Reunion

September 27, 2021

My cousin handed me a faint xerox copy of a forty-year-old handwritten letter. It was a copy of a copy, and that possibly also a copy. It was written by a long-deceased uncle to a long-deceased aunt. He wrote of his health and of a stay at a Veteran’s Hospital. He asked about the aunt’s daughters, one of whom is the cousin. He wrote the letter shortly before he passed away.

We were at our long-anticipated family reunion, when people pass around such things. Others brought similar items, letters, photos, greeting cards, diary entries, from departed parents, aunts, uncles, siblings. About 30 people showed up, cousins, their spouses, their kids, and a few grandkids, to a scenic woodland spot in the North Carolina mountains.

I guess most people have been to a family reunion. I can recall two others. I enjoyed myself at both, even when I had to introduce myself to people who didn’t recognize me, whom I didn’t recognize. But the theme—“in the end we’re all family”—tends to overcome the awkward moments, at least in America. In other places—parts of Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, family and family connections convey religious or near-religious standing and obligations.  Even in our secular world, strangers acknowledge relationships and warm to each other, maybe while holding a drink or at dinner, even knowing they may never see each other again. Sons and daughters and cousins and uncles and aunts may drift away, but families endure.

This reunion wasn’t my idea, and I didn’t step up to help with the planning. Others, mainly a cousin in Florida, did all the work, the rest of us fell in line with her decisions. I guessed she picked the site because it’s roughly the same driving distance for those living in New York and southern Florida. For us, in the northwest corner of South Carolina, it was an easy trip.

We arrived the day before the festivities and checked into a place a few miles from the reunion site. We headed over late the next day, Friday, after a hair-raising drive up and down a tangle of narrow mountain roads. Mountains are pretty much all there is in western North Carolina (last week’s post). The site was a kind of country log cabin resort, nestled in a valley between steep, forested hills. A fast-moving rock-strewn creek flowed through the valley. It was a pretty spot. The creek babbled, birds chirped.       

Nearly everyone invited showed up, for the same reason Sandy and I did, it’s been a while since we saw each other. Several I expected to see were not there. The eight first cousins who came, including me, are nearly all the remaining children of our parents within a complicated extended family. Our mothers were three sisters who spent the last years of their lives far from each other, in New Jersey, Virginia, and Florida. Yet they always were close.

More than twenty years ago my mom put on a family reunion. She rented a big house on Long Island and a Knights of Columbus hall for the gathering. The place was full of little kids, preteens, and teens, because that’s where we—Sandy and me, and the cousins—were in our lives. The aunts and uncles came, smiling and hugging. They finished the evening singing old Irish tunes. Then we went our separate ways, some of us for years. For most of the older folks it was the last reunion.

The North Carolina affair was a happy one. We kept our covid social distances. Everyone cooked something. It rained off and on, we sat under an awning of a meeting hall in that mountain forest looking at the mementoes, rehashing our lives and the lives of those no longer with us. We tried to recall the last time any of us got together. For some it was a wedding for a cousin’s daughter in Virginia Beach two years ago. But without saying much about it, we all know we’re past the family wedding phase.

Many of those present showed up for my mother’s funeral in Jersey. I drove to Virginia Beach for one aunt’s funeral, Long Island, N.Y., for the other.

I recall these things—who doesn’t? Two of the funerals were on warm sunny days, one in spring, the other in fall. My Aunt Peggy’s funeral a few years ago was on a bitter cold day following a massive snowstorm on Long Island. After the Mass we drove slowly past the house she had lived in years ago, and where her nine children, my cousins, grew up. At the cemetery, all of us, in our overcoats, plodded through the snow to the gravesite, bowing into an icy wind.

Funerals have been the trend. None of the others who passed were youthful, but some were within hailing distance of 45 or 50. The rest of us keep piling on the years and doctor’s visits. Life’s inevitable pattern had started: three years ago a death in North Carolina, a year later a memorial service for another cousin in Florida, two more on Long Island. We’ve all got our dark suits and dresses cleaned and pressed.

We were all on our best behavior, but we knew that tensions simmer here and there. People may be related, they recognize family ties, yet may become strangers to each other. Most of us incline, at least for a while, to our parents’ values and priorities. Experiences and relationships may lead in different paths. Some folks go through rough patches that affect them deeply. Disagreement—conflict—about big things and small things, maybe over years, can metastasize. The family reunion can put a point on hard feelings. People may show up, or not show up. Maybe some are not invited. We hope the visceral sense of family ties—love—will overcome.

