Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Auction

June 30th, 1978:

Car doors slammed in the summer morning, jarring me awake.  Looking out my window, I saw cars quickly lining the curbs and people gathering at a neighbor's house a few doors down. I went out to investigate.

A strange truck was parked in front of the M. family's house. "Earl Culp & Sons, Auctioneers" read the signage on the truck's door.  I quickly figured out what was going on. The strangers were buyers who had come for an auction. A neighbor had died and an estate auction was in action.

My neighbor, Mr. M., had been a professor at the local university.  Thinking back, I still picture him as Dr. Quest from the cartoon Jonny Quest--right down to the red hair and beard.  We kids never thought to call him professor or doctor--only just Mr. M.  For one thing it would have been incorrect and improper to call him by those other titles because at that time and place we only called medical doctors "doctor". 

We all knew that Mr. M. was smart. We had heard that he had played some important role in the space program in the 1960s -- or so our mom had told us.  She said that Mr. M. had computers in his basement which was weird because back then nobody had computers at home. My mom had also heard that Mr. M. had to install cellar doors to get them into his basement because they were so big. 

[I found out only recently that he had been an astronomy professor at the university and that his research had helped to put weather satellites into orbit]

By that June of 1978, Mr. M had been dying of cancer for a year or two, slowly thinning and weakening, and finally he died. Before that, I used to see him at the local diner where I worked part-time after school. He had many friends with whom he used to share coffee and good times. Mrs. M. had been mentally ill for several years and was "hospitalized." My mom met her when we moved into the neighborhood in the early 1960's -- before she really went downhill. Mrs. M that is. My mom said that Mrs. M. had started hearing voices and that she suffered from dementia.

[I recently learned that she also suffered from pernicious anemia and passed away a few years after her husband]

The M. family loved the outdoors. They kept a small pop-up tent trailer in their double garage and they had a canoe which hung next to it on the wall.  Sometimes at night walking by, I caught a glimpse of a telescope and model aircraft through an unshaded window.

The auction was necessary to sell the M's remaining belongings. After registering with the auctioneer, the buyers circulated among the furniture and household items which had been moved from inside the house to the front lawn. Much of the stuff must have had personal value to the M. family--the kind of stuff one sees at a garage sale. Several folding tables had been set up and were heaped with various groupings of household items sorted into lots of three, four and five related items.  My attention fixed on one particular lot comprising a silver teapot, two collector's liquor decanters, a ceramic planter, and some pieces of home made embroidery.  I looked around at the buyers and waited for the auction to begin.

Many buyers, having arrived in the early cool of the morning, sought shade as the full noon sun began to beat down. It must have been 90 degrees in the shade. The house was open and so I went inside for the first time in my life. Only my mom had been inside before--she used to have coffee in there with Mrs. M.  Most of the furniture had already been moved outside. Only the bigger and heavier items were left inside. The single storey house had a big picture window that looked down on a backyard. I walked over to it and looked out.

They had a very private backyard--it was ringed by enormous pine trees and bushes so thick that they secluded the grassy area in the middle. From inside the house, that space looked like a clearing in a pine forest. Just beyond the ring of pines and bushes stood an enormous solitary oak tree--so old that it pre-dated the entire neighborhood. The tree was actually not on their property but stood just outside it. When I was kid there was open field back there so we didn't have to trespass to get to the tree. That oak was the biggest and best climbing tree in the neighborhood. Someone long before had nailed boards into the trunk so that we could actually get up into the thing. The oak rose higher than the bushes and pines ringing their yard and it too looked down on the grassy middle that I was looking at. I had seen that same grassy space from a perch in that oak as a much younger child.  I'd even been in that grassy space once or twice with other kids when we snuck in there when we thought nobody was looking, just to look at the concrete-lined fish pond where they kept goldfish year round [a koi pond?]  We'd never seen anything like that before in Wisconsin--especially in the 1960s.

