Protests Call Up Memories, New Discoveries

I, like a lot of Americans, have been thinking, reading, listening and reflecting on the demonstrations taking place in this country (and around the world) these past two weeks.  It’s been a good time to take stock about the problems of racism that still exist in this country, 155 years after the last slaves were emancipated on June 19, 1865 and 56 and 52 years after the President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968.

The protests, fueled by the death of George Floyd, have given rise to concerns  that many may have thought had been resolved.  The protesters, who risk their lives in the middle of a deadly pandemic, have brought widespread recognition to the fact that discrimination, inequality and profiling are still rife in the United States.

The announcement of the President’s upcoming visit to Tulsa, OK. for a political rally brought up that city’s terrible history when, in 1921, hundreds of black citizens were literally massacred.  I’m ashamed, and a little shocked, to say that I grew up just 90 miles north across the state lines in Kansas and never knew anything about that tragic event during all the time that I lived there.

Likewise, I learned something else new earlier this week from my friend, Virginia, a friend who I’ve known since grade school.  Years later, Virginia and I frequently got together whenever the two of us were back in our hometowns at the same time.  She, like me, had moved away but returned occasionally to visit our respective families who still lived in town.  We’d have long talks about all sorts of things but often our conversation drifted towards politics, family and childhood memories.

On one such visit, I recall Virginia telling me about a section of town referred to by a derogatory nickname because it was the ‘Black neighborhood’.  It was the first time I had heard of it but Virginia assured me it was commonly used when we were both kids. (My memory fails to accurately remember the exact name so I’m excluding what I think it was, but if anyone reading this blog knows, please tell me and I’ll make the correction.)

My second grade classmates stopped one recess so I could take a photo. My friend Virginia is second from the left.

Virginia has since moved back to a neighboring community and earlier this week was on her way to participate in one of the Black Lives Matter protests being held in my hometown. That was when I learned from her, indirectly, that my kindergarten class of 1958 at McKinley School was the first integrated kindergarten in town.  I had no idea.

In fact, I remember little about kindergarten except for my teacher’s name, a few of my classmates (including Virginia), the fact that I was in the morning kindergarten and that one of the little boys in my class, Jeff, had to stay after school one day for crawling up during story time to give me a kiss on the cheek.

But Virginia remembers well that she was one of the first Black kindergarteners to attend McKinley School.  As she says, she and the other Black children had never heard of McKinley and were scared to death because they didn’t know what they would find there.  Previously, all the Black children, went to Douglass School which taught students from elementary age through junior high school. The school was eventually closed when enrollment declined as more Black parents chose to have their students attend the White junior high school, according to historian Jean Patterson who wrote “The Final Days of Douglass School” chapter in the book “Breakthroughs in the Sociology of Education.”

Until 1958, Black children in my hometown attended the Douglass School. This is one of the few, if only, photographs that may exist of that building.

As Patterson reported:  “To this day, many (White) townspeople believe the school board was being progressive in acting to desegregate the Parsons schools before the U.S. Supreme Court made its final ruling. However, many Black citizens of Parsons tell a different story. Although leaders in the Black community at the time favored integrating the schools, they were concerned about what would happen to their teachers. Their
worst fears came to pass when all but two Douglass teachers were either terminated
or forced into retirement. Most White teachers were not prepared to teach Black
students, nor did they welcome these students in their classrooms. In what many
Black citizens believe was one final act of hostility on the part of the superintendent,
Douglass School was bulldozed over with everything in it; nothing was salvaged
as trophies, photographs, books, and other artifacts were destroyed along with the
building. What remains of the school are the memories of the alumni and the pictures
and artifacts they kept over the years.”

Indeed, years later, when a local organization commissioned a company to include the school in its miniature historical building series, it had trouble finding any existing photos of the school.   Local news reports say that the organization had to resort to drawings and sketches made by former students.

How differently history is perceived when the facts are either erased, ignored, forgotten or simply not known.  As in my own case, I never knew that my Black friends, friends I kept all through my school years and continue to have to this day, were the first to be integrated in my elementary school.  How could I not know this?  I guess, like so many, other things, it simply wasn’t discussed. Or, if it was, I was too young or too sheltered, to know.  Clearly, my friend Virginia and I’m sure others like her, were very aware and, like her, were frightened of being the first to break the color barrier in my small town.

Looking back, I imagine there were many other ‘firsts’ to which I was woefully unaware. The first Black cheerleader in our high school may also have been a member of my class, for instance.

Protesters on the streets today are strongly reminding us that this country has not ‘fixed’ the problems related to racism despite the gains made in the 1960s.  The protests are shaking us back into reality and out of the complacency that had settled over this country. Maybe this time, the change needed will happen.

Honoring a Mother, a Nurse, and Life Devoted to Caregiving

Mother-in-Law Day (yes, there is such a thing) doesn’t come until October 25 this year but I’m not waiting until then to tell you about my own mother-in-law.  On this Mother’s Day so many are separated from their mothers due to the COVID-19 pandemic or can not be with their children because they are caring for the critically ill in hospitals and nursing homes across the world.  My own mother passed away nearly eight years ago (still hard to believe) and my mother-in-law died only within a year of my family moving to Bellingham, nearly 24 years ago.  That too is hard to believe some times.

My mother-in-law’s nursing school’s graduation portrait.

I’ve been thinking about my mother-in-law a lot recently since the COVID-19 crises brought to the forefront the important contribution, and seldom recognized, work and sacrifice, that healthcare professionals, nurses in particular make to our society.  I have long had the utmost respect for nurses.

