliance with the king of France, along with two of his brothers.

Richard I was crowned King of England in 1189, but spent little time there. Like William the Conqueror, he may not even have spoken the language, but he was educated, enjoyed music and the arts, was personable but temperamental and quick to anger. He was also obsessed by the Crusades. He reigned for less than 10 years, and is best remembered for his exploits in the Holy Land, fighting Saladin and the Saracens during the Third Crusade.

Richard the Lionheart, not quite 42 years old, died of an infected arrow wound in 1199. History recounts that he had always “held Rouen in his heart,” and his embalmed heart rests in Rouen’s Cathedral, while his body is entombed “at the feet of his father” at Fontevraud Abbey in Anjou. His younger brother John succeeded him on the English Throne, and Phillip II of France gained control over Rouen, assuring that Normandy and Brittany would remain under French control.

I knew of the historical ties Rouen has with these renowned English kings, but it was yet another historical figure that beckoned me to Rouen. The Maid of Orleans met her destiny in Rouen in 1431. She was tried for heresy, witchcraft and other offenses ranging from horse theft to sorcery. She was burned at the stake by the English in a square that still serves as the site of the city’s public market. Her bones and ashes were gathered and thrown into the river.

History recounts that Joan of Arc did indeed hear voices and see visions. She believed they were signs, but modern authorities suspect she suffered from a medical disorder, something akin to epilepsy or perhaps schizophrenia.

Although characterized as a warrior, she actually never fought in battle, choosing to simply accompany the troops carrying a banner to urge them on. Nonetheless, she is credited with turning the tide of battle and securing a French victory over English forces in Orleans in 1429.

Joan was originally charged with 70 crimes which were later narrowed to 12; it is said that she signed an admission of guilt in exchange for life imprisonment, but days later violated the terms of that agreement by, among other things, once again donning men’s clothing and admitting that “the voice” had returned to guide her. She was subsequently sentenced as a “relapsed heretic,” according to historical records.

Joan of Arc — the name stems from her father’s surname d’Arc, even though she was simply known as Jehanne or Jehannette. During her trial, she referred to herself simply as Jehanne la Pucelle (translated as Joan “the maid”).

The young peasant girl became a national symbol, a uniting influence on French forces during the latter part of the bitter 100 Year’s War that lasted from 1337 to 1453. There actually was no victor in the war; the English simply retreated, finally realizing that the cost was too great, and the conflict ended.

Twenty years after the war ended, Charles VII, the French king who owed his position to Joan, held a posthumous retrial to clear her name, and she became not only a folk heroine, but also a mythic symbol of French nationalism.

As a child I was fascinated by her exploits, and by her brazen defiance of existing norms. I am still fascnated, and I wanted to see for myself the place where she met her fate.

For centuries, there was no monument to mark the spot of her demise in Rouen, just a simple cross in commemoration of the 19-year-old’s martyrdom. Today, a large modern Catholic church stands to honor Saint Joan; it was completed adjacent to the square in 1979.

Joan, by all accounts, never doubted that she had been chosen by God for her role in history, but it was not until 1920 that she was canonized as a saint. Today she is revered as the patron saint of France.

Then and now

Rouen is filled with good restaurants, small cafes and local bakeries. It boasts boutique hotels tucked away on narrow streets, within walking distance of major sites, a newly-redesigned and attractive riverbank that beckons river cruisers and bicyclists, picnickers and artists. Prior to the pandemic, visitors from across the globe arrived in the city during every season, seeking their own fulfillment. Rouen’s cultural appeal is catholic, and it resonates on different levels depending on one’s personal interests.

But Rouen offers something else as well. Visit the city during the off-season, and a uniquely personalized view of the city is your reward. The pace of life in this part of France is easy-going and friendly, surprisingly subdued. Indeed, if you stay in the medieval quarter or the university district, the slice of life that presents itself is distinctively “common.” It’s truly delightful, relaxed and unpretentious.

One can walk seemingly endlessly through the narrow cobbled streets of the Medieval quarter. We marveled at the clock, standing under its archway one dismal, chilly late afternoon. We lingered, snapping pictures, studying the artistry of its face and enjoying the music of its chimes. We knew that darkness would soon descend, but we hesitated there, unwilling to break the mood.

It’s impossible to be in Rouen and ignore its past. Napoleon visited textile factories in the city in 1802, helping to build that industry in the region; he also is credited with commissioning the Corneille Bridge and both Lafayette and Republic Streets. In Rouen, it is impossible to escape the emperor’s historical influence. In numerous ways, the history of France is tied to the history of Rouen.