I thought back to how we used to play on that tree as kids. Because of the slight slope to the yard, the picture window was about level with where I used to sit and play in that big oak. The perspective was different--when I was kid I could see the window I was looking through now from the tree but I couldn't see inside the house.  Now, years later, I was looking through that window at the same tree across the same yard where I used to perch.

The auctioneer snapped me back to attention and I so went back outside.

One of the Culps (maybe the old man Culp himself) started the auction promptly at noon. I had been to but had never bid at an auction before and was excited. Buyers quickly gathered around the first table heaped with various household articles. The auctioneer began chanting: three now three?
One by one, each household lot was sold; some buyers moved away, having bought their target lot; others moved in, bidding on different lots. I stood back watching, listening to the auctioneer's chant. Each table was bought clean, leaving behind a barren surface and the stark legs of the folding table. I circled among the buyers and around the other tables still laden with things, always keeping my eye on "my" lot, patiently waiting. At last the bidding moved to my table and to my lot. I quickly bid, then again, then waited while the last round of bidding circled the table. The auctioneer nodded to me and I was pleased with the bargain and moved to the shade of a tree to watch the other buyers and to rest.

Near the end of the auction, Mrs. M. arrived with her son John. I hardly recognized them and hadn't seen either of them in years.  The M's were both older than my parents and their kids were in high school when we were little so we didn't play with them at all.  Pale and weakened, Mrs. M. walked with difficulty, steadied by John.  She had an ace bandage wrapped around her head and she moved unrecognized among the buyers, talking softly to herself while her son spoke softly to her as if to comfort her and also, perhaps, to calm her. They stopped in front of a large queen-sized headboard made of carved dark wood that a young couple had just bought. 

"How much did the bed sell for?" asked Mrs. M.  A young man, not knowing at all to whom he was speaking, confided his bargain. Mrs. M. just shook her head and looked confused, but her son whisked her away before she could protest. Mother and son then continued to survey the auction, their identities known to me and perhaps a few others. They didn't recognize me at all.

And so the M. family's possessions were sold and scattered: one couple struggled to load a heavy dresser while another carried away the living room sofa. At the day's end, the house stood empty looking even more hollowed out. The buyers departed, returning to where they had come from. The house itself was eventually sold to a young family.  I remember feeling a little sad afterwards--enough to write down a few details so that I wouldn't forget.

[Now I sometimes worry that guys like my neighbor, Mr. M., guys who did all the brain work in the '60s that we all take for granted will just dry up and disappear one day. And all that will remain will be a headstone in some cemetery]

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Forgotten Americans: Jack Thayer, Titanic Survivor

My grandmother had that book and I loved it so much as a kid that she gave it to me. Logan Marshall's The Sinking of the Titanic and Great Sea Disasters was rushed into print in 1912 shortly after the disaster. Inside are several accounts of survivors, some of whom later became immortalized in the movie Titanic (which I won't link to out of spite for James Cameron).

Jack Thayer was 17 and travelling with his parents. His wiki bio is here.  He was first to insist that the Titanic split in two when she went down. Here are the drawings that Thayer made while on board the rescue ship Carpathia and his description of the Titanic's final moments as published in 1912:

...I jumped out, feet first.  I was clear of the ship; went down, and as I came up I was pushed away from the ship by some force. I came up facing the ship, and one of the funnels seemed to be lifted off and fell towards me about 15 yards away, with a mass of sparks and steam coming out of it. I saw the ship in a sort of a red glare, and it seemed to me that she broke in two just in front of the third funnel.
This time I was sucked down, and as I came up I was pushed out again and twisted around by a large wave, coming up in the midst of a great deal of small wreckage. As I pushed my hand from my head it touched the cork fender of an overturned life-boat. I looked up and saw some men on the top and asked them to give me a hand. One of them, who was a stoker, helped me up. In a short time the bottom was covered with about twenty-five or thirty men. When I got on this I was facing the ship.
The stern then seemed to rise in the air and stopped at about an angle of 60 degrees.  It seemed to hold there for a time and then with a hissing sound it shot right down out of sight with people jumping from the stern.  The stern either pivoted around towards our boat, or we were sucked toward it, and as we only had one oar we could not keep away.  There did not seem to be much suction and most of us managed to stay on the bottom of our boat.