As a journalist who covered medicine for part of my career for TIME and others, nurses were some of my most trusted, reliable and valuable sources when reporting on medical events or issues.  I developed a relationship with many to whom I could turn when I needed a recommendation, not only for personal medical care, but for experts to quote, insider info and verifications on stories.

One of the few photos of Elaine on duty as a nurse in World War II, taken, no doubt while on her way to a patient’s room.

I suspect this was due, in part, to Elaine, my mother-in-law, who was a career nurse.  Elaine began her nursing career in the most dramatic way, graduating from nursing school at Kansas State University and enlisting immediately in the Women’s Army Corps as a nurse.  Not long after, she was shipped overseas (on the very same ship as my Dad, see my post: Saluting a Veteran…) to serve in a field hospital for the Fifth Army during World War II.

Imagine what it was for a young woman still in her early 20s, fresh out of nursing school and never out of Kansas (as far as I know) to be suddenly thrown into a situation caring for and attending severely wounded and dying soldiers, most of them no older than herself.  I suspect that many of the nurses on the front lines in our hospitals today, caring for COVID patients, are facing some of the same challenges, stresses and strains.

Most of the photos from Elaine’s war years are with her nursing friends, shown here in helmets and uniform, the PPE of their time.

We have photographs that Elaine took during her service overseas, but with the exception of one, none were taken of the hospitals or her patients.  Instead, she focused on her nursing friends, the local children and the places where she was stationed.  These were the visual memories she brought home with her after the War ended.  I am sure the mental memories stuck with her until her passing nearly 50 years later.  The only time I ever heard her talk about her wartime memories, was on a few occasions when she and my father sat down together.  And even then, their conversations were tinted with the happier times of those life-changing years.  I think about that because I am sure that all of the nurses tending today’s COVID patients, will carry with them the faces and cases of their patients for long time after the virus subsides and many, I am sure, will suffer post-traumatic stress syndrome.

That’s why, last Wednesday, May 6, National Nurses Day, was such a significant day this year and why, when International Nurses Day comes up this week on May 12, people need to remember these incredibly dedicated people and honor them.

As a grandmother, Elaine took special care of her three grandsons, shown here still being a nurse giving medicine to her grandson, Marshall.

Elaine spent her entire life as a caregiver, returning after the War to a career as a nurse in the Veteran’s Administration hospitals in Phoenix and Prescott, Az., as a single-mother who worked the graveyard shifts so she could be home in the early a.m. to send her only son off to school and see him again after and early evening before heading off for her job, as a daughter who took in and cared for her own mother in her last years, and finally as a grandmother who looked after my own three young sons on days when I worked.

I consider myself fortunate to have had her in my life, regret that she didn’t live longer to see my own sons grow up and to share their triumphs and tribulations along with us.  I have no doubt, had she lived long enough (she would have been 100 this year) she would have been right beside all those dedicated nurses laboring daily at great risk to themselves, in the hospitals now, if only in spirit.

One of my personal favorite photographs of Elaine and my husband, taken at a surprise birthday party for me. You can see how much she beams with pride for her only son.

Mardi Gras Indian Chief Preserved Tribal Traditions

COVID-19 claimed another cultural figure this past week when Ronald Lewis of New Orleans died.  Lewis was respected locally in the city as a member of the legendary Mardi Gras Indians and for his efforts to preserve and pass on the traditions and history of its culture.  The Mardi Gras Indians are by far one of the most colorful ‘krewes’ of Mardi Gras, not only in its costumes but in its heritage.

The Mardi Gras Indians pass their traditions from one generation to another with even the littlest members taking part in the parades and costumes. It was a rare treat to see these two Indians in their full regalia.

Their traditions date back to the 1800s when Native American tribes living in the area helped to shield and protect runaway slaves.  The Mardi Gras Indians honor the friendship and bonds that were formed during that time in modern day Mardi Gras parades. Today, there are more than 40 Mardi Gras Indian tribes that includes the Wild Magnolias, the Yellow Pocahontas and the Choctaw Hunters of which Lewis was once Council Chief.

During the performance, the Chief stopped to tell the crowd about the Mardi Gras Indian tradition in New Orleans. The elaborate costumes, or suits, take hundreds of hours to construct and are dazzling to see up close.

I’ve never had the chance to see the Indians parade, as their parades usually occur after my annual visit to New Orleans during the Carnival season.  But a couple years ago, I was lucky enough to catch members of one of the tribes perform one afternoon at the little outdoor stage in a section of he French Quarter down by the Mississippi River in what is known as Dutch Alley.  The area is filled with tourists who wander in the Artist Co-op, stroll through the Mask Market (see blog post Reveling and Revealing at the Mardi Gras Mask Market, Feb. 2016. ) held here the weekend before the big Mardi Gras parades or visit the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park’s Visitor Center where you hear a jazz session, read about the history of the genre and pick up a recording or two of some of the local musicians.  The Visitor Center is a stop that I recommend everyone make when they are in the city.

The tribal members performing the day I saw them wore their beautiful feathered and beaded costumes.  I had seen many lustrous prints made by photographer Christopher Porche West of Indian members in their costumes displayed on the walls of the Snug Harbor jazz club.  But never had I seen one in person until this one day.

The patches of the Mardi Gras Indians are intricate pieces of beaded artwork designed to tell a story on the the costume.

Each tribal member creates and sews their own costume or ‘suit’ as they are known.  The beading is intricate and detailed and takes hundreds of painstaking hours to finish.  The colors are vibrant and shine in the New Orleans sunlight.  The feathers are carefully placed one by one and when worn sweep with the wearer’s motions.  On the costumes are ‘design patches’ that are first sketched on a canvas before decorated with beads and sequins. Each patch tells a story and matches the overall design and color of the costume. These costumes truly are artistic creations and can cost thousands of dollars in materials.  Sadly, the suits are worn for only one season, then are broken down and reassembled into a new costume for the next year.

