Totem Memorializes Local Tragedy

On this weekend in the U.S., people are honoring the memories of the country’s military  who died in action. But another memorial is on my mind today prompted by an article that appeared the other day in the local newspaper.  That is the beautiful totem pole memorial that stood along the trail of Whatcom Creek on the edgeof Whatcom Falls Park in our city.

The healing totem was especially beautiful in the spring when the trees surrounding it flowered.

Sadly, the totem was recently removed, I read in the Bellingham Herald after someone vandalized and ‘tagged’ the pole with graffiti.  Not long ago, a friend of mine had told me that the box that sat atop the pole, was missing and wondered why.  Now the entire pole and the two carved wooden benches that sat beside it are gone after city workers removed them and placed them in protective storage until they can be restored.

While the city’s action is commendable, that of the vandals was disrespectful and, frankly, inexcusable.  I am giving those individuals the benefit of the doubt that they apparently are unaware of that they not only did they deface a significant Native artwork, but in so doing they insulted the artist, the Lummi Nation and the families of those killed in the 1999 Bellingham pipeline explosion for whom the pole was intended to memorialize.

The vibrant, bold colors of the totem can be seen in this detail of a salmon.

The 15-foot cedar log pole was created by the Lummi House of Tears carvers under the direction of Lummi Nation’s master carver Jewell James. Its bright, bold and beautiful paint was applied under the supervision of head painter Ramona James.  The pole took months to carve and paint before finally being erected and dedicated during an Earth Day ceremony in 2007.   “The pole is to restore the stream and its habitat and to remember the three boys who lost their lives,” carver James told American Profile reporter Heather Larson.

James referred to the three boys–Liam Wood, 18, Wade King and Stephen Tsiovras, both 10, who were killed when the Olympic pipeline (now owned by British Petroleum) carrying gasoline exploded dumping an estimated 277,000 gallons into the creek that runs through Whatcom Falls Park, located in the middle of Bellingham.  Liam was fishing after having just graduated from high school; Wade and Stephen were playing, as they often did together, further down creek.  It was a day that darkened the sky over Bellingham as the black cloud billowed above the park.  The explosion literally stopped life in town as everyone, myself included, wondered what had happened and emergency first responders rushed to the site.

Lummi Nation master carver Jewell James speaks at the dedication ceremony.

The explosion made national news, changed national pipeline regulation (although the families of those who died will tell you not enough) and some believe awoke Bellingham to the dangers that unregulated and aging pipelines pose for not only our city, but others like it throughout the country.

Lummi Nation tribal members as well as family and Bellingham community members gathered on April 20, 2007 to dedicate the healing totem.

I was present, along with a few others, on the day of Lummi Nation gave and dedicated the totem and benches to the city. The ceremony was emotional and moving with other Pacific Northwest Native Nations witnessing the event in order to pass the story along to the next generation. Those gathered listened solemnly as carver James spoke eloquently about the need to promote healing for all those impacted by the explosions, wildlife as well as human life, and about the importance of being good stewards of the environment.  Members of the Lummi Nation, also delivered a heartfelt messages for the family members attending. Lummi drummers and flutists played.  Blankets were draped around the shoulders of the deceased boys’ young friends, now high school students, participating in the unveiling during the ceremony.

The parents of Wade King, Frank and Mary, watch as their son’s personal belongings are placed into the memorial box on the totem.

Then, James asked the family members of the victims to bring forward the items that they had brought to be placed into the memorial box positioned atop the totem.  One by one the personal belongings of Stephen and Wade were handed up the tall ladder to the tribal member who carefully laid them inside.  A teddy bear, a baseball card and cap were among the things. The lid was fitted tightly and sealed.  Tears streamed down the faces of not only the family members but others who were that day.

And, as the ceremony was ending, two solitary eagles soared and glided over head, just as James had told Wade’s mother, Mary, earlier that day that they would.

As if on cue, two majestic eagles appeared, silhouetted in the sky, as the totem’s dedication ceremony concluded.

It was a day I’ll never forget.  When I read about the vandalism of the totem and its removal, my heart ached.  The city is apparently intent on repairing and restoring the totems and benches but in the meantime, there is a huge emptiness where they stood in the opening by the creek. The runners, walkers and visitors who pass by it will miss it.  The totem served as a somber, dignified reminder, as well as a memorial, to those who tragically died on that early June day in Bellingham.  That’s what’s on my mind this Memorial Day.