Thayer's theory was dismissed for 70 years until Robert Ballard used his account to help locate the wreck--which he found in two pieces--just as Thayer had said.

For those who have kids: some little models used to be commercially available that reproduce the exact way that the ship sank: link. I own one.  Fun for the kids and grown-up kids alike.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Sorry Mr. Wright, Cash And Carry Only

My stepfather told me a great story.  In 1948 he was working at a department store on the Capitol Square in Madison. In those days, there were no malls and all the major stores were still downtown on the Square. My stepfather was about 18 or 19 and was working his first job. He worked on the third floor where dry goods were stored and unpacked before moving them down to the retail space on the ground floor and second story. It sounds kind of inefficient but the customers didn't want to climb to the third floor (where it was also hotter in the summer) and so it was used in lieu of a basement for storage.

One day, a rather odd-looking man (a dapper Dan my stepfather called  him) came in with a couple other younger guys. My stepfather's supervisor nudged him and said:

"Hey you know who that is?"

"That's Frank Lloyd Wright" 

Wright had driven over to Madison on Highway 14 with a couple students and was shopping for housewares for the school he ran back in Spring Green. Wright was dressed in a full-length overcoat and "that hat" (my stepfather called it a "sombrero" and recognized "it" when I showed him the photo that I pasted in above).  [Aside: I'm not sure if that hat was really so different from what other distinguished men wore at the time-Robert Oppenheimer for example was famous for his pork pie hat--so famous that the journal Physics Today honored him by posing a photo of just a pork pie hat for its cover in 1948 (link)].

Wright must have been about 80 years old in 1948. He came up to the third floor, avoiding the retail space and went to where houseware items were stored.  Wright carried a cane too and used it to point out things that he wanted as he moved amongst the shelved housewares. He selected three or four wicker basketfuls of dishes--cups, saucers, plates, silver, cookware, etc. My stepfather watched him and then packed up the stuff for him. Afterwards, his boss nudged him again and said:

 "Watch, I bet they make him pay in cash." 

And they did. Wright had an awful reputation for not paying bills. It seems that in his lifetime, the little people were never grateful enough to forgive him his pecuniary trespasses. Just as well. The townspeople in Richland Center dithered for decades before deciding to even recognize their native son. They still haven't put up any kind of civic memorial that I know of--they're still waiting for the memory of unpaid debts to fade.  So far as I know, the best memorial is the one Wright made himself: the old German Warehouse, which I saw and wondered at many times as a kid when we visited that town.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

For What It's Worth: I Saw A Buffalo Springfield

Well not the Buffalo Springfield.  I did see an old Buffalo-Springfield steamroller today at the Antique Gas & Steam Engine Museum in Vista CA:

The parade MC said that the Buffalo-Springfield was one of just a few remaining working examples of something once so commonplace that it gave rise to a verb: "to steamroll".

And the band really did take their name from that machine. So there's this:

That's Neil Young plucking those harmonic pings in the background. You can see him behind frontman Stephen Stills in the very beginning and again when it cuts out at 1 min 13 s.  Sorry that the video cuts out like that.  If anybody knows a better link to the whole Smothers Brothers version of the song, please link in the comments.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Letters Home: "I guess we won’t be near any big cities over there. Back in the sticks"

No way could my dad have known that I'd be reading and poring through his old letters written to his family while in the service 58 years ago. The complete set of letters can be found by clicking on the tag "Letters Home".

Happy Father's Day!