Lewis recognized the importance and value of this tradition and the mastery of the skills needed to create each of these suits.  He created in his backyard The House of Dance and Feathers to preserve and educate others about the culture surrounding these unique organizations.  His collection of masks, suits, figures, and other related artifacts have been on display  there since 2003.  It has been open to the public by appointment but, as the website notes: “We’re pretty flexible and we’d love to see you down in the Lower Ninth Ward. Just give us a call and we’ll make an arrangement for you to come and visit.”

Whether or not Lewis’ family will continue to maintain The House of Dance and Feathers is not certain. If they do, I plan to pay a visit next time I’m in town.  I only wish that I had known about it while Lewis was still living and would be there to share the stories he told. One thing that is certain is Lewis’ contribution and efforts to bring attention to the extraordinary culture of the Mardi Gras Indians will not be forgotten just as the African American descendants of those runaway slaves have not forgotten the role Native Americans played in sheltering their ancestors two hundred years ago.

The celebratory spirit of the Mardi Gras Indian is obvious. The ornate headdress is an art piece unto itself.

Saluting a Veteran Who Served Her Country and Cared for Its Soldiers

When most people think of Veteran’s Day, they think of those in our military who fought in our armed services.  Since becoming a national holiday in 1938, Americans have honored those who served in the military, particularly those who are still living.

I have written previously about my Dad’s service in the U.S. Army during World War II as well as that of my other uncles who also fought in that War.  But I’ve barely touched on another who’s service was equally as important and heroic, that of my mother-in-law.  I thought this year, I’d salute her.

Looking every bit fresh off the farm, Elaine was only in her early 20s when she signed up to go overseas with the Army Nursing Corps during World War II.

Elaine signed up after graduating from nursing school in Kansas.  She had grown up on a small farm in the western part of the state and as far as I know, hadn’t been that far from home except perhaps for a visit or two to family living in Topeka.  But upon finishing her nurse’s training, she joined others in her 36th General Hospital unit and the troops bound for Africa and the War aboard the U.S.S. Harry Lee, a converted banana freighter (thanks to my brother Brad for this detail).  Also on that very ship was my own father, was a 22-year-old farm boy from the opposite side of the state.  Their oceanic crossing was in the largest convoy ever to cross the Atlantic.

My mother-in-law and my father never met on that journey. In fact, they didn’t discover that they had  both served in the 5th Army until after my husband and I were married.  The two traded ‘war’ stories one afternoon while sitting at the kitchen table in my mother-in-law’s Arizona home.

The troops disembark from the ship.

As they talked, they were surprised to learn that not only had they shipped out together, but that they virtually followed one another throughout the Italian campaign.  Of course, my father’s chemical battalion was at the very front of fighting, laying down mortar shell cover so that the infantry could advance.  Elaine, on the other hand, was at the rear, in the field hospital, assisting in surgeries and tending those who had been injured in battle.  My father once told me he was certain that some of those from his ‘outfit’, who came down with malaria, had turned up in her hospital.

Like many veterans from World War II, Elaine didn’t talk about her war experiences, at least not when I was around. I regret that I didn’t ask her more about it before she died 22 years ago. I know that she was a Lieutenant in rank. All the women nurses were officers primarily so that the enlisted men couldn’t ‘fraternize’ with them.  As such, they had access to the ‘officers’ club and enjoyed other privileges that came with the rank.  Those small ‘perks’ were not many and offered little in exchange for the endless and tireless work that they did to try to save the lives of those who arrived daily from the front lines.

Her hospital unit trailed my own father’s route, starting in Africa, then up to Sicily, the southern coast of Italy to the interior until they finally liberated Rome.  She, like my Dad, was also in France for a while but never entered Germany as he did.  I wish now that I knew more.

My mother-in-law was one of the nurses for the 36th Division General Hospital during World War II. Don’t know the location of this photo.

I have learned a little from a file in the 36th General Hospital collection at the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University in Detroit, MI. “…After first being shipped to Algeria, the 36th was ordered to Caserta, Italy in October of 1943. Established in the rear of the Fifth Army, the hospital had an average daily census of 1,800 patients. In June of 1944 a Texas hospital unit was added to the 36th to make it a 2,000 bed facility. The
hospital followed the allied invasion forces north into France and was located successively at Aix-en-Province, Dijon, and Garches. The unit was deactivated at Baston in November of 1945. During its 3 1/2 years of service the 36th had treated over 45,000 sick and wounded and received two decorations.”

Unfortunately, my husband and I never heard stories from her about the War and I wasn’t quick enough to take notes the day she and my Dad were exchanging memories.

Elaine was invited by a friend from ‘back home’ to take a plane ride during her wartime tour.

I recall her telling about the time that a pilot whom she knew from Kansas, invited her for a ride in the plane to which he was assigned.  He was flying to pick up some supplies and asked Elaine, who had the day off or requested it, if she’d like to go along.  It was ‘loud,’ she said about her seat in the bombardier window of the aircraft.  The photo of her taken on that day shows her wearing big lace-up boots obviously too large for her feet, a military overcoat and gloves and a tentative smile.  Whether this picture was taken before or after the trip I don’t know.  Despite what must have been a cold, loud and probably bumpy flight, she said had had a good time.  I can imagine that any break from a day of hospital duty would have been welcome.