Seeing it all unfold during a walking tour of the city is spellbinding. The most enduring memory, however, is of being alone in the courtyard of Rouen’s ossuary, the “Plague Cemetery.” It is an experience seared into my consciousness, as the world faces an unknown future besieged by a seemingly unstoppable virus.

Later, we ducked into a small brasserie for a cup of hot cafe au lait, and exchanged small talk with the proprietor and two other patrons who were as happy to speak a few words of English as we were to practice our French. We were immediately transported to the present, and we were buoyed by the charm and vivacity of the city’s modern vibe.

We left, strolling the almost deserted streets in search of an informal place to eat. Arriving too early for dinner, we were led upstairs to a warm, cozy nook that suited us perfectly for an early-evening supper. We sipped good red wine, dined on burgers and fries served in true French style, and conversed with the establishment’s friendly proprietor about contemporary life. It was a perfect finale to a day of immersion in the life of Rouen.

We will long remember our visit to Rouen, for any number of reasons.

A day to pay tribute

The world has changed, and no doubt it will continue to do so. However, no matter how much things change, hopefully we will continue to remember our past and to look forward to a bright new future. It is good for us to pause for just a moment to pay tribute to our veterans on this day. One hundred and two years ago, an armistice agreement was signed that signaled the end of what was to be the “war to end all wars.”

That, unfortunately, was not to be, but it was a lofty idea. And, because Veterans Day comes so soon after election day, this seems an ideal time to put our differences aside, and to remember just what it is that makes this country great.

I have written before of Veterans Day. This year, because of a nasty virus we cannot gather en masse, so it is up to us, individually, to honor it in our own ways.

This year, in particular, I believe it is important to look at our past as we look forward to our future — to pay tribute to those who served, and still serve, this nation. Those who don the uniform, any uniform, of the armed forces of the United States of America — deserve our respect. They have our backs. They are sworn to defend us abroad and at home, and they do so with honor.

Now more than ever before, we all bear a responsibility to look at our world with new eyes, with new understanding, with new determination.

This year, I fear, there will be few public celebrations — a sign of the times. But we must still remember — and celebrate — the legacy of the past century.

So, will you join me at 11 a.m. today — the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month — the exact time that that historic armistice became effective in 1918 — to pay tribute not only to our veterans but also to our country? It’s a small, symbolic request, but an important one.

As we face the challenges that lie ahead, whether of COVID-19, unrest at home or conflict with other nations, let us understand that we are strong, and that together we can respond to those challenges.

For at least 100 years, we have been the hope of the world. America continues to be so today. Believe it! Let’s try to live up to that hope!

Confronting history in Rouen

It is impossible to arrive in Rouen without feeling the weight of centuries. Every vista, every dark paving stone, every building carries a past both eerily familiar and somehow ominous. Despite that, Rouen is beautiful, and welcoming in many ways. And it is endlessly fascinating.

Much of Rouen is clothed in the layered green moss and the dark grime of centuries past; some of it chipped and broken or intentionally destroyed by succeeding generations of combatants and conquerors. Parts of the city still reflect the majesty and the mystery of past eras, testimony to times of unrest, when royal intrigue held sway over daily life, and the city was a jousting court for the powerful and ambitious.

The functional and the artistic are intertwined in this capital of Normandy. In the same way, the city’s history is both majestic and mysterious. The city oozes history, and happily unveils a contemporary spirit as well.

Some of it is elegant, some a bit bizarre, and some just quirky.

Situated about halfway between Paris and the beaches of Normandy to the northwest, Rouen is a stopping-off place and a guidebook “must see” destination for first-time visitors to France.

Rouen’s past history fills volumes. It is captivating. Its past imbues its soul. Gaudy tourist trinkets are available, but they don’t detract from its aura. Rouen’s ties are to French royalty, English kings, legendary warriors, beloved artists and esteemed writers. Its history was shaped by Rollo the Viking, William the conqueror, Richard the Lionheart, Joan of Arc, Napoleon, Claude Monet and Gustave Flaubert, among others. It is said that Julia Child ate her first meal in France at Rouen’s La Caronne, the oldest auberge in the country. Rouen boasts a university and the spires of its noted cathedrals stretch to the heavens, punctuating the cityscape.

The reality of suffering

We spent a busy couple of days simply walking the streets of the medieval quarter. We did not venture into the modern city; instead we relished the experience of traveling, at least in our minds, to a time long ago. We were there during the off-season. For the most part, we had the city to ourselves, to discover at our own pace.