The final evening wore on, the rain slacked off, the kids played in the creek, some of the adults had their tug-of-war on the wet grass, slipping and sliding. As expected, the team with the weightier members won every match. Somebody set off fireworks, the Roman candle type you hear on the Fourth of July. Then a group, mostly the women, gathered around the karaoke machine, locked arms, and sang “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,” “Danny Boy,” and the whole Irish end-of-the-party routine. The rest of us sprawled in deck chairs and smiled. Then slowly we all drifted off. Until next time. Maybe.         

The Dome in the Forest

September 20, 2021

Getting back to Great Smoky Mountain National Park always has mattered. A friend had taken me through the park many years ago; once you see it, the haunted beauty of the place never leaves. A cousin planned one of those long talked about, always postponed family reunions near Bryson City, N.C. We showed up. The Smokies, 522,000 acres, are next door. So for a half-day we made it back to the park, Sandy, the grandsons, and me. Once there, we got to Clingman’s Dome.

Bryson City is one of those places that, like many others called “city,” is a small town. It’s tucked into the rugged deep-green northwest corner of the state next to GSMNP. Sixty miles or more away from Bryson City, in any direction, the mountains rise into clouds. You can’t say “maybe next time.” You have to go.

The Smokies aren’t the Rockies, they don’t show the sharp, soaring, snow-capped peaks that make great postcards and calendar photos. But these ancient eastern mountains bring the crowd.  The National Park Service reports that in 2020 12.1 million people visited Great Smoky Mountain National Park. The second-most popular park, Yellowstone, had 3.8 million visitors. It’s true that GSMNP is an easier drive for more Americans than Yellowstone or Zion (3.6 million) or the Grand Canyon (2.9 million).

The Smokies cast a magic, elusive spell. It could be a sense of the connection of these mountains and forests with the country’s history, as the pathway over 200 years for settlers across the Appalachians and dangerous, bloody Cherokee country, to Tennessee and beyond. There’s that, but also something about the hold of the deep wilderness, in its rough delicate beauty, on our humanity.  In its way it is a fearsome place. The wide Smokies forest, dense enough in stretches to darken the earth below the canopy, is crisscrossed by rough pathways blocked by sharp rock formations and near-impassable blowdowns.

We drove the 20 miles from Cherokee, the honky-tonk place just outside the park, to the Newfound Gap turnoff to the seven-mile-long Clingman Road. The two-lane road winds sharply higher into mist. The shrouded green intensity unfolds at every turn and every break in the forest, the mist envelopes the car. I poked along, gripping the wheel, Sandy stared directly ahead. The boys enjoyed it.

The road ends at a small parking space. You can get a share of the view without actually making the steep half-mile climb to the summit, at 6,643 feet third-highest in the East; Mount Mitchell and Mount Craig, near Asheville, are a few feet higher. I read that Thomas Lanier Clingman was a Confederate general who explored these parts in the 1850s. The Cherokees called the place Kuwahi, “mulberry place.” The information stands provide some history in English andTsalagi, the inscrutable Cherokee language.

We looked at the path into the clouds and started hiking, a few fast steps, then slower, then slower still. Around the first turn was another, then another. We paused, gasping, but the boys marched forward. Successful climbers, smiling but exhausted, strode rapidly down past us. “Almost there,” somebody yelled. “You’re close to halfway,” another called. I looked left at the edge, thick with firs that concealed a nearly sheer precipice into the abyss. No railing, no warning signs. Stay right, where a few narrow paths opened into impenetrable forest. We pushed on.

The path turned gradually to the right and seemed to level off, then rose further and turned again into forest on both sides. To the left we saw the gash in the wooded wall, an opening to the Appalachian Trail, which nearly bisects the mountain.

I detoured into a narrow rock-carpeted cavern in the forest and saw the white rectangular blazes on trees that show the way on the AT’s 2,140-mile length from Maine’s Baxter State Park to Georgia’s Springer Mountain 200 miles south. I could make out the descending route to the north, which seemed to drop almost vertically. The blazed path dropped just as steeply to the south, the hiker’s reward for making it this far.

The mature firs around me blocked nearly all daylight, I peered into the wafting mist. The trail and the huge rocks told stories. For a moment I took them in. Then I stepped back up to the established path. Sandy and the boys waited, wondering what happened.