A Festival of Flags

Today is Memorial Day here in the U.S.  It’s celebrated with family get togethers, barbeques, concerts, parades, races, car shows, about anything you can think of to bring people together. Originally, it was created to honor those who served in our nation’s military and that’s still the real reason for the holiday, which, over time, has come to mark the start of summer in most of the country. (Summer comes about a month and a half later to the Pacific Northwest.)

But in small towns across America, people still take time to salute those who served and they do it in ways that aren’t the big spectacles you find in places like Washington D.C. or our other large metropolises.  To me, those small town commemorative services seem more genuine and reflect the true heart and soul of this country. Just ordinary people paying tribute to fathers, sons, uncles, aunts, mothers, daughters, brothers, sisters and cousins who gave their lives in military service to this country.

More than 1700 flags line the paths of the cemetery on Memorial Day weekend.

Northwest Washington state, where I live now, is nestled in a corner of the U.S. considered to be progressive politically and not so prone to an overabundance of patriotic fervor even though the state has a fair number of military bases located here.  Yet we have one of the most moving Memorial Day displays I’ve ever seen.

The Festival of Flags is sponsored by the local American Legion post and a local funeral home. It takes place at noon at the Greenacres Memorial Park located in neighboring Ferndale. I only just discovered this ceremony a couple of years ago when a friend of mine mentioned that she was attending. I suspect that many local residents, like myself, still aren’t aware of it.

A quiet bench offers a place for people to reflect.

The three-hour event starts at noon with food and music, this year provided by the barbershop group known as the Mount Baker Toppers. The opening act is followed by a short remembrance speech delivered by a military officer from somewhere in the region. This year’s ceremony will close with the unveiling of a new World War I memorial and the release of a dove, a nod to the peace that never quite seems to last for long in today’s world.

However the true highlight of the event is the more than 1,700 American flags that flap in the wind and line the pathways of the beautiful cemetery grounds throughout the Memorial Day weekend.  I went out to the cemetery two years ago just to have a look.  It was the year after my Dad had died–hard to believe it’s now three years since his passing–and I felt going out to the cemetery, particularly on Memorial Day, was a way I could remember him and pay my respects since I couldn’t visit the little country cemetery in Kansas where he and my mother are buried.

My first glimpse of the Festival of Flags was from the rain spotted window of my car,.

Memorial Day was rainy and dreary that year. But the day brightened for me when I pulled off the road, drove through the cemetery gates and caught my first view of the red, white and blues through the rain spotted window of my car. I sat quietly in my car reflecting on the year before while hoping that the rain would let up.

The gentle breeze kept the flags furling.

Eventually it turned to a light drizzle so I grabbed my camera, hopped out and began to photograph the flags.  Capturing the flags, so to speak, was a challenge. There were so many. A gentle breeze furled and unfurled the Star Spangled banners as a photographed. I pretty well had the cemetery to myself, except for a handful of people who had come early to set up for the ceremony that followed.

I walked through the forest of flags, not having to say a word to anyone, just me, my camera and, I felt, my Dad.  The time was a welcome break from the usual Memorial Day madness and just what I needed to personally honor the day. Whatever you do this day, I hope you’ll find a way to personally give tribute to those you love who may have given their lives or served time in our armed forces.

Remembering Our Ancestors on Memorial Day

This weekend, millions of Americans are celebrating one of this country’s oldest and biggest federal holidays–Memorial Day.  Originally named, Decoration Day, it was created after the Civil War to honor those who had died in our military service. Today, in cemeteries across the United States, veterans’ and other organizations place small U.S. flags at the graves of those who served in our armed forces.  My Dad, along with those of so many others, is among them.

My mother's family gathers at the cemetery to honor her grandparents.
My mother’s family gathers at the cemetery to honor her grandparents.

Americans also use this day to decorate the graves of their loved ones and to gather together in cemeteries large and small, to honor those generations who have gone before them.  The U.S. doesn’t have, as do many other countries in the world, a day specifically designated as ‘ancestors’ day. Probably one reason for that is because so many Americans don’t even know their ancestral heritage. I am fortunate in that I have the history of my mother’s paternal family dating back to the 1500s. And I know my family in Sweden, from where both my great-grandmother and great-grandfather emigrated during the late 1860s. I have been to visit my family there several times and one year, took with me, my aunt, who, was the second oldest in my mother’s family and who had fond memories of her Swedish-born grandmother and grandfather.

My aunt and Swedish cousins read the entries in the history book kept by the owner of her grandfather's farm in Sweden.
My aunt and Swedish cousins read the entries in the history book kept by the owner of her grandfather’s farm in Sweden.

