Letters Home: A Memorial Day Reflection

Memorial Day 2 A

Dad handed me an ancient stationery box stuffed with letters a few years ago, written by my granddad on the eve of and during his WWII tour of duty. “Thought you’d get a kick out of this,” he quipped, as he often does whenever he passes down more family artifacts.

He was right about that. Some were addressed to granddaddy’s parents, who survived a few years into my childhood. So I at least knew them, but remember her mainly. Most of them he wrote to his wife, though, my grandmother Earle, with many sentiments for my dad, still a toddler at the time. The salutation in each of them reads, “Dearest Earle.” Their marriage was long-lived, far from perfect, but Granddaddy was civil to the core and kept a calm and steady hand on the tiller: things might have come unglued were it not for this mark of character.

Memorial Day 5 A

They’re important relics, taken as a whole a time capsule of a monumentally important chapter in our nation’s history as seen through an individual lens. Most are simple reports about not much of anything, sweet in tone (granddaddy had an imposing stature and baritone voice, but an eternally kind and gentle demeanor) and sometimes even elegant. Some include terrific descriptions of the world, dispatched from wherever he happened to be when he was writing, an accidental globetrotter with so many others of his ilk. The earliest are written on Army Air Force letterhead, others on cheap airmail stationery, a few on distinctive blue paper, penned in Granddaddy’s dramatic sloping hand. A single one is typewritten (its content reveals why); all are well preserved.

Memorial Day 4 A

I may be reading more into them than is really there, but I sense anxiety in a very young man (he writes “Dear Mama” in a childishly endearing way), a relatively new dad, headed into the dangerous unknown on the other side of the world—not just worry for his own skin and the young wife and child he left behind—but for the very existence of the free world; a censored letter is a stark reminder of times fraught with peril.

Memorial Day 3 A

I get a kick out of these, to be sure, but there is so much more to them than an afternoon’s diversion. I usually think of granddaddy on Memorial Day weekend, and others in my family who served in our armed forces. They left us a profound legacy; we’re all standing on their shoulders, something to remember today and every day.

April 10, 1945

Dear Mama,

Will try to dash off a few lines in answer to your letter. Things have slacked off. Yesterday was the only day have been able to go into Miami, I didn’t have time to stay long. Would like to have gone out to the Beach, but it was too far under the circumstances. It is really crowded on the streets. The Navy seems to predominate.

We are supposed to finish up here about Saturday, I have about 20 more hours of flying to do. Have been doing o.k. and have had little or no criticism from my instructor. The airplanes are pretty big, but they fly like any other, just more gadgets. They estimate the cost of one hours flying in a C-54 to be $1000.00, so my ‘education’ will run into quite a few thousands.

I’ll return to Dallas from here for a few days and judging by pass standards will go to Nashville for crew assignments, in which case I will get about ten days off. However, I can’t say definitely until I get my orders.

****

Got a letter today from Earle (or rather, Frank) telling me what a big birthday he had. They seem to have enjoyed the cake and things very much. Am glad he got over the measles in time. He must have been pretty sick. I sent him a baby turtle from town yesterday, hope it gets there o.k.

****

Hope you and Daddy and all are feeling well. Will let you know if and when I am to get home.

Love,

Franklin

Granddaddy

Agricultural Reflections: Cycling on the Battenkill

People here in Vermont are much closer to the land than they are in other states where I’ve lived. The state as a whole is sparsely populated, sparsely developed, and most of us live within spitting distance of at least one working farm. The road where I ride my bicycle is dotted with them, and an occasional gentleman’s farm, abundant second homes for city-dwelling folk in adjacent states, and a smattering of full-time residents.

Cycling Turnaround on the Battenkill 1

About now the second home owners are beginning to trickle back across our state lines and shake the winter out of their riverside cottages. Meanwhile, working life continues unchecked on the farms in the area, whose farmstands will soon overflow with the season’s abundant offerings; we take full advantage—there is nothing like fresh produce just pulled from the ground.