We pressed on to the summit then up the catwalk that rises to the observation deck 45 feet above the treetops. We paused for a moment or two to take a photo. The summit was fully enshrouded, we saw nothing but the heights of the fir forest, fading into whiteness. Not a day for Clingman’s 100-mile vistas. Then the flight to earth.

Crossing the parking lot I overheard a couple of middle-aged-looking gents groaning. “I made it halfway,” one said. “I got three-quarters up,” said the other. I didn’t smile, it was a hard way. Still, I’m guessing that many, maybe most who attempt it make it to the top.

The climb gave us a bracing start to our weekend in Bryson City, a place that without the mountains would not be on our list of places to see. The Smokies visitors are everywhere, filling the tent, cabin, and RV campsites that once were rocky pastures. You can climb aboard the Smoky Mountain Express and sit for a scenic ride, no risk of breaking a sweat. Tube rental places along Deep Creek Road spoil the environs with flashy marquees advertising tame, tourist-type tube rides on the Tuckasegee River. You can get into the national park at the Deep Creek entrance at the far end of town, where the lot is filled with cars of visitors from many states getting their tubing adventure.

A few miles from the commercial shlock is the real Bryson City, the place where local year-rounders farm, run small businesses and souvenir shops, or drive to other towns to earn a living. They occupy the cramped hollows and short stretches of flatland where single-level clapboard houses and mobile homes are perched, the front porches piled high with toolboxes, auto parts, and other dreck. That’s the non-tourist city. Yet those folks each day get to raise their eyes to those majestic green peaks that hide behind that dancing Smokies mist. A complicated place, with a touch of heaven.             

9/12

September 11, 2021

We all have our “where were you” stories. We repeat them at this time every year. I planned to go to the Pentagon for an afternoon meeting on 9/11. When I saw the news about 9:30 AM I settled in front of the TV. Sandy called, the kids called, a niece called. Like millions, I watched the news nonstop for the next three days.

A week later, people with Pentagon building passes were permitted access. I went inside. The South Parking wing was sealed off with plastic sheeting, but the acrid smell of burnt sheet rock and metal singed the skin.

That same week the financial markets reopened in New York. I took an Amtrak to visit a friend at his Wall Street office. From northern New Jersey, miles from Manhattan, I could see from the train windows the thin dark column of smoke rising from the Twin Towers site. Downtown streets still were closed to traffic, but pedestrians could get through. Police officers were everywhere.

It had rained the night of 9/11, the millions of tons of concrete dust and pulverized glass and metal had congealed and coated the streets, sidewalks, buildings, and windows. From a distance of a few blocks I saw the ghastly tangle of girders pointing crookedly at the sky, construction equipment pushing and lifting chunks of concrete, the hard-hatted rescue personnel at work. As at the Pentagon, the smell of burnt building material was overwhelming.

Because the subway wasn’t operating I had to walk a couple of dozen blocks back to Penn Station. I passed Saint Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village (where I was born many years earlier), which was initially used as a triage center for victims. Hundreds of photos of missing persons had been taped to the sides of the building by people seeking news about missing relatives. They crowded forward to study the photos, some still were posting them. Some were in tears. I caught a late train back to Washington.

On September 14, President Bush had visited the Twin Towers site. Surrounded by cheering rescue workers, he yelled into a bullhorn, “I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked down these buildings will hear all of us soon.”

That was America’s September 2001, and the first day of a twenty-years-long search for vengeance. Within weeks CIA and Special Forces operatives deployed to Afghanistan to destroy al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Two weeks ago America departed. 

One evening last week the sunset in this corner of South Carolina cast a wide arc of pale orange, rimmed by black clouds.  Darkness is rushing in, soon bringing autumn chill. We walked around the block. We didn’t say much. I looked up, the dark sky summoned for me once again the 9/11 memories, now two decades past.

Tomorrow we start Year 21. Time after all is relentless. What will it mean? To the families of the victims very little, because for them time stands still. Their loved ones are lost now as they were lost on 9/12/01. Bodies were found in the debris of the Towers and the Pentagon in following days, but the reality of massive loss of life was recognized by the evening of 9/11. Two hundred sixty-five victims were aboard the four planes.

All of us, from those who were young, teenagers, even pre-teens at the time and everyone older, know what happened that day. Many don’t understand why. The 9-11 Commission Report, released in 2004, offered extensive analysis of the chronic social dislocations of the Middle East: poverty, violence, and religious extremism, which, it ventures to say, gave birth to hatred of the West, principally the United States, and the incubation of Muslim terror movements.