Before driving on to Caen and the D-Day beaches, our mission was to visit what is known as the Plague Cemetery. Little did we realize that just two years later the memory of that visit would haunt us. It is not a cemetery in any traditional sense. There are no headstones in neat rows, nor are there any crumbling monuments; there is no statuary. It is, indeed, almost impossible to find. But find it we did, and we entered the grounds of this somber place with more than a little trepidation.

Aître Saint-Maclou is small square not far from the Church of Saint Maclou in Rouen. The massive Gothic structure almost seems out of place amid surrounding half-timbered homes and ancient lanes. Both have slightly macabre carvings that recall the grim influence of the Black Plague that swept through Europe and led to the deaths of up to three-quarters of the citizenry in this parish.

During the plague of 1348, the area was used as a communal grave site for many of the city’s victims. Exterior timbers of the buildings that were later constructed around the perimeter of the site are decorated with skulls, crossed axes, shovels and other reminders of a time long gone.

A second round of plague swept the land about two centuries later, and previously-buried bones were exhumed and stored in an ossuary above the cloisters. During this second round of pandemic, the city required additional burial space. In the 16th Century, two-thirds of the population succumbed to the disease.

It is a sobering experience to stand in the middle of this now peaceful “atrium,” thinking about a time when it had another purpose. Other reminders of those times exist: The remains of a black cat that was entombed in the walls are now enshrined in a glass case. Some say that the cat was plastered into a wall in a superstitious attempt to repel evil.

Originally occupied as homes and places of business, three of the buildings date to about 1526, and a fourth was built in 1651 as a charity boys’ school. The cemetery itself was closed in 1781, and the place became a designated historical site in 1862. It is the only medieval ossuary that remains in Europe, although no bones remain either above or below ground.

In this time of pandemic, I could not help but recall our visit to Rouen, and the startling effect of the place.

Historic Rouen is unforgettable, with many stories to tell. We drove on to the coast, in search of brighter days and happier stories.

This year we are battling a perplexing pandemic. I could not help but think of our 2018 visit to Rouen. It seems there are always lessons to learn from the past.

This Memorial Day, we also especially remember the American Cemetery in Normandy, hallowed American ground with the graves of 9,388 American military dead. There the white markers stand in perfectly aligned rows, in high relief against the grassy landscape, to honor the sacrifice of servicemen and women during a war that ended 75 years ago this month.

Note: This is perhaps the last of what I have called the Corona Chronicles. It is time to move on. Other travel stories remain to be told, and I look forward to a time in a not-too-distant future when we can all travel freely without masks, and without fear. That time cannot come soon enough!

We’ve been here before . . .

. . . and, no doubt, we will be again.

The last global pandemic did not occur a century ago. The 1918 “Spanish Flu” was epic, but there have been more recent versions that were widespread and devastating, causing more than one million deaths worldwide and upwards of 100,000 deaths in the United States. But hardly anyone remembers.

It is important to point out that the Coronavirus crisis of 2020 is not without precedent; only the actions we have taken are unprecedented.

Dr. Deborah Birx said as much in the Good Friday Coronavirus Task Force Briefing. “We’ve never before taken a national, or a global, approach to mitigation. This is unprecedented,” she said.

Dr. Birx did not specify what was done during the 1957-58 Pandemic and the 1968 Pandemic. I cannot help but assume that, during her career, she studied those health crises, and that she is familiar with the statistics. Granted, the country was not shut down, and widespread stay-at-home orders were not issued.

However, schools and businesses in some states were closed, makeshift hospitals and treatment centers were mobilized in some cities, citizens were urged not to travel if it was not necessary. Fear and uncertainty were widespread, and the number of infections grew steadily over the course of several months. In the fall of 1957, at the start of the school year, localized outbreaks resulted in high absenteeism, and businesses reported that between 10 and 20% of the work force was affected.

In 1958, there was a second wave in the United States, more devastating than the first the previous fall. There are normally second, and even third, waves of infection. Some, like AIDS and Ebola, never go away but are ultimately controlled. They are hardly newsworthy, but they are often devastating.

News coverage, however, was very different in the mid-20th Century, described as “low key,”  and social media did not yet exist. There was no daily death count reported by the media, even though it is now conceded that about 40,000 Americans died in the fall of 1957 due to the flu. The first wave of infection was more deadly for children and young adults, while the second wave in 1958 seemed to target people over age 65.