June 20, 1952
Fort Campbell
8:00 fri nite
Dear Mom and Dad and All,
Its been another hot day. I went swimming after the sun went down.  I lost my billfold Tuesday and nobody has turned it in yet. I had $14.00 in it and my I.D. card. I don’t know what I will do about my drivers licenses. They expired November 4th. [1] Maybe dad can find out down to the police station. [2] I suppose they will say wait till I get out of the Army. If I do that I would have to take my tests and all that red tape. My Social Security Card can wait till I get out.  I got a card in my box to send in if I was ever to lose that. Sure made me mad. I don’t think I’ll buy another one. Just send all my money home instead of half of it.
I’m taking guard for another guy tomorrow for $15.00. [3] Its just starting to rain. First time in 15 days.  I haven’t been off post since I’ve been back. Maybe if I stay in I can earn some extra money to send home.
I heard we got only 23 months for going to Europe. That means 15 more months to go. Jr. had three months taken off for going to Korea. It works the same way. I guess we won’t be near any big cities over there. Back in the sticks.
Sunday nite
I just got back from swimming. Nothing new happened today so I just have well finished this Friday. Still haven’t found my billfold. Just as well forget it.
[1] I have no clue why he used the plural. It's not a typo or a grammatical error. I'm certain that he had no driver's license other than the one issued by the State of Wisconsin.

[2] There's that construction "down to" again.  I considered it back here briefly. Written like he spoke.

[3] Gotta wonder if doing some else's guard duty for pay was (a) legal or (b) tolerated by the military at the time. But there you have it- a frank admission of a way to use the system.

[4] "so I just have well finished this Friday" or [because nothing new happened] I may just as well have finished this letter on Friday.

Friday, June 18, 2010


Why I don't believe in intergenerational grievance mongering:

But God's own descent 
Into flesh was meant
As a demonstration
That the supreme merit
Lay in risking spirit
In substantiation.
Spirit enters flesh
And for all it's worth
Charges into earth
In birth after birth
Ever fresh and fresh.
We may take the view
That its derring-do
Thought of in the large
Is one mighty charge
On our human part
Of the soul's ethereal
Into the material.

~Robert Frost    

Thursday, June 17, 2010

More Bloghetti Carbonara

Carbon dioxide is like the burned-out skeleton of a once juicy hydrocarbon. Drawing out the Lewis structure, the double bonds remind me of the radius and ulna bones in the forearm:


Soft tissues (which are mostly water) show up as lighter shadows in X-rays. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) is a complementary technique that locates water's hydrogen in soft tissues. And that's exactly what's missing in CO2--all the hydrogen. Hydrocarbons get all the hydrogen and electrons sucked out of them when they burn, transferring them to electronically rapacious oxygen:

CH4   +   2 O2   →  CO2   +   2 H2O

Of course plants and bacteria carry out the reverse reaction, converting CO2 to sugars, but it's possible to synthetically convert carbon dioxide into methanol or even methane using dihydrogen:

But making hydrogen requires energy too.  Making nitrogen fertilizers uses lots of hydrogen, so those serious about fuel supplies will also have to worry about food supplies.  I just wish the same people who talk about shutting down industries and exacting revenge would instead busy themselves with showing that alternatives can be successfully commercialized, because if they can't there's little sense in using them. Energy independence will not come from government investing in unworkable alternatives.  Energy independence can only come from the use and exploitation of domestic energy sources and this includes coal. Oil and related hydrocarbons are intrinsically cheap.  If we decide to move away from them because we don't like or can't shoulder the associated problems, e.g., keeping the free flow free, we'd better prepare for somebody else doing the dirty jobs. And to the winner goes the spoils.

A Brief History Of Earthquakes In Los Angeles

A while back I blogged some excerpts from a wonderful book called The Discovery of San Francisco Bay:  The Portola Expedition of 1769-1770.  The book is a translation of the diary of Miguel Costanso who was a soldier/engineer along that historic expedition up the coast of Southern California.  I love the book's vivid description of the physical geography of Southern California, which must count as the first written description. Costanso wrote a description of the valley where we live which I already blogged about here.