Her other photos show places where she visited or was stationed.  The cathedral at Rheims in France seems to have made a huge impression on this Catholic-raised young woman from the central U.S. as several photos are from her visit there. In southern Italy, she saw the isle of Capri which also enchanted her. Like so many of the soldiers and service personnel at that time, seeing places that one had only read about in books must have seemed like a  dream.  Sadly, the circumstances under which they found themselves made it much more like a nightmare.

Elaine, on the far left end, and others from her hospital unit at the cathedral in Rheims, France.

Upon returning to the States, Elaine stayed in nursing working for the hospitals of the Veteran’s Administration in Arizona until finally retiring.  I never ‘thanked’ her for her service and am sure that few did.  She was an excellent nurse, precise, kind, caring and thorough.  She was just the sort of person you’d want tending to your wounds.  No doubt  those war years left her with many memories that she preferred to forget.  She did what she felt she had to do for her country and those fighting for it. Her skills and knowledge were essential at a time when nurses were rarely respected or acknowledged. I am grateful for what she did.

This Veteran’s Day I want to posthumously recognize her, along with all the other nurses who like her served our country, for the sacrifices they made and hardships they endured, to provide medical care to the troops. Without them, far fewer would have returned home to be honored later on Veteran’s Day.

An ‘official photo’ of Elaine’s Army Nursing Corps in a Victory Parade. The location isn’t identified on her photo but an arrow indicates where Elaine is in the group.

 

Church Celebrates 150 Years of Service to a Community

In 1857, there were just 13 log houses in the newly founded town of Fremont, Neb., located along the banks of the Elkhorn and Platt Rivers.  The Mormons had made the same place a stopover on their way from Missouri to Salt Lake City. Today, a plaque in Fremont’s Barnard Park commemorates where the Mormon pioneers once made camp.

By 1866, the Union Pacific Railroad had come to Fremont, soon to become a railway hub.  Three years later, a small group of people met together to organize a church, the First Baptist Church of Fremont. That church celebrated its 150th anniversary yesterday.  Two years ago, my brother Richard became its minister.

Fremont’s First Baptist Church is located on the edge of the downtown where it has stood since it was built in 1901.

He and his wife, Nola, moved to Fremont, a lively town of approximately 27,000.  My brother has settled into his new position, learning about the members of his new congregation and community.  Since its founding, the church has played an important role in Fremont,  such as aiding those who need help whose homes were damaged by the flood waters this spring.

The church sanctuary of the Fremont Baptist Church has a simple beauty .

I made a trip earlier this summer to visit my brother and his wife there and to see their new home and church. Their home is situated next door to the red brick church built in 1901.   The church is a Romanesque revival style architecture. Its solid exterior exemplifies the kind of church buildings that dot small Midwestern towns.  They were the center of  activity, where townsfolk gathered for social events as well as to attend services on Sunday.  They were places, and still are, where families of like faiths, beliefs and values congregated and came together to help one another through tough times as well as good. They were where lives were celebrated through baptisms, weddings and funerals.

The back door to the church is right around the corner from the front door of the church parsonage. One evening, I joined my sister-in-law when she invited to give me a tour of the church. I followed her through the church’s back door when she went to feed the baby chicks, waiting for her nightly arrival, that were peeping hungrily in their temporary cardboard box coop in the church’s youth classroom.  The chicks had been living and growing there since Easter and were soon to be relocated to the farm of one of the church members.

The evening light coming through the church windows cast a warmth over the rows of empty pews in the darkened sanctuary.

We headed up the back stairs into the church and passed into the sanctuary.  The sanctuary was empty, dim and quiet when we entered.  Strong, simple dark timber beams supported the steep pitched high ceiling.  From these beams hung long lantern-like lamps that beautifully lit the interior with a soft white light  when my sister-in-law switched them on.  Behind the altar and the the choir pews at the front of the aspe was a large blue stained glass window.  The blue glass of the arched window was deep and tranquil.  Lining either side of the sanctuary were golden crisscross leaded windows through which the evening light cast a warm glow over the rows of the dark wooden pews.  The mood was reverent and peaceful. It indeed felt like this place, at this moment truly offered sanctuary from the troubles of the outside world.

On Sundays, my brother takes his place at the pulpit to speak to his Sunday congregation. The services are projected on the screen behind him as well as recorded and posted on the church website and linked to its Facebook page where people can tune in and watch it later.

On Sunday, when I attended my brother’s church service, the sanctuary had come alive as people came in to find their seats in the pews in preparation for the 9:30 a.m. traditional service. (A more contemporary and casual worship takes place at 11 a.m. in church’s Family Center located adjacent to the main building.)  The church members greeted one another by name and welcomed me as they introduced themselves before the service started. It was a reminder that the church is not the building, as fine a structure as this one is,  but the people within. Like those first Fremont residents who had come together 150 years ago to start their church, the current members carry on their work to keep their church alive.

My brother talks with members of his congregation prior to his Sunday morning service.

My brother, as its pastor, now leads this group of faithful members to continue its outreach into the community and to serve its greater mission of providing a place where people can come together to freely worship and commune with one another.  Besides its regular services, the church provides assistance to the  families and staff of Fremont’s Washington Elementary School, where many children from the town’s Hispanic population attend school.  It provides birthday cupcakes at the LifeHouse homeless shelter. Two Alcoholics Anonymous groups meet at the church as does a woodworking hobby club.  During the downtown’s annual Halloween Hysteria, it served free hot dogs to hungry costumed characters and their parents last year.  At the town’s John C. Fremont Days in July, it set up to sell 50-cent hot dogs and soda to celebrants and offered crafts activities to the kids.  It also began a ‘Big Truck Day’ a couple years ago and invited local companies and utilities to park some of its over-sized trucks on the church parking lot where delighted youngsters and their parents could get a close-up look at these gigantic vehicles.