During that trip, now many years ago, we first met my Swedish cousins and went to the home places of both her grandparents. What a thrill for both of us. Shivers shot down my back when I first heard my cousin’s father voice because his sounded so much like that of my own grandfather–who would have been his uncle–,who died when I was only three. We were both excited when the farmer who then occupied the farmhouse where my great grand father had grown up, invited us in and proudly showed us the book that had come with the farm, documenting its history and those who had once owned it. Later on that same trip, we found his name registered with many others who had left Sweden during that time, when we visited the Utvandrarnas hus, or the House of Emigrants in Vaxjo.

My aunt points to my great grandfather's name written in the registry at the House of Emigrants in Sweden.
My aunt points to my great grandfather’s name written in the registry at the House of Emigrants in Sweden.

Then upon walking around field where my great-grandmother’s had once stood, our family’s Swedish friend and host for much of our stay, motioned for us to “Kommer här.”  He was standing next to a thick green bush and when we joined him, he parted the center of the bush with his arms to reveal a small, tarnished bronze plaque attached to a metal pole. The inscription on the plaque took my breath away. It said, in translation, that “Here in this place once lived 1858-1867 Carl Axel Carlsson and his wife who emigrated to North America”.

My aunt holds back the bush to reveal the plaque commemorating her family at the Swedish farmstead.
My aunt holds back the bush to reveal the plaque commemorating her family at the Swedish farmstead.

Carl Carlsson was my great-great grandfather. I still get chills even writing this as I did upon first seeing this. My aunt was nearly in tears. For her, this was a completion of a journey for my great-grandmother who was old enough to remember her Swedish childhood when she left with her family. At age 70, the same age as my aunt was then, great grandmother had written a letter to her family in the old country, expressing her desire to  see Sweden once more but knew that she never would as she was now too old to make the long trip. My aunt felt as is she had made the trip for her.

The family sings an old hymn that was favorite of their grandparents.
The family sings an old hymn that was favorite of their grandparents.

A few years later, my aunt decided to honor her grandparents by designing a new headstone for their graves engraved with the provincial flowers from their respective Swedish homes and an inscription that commemorated their immigration to America. All her brothers and sisters, and their spouses, gathered at the little creek-side cemetery in the Missouri countryside for a private installation ceremony that my aunt had planned. They placed flowers and an American flag on the headstone, they listened as my aunt recounted the story of our visit to the homes in Sweden and her vivid memories of her grandparents. Then they sang a hymn that had been a favorite of her grandparents:  Shall We Gather at the River. Tears welled in my eyes as they sang. Afterwards, I surprised my aunt by presenting to her an exact, framed replica of the plaque that we had discovered in Sweden and a photograph of the Carlsson family taken shortly after they had arrived in this country. It was now her turn to be in tears.

 Cheryl presents her aunt with a replica of the plaque they saw at the farmstead in Sweden.
Cheryl presents her aunt with a replica of the plaque they saw at the farmstead in Sweden.

Last Memorial Day, my brother and I drove the two hours to the same little Missouri cemetery. We placed flowers on the graves of our family members buried there, stopped by the spot where their two-story wood frame farmhouse once stood and remembered our family, my aunts and uncles, their parents and grandparents, just as they did on that day in the cemetery.  The framed plaque hung in the entryway of aunt’s home for years. When she died a few years ago, I was given the plaque. It is now displayed in my entry hall where it reminds me everyday of the trip we made together, the family we loved so much, and of a heritage of which I am proud.


The State of Union Station

Memorial Day for many American signals the start of summer season.  Communities all across the country celebrate with parades, picnics, parties and, in my hometown, with an event called Katy Days which recalls the town’s earlier days when the Missouri-Kansas-Texas railroad had its regional headquarters located there.

But originally, Memorial Day was established as a federal holiday just after the Civil War to commemorate those soldiers who had died in that war. At that time, it was known as Decoration Day and was a time when families decorated the graves of their loved ones. Today, Memorial Day, as it has become known, honors all those who have died in military service.  Many of those were perished during World War II, a time when trains, like the ‘Katy’ transported troops across the country to and from their homes and bases as they were heading off to War. Among those thousands of young Americans was my own father.

The postcard my father send from Union Station is pictured here.
The postcard my father send from Union Station is pictured here.