We understand now that in twenty years in Afghanistan the United States changed nothing. In the final week, in the chaos of Kabul, 13 servicemen and women and nearly 200 Afghanis were murdered by a suicide bomber. This is the world we live in today. 

But once again, time is relentless. Garrett Graff, who wrote The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11, points out that a generation of Americans now is growing up who don’t remember what America was like before 9/11. But then we saw the same distancing from history after the Cold War, after Vietnam, after the Sixties, after Korea. And so on. The generations that lived through those lacerating traumas carry them forward for the balance of their lives. Their children and grandchildren may listen respectfully. But whether they do or not, they move forward.

The children are looking at the world they will live in, the world that will be theirs to create, after the oldtimers are gone. And we oldsters know that’s how all of history unfolds. We recoil at the horror, the tragedy. Then we confront it. We build the proper memorials and honor the victims—we honor them always, privately in our prayers, and publicly in their time. For the victims of the Towers, the Pentagon, the four aircraft, that is September 11.

The three major memorial sites have been completed. The memorial in the field in Stonycreek Township in western Pennsylvania honors the victims, some call them the warriors, of United Flight 93, which had been turned from its course to San Francisco to hit either the White House or the Capitol. The aircraft was crashed there by the hijacker-pilot as a group of passengers fought back and, according to the Commission, may have killed at least one of the four hijackers. After the crash Vice President Cheney is reported to have said one memorable thing: “I think an act of heroism took place on that plane.”

We can be sure of that. That heroism is to be honored once again on September 11, 2022. We can be sure also that 9/11/01 will lose its raw edge, which is as it should be. The children of the last two decades will move forward and, we hope, learn the right lessons: meet tragedy with dignity, not vengeance, prudence, not warmongering. The nightmare of 9/11, which became the nightmare of Afghanistan, still haunts us. Time to learn.

The Ring

September 6, 2021

We are shaped by our memories, we all know it. And the 50-mile-long Massanutten range, two north-south fingers of high rock about 75 miles due west of Washington, D.C., has been for years a haunting presence for us. It was Labor Day weekend so it was time for the Ring, the annual muscle-wrenching slog on the 71-mile Massanutten Trail over the rocks through a lush wonderland called Fort Valley. I still shiver when I think of those freezing February nights on the trail along the eastern Massanutten ridge. I thought of all the reasons for not driving the 470 miles to show up. Then we climbed in the van and headed north.

Typically the trip means a mountain route, I-85 to Charlotte then I-77 to I-81 up the spine of Virginia.  But I-26 through Asheville and Tennessee now is a better choice. Just north of Asheville the interstate passes Mount Mitchell, highest point in the East at 6,600 feet. The Blue Ridge begins to bend into the majestic eastern ridge of the Great Smokies before Erwin, Tenn. Breathtaking country. Some eight hours of interstate through rolling Virginia pastureland and the blue-green Shenandoahs brings you to Signal Knob.

The Massanutten ends abruptly midway between Strasburg and Front Royal. The northernmost point is Signal Knob, a sheer outcropping that towers above the junction of Warren and Shenandoah Counties. The Massanutten Trail winds from a campground called Elizabeth Furnace in long switchbacks four miles to the summit across ancient shale and granite. From there, the climber can look out 60 or so miles west and north over the rich textured green of rural Northern Virginia and West Virginia.

We arrived Thursday to visit Virginia friends Mike and Pat, who settled some years ago at their farmhouse along the Shenandoah River, just below Signal Knob. On Friday Sandy and Pat drove to Mount Jackson to visit an ailing friend. Mike and I got out early and headed for the mountains to hike the Buzzard Rocks trail, which winds up to a perch lined with jagged shards of granite above Fort Valley Road. The trail is marked by white blazes, which lead to places that summon recollections of days and nights in those woods, when the trees were bare and the wind howled. We pressed upward over the granite until we could see across Fort Valley to Signal Knob, in its silent solemnity.

In the morning Sandy and I were there for the start of the Ring. Before dawn the sky showed pale blue, the coming day promised to be mild and bright. The veteran race managers called to the 44 runners, waved “Go,” and pointed into the dark forest at the orange-blazed Massanutten Trail. The volunteers cheered, the runners were gone. Three hours and 25 miles farther down the course we were at the first aid station, called Camp Roosevelt, a once-busy place built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps to provide work for unemployed Valley men, now a quiet campground.