But its biggest role and challenge this past year was in orchestrating and providing local disaster relief efforts to the hundreds of people living in and around Fremont whose homes and belongings were damaged or destroyed when the rivers flooded caused the town to be cut off from outside help for several days.  When the water began to recede, the church still continued to deliver and distribute much-needed donated basic supplies, such as diapers, mops and cleaning products, food, socks and water to those most impacted by the crises.  Together with members from their community, they coordinated efforts to help the flood victims get back in their houses and back on their feet.

It’s a role that my brother sees as an important part of his church’s work and mission. “We can’t do a lot of stuff, ” he told a local newspaper reporter, “but we can help fill in the gaps here and there.

“We want to be known as a church that’s a blessing to its community,” he adds.  I’m sure the original founders of his church, 150 years ago, would have agreed.

 

 

 

Destination Moon Draws Visitors into Its Orbit

Anyone who was a kid or older in 1969 is likely to know exactly where they were when astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins made history with the first moon landing.  Most of the world was glued to a television set or, in some cases, a radio, to watch and listen that day as Armstrong and Aldrin became the first humans to set foot on the moon’s surface.

Like many Americans, I was fascinated by the “space exploration race.” The astronauts were national heroes who captured the imaginations and dreams of millions. I remember how excited I was to hear astronaut Gordon Cooper, who flew in the last Mercury mission, address the Professional Photographers of America at a convention in Chicago.  He was the size of my finger from my balcony seat but his presence filled the vast auditorium.

Taken with my Brownie camera, Mercury and Gemini astronaut Gordon Cooper speaks to photographers assembled at the Professional Photographers of America convention in Chicago. The image is grainy. My arrow indicates Cooper.

My brothers and I launched rocket after rocket into space from our Cape Canaveral set.  We transformed the shower stall in one of our bathrooms into a space capsule to simulate adventures to the stars.  The “astronaut” lay with their back on the shower floor, feet up against the shower wall and communicated via walkie-talkie radio to mission control located just outside the bathroom door.  We flew many imaginary missions to and from the outer reaches of our galaxy on those Saturday afternoons.

In junior high school, I was selected, maybe because I was a reporter on the school newspaper, to take part in a special science assembly with a guest speaker.  I don’t recall  who the presenter was but I was asked to don a spacesuit, crawl into a mock-up Mercury capsule while sitting onstage and clicking a switch every few seconds that turned on and off a red light atop the capsule.  The demonstration pointed out how easy and quickly we can lose our sense of time.  I didn’t do well as a test subject but I was thrilled at putting on that spacesuit and being an astronaut  for the experiment.

Years later, when working for TIME Magazine, I joined the entire Los Angeles bureau at Edwards Air Force Base to watch one of the Discovery Space Shuttles land.  (Story for another blog post.)

A view of the Columbia command module through the hatch window. The hatch has been removed from the capsule so that visitors can see its inside design. The lever on the left was added as an escape measure after the tragedy that killed the three Apollo astronauts of 1967.

So naturally, when I learned that Seattle’s Museum of Flight was presenting the exhibit, Destination Moon in partnership with the Smithsonian Institution to mark the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, I was determined to go.  The exhibit, which opened in April and will close Sept. 2, is its only West Coast appearance.  While relatively small in size, the exhibit displays 20 artifacts from the Smithsonian, many of them from that historic moon landing mission, as well as several other objects from the Seattle museum’s own extensive collection.

The Saturn V rocket’s F-1 engines were the most powerful ever built. These components were salvaged from the ocean floor and are now part of the museum’s permanent collection.

My husband and I entered at our assigned time yesterday and wound our way through the items, stopping to read each description.  Among the artifacts are a restored console from NASA’s mission control.  The buttons and monitors look primitive compared to today’s computer systems.  I chuckled overhearing one young man explaining to his young female companion that the rotary dials on the panel weren’t for phoning “your grandmother.”

My husband who is six-foot, four-inches tall stands next to one of the spacesuits on display at the Destination Moon exhibit. You can see for yourself the difference in size. He never would have qualified for an astronaut!

I was also struck by the various ‘spacesuits’ on view and the smallness of their size.  Although the personas of these early space pioneers were gigantic, in reality, they were not large men.  Most, if not all, had been fighter pilots, and physically had to fit into the tight, compact cockpits of both the fighter planes and the cramped quarters of the early space capsules.  Some of the suits resembled expensive homemade costumes, and, in some ways they were.  For instance, ordinary blue rickrack was stitched to finish off the suits’ hose attachment openings.  This little touch must have made some of the women who sewed them smile.

You can see here a detail of the decorative rickrack used to trim the head opening of the spacesuit. The exhibit lighting made it next to impossible to photography objects in the display cases without reflection.

Also fascinating are the mangled F-1 engine sections of the Saturn V rocket, the only parts to ever have been recovered.  The components were found and lifted from the bottom of the Atlantic a few years ago in a project financed by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.  After  restoration at the Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, Kansas, the surviving pieces were sent to Seattle’s museum and the Smithsonian where they will remain on permanent display after the Destination Moon exhibit closes.

Of course the centerpiece of the Seattle exhibit is the conical-shaped Columbia command module from the Apollo 11 mission.  Again most striking is its size, so small compared to the enormous space shuttles used today.  It’s mind-boggling how three men traveled to the moon and back in this compact capsule.  I missed the 3-D interactive tour of the capsule’s interior but just being within arm’s reach of this historic vessel was overpowering.

The Columbia command module was the centerpiece of the exhibit. In the background you can see the video of the rescue of the astronauts from the space capsule after landing in the ocean.