Nolan Farm 1

I love riding past this farm in particular; on Friday I saw firsthand exactly how the rolled hay bales are wrapped in their distinctive white plastic, making them look for all the world like giant marshmallows. The farmer who was bent to this task as I pedalled past expertly speared each bale with his forklift-like machine, wrapping it with a mechanical arm the way a spider does an insect caught up in its web, and then depositing it in a neat pile, all in a matter of seconds.

It was right around suppertime for most people when I passed his place, not yet quitting time for him, with several unwrapped bales to go. The second time I passed I saw that he had finished them all. I wondered what had been set on the table in the cheerful yellow farmhouse just across the road, where hens are always scratching and pecking in the yard, a playset on one side, and toys strewn everywhere: the children in that household are immersed in the life of the American farm.

In my erstwhile home state of Tennessee there are also a lot of farms, but they are removed from city dwellers by geography and by generations. I have deep agricultural roots of my own in Tennessee, traced through my mother’s family, going back past her mother, and her mother’s mother, and two generations beyond them, reaching to her great-great-grandmother’s family, who were apple farmers in an area of Appalachia known as Tuckaleechee Cove: it is picturesque and largely unspoiled, although in recent years has become attractive to developers keen to capitalize on tourism—it is very near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited national park in the country.

But it did not take long for a finger of my Irish-born family to migrate towards difficult city life. Their Knoxville neighborhood was and is still known as Mechanicsville, a charming collection of tidy working class Victorian-era homes. The neighborhood got its name because it was home to skilled mechanics employed by the Knoxville Iron Company, area mills, and the railroad, says its historical marker. My forebears were among them, one Dennis Donovan in particular helping to lay some of the first railroad tracks to stretch through downtown Knoxville.

My great-grandmother told me stories about her life in Mechanicsville as a child, but the one that left the deepest imprint on me was the day her younger sister Bess burned her foot badly playing in the alley behind the house, stepping barefoot in the corrosive runoff that is a byproduct of lye soap making. My grandmother’s telling of the story was always so evocative I could almost smell that alleyway, and visualize the episode, the distraught child and her tears, and more likely than not the reprimand that followed, as if any were needed after that. I made her tell it to me again and again.

Not long after the lye soap incident Bess died of dysentery, soon after the deaths of her premature triplet siblings, who lived their short lives on the open door of the kitchen stove: there were no NICUs, nor life-sustaining machinery or modern medicine to save the day. So in the space of less than three weeks my great-grandmother’s parents lost three newborns and a five-year-old child; my great-grandmother Gracie, a couple of years older than Bess, was the sole surviving child in that awful chapter of my family’s life.

Ultimately Mechanicsville itself was doomed, divided by the imposing Interstate 40 when it blazed through Knoxville in the mid-twentieth century. It suffered decline like other neighborhoods of its ilk, but has shown signs of rebounding in the last twenty years as it has ridden the coattails of renewal in other older parts of the city. I wonder whether my grandmother’s family missed the uncluttered landscape of the mountains during their life in Mechanicsville; it is impossible to know.

Horses on the Battenkill 1

Knoxville’s old Mechanicsville is a thousand miles and multiple generations removed from the here and now on Vermont’s Battenkill. Agriculture has its own smells, very different from Victorian-era urban smells, and they are wide open on this stretch of river.

Vermont is attractive, I am told, for people raising families (less so for their college-bound kids, who often leave and do not always choose to return). I understand that appeal, far removed as rural Vermont is from the seamier influences of city life, with its fresher air, agrarian sensibilities and values, and a more intimate sense of community. There are disadvantages: city life has an energy and an abundance of cultural opportunities that elude us here—and in spite of that, the same big-city problems people ostensibly hope to avoid—violent crime, opioid addiction, and even environmental issues—are problems here, too. (Vermont is known for its burgeoning heroin addiction and related problems; and drinking water in wells tainted by none other than industrial waste—very, very close to home—has made national news recently.)

Geese on the Battenkill 1

There is no paradise.