We been having more earthquakes than usual lately.  They have been medium-sized and located quite a distance from here.  Nevertheless, I decided to revisit the Portola Expedition because I recall how vividly he described the earthquakes in the L.A. basin as they passed through that summer in 1769. Turns out earthquakes occurred daily.  Here are his descriptions; the notes are partially from the book and partially mine.
Friday,  July 28 1769--From Santiago we went to another place of which the scouts gave us particulars. It was not far, in truth, since we arrived after an hour's march. It was a beautiful river, and carries great floods in the rainy season, as is apparent from its bed and the sand along its banks. This place has many groves of willows and very good soil, all of which can be irrigated for a great distance.
We pitched our camp on the left bank of the river. To the right there is a populous Indian village; the inhabitants received us with great kindness. Fifty-two of them came to our quarters, and their captain or cacique asked us by signs which we understood easily,  accompanied by by many entreaties, to remain there and live with them. [He said] that they would provide antelopes, hares, or seeds for our subsistence, that the lands which we saw were theirs, and that they would share them with us.
At this place we experienced a terrible earthquake, which was repeated four times during the day.  The first vibration or shock occurred at one o'clock in the afternoon, and was the most violent; the last took place at about half past four. One of the natives who, no doubt, held the office of priest among them, was at the time in the camp. Bewildered, no less than we, by the event, he began, with horrible cries and great manifestations of terror, to entreat the heavens, turning in all directions, and acting as though he would exorcise the elements. To this place we gave the name of Rio de los Temblores. [17]
[17] "Earthquake River" The river became known as the Santa Ana river.  Their campsite was east of Anaheim, near present day Olive.
Sunday, July 30--We left Los Ojitos, [18] where there was another earthquake of no great violence, at half-past six in the morning.  We crossed the plain in a northerly direction, steadily approaching the mountains. We ascended some hills which were quite rugged and high; [19] afterwards we descended to a very extensive and pleasant valley where there was an abundance of water, part of it running in deep ditches, part of it standing so as to form marshes.  This valley must be nearly three leagues in width and very much more in length.  We pitched our camp near a ditch of running water, its banks covered with watercress and cumin.  We gave this place the name of Valle de San Miguel. [20]  It is, perhaps, about four leagues from Los Ojitos.  In the afternoon we felt another earthquake.
[18] "Little Springs" Present day La Brea Canyon, north of Fullerton.
[19] The Puente Hills, probably on the route now followed by Hacienda Boulevard.
[20] Now called the San Gabriel Valley. The camp was near the community of Bassett.
Monday, July 31---We left the camping place at seven o'clock in the morning, and crossing the ditch over which we had to lay a bridge on account of the depth, we traveled for two leagues to the west-northwest through fields of dry grass and thickets, which detained us for a long time as it was necessary to clear a path at every step. We crossed a very muddy stream and camped farther on in an open clear spot in the same valley, and close to a gap which was seen to the west. [21]  At half-past eight in the morning we experienced another violent earthquake.
[21] They camped north of the Whittier Narrows.
Tuesday, August 1---We rested today, and the scouts went out to explore the country.
At ten o'clock in the morning there was an earthquake, which was repeated with violence at one o'clock in the afternoon; and one hour afterwards we experienced another shock.  Some of the soldiers asked permission to go hunting mounted on their horses and others to go on foot, with the intention of killing some antelopes, as many of these animals had been seen.  They are a species of wild goat with horns somewhat larger than those of the goats. These soldiers, on their return, said that they had seen a river of fine water--from sixteen to seventeen yards wide--that rises near the gap of the valley to the south, and at the foot of a low hill that was in sight of our camp, and, at the most, half a league distant.
Wednesday, August 2--In the morning we broke camp, and travelling towards the west, we left the valley by an opening formed between low hills.  Later we entered quite an extensive canyon containing many poplars and alders, among which a bountiful river flowed from the north-northwest, and turning the point of a small steep hill it afterwards continued its course to the south. [22]
To the north-northeast one could see another watercourse or river bed that formed a wide ravine, but it was dry. [23] This watercourse joined that of the river, and give clear indications of heavy floods during the rainy season, as it had many branches of trees and debris on its sides. We halted at this place, which was named La Porciuncula. Here we felt three successive earthquakes during the afternoon and night.
[22] They were at the Los Angeles River, approximately where North Broadway bridges the river. The "small steep hill" is the southeastern portion of Elysian Park--about three-fourths of a mile east of Dodger Stadium.  Elysian Park as is looks today:
[23] Arroyo Seco
Juan Crespí, a Franciscan padre along on the trip, named the river El Río de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles de Porciúncula, which translates as The River of Our Lady Queen of the Angels of Porciuncula. This the origin of the name Los Angeles.  There's an interesting story behind that name which goes back to St. Francis of Assisi which you can read about here.
Thursday, August 3---We forded the Rio de la Porciúncula, which descends with great rapidity from the canyon through which it leaves the mountains and enters the plain.  We directed our course to the west-southwest over high level ground and, after a march of three leagues, we reached a watering-place, to which we gave the name of the Ojo de Agua de los Alisos. [24] This was a large spring situated in a marshy place where there stood some alder trees of very large girth; the marsh was covered with grass, fragrant plants, and watercress. Hence the water flowed through a deep ditch towards the southwest.  All the country that we saw on this day's march appeared to us most suitable for the production of all kinds of grain and fruit. On our way we met the entire population of an Indian village engaged in harvesting seeds on the plain.
In the afternoon there were other earthquakes; the frequency of them amazed us.  Someone was convinced that there were large volcanoes in the mountain range that lay in front of us extending towards the west.  We found sufficient indications of this on the way that lies between between the Rio de la Porciúncula and the Ojo de Agua de los Alisos, as the scouts saw, adjoining the mountains, some large swamps of a certain material like pitch which was bubbling up. [25]
[24] "Alder (Sycamore) Springs", approximately at La Cienega Park, on La Cienega Boulevard between Olympic Boulevard and Gregory Way.  The phrase ojo de agua (eye of water) was often used in naming springs: an eye in the ground, whence water flowed or seeped.
[25] The La Brea Tar Pits. "Brea" means tar in Spanish.  While there aren't any active volcanoes in L.A. there are other natural oil and gas seepages like Coal Oil Point just offshore.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Letters Home: Heatwaves, Foreign Cars & Fireworks