The first competitors flowed slowly in. They ate, drank, collected themselves, and headed toward aid station 2, nine miles further on. A half-dozen said no. They thought about those hours on the ridge and the hard miles ahead and stepped down from the trail.

Those who persevered moved toward places with obscure names: Crisman Hollow, Moreland Gap, Edinburg, Woodstock Tower, Powell’s Fort. The finish, back to Signal Knob, still is a long way off. The trail, pocked with knife-sharp rocks, pulled them in afternoon heat through a swampy stretch called Duncan Hollow toward another stiff climb and the course halfway point.

I peered into the green darkness. Nothing had changed in the five years since I finished the course, the first of three finishes. I looked at the ground, the hard granite surface seemed to look back at me as it seemed to those five years ago, then four, then three, when I finished twice more, both times covering the course when it’s run in reverse as the “Reverse Ring” held in February. The 2018 finish was a thirty-minute time improvement followed by three days in the hospital with a strange, scary condition called rhabdomyolysis that stresses the kidneys. Afterward we thought: not a happy tradeoff.

The sun gleamed through the trees as the runners at the back of the field trotted off from Camp Roo. We volunteers puttered a bit, studied the runners’ recorded times, and talked about last year’s race and next year’s, the events ahead for this eccentric subculture of athletes. For some of them, a race called Grindstone, set in central Virginia mountains, is penciled in for mid-September. Grindstone is a different beast, it starts at 6:00 PM.

We won’t be around for that. The Ring gives us our dose of mountain mystery along with the bracing air and pure, crystal-clear spring water. Old friends showed up, still in Virginia, still climbing those wild peaks, working on their trail-running boasting rights, their fitness; some working through a mission central to their lives.

These hard mountains, for those who return here, may provide a sort of spiritual anchor, they have a way of stirring the mind, heart, and soul. Maybe the silence has something to do with it—that and the immense, intimidating distances, the loneliness of deep forest tempered by awareness of the serene presence of the Lord. It’s the Ring. It’s 71 miles. It’s the Massanutten Mountains:  forest, rocks, thickets, streams, zigzaging, disappearing trails, and those empowering, panoramic vistas. Then memories come, and remain.

Anniversary

August 30, 2021

Lake Hartwell, which straddles the Georgia-South Carolina line, shimmered in the 90F Southern sun. I felt the perspiration flow as I fumbled with the spinning reel and rod Sandy had given me as a wedding present 43 years ago to the day, August 26. It was our anniversary. I was standing at the end of the fishing pier at Lake Hartwell State Park. She was back at our cabin, enjoying the air conditioning. I tried a few casts toward the Georgia side.

We thought we’d do something different for the big day. She had found the “camper’s cabin” on the state parks website. South Carolina state parks typically rent cabins for three nights to a week. Only at Lake Hartwell were the cabins available for two nights, all we wanted. The camper’s cabin is four walls, two windows, and a roof. It does have an air-conditioning unit, but no kitchen or bathroom—you use a community bathroom 100 yards up the road and cook on a charcoal grill or bring your own equipment. The only lighting is a bare bulb mounted in the ceiling. We didn’t think of bringing a lamp.

Whitewater Falls

We made the trip eventful: we drove the previous day to Whitewater Falls, the highest waterfall east of the Mississippi. Our daughter Marie drove up separately with the grandsons. The falls, off U.S. 130 just across the state line in North Carolina, truly are spectacular. From an observation platform they appear to cascade from a rocky ridge to a deep gorge, throwing off a graceful, ghostly spray. Marie is homeschooling the boys because the state has blocked school boards from protecting schoolkids by requiring masks. She had them bring their sketchbooks. They sat on the platform and sketched.

Our next stop on the tour, my idea, was the Walhalla Fish Hatchery. Sandy went along without much enthusiasm, Marie declined. We drove south from the falls on 130 then headed west for a few miles to U.S. 107 for a while to rutted, pitted Fish Hatchery Road, which winds down a mountainside through thick forest. The hatchery sits along the rushing whitewater Chattooga River, which forms the border between South Carolina and Georgia.

We parked in an empty lot and followed a winding path to the hatchery gate. There it was, twelve concrete “raceways” in which swam hundreds of thousands of brook and rainbow trout, separated by size. We walked the full football-field length of the raceways, inspecting the trout as they darted through the narrow troughs.