And some of them, like my Dad, took time to write to family members as they waited for their train.  “My Dear Brother & Sister, I am sorry I haven’t been able to write you before now,” he wrote on a postcard dated Jan. 2, 1942 and that I discovered recently among his things. “I am in K.C.”(Kansas City) “on my way to Ft. Leonardwood. I enlisted in the army last Tues. and am on my way to be a soldier…”

As he wrote these words, he was sitting in Kansas City’s  Union Station, that was, at the time, one of the busiest in the country. During World War II an estimated million travelers, many of them soldiers like my father, passed through the station.

The Grand Clock, which measures six feet across,  was a popular meeting spot for travelers and their families. Rows of  benches once filled this grand hall and were crowded with  those waiting to leave on one of the many trains that departed from Union Station.
The Grand Clock, which measures six feet across, was a popular meeting spot for travelers and their families. Rows of benches once filled this grand hall and were crowded with those waiting to leave on one of the many trains that departed from Union Station.

At that time, the station had 900 rooms in its 850,000 square feet. Built in the Beaux-Arts style, the station was the second largest in the country when it opened in 1914.  But after 1945, as train travel declined in the U.S., the station fell on hard times until eventually, it stood silent, empty and a sad shell of what it once was.

The landmark station was nearly demolished several times but in 1996, Kansas and Missouri joined together to undertake the renovation, funded by a ‘bi-state’ sales tax. In 1999, the station re-opened to the public and now houses a railway display, exhibition space for traveling shows from major museums and institutions, a planetarium, an interactive science center,a live and film theatre and restaurants as well as the Amtrak station.  Visitors, like myself, are drawn to see this historic place and its grand interior. This year, the station is celebrating its centennial.

Union Station's Grand Lobby still bustles with activity as it is a popular choice for weddings, business meetings or other special occasions, such as Easter brunch,  for which the tables shown here were being set.
Union Station’s Grand Lobby still bustles with activity as it is a popular choice for weddings, business meetings or other special occasions, such as Easter brunch, for which the tables shown here were being set.

I wandered through the Grand Hall, strolled beneath the giant clock–a meeting place for many families–and walked down the long hall where the heavy sliding metal doors on either side once led to 28 different tracks.

My father passed through one of these gates as young man, on his way to become a soldier.
My father passed through one of these gates as young man, on his way to become a soldier.

I remembered when, as a child of seven, I, my aunt and my younger brother,excitedly boarded one of those trains for a trip to Oregon. I could almost hear the voices of all those many travelers, who, like myself and my own father, had taken a train from Union Station.

And so, if as you celebrate Memorial Day you  hear the distant sound of a train whistle, stop for a minute and remember the days when trains carried Americans all over this country, and especially all those thousands of soldiers, many of whom never made the return trip home. It is for them for whom the whistle blows and the bugles sound on this American holiday.

Heavy ornate sliding metal gates lead from the track entrances in Kansas City's Union Station.
Heavy ornate sliding metal gates lead from the track entrances in Kansas City’s Union Station.

Ski to Sea

While everyone else heads out of town for the Memorial Day weekend, residents of Bellingham, where I live, are making last minute preparations for what is the biggest weekend of the year in town. Memorial Day in Bellingham means the annual ski to Sea Race.  The race began 100 years ago as a way to promote the area to outsiders.  Originally, individual racers competed in  the 116-mile race which was repeated for the three following years before it was suspended during World War I.

It didn’t resume until 1966 and when it did, it became a three-leg relay race. Today, the 85-mile race begins on the mountain and ends in the bay with seven legs and eight racers.  Thirty-two hundred racers on 400 teams compete in several different categories, from “competitive” teams that  include Olympic-class athletes to the “Veteran” teams whose collective ages must total 385 years.  The teams start off with the cross-country skier, followed by a downhill skier, a runner, a road biker, two canoers, a mountain biker and finishes with the sea kayaker.

   For four years, I was the kayaker for my team, the Angst Ridden Mamas.  My team surprised ourselves in our first foray into the race when we won third place in our category.  But this year, I’m not competing in the race; I’ll be marching in the “Grand Parade” that takes place the Saturday before the race on Sunday. But the parade is not the only event of the weekend besides the race.  There’s also an art show, a classic car show and a  used book sale at the library, not to mention the huge block party that takes place at the end of the race in the area of town known as Fairhaven.

In short, it’s a hometown celebration of enormous proportions that draws people from all over the region and racers from all over the country, even the world.  And this year, I’ll march in the Grand Parade with the synchronized umbrella drill team that is making its second appearance in the Ski to Sea parade.

   So while others are heading off for the Memorial Day weekend, I’ll be here along with thousands of others celebrants, enjoying yet another big Ski to Sea weekend.