June 16, 1952
Fort Campbell KY

Dear Mom and Dad and All,

Its sure been hot here for the last week ever since I’ve been back. I’ve been going swimming everyday for a week. It’s too hot to work so we get the afternoons off.

We found out today we are going to Germany for sure. How’s Jr. getting along at McCoy? Have him ask Erwin where Cecil is stationed over there.  Nothing new has been happening here lately. We got prisoner guard coming up the 21st that lasts a week. I suppose all us new Duces will catch it. [1]

We get a long weekend over the Fourth of July. I might send some firecrackers home. We can get all kinds of them. [2]

Has Dad found a car he wants yet? I think he should trade for a new Ford or Chev. [3]  Has Jr. done anything to the truck yet? I mean the old Ford. What all was wrong with the hot rod?

This is all for this time


[1] "new Duces"?  I can't find the origin of or reference for this term.  Here is a scan of the original letter:

up 21st that last a 
week. I suppose all us 
new pals Duces will 
catch it. 
We get a long weekend over 
the fourth of July. I might
send some firecrackers home.   
We can get all kinds of them. 
   Has dad found a car he 
wants yet? 

If anybody can suggest a meaning I'd sure appreciate knowing it.

[2] My dad stopped at roadside fireworks stand in Tennessee on our epic Highway 41 roadtrip. I remember gawking at all the fireworks for sale: firecrackers, cherry bombs, bottle rockets. They sold them to pretty much anyone too. A couple years later I saw the same thing in South Dakota on a family vacation to the Black Hills.

Fireworks laws in Wisconsin are very restrictive. I wonder where this stricture came from exactly and it's interesting that it was already there in the early 1950's.  I'm speculating that it dates from the "do-gooder" days of Progressive politics in Wisconsin where civic-minded people sought to protect people from themselves. Fireworks are dangerous. I almost blew a couple fingers off as a teen when a string of firecrackers I was holding went off in my hand.  Yet still the lure of blowing things up with minature sticks of dynamite was too much to resist.