A Century of Pandemic Experience

The 1957-58 pandemic is known as the “least deadly” of the three major 20th Century pandemics. Statistics vary, but the official estimate by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports an estimated 1.1 million deaths globally, with approximately 116,000 in the United States. A vaccine had been made available in late August 1957, but it was deemed to be only 45 to 60% effective. Officials still recommended that Americans take advantage of the “flu shot.”

This particular influenza, identified as an H2N2 strain, disappeared after only 11 years, according to an article, “Influenza Pandemics of the 20th Century,” by Edwin D. Kilbourne.

In 1968, however, another virus would appear, this time a new strain that would prove more troublesome and more deadly. Once again, it spread rapidly, but its severity would depend on a variety of factors. Now categorized as an H3N2 virus, it remains to this day the “major and most troublesome influenza A virus in humans,” according to Kilbourne. First identified in the United States in September, this pandemic also claimed the lives of approximately 100,000 Americans and at least one million people worldwide.

Another flu made an appearance less than a decade later, in November 1977. Although it was generally mild, it was again a variant of the previous H3N2, termed a “juvenile age-restricted, global pandemic.” It appeared first in the Soviet Union, and was initially termed the Russian flu. It targeted children and young people, thought to be susceptible because they had not developed antibodies to this particular strain of virus. About the same time, a return of the H1N1, which was the virus that caused the 1918 pandemic, was noted, but in slightly different, mutated form. Interestingly, the 1977 virus continues to confound researchers.

CDC reporting of infections and deaths has changed over the years, but by looking quickly at available statistics, the range of American deaths during the 1977 flu season could be placed between 6,000 and 43,000.

The Reality of Pandemics

Anyone age 70 or older might have a faint recollection of the Asian Flu in the late 1950s.  Some memory of the 1977 Hong Kong Flu should linger with most Americans who have reached about age 50. The Russian Flu seems perfectly forgettable unless a family was personally affected by it. Finally, we should not forget the 2009 flu that circulated the globe in 2009 and 2010. That one, unlike the two previous, was most serious in children and young adults. Older adults, particular those over 65, were more likely to have some immunity from the virus, even though it was a novel strain of H1N1.

Why is it, then, that there seems to be an American amnesia about these previous events? The “seasonal flu” that causes little alarm these days is a sobering reminder that these old viruses are still around. Also, every year, the flu claims the lives of between 6,000 and 70,000 Americans, based on CDC estimates. Every new epidemic has similarities to past pandemics. According to epidemiologists and infectious disease specialists, many seasonal viruses are just enough different that previously-developed treatments and vaccines may offer some relief, but they are not foolproof. And no sure prevention or cure exists for any viral infection.

Like everyone else, I have never seen anything quite like this. I do, however, have some memories of 1957, 1968 and 1977. Recently, through research, I have learned more than I ever wanted to know about plagues, pandemics and the recurrent spread of virulent viruses.

It’s not the current number of infected, nor even the number of deaths that has me most concerned. I feel for those who become seriously ill, and I weep with those families who lose loved ones to a new respiratory virus, one for which there is no known treatment, and about which little is known. All of us are affected. I know with certainty that our “normal” will never be as it was.

But I also lived through the polio scare, measles and chicken pox, and knew of smallpox and tuberculosis. Even the plague. Yes, it too still exists. Bubonic plague cases are not uncommon, to this day, in the Mountain states, but it is a bacterial infection and it is spread differently, through direct contact with infected fleas. *(There are some researchers who now believe that the Black Death of the Middle Ages was not the plague at all, but a rapidly-spreading, highly-infectious virus instead.) 

Looking Ahead to Post-pandemic life

What is most memorable about the 2020 pandemic may very well be the international reaction to it, the effect on global economies, and the disruption of every aspect of our lives. It was informally tagged COVID-19 because it was first reported to the World Health Organization office in China as a novel form of pneumonia on December 31, 2019. On February 11, 2020, is was officially christened as SARS-CoV-2, because it is a “genetic cousin” of the 2002 SARS virus. 

Just in case you didn’t know, there are only seven coronaviruses that have been identified: Four cause the “common cold,” and three are the triggers for SARS, MERS and the current pandemic. Whether that should make us all feel better or lead to additional worries is debatable.

However, whether there is a second wave of the current novel Coronavirus, or it continues to be a seasonal viral infection much like the H1N1, it’s foolish to assume there will be no more epidemics — even serious pandemics — in our lifetime. They happen regularly. And there may be more novel coronaviruses identified in the future.

To return to Dr. Birx’s statement about global response. No, governments have never before acted even remotely as they did at the onset of this infection. (Well, maybe the Black Plague?)