So too were the gloves and helmet with its gold visor worn by Aldrin and that reflected Armstrong’s image in the now iconic photo of Armstrong standing on the moon. I attempted to preserve the moment with a photo reflecting back my own image.  Mine didn’t turn out nearly as well as Aldrin’s. Amazing too is the fact that on that mission, and others, the astronauts used Hasselblad cameras and film as digital cameras were yet to be invented. (More about the equipment used can be found here. )

The famous gold visor and gloves of astronaut Buzz Aldrin worn on the moon are displayed in the exhibit.

One of the moon “rocks” returned by the Apollo astronauts can also be seen in the exhibit.  Surprising to me was how many people simply passed by without stopping to wonder at how far away this rough, gray, volcanic-looking stone came to end up here on earth.  Perhaps this is an indication too at how much we now take for granted travel into space.

The moon rock on display in Seattle came a long ways to be seen.

At the time of the Apollo missions, space exploration was still an incredible phenomena.  According to the exhibit information, NASA’s space program at its height employed 400,000 people.  It embodied the vision, ingenuity and skills of people at all levels.  It gave Americans a unifying reason to be proud of its country at a time when the VietNam War was tearing them apart.  And it gave the world a challenge that remains relevant today–to create a single event that can bring people together for the greater good.  It was indeed a small step for man but a giant leap for mankind.

Outside the exhibit, visitors, like myself, can take their own ‘moon’ photo as did Neil Armstrong.

Race Day Brings Excitement, People, Surprises

Today is unquestionably the biggest day of the year in Bellingham.  An estimated 35,000 people come to watch or participate in the Ski to Sea race.  It’s a seven-leg 93-mile relay race that starts at the top of the 10,000 foot Mount Baker and finishes in Bellingham Bay at Marine Park.  During the course of it, competitors ski, bike, canoe, run and kayak.  It’s likely to be one of most demanding and grueling competitive races in the country.

The race began more than one hundred years ago in 1911 as the Mount Baker Marathon organized by the Mount Baker Club as a way to call attention to the area’s spectacular scenery.  But it was suspended when a racer fell into one of the mountain’s crevasses.  Then, in 1973, it was resurrected by Bellingham’s Chamber of Commerce with 177 people competing on 50 different teams. This year, there are 414 teams entered in the race of eight people  each.

A few years ago, I was one of those.  My team, the Angst-Ridden Mamas, made its first appearance in the big race in 2004.  I had decided that to be fully considered as a Bellinghamster, I needed to do the race at least once.  So I signed up a few of my most active friends, paid our entry fee and started to train.  This is a race that attract not only local and amateur athletes but professionals and Olympians who come to be on teams sponsored by local business.  Ours wasn’t one of those.

Team member Terri early on the morning of the race about to head up with other team members to the mountain where the race begins.

There are several different categories under which a team can enter.  We chose to skirt the ultra-competitve professional categories and opted instead to put ourselves into the Whatcom County Women’s Recreational division.  Not only did we think this gave us our best shot at not coming in last, we thought it best fit the skill level and activity of our team members, who like myself were all mom’s with school-aged kids.

That didn’t mean, however, that we didn’t taken ourselves seriously as competitors.  Each of us were signed up for a leg in the sport that we competed or participated in regularly.  As a kayaker who frequently paddled in Bellingham Bay, I took that, the final leg of the race.  Mine was a five-mile course that started at Bellingham’s marina and ended at Marine Park across the water in the historic section of town known as Fairhaven.   In some ways, I felt I had one of the lighter legs in the race compared to the 8-mile run down Mount Baker or the 18.5 mile canoe paddle on the Nooksack River.

The reality is, that each of the seven legs presents its own set of challenges so that none are a ‘piece of cake’ when it comes down to it.

Connie, on her cross country skis, got us started at 8 a.m. on Mount Baker.

My paddling partner, Pat, who also entered on another team that same year, and I increased the frequency of our kayaking practices out in the Bay and lengthened the amount of time that we were in the water as the weeks leading up to race day drew closer.  We tried to improve our stroke technique and build up the distance we could get on each one.  We usually put in our boats early in the a.m. or late in the day when the water conditions are most optimal and the wind less likely to be a major factor.

On race day, however, you don’t have the luxury of choosing your time and the conditions can be considerably treacherous with wind, waves and currents.  While the first professional and Olympian-level teams often enter the water about 1 p.m., we were left sitting by our kayaks, waiting for our mountain biker to arrive well into the afternoon.  I don’t believe I got the hand-off from Carolyn, my mountain biker that first year, until after 4 p.m.

Waiting to go out on race day is one of the hardest parts of the race

The water was choppy but thankfully without white caps. I must note here that no one is allowed in the water without wearing a certified life vest.  You’re also supposed to verify that you know how to get back on or into your boat should you capsize.  I had both qualifications, as did my co-competitor Pat.  Even with all the official chase and spectator motor boats along the course, there was a possibility that you’d need to be prepared to be in the water.  The first turn around the buoy way out in the bay was especially difficult when the wind, coming from the west this particular year, kept pushing you off-course.

I rounded that buoy giving the other nearby paddler plenty of room.  My heart was thumping pretty hard as I did so.  Just as I completed my turn, one of the racers ahead of me dumped out.   Kayakers are also required to stop and assist if another racer needs help but as one of the observation boats was already headed towards that paddler, I kept on course.

The wind was the biggest factor on the second of the three legs of my course.  It seemed to pick up and kept shoving the bow of my boat back and forth .  My rudder was almost ineffective at countering the force as my boat bounced up and down over the waves like a bucking bronc trying to toss its rider.  One thing I knew was that I didn’t want to wind up in the water.  I wasn’t concerned about passing other paddlers, I just wanted to get to that second buoy, safely go around it and start down the final leg which I thought might be calmer water since it was more protected.