[3] "Chev."  I wonder what General Motors management would think of that abbreviation. If I recall, my dad and his brothers never said "Chevrolet" and rarely "Chevy"; instead they said "Chev" and pronounced it "shiv". Back then there really only were domestic cars available. But like so many men of his generation, my dad never owned a foreign car make. I'm not sure he ever even drove one.  He did own a couple GM cars, but he mostly stayed loyal to FoMoCo products, especially the Mustang.  It's not like he loved American-made stuff per se--he was a fan of Wal-Mart too and the "cheapest available".  But with cars it was a like a line in the sand.  He had brothers who worked at GM and Chrysler, so maybe he never wanted to face their scorn and derision.

Presidential Politics: 1972

My favorites are the two in the bottom left.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Close Encounters of the Flash Flood Kind

[Image Removed By Request Of Copyright Owner]

Back in the summer of 1972 our family went on a camping trip out west to the Black Hills of South Dakota and also to Wyoming. We drove I-90 all the way with stops at Mitchell's Corn Palace, the Badlands, Wall Drug Store, Mt. Rushmore and Devil's Tower. There were four people, a dog and a sick rat in a rat cage in a 1966 Mustang pulling a small trailer. How we did that must have amazed my parents.

Back then our people's sensitivities towards Native Americans (or Indians as we still called them) were just emerging.  I learned only later that the Black Hills were sacred to the Sioux and that my people had effectively desecrated their land by carving up Mt. Rushmore. At the time, Crazy Horse Monument wasn't much to look at yet.

We camped at a campground near Keystone, SD very near Mt. Rushmore. After that we moved on to Wyoming and spent a couple days at Devil's Tower National Monument. On the return trip, we passed back through the Black Hills and then spent the night outside of Rapid City so as to be poised for the interstate sprint across the plains back east along I-90. My dad was always a big proponent of splurging on a motel before heading back home on his road trips. It rained that night and we awoke early, probably catching a bite to eat before hitting the road--I really don't recall.  What I do remember is tuning into the AM radio as as we drove back east to Wisconsin. Cracking AM radio reports of flash flood destruction struck us dumb, especially as the local news described how places and campsites that we had just visited had literally been swept away during the night. I don't think that any of us had ever come so close to harm's way before or since.

Here's a description of the flash flood: Link

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Letters Home: Rollin' Down Highway 41

June 9, 1952
Fort Campbell KY
Dear Mom and Dad and All,
I made it back Sunday afternoon at 2:00. I was going to call up at 9:00 Sat. night from Evansville, Ind. but it took me a couple of hours to find a room for the night. I finally found one, a boarding house. Evansville is only 125 miles from here so I made good time Sat. [1]
Sure has been hot here- today 95 or 100.  I mowed a little grass today and I didn’t do anything in the afternoon. [2]  From 7 to 8 in the mornings we have P.T. and Dismounted Drill. [3] Tomorrow we are supposed to play baseball and go swimming.
Still going to Europe. Leaving from New Orleans. I don’t think they will change the plans now.
What is R. going to do with his Hot Rod? How is the Mercury running? It’s about time the oil was changed in it.
I guess this is all the news for this time. Nothing much happening here lately.  I sure miss the car.

[1] My dad must have driven his car back north for safe-keeping and then hitchhiked back to camp. He would have never stopped 2 hrs short of his goal if he had been driving.   Evansville, Indiana is an Ohio river town on US Route 41, which at that time was a main North-South route in the days before the Interstate Highway System. Congress didn't authorize the interstate system that we now depend on until 4 years later during the Eisenhower administration. Railroads were already dying and Ike was a big proponent of interstate highways having seen firsthand the German Autobahn system during WW II.

16 years later, in 1968, my dad took us on an epic family station wagon vacation to Florida (really we were just along for the ride on his dive trip to FL :). We followed old Route 41 for most of it with stops at Mammoth Cave KY, Chattanooga TN, somewhere in south Georgia, Weeki Wachee FL, Miami, Key West, Daytona, etc... I'm thinking of blogging a series about that epic vacation after I learn to slice and dice some 8 mm footage that I had converted into DVD format. Maybe I'll even record voice-over narration.  There are some photos somewhere too from that trip--probably in my brother's basement which I need to snag.