The response in 2020 is unprecedented not only in scale, but in geography, economic upheaval, and in disruption of normal activity. Self-isolation, mandated shutdowns, cancelled classes and closed schools, shuttered businesses, perceived shortages of healthcare equipment, sickness and death are by no means localized phenomena. But we have become a mobilized and global society, and that allowed the virus to spread quickly throughout the world.

Statistics and Sadness

The truth is that we have been here before, even though we have forgotten. Is it perhaps more normal than we think?

On Wednesday afternoon, April 2, the number of confirmed cases worldwide of COVID-19 surpassed one million. The number of deaths related to this new virus stood at not quite 51,500. Nine days later, at about noon in my time zone on Saturday, April 11, the statistics were horrifically different: 1,724,736 cases confirmed globally, and 104,938 deaths.

One week later, according to the daily statistics, there were 2,256,844 confirmed cases worldwide, with 154,350 deaths. On April 18, the number of fatalities in the United States was edging toward 33,000. To my horror, this morning, just one day later, the number of deaths has passed 39,000 in this country, with 742,637 confirmed cases in the United States alone. Global deaths now are over 162,000, with 2,355,676 confirmed cases.

Thankfully, the number of new infections seems to be slowing. American hospitals have not been overwhelmed as originally feared, but in other nations, the outlook has been grim. Still, though, it’s necessary to compare the number of deaths with the totals from other 20th-Century pandemics to gain a better perspective.

It’s a terrible thing to feel quite this helpless in a time so filled with scientific knowledge and modern technology, isn’t it? 

Note: This is the fourth in a series of posts I have dubbed Corona Chronicles.” The first was Twists of fate, published February 14, 2020, before the spreading viral infection had actually been declared a pandemic, followed by Faraway and the here & now March 23, 2020, and Look for the silver lining on April 17, 2020. There are more to come.

Faraway and the here & now

As a child, I was captivated by people who lived lives very different from my own, and by the sounds of words spoken to a different cadence. The pull of the unfamiliar was strong. I do not remember a time when I didn’t want to experience far away places.  I never outgrew the wanderlust. Today, the sound of a foreign language is still music to my ears and the promise of a trip is reason enough to pack up.

And speaking of music . . .

I knew the words to this popular song from the 1940s from an early age, and I still hum the tune occasionally.

“Far Away Places” has been a kind of theme song for me for as long as I can remember. That shouldn’t surprise anyone, given the name of of my blog!

And those strange-sounding names; oh, yes! They still beckon, more now that I realize my traveling days have been temporarily suspended by the nasty Coronavirus.

A chance mention recently of Dame Vera Lynn brought back all those early memories. The wartime “darling” of servicemen and their families during WWII just celebrated her 103rd birthday. She used the occasion to take to the airwaves, releasing a video urging British citizens to “keep smiling and keep singing.”

It’s quite extraordinary!

The haunting melodies and poignant words of her music characterized wartime separation, with words such as “Please say hello to the folks that I know. . .” and “don’t know where, don’t know when, but I know we’ll meet again.” Also, “It’s so hard to say goodbye.”

Classics of the time include “The White Cliffs of Dover” and “A Nightengale Sang in Berkeley Square,” “When the Lights Go On Again All Over the World,” along with “We’ll Meet Again,” “Far Away Places,” “Lili Marlene” and many others. So, today, when we face a future with a different kind of uncertainly, and we are newly and unhappily physically separated from family and friends, it seemed appropriate to play a lot of Vera Lynn melodies as I sit working from home — alone — at my computer.

Vera Lynn is still strikingly attractive and, from all reports, still healthy. She’s a remarkable lady, as I learned, topping the UK Albums Chart at the age of 92 with a new release of old favorites entitled “We’ll Meet Again.” At the age of 97, in 2014, her music once again scored a Number One hit with the collection “Vera Lynn, National Treasure.”

During the war years, Vera Lynn had a radio program and toured India, Burma and Egypt to entertain British troops. In later years, she became involved with various charities, including those benefiting ex-servicemen, disabled children and breast cancer. Her last public performance was outside Buckingham Palace in 1995 as part of the golden anniversary celebration of VE Day, and she sang again that evening at a public performance in London’s Hyde Park.

If you want to see her in action at a 1990 Royal Variety Performance, just click here.

In addition to a long list of honors for her efforts, in 1975 she was named a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth.

So, here’s to Dame Vera Lynn for taking me on a trip today, not only down memory lane, but also into a world of hope, just as she did for so many during those long ago war years. Let’s all act with the conviction that all will turn out well, and that we’ll all meet again in better days, to share good times and good food in faraway places.