But there is springtime in Vermont along the Battenkill, and for the time being anyway, it is intoxicating in its own glorious way. I don’t know whether generations of my family members in Knoxville, Tennessee forged machine parts that might have made their way north to Vermont; it’s pure speculation, of course, but would be a nice connection were it true.

The land connects us all, though, whatever our provenance.

New York View on the Battenkill 1

Self-Stewardship: Healthful Habits, Happy Body

Updates: I am pretty dang pleased to report my foot issues have not yet derailed this latest big effort to resurrect my beloved running habit.

Cycling in Vermont

I told somebody yesterday I’ve learned to view every glorious, temperate day in Vermont as a gift; last week there were several of them, and the temperature once even climbed into the low eighties. Nevermind the snow this morning. On Monday and Tuesday I ran, not exactly like the wind, but I ran, friends—two consecutive days because the weather insisted; I am on week seven of my C25K program and it is going very well indeed, better than expected. To make it work I must:

  1. Keep on going to yoga, as I do most Sundays and sometimes in the middle of the week.
  2. Take anti-inflammatory meds, and stay on top of them.
  3. Use Arnica gel on the foot before I go.
  4. Stretch hammies, calves, and Achilles, holding each about 45 seconds, give or take.
  5. Repeat #4 on the flip side of the run.
  6. Dunk the bothersome foot in an uncomfortable ice bath for 20 minutes when I return home; I usually Skype my son to take my mind off the burn.
  7. And for much of the day during the work week use a knobby roller on the offending heel while I sit at my desk and write; I would like to think this is helping break up scar tissue. 

It’s a shotgun approach that seems effective.

Wednesday was weights class at the gym, which for me is like taking cod liver oil—I know there are benefits, I am not crazy about doing it. And on Thursday my bicycle came out of winter storage for the first ride of the season. The landscape in the photo marks my turning-around spot, close to the New York state border. Friday my bum hurt like heck from the unforgiving saddle, but soon I’ll be tough enough to forego the “butt shorts,” as I call them, opting instead for more comfortable cottony stretch shorts as I do every summer.

Life always seems a great balancing act, and I’m not there yet. I gain control over One Big Thing, only to turn around and find Another out of kilter. Like that game where you whap a critter on the head and then one pops up out of an adjacent hole; I find it infuriating.

I’ve put myself back on a nutrition plan, one that has been around since the 1960s and has worked for me several times in the past. Handsome Chef Boyfriend is participating by default; we’ve enjoyed some very nice benefits thus far, but this particular plan does require work—careful buying habits and a lot of meal preparation at home. It’s okay—I have a trained professional at my disposal.

Three and a half years ago I was thirty-five or so pounds lighter and ripped. And I was scared down to my socks and anything but happy. Now that situation is more or less flipped. There is much to be said for happiness; I shall keep pursuing the rest. Cheers.

Healthy Eating

 

New England Track & Field Championships: When Life Hands You Lemons

Pole Vault 20 A

It’s track and field season here in New England; maybe in other parts of the world, too, not sure—this is well outside my life experience bubble. ‘Tis also the season when Handsome Chef Boyfriend morphs from pastry chef by day to pole vaulting coach by afternoon and the occasional weekend, true story: he coaches invincible young folk who run like crazy with a long, bendy pole, then jam it into the ground and somehow try to heft themselves many feet up, up, up into the air, and then twist around, and clear a horizontal pole without knocking it off. Sometimes they actually make it. 

New England Division III Outdoor Track and Field Championships , Isaiah

For about a decade H(PVC)B has been coaching high school pole vaulters; this year he was asked to work privately with an individual student, a talented freshman at Southern Vermont College. There he is, the boy in the yellow jacket, young Isaiah. On Saturday Isaiah and one other SVC student competed in the New England Division III Outdoor Track and Field Championships, accompanied by a gaggle of coaches and some well-wishing teammates who did not make the cut for this event which in turn was a qualitfying event for a bigger meet next weekend: the Eastern College Atheltic Conference Divsion III Track & Field Championships.