[2] Did you know that hair (like grass) grows faster in the summer?  I heard this from a barber once and thought little of it until I sat down to write this. Speaking of mowing lawns, we recently bought one of these.  I had procrastinated for years about getting a cordless electric mower. It's not the one I wanted which is a Bosch lithium ion battery mower, but my wife got fed up with the waiting and just bought it. My son now loves mowing the lawn.

[3] Dismounted Drill and P.T. (physical fitness testing).

Monday, June 7, 2010

Freya von Moltke Never Went Back To Poland

Life has taught us that love does not consist in gazing at each other but in looking outward together in the same direction.
-Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Freya von Moltke (1911-2010)
Freya von Moltke passed away almost unnoticed early this year.  I was twittering around late one night last spring and came across her book, Memories of Kreisau and the German Resistance. I was interested in her husband, Helmuth James Graf von Moltke, after having watched Sophie Scholl: Die Letzten Tage

Memories of Kreisau & The German Resistance is a slim volume which I read through in a weekend. I marked a couple passages with yellow stickies that I thought might be worth remembering.  Here she writes about what motivated her husband and his friends:
However, questions of faith were also, or became, personally vital for almost all the members of the group.  Even if they were not churchgoing Christians, it was their faith in divine work, and, in fact, the faith rooted in Christian heritage, that gave them their foundation and their courage.  Their faith also imposed upon them the duty to act against the destruction of fundamental humanity (evolved from Christianity) by National Socialism and to risk their lives for this. However, for them it was not only a matter of great heritage, out of which our western treasures had grown, in spite of all atrocities committed by the church and by Christians throughout the centuries; rather, they also believed in the future of Christianity.  Christianity has a way--just when it appears bankrupt--of becoming alive again in a new and different manner. They believed that. Faith is tested by one's actions. People attach themselves to many gods and are always in danger of being led astray by false gods--as was the case then with the false gods of National Socialism.
Her husband, Helmuth James von Moltke, was one of Germany's best legal minds of his generation.  He was arrested, charged with conspiracy, and executed just months before the end of the war.  Freya said of her husband:
Whoever wants to become acquainted with Helmuth, must read his letters. He is not easy to describe, especially not for me. 
Helmuth James von Moltke's  Letters To Freya (1939-45) is over 400 pages long and set in extremely small type font. He details in an unbroken series of letters to his wife the minutia of his thoughts on all matters as seen from someone inside the Third Reich on the other side.  The diarist narrative gets a bit bogged down in places and I admit that I skipped around, unlike Memories of Kreisau.

Imprisoned for a year, then tried and summarily executed, von Moltke wrote to his sons from prison (then aged just 3 and 6) calling their mother by her name and choosing words which they could not possibly have understood then:
...Ever since National Socialism came to power, I have done my best to mitigate the consequences for its victims and to prepare for a change. I was driven to it by my conscience, and, after all, it is a task for a man. From 1933 on, I have therefore had to make material sacrifices and to run personal risks. In all these years Freya, who was the one who suffered most from these sacrifices and who always had to be concerned that I would be arrested, imprisoned, or killed, never hindered me in what I considered necessary, or made it harder in any way. She was always ready to accept everything; she was always ready to make sacrifices if it was necessary. And I tell you: that is much more than I did. For running risks oneself, which one knows, is nothing compared with the readiness to let the person with whom one's life is joined run risks one cannot gauge. And it is much more, too, than the wife of a warrior accepts, for she has no choice; one word from Freya might have held me back from many an undertaking.
The very last two letters in Letters To Freya (written after he had been condemned and just days before his execution) are particularly moving and read in part like lyrics--as if written by a man graced with resolve and contentment.   Freya wrote in her book:
I carried Helmuth's commitment with him from the beginning, and therefore, I wanted him to continue....I never advised him to stop, but rather encouraged him, because I was convinced that that was the right way for him to fulfill his life.
It sounds to me like they had a perfect marriage.