Valerie, our team’s road cycler, after finishing up her 40-mile ride.

I managed to do just that and though the water was still choppy, I no longer was battling the wind as much and could actually start to make some headway towards the final buoy and the stretch to the beach in the park.  I could hear voices from the shore cheering on those of us in the water. I even heard someone who recognized my yellow kayak and me call out my name.

With the hardest part of the race behind me now, I felt a surge of adrenaline in my tiring arms and lateral muscles, from where a kayaker really generates their power.  I could make it.  My team might not place but I we wouldn’t be the last ones in either.  I expected that we would end up about in the middle of pack in our division.  I had passed one other woman who I knew was also in that division.  My friend Pat, was somewhere behind me.

As I neared the last buoy and I could now see and hear the crowd that had collected on the beach to watch the finishing leg.  I pushed harder, grabbed the sides of my kayak with my thighs and put everything I had left into the homestretch.  I wasn’t likely to make up much time on this last approach but I was determined not to lose any more either.

Our team’s canoers Sue and Joanne bring their boat up to the finish line of the canoe leg with a little help from Carolyn, our mountain biker who took over from there.

With a few final strokes, my kayak rammed into the pebbly beach where Boy Scout volunteers were waiting to grab the bow and help stablize the boat so I could get out.  My legs wobbled and quivered as I lifted myself outside of my cockpit and scarmbled up the sloping bank to the big brass bell waiting for me at the finish line.  I grabbed the cord still swinging from the previous competitor and gave the bell one big clang.  I had made it. And I hadn’t capsized or lost my paddle or come in last.

My teammates waiting for me rushed over to give me a group hug. There was Connie who had started us off at 8 a.m. that morning on the cross country ski leg on the mountain, and Kathy, who took over from her for the downhill ski portion.  Terri, who’s now on the Board of Directors for the race, had run down the mountain.  Valerie gave us a big lead during her road biking leg to put Sue and Joanne in good position when they took off in their canoe.  And Carolyn delivered to me the sweaty orange elastic wristband that we were all required to wear when she rolled across the finish line of the mountain biking leg. And our support crew–Marla and Gaye.

In my kayak, giving it my all to push through the water on race day.

I was weary and dehydrated but felt exhilarated by the race, the camraderie of my team and the sense of having accomplished and completed something I wasn’t entirely certain I’d be able to do.  Now, came the best part–the party!

I carted my boat back to the community storage shed then went home to quickly shower off the salt water and sweat before going to the party.  I put on my yellow competitor’s t-shirt, given to each team member registered in the race, and walked around the corner to Vicki’s house where we were joining two other teams and friends for food, drink and fun The parties are what many regard as the best part of the race!

I had barely stepped in the door when my teammates surprised me with the declaration:  “We won third place!!”

Much to our surprise, the Angst Ridden Mamas took third place in our division in the Ski to Sea race in 2004.

“What?” I said in disbelief.

“Yes, we came in third,” one of them explained.

Then someone slipped the bronze-colored medal attached to the blue ribbon over my head. They weren’t kidding.  We had managed to medal in our first race ever.  None of us were expecting it. We all just wanted to finish.  So when the “Angst-Ridden Mamas” was called out by the race officials to come to the podium and receive our medals, only one of our team members was still there to receive them.

The third-place medals taken by our team in a surprise ending to our first race.

In my wildest dreams I hadn’t thought we’d place in a race of 300 teams with 2,400 competitors!  I was so surprised, as were my teammates, and proud of what we had done together for fun and so that I could feel a full-fledged Bellinghamster.

Our team competed in the race the following three years. While we didn’t repeat the glory of our inaugural appearance, we had a lot of fun and pride in participating and giving it our best on this one big day.  As I watch racers come in today, I’ll be thinking of how it felt, how hard it was and what a great time I and my team had being part of a very memorable Memorial Day weekend!

 

 

Mother’s Day Memories Are Homemade

I hadn’t planned to write about Mother’s Day for this posting, after all, what more can be said about it?  But then my sister-in-law asked if I would trimming drawings– some in colored-pencil, some with markers–done by the children and teens of her church to give their Mom’s.  As I slid the blade of the paper cutter up and down, along the lines of each child’s message to Mom, a flood of memories came back to me.

I remembered the homemade cards my own sons had done for me, mostly made in their classroom at school, of construction paper and cut-out flowers glued to the fronts with their simple, hand-lettered messages scrawled inside: “I love you. Happy Mother’s Day.” Construction paper doesn’t hold up as well over time as other paper mediums, it crumbles into flakes so I no longer have many, if any, of those lovely greeting cards.  But I can see them in my mind’s eye just as if they had given them to me yesterday.

Handmade cards by children of the church will be given to their Mom’s.

 

More lasting were some of the handcrafted gifts that they created at school for the special day.  In particular, are the little square boxes made of wooden popsicle sticks stacked like a Lincoln log house and glued together in the corners. Each was painted and had a top individually decorated with various shaped pasta pieces.  One is a delicate pink with pieces of shell-shaped macaroni pasted to it. Another is plain wood with rainbow colored twisted pasta pieces, rotelli and macaroni.  The third is golden, again with the rotelli, bow-tie and twisted pasta attached to the top. There’s also a small block of wood on this one, a handle by which the lid can be lifted.  I keep them in a drawer and use them to store my costume jewelry where I see or touch them almost daily.

Among my most treasured items are the homemade boxes by sons made and gave to me on Mother’s Day years ago.