New England Division III Outdoor Track and Field Championships, women's track event

New England Division III Outdoor Track and Field Championships, women's track event

New England Division III Outdoor Track and Field Championships, women's pole vaulting

Being the consummate ballerina, I tend to notice bodies and there were some pretty, sinewy, lean ones in Massachusetts at Springfield College for Saturday’s meet. Being there among them made me wish I’d discovered the joy of running much sooner than I did in my late thirties, like maybe when I was a young college student. But even then I am almost certain nobody could have convinced me to pole vault.

New England Division III Outdoor Track and Field Championships, women's pole vaulting

New England Division III Outdoor Track and Field Championships, women's pole vaulting

New England Division III Outdoor Track and Field Championships, women's pole vaulting

New England Division III Outdoor Track and Field Championships, women's pole vaulting

Yeah, not so much.

But I digress. Saturday was cold, gray, rainy, generally unpleasant. There was a lot of standing around and waiting for things to happen, which I have learned to expect at these kinds of things. I parented a figure skating kid and was spared much waiting around at athletic venues, except for one weekend a year at the local ice rink; hat tip to parents who routinely tolerate it.

After an eternity the men finally had the so-called runway and “pit” at their disposal for practice vaulting ahead of the actual competition. And for the record, it is not really a pit; it’s a bunch of really big, squishy mats, and there are not enough of them in my humble opinion.

New England Division III Outdoor Track and Field Championships, men's pole vaulting

New England Division III Outdoor Track and Field Championships, men's pole vaulting

Isaiah had a couple of iffy practice vaults, and took a bad spill off the mats after one of them, injuring his shoulder. The track felt slippery to me (I can’t say whether it was actually slippery, but I did hear some grumbling about it from some of the athletes). And the ballerina in me wanted to put warm clothing on these kids while they stood in the long queue awaiting their turn. Some of Isaiah’s competitors walked in front of me when I was attempting to capture one of his practice vaults, and so I only caught a couple of awkward shots:

New England Division III Outdoor Track and Field Championships, Isaiah

New England Division III Outdoor Track and Field Championships, Isaiah

Pole vaulting is nothing if not awkward, though. And it was just one of those kind of days. Kids were falling all over the place—Isaiah was hardly alone.

When I could no longer feel my fingers I finally took my leave of the track meet and headed to the student union across the street for coffee. And as fate would have it, I missed Isaiah’s moment, the one we had been waiting for (not to worry: Coach Chef was there). Turns out on his third and final vault Isaiah not only cleared the horizontal crossbar, but cleared it by a mile, only to inadvertently knock it loose with his foot on his way down. He narrowly missed qualifying for next weekend’s big event.

It was a bitter pill for young Isaiah to swallow. And so it goes—we’ve all been there. It is another little chink of mortar to add to the bricks that compose us and make us interesting, small consolation when we’re in the moment. Chin up, Isaiah, it is but a blip on your timeline. At least, that is what my mom used to tell me when my lower lip was scraping the ground: life goes on and you do your best to make lemonade of lemons.

A long-awaited visit to Berkshire Mountain Bakery finished our Saturday. This interesting little place took the spotlight in one of four episodes in food writer Michael Pollan’s wonderful documentary series called Cooked. I think it is fair to say I am a Michael Pollan afficionado, even if I do not practice his food philosophy completely and earnestly all the time. But I appreciate his comprehensive knowledge of food history and love that his message about healthy eating is rational, never shrill.

The thing to distinguish the bread at this particular bakery is the absence of leavening—baker Richard Bourdon uses fermentation and ancient baking practices to create a product that is ostensibly good for the gut, even for folks with gluten intolerance. (You can watch the series on Netflix, and I enthusiastically recommend it—even if you have no interest in the underlying healthy food ethic, the documentary is thoroughly entertaining, as is Pollan’s narrative.)

Turns out the outlet in Pittsfield, where we had dinner, was just that—an outlet. It was not a bakery as we expected. So the atmosphere left much to be desired. But the product was every bit what we hoped for and more.

Berkshire Mountain Bakery Michael Pollan Cooked

We left loaded down with a bunch of bread, thinking we’d make it last. We will not. And so it seems routine visits down to Pittsfield, Massachusetts will be part of our still-evolving landscape.

That’s some pretty dang good lemonade.

 

Providential Weekend: Photo Essay

NYLO 12

How often does the opportunity arise to combine three cherished interests—in my case ballet, architecture, and cuisine—in a single weekend? Almost never, but I just pulled it off. Add to this the intoxicating joy of unfettered time with Handsome Chef Boyfriend and a happy reunion with one Gwynn Root at the end of her second of three performances dancing Swan Lake with Festival Ballet Providence, (and after too, too long without seeing this beautiful young dancer, the progeny of a pair of amazing artists). We also finally got to meet her very handsome and talented boyfriend Trevor-the-jazz-guitarist from Atlanta.

Gwynn & Trevor 1

Gwynn & Trevor 2

Gwynn & Trevor 3

Gwynn described her post-performance face as too “Kardashian” for her own tastes, which made me giggle; nobody expects a clean-scrubbed and dewey post-performance face at that late hour. With or without stage makeup this young woman is stunning, inside and out. It feels so unfair to have only an hour or two for cramming in several years’-worth of important catchup conversation before everybody turns into a pumpkin; it is assuredly better than no time at all.

It’s been an enriching weekend bumper to bumper. Spring has arrived with more intent in southern New England than it has here in Vermont. Yesterday was stunning, and I still find it incredible that I can photograph things with any acuity at all inside a moving car, but it’s possible: I grabbed a couple of respectable images during our longish, traffic-delayed pass through Worcester, Mass.

Worcester 1

Worcester 2

We stayed at a place in Warwick just outside Providence called NYLO: edgy, almost brually modern accomodations in a repurposed factory. It gets high marks for inventive use of space and clever interior design, slightly lower marks for missing a few important details. The building alone was enough to make me happy, but the ruins next to it are delicious: I don’t know the back story but sure as heck hope it has a happy ending.

Warwick 1

Warwick 2

Years ago—before child rearing emerged as my full-time occupation—I was headed down a different path in historic preservation. It did not happen, but my passion for architecture (including vernacular and even derelict architecture) has never waned. NYLO got it right; props to a place whose lobby felt more like a book store and where not a single square foot of interior space was wasted. Thoughtful design is a thing of beauty.

NYLO 1

NYLO 3

NYLO 9

NYLO 10

NYLO 4

NYLO 2

NYLO 11

Festival Ballet Providence put its own spin on Swan Lake to make it manageable for a contemporary audience. It was still long, and my favorite part of the score in Act IV was missing. Festival is a small company but managed to make itself look big onstage, no small feat. Handsome Chef Boyfriend this morning had a suggestion for the bigger ballet world when it comes to full-length corps de ballet work where all the dancers look exactly the same (as they should because they are, well, the corps): put numbers on their tutus, he says, like hockey players have on their jerseys, so you can tell who’s who.

This idea probably won’t fly, although I once suggested commercial endorsements on tutus to create cash flow the same way they do for NASCAR racers. Lookalike ballerinas notwithstanding, HCB enjoyed going to the ballet. Theatres are magical, as I have said before; construction for this particular venue—the Veterans Memorial Auditorium in downtown Providence—began in the late 1920s but was delayed by the Great Depression and finally completed in 1950. I had only my cell phone for the few photos I made, but still love that it found the sunlight falling across the proscenium as ballet patrons filed in ahead of the performance.

Vet Theatre 3

Vet Theatre 1

Vet Theatre 2

We finished our weekend in Providence this morning with breakfast at a place recommended by a local;  we found it worth the half-hour wait. HCB analyzed every crumb of it as he is wont to do when we eat out. The kitchen was in full view of the patrons (for HCB this is tantamount to eating dessert first). I had my Nikon out for these and loved capturing the movement that is part and parcel of a very busy commercial kitchen.

Cranston 2

Cranston 3

Cranston 4

We’ll be back, Providence. (Just as soon as we can get our pants snapped again.)