On another Mother’s Day, I received baked clay figurines.  One of my son’s sculpted what appears to be a steagosaurus, the length of my forefinger and painted blue and green and nicely finished with a shiny glaze.  I keep it on a little shelf near by kitchen along with some other collectible figurines that  aren’t nearly as precious to me.

As they grew older, the gifts changed or stopped entirely.  One year, however, I asked for and received from my youngest son, who was writing poetry, if he would write a poem for me.  He did.  It was about dusk falling over New York City, where he now lives.  I placed it in clear glass and it hung, for a time, in his old bedroom at home.  Now I have it among my keepsakes.

Made for me by one of my sons, this tiny steagosaurus has a place on a shelf in my home.

My oldest son, also a fine writer but different, made a card with a photo of a lighthouse, of which he knows I’m fond, that he found on-line and printed a simple, but heartfelt message inside.  This stands on my bookshelf in my studio where it’s easily in view.

Sure, over the years I was given some lovely Mother’s Day presents, a lot of flowers and treated to brunches or dinners out.  But truly, the ones that I treasure are those simple, handmade, hand-crafted or handwritten gifts or cards.  Who knows where the pictures I trimmed this morning will end up?  In some shoe box saved along with other, similar drawings? In a little frame that sits at work on a desk?  Or slipped into a scrapbook with the grade cards and photos from school?  One thing I do know, the will certainly bring a smile, maybe even a tear to each Mom who receives them and maybe, like my own, become an enduring memory of the little one who created it and gave it with love.

 

 

Food, Family and Fun Times around the Christmas Table

This year for Christmas, I made a photo book for each of my brothers titled:  “Food, Family and Fun Times.”  I was prompted to do so when my younger brother, Brad, asked if I had any of the recipes from my mom and my aunts.  He was looking for one in particular, the red-hot salad that was on our table at nearly every Christmas dinner.   Maybe you know the one I mean:  cherry or strawberry jello combined with applesauce and those pill-sized red-hot candies that are melted before you stir them into the mixture.  You chill it to congeal.  It’s tasty but full of sugar. That’s probably one reason I too liked it so much as a kid.

One of the photos I found while assembling my photo gift book was this one of my Dad slicing green tomatoes for his pie.

Everyone has their own traditions when it comes to Christmas dinners, if your family is fortunate enough to be together for the holiday and can afford this one big feast.  As I assembled the photo book, I searched through my parents’ old photo albums, many of which I have, as well as my own to find photos that I could include in the book.  Originally, I was looking for snapshots taken of my parents and my aunts in their kitchens, preparing some of the foods for which I had the recipe cards.  But I discovered that I had very few of these photos and the ones I had were mostly of my Dad taken just a few years before he died making his favorite picalilli relish or green tomato pie.

One of my Dad’s favorite recipes was this one for the piccalilli relish.

Instead, what I  had were several snapshots taken at the family dinner tables before the meal commenced.  Many were taken on holidays or special occasions, such as birthdays. As I sorted through the years of photos, I studied the dishes placed on the table. Some I could easily recognize, like the fluffy lime green jello salad with pineapple and whipped cream (usually the artificial Cool Whip product) folded in.  Sometimes there was turkey, often ham as the main course.   Mashed potatoes, especially for the Thanksgiving dinner, but at Christmas it often was scalloped potatoes that I recall my Aunt Marie prepared.

There were dinners at the table in the make-shift dining room at my parents’ house at the motel my parents co-owned with my aunt and uncle and where grew up.

The dining room wasn’t large at my parents’ home at the motel where I grew up but the Christmas dinners always took place.

It was a pretty tight squeeze to get everyone seated around my mother’s Duncan Phyfe table, even with the leaves put in.  My mother’s nice china was set out with the centerpiece a little  handcrafted tiered Christmas tree made from red netting material.  Some years my Aunt Oleta and Uncle Joe who had moved from my hometown to another small town 45 minutes away joined us; sometimes it was just my Aunt Marie and Uncle Dale.

Two of my favorite Christmas dinner photos were taken years apart of the family together in the basement of my Aunt Marie and Uncle Dale’s home where we gathered for big celebrations.  The first was made when I was eight-years-old (I can tell by the dress I’m wearing). This photo special because one of my aunt and uncles from California, along with my cousin, is there as well as my aunt and cousin who lived in Hutchinson, Kansas,three hours away in Kansas. My cousins, Kevin, Leland and Debbie–just a baby–are there too with their parents, my Uncle Jiggs and Aunt Bernice.  It’s quite a photo because so seldom was this many of the Crooks clan together at Christmas.  Even though we’re not sitting at the table, I know that the table is set just on the other side of the camera with dinner no doubt waiting for us all.

The family gathers for a Christmas dinner.

The other recalls the another big Christmas gathering the first year I was in college.  (Know that from my hairstyle.) We’re all there again, minus the California and Hutchinson families and plus my youngest brother who is standing beside my uncle and just peeking over the back of one of the heavy, tall, carved oak chairs at the table’s end.  And again, the cousins who lived in town, are there, with my aunt and uncle.  This time, however, the photo is in color, the color film technology having long since become readily available.

Taken years later from the first gathering, the family comes together for another Christmas dinner in my aunt and uncle’s basement.

I carry on the Christmas dinner tradition with my own family. My parents, aunts and uncles with whom we ate have passed on but there’s a new generation who gather round the table that includes my sons and when possible the grown children and now grandchildren of those aunts and uncles.  I still insist on taking a photo of everyone once we’ve all sat down for the holiday dinner so we can relive these priceless moments in the future through the photographic memory.  The foods, the fun and the family time together are the real recipes for what makes the season bright.