The place was silent. A sign told us that the hatchery was staffed by a fisheries biologist, three technicians, and a part-time assistant. But we saw no one, we were alone. Employee lunchhour? A billboard described the hatchery’s work. The trout are separated by sex until they’re bred. The fingerlings are cultivated to nine to 12 inches. Some 500,000 fish are released in the state’s rivers and lakes each year.

Sandy showed polite interest as I stared down at the hordes of swimming fish, but I sensed this was not a pre-anniversary outing she would have chosen. Soon she stopped trying to hide her impatience. I got the hint. After I took a quick stroll to look at the rushing Chattooga, we headed back up the twisting mountain road.

Why in heck did I want to visit the hatchery? I had not caught a trout in a local stream since I was a teenager. Eleven years ago I took my son fishing in Canada’s Northwest Territory. We hauled in fifteen-pound lake trout and northern pike. That was then, this is now. But the fish hatchery is here, one of those places you—scratch that—I need to see. Probably only once.

The cabin was reasonably comfortable. On anniversary morning we hiked the park’s sole nature trail, one uphill mile, rocky and rooted, leaving us perspiring and panting. We needed insect repellent. We got in the van and headed out of the park then south on I-85 looking for a grocery store. Immediately we were in Georgia. The first exit took us out to the boondocks. We drove around aimlessly. I thought: this is how we’re spending our anniversary? The second exit was Livonia. We found a restaurant for an anniversary lunch, then headed into tiny, sunbaked Livonia and found a store. It then was in the 90s. We fled back to the park.

I moved to the other side of the pier, drew the rod back behind my head and cast again, maybe thirty feet. The lure plunked on the surface, I let out some slack, then reeled. The lure bounced along easily, no fish interest. The late August sun beat down on the lake, the heat radiated up from the surface.

I looked across the water to the distant Georgia shore, a dark silhouette in the afternoon glare. I could make out a couple of speedboats, just dots, moving along the shoreline. I looked down at the water, and back at the catwalk up through the woods. I felt no hint of a breeze, not a leaf swayed in the treetops. How hot was it?

I guessed it didn’t matter. We had chosen to be here for this quiet milestone. The heat had been the same on the wedding day, when the Tennessee sunlight collided with suffocating humidity, me in my suit, Sandy in her wedding dress, the guests all nicely fitted out, gasping as they stood waiting on the steps of St. Mary’s Church in downtown Nashville

I recalled the two of us talking, a night or two ago, about those who are no longer with us, parents, brothers, cousins, my former boss. The two priests who officiated are both long gone. And here we are in the northwest corner of South Carolina four decades and three years later, with four kids, some medical close calls, and many lessons about life behind us.

I smiled as I thought of the fish hatchery visit. Who does that on an anniversary trip? I paused with the rod. The line hung limply into the pale green water, undisturbed. I reeled in, wiped my forehead, removed the lure from the line, closed the tackle box, and drove back to the cabin. In the morning we headed for home and, we always like to believe, on to the next anniversary.

Dunkirk 2021

August 27, 2021

The Taliban have ridden into town with terrorists, who Thursday killed 10 Marines, two soldiers,  a Navy corpsman, and dozens of Afghans. We’re blasting the country’s foreign policy leadership of the past 20 years. Biden, Obama, and Bush have been condemned as dupes of their generals and diplomats.

In 1975 the end in Saigon was the same as the end is now in Kabul: Americans and their local-national allies, thousands of them, fighting and dying to get out. The world was very different then, that war was very different.

The men who died Thursday and their brothers—Marines, soldiers, medics, civilians, came to Kabul to conduct an evacuation, but really they came for combat. No other word works. They are the newest heroes of Dunkirk. Who remembers?

From May 26 through June 4, 1940, when German divisions had trapped British and French troops against the English Channel near the port city of Dunkirk, the British Royal Navy and hundreds of private ships and boats evacuated roughly 215,000 British and 123,000 French troops in Operation Dynamo. Some 68,000 were rescued on May 31 alone, roughly 64,000 on June 1. About 75,000 French troops came out between June 2and June 4.

The dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London called the evacuation the “miracle at Dunkirk.” Books were written about it, movies were made, the last one in 2017.

The British people welcomed the troops home. Then they learned that some 68,000 British troops were killed, wounded, missing or captured in the six-week-long Battle of France. The British Expeditionary Force, or BEF, left behind 2,400 artillery pieces, 20,000 motorcycles, and 65,000 other vehicles in France, as well as hundreds of thousands of tons of stores, ammunition, and fuel. Six British destroyers and three French destroyers were sunk along with hundreds of small craft.

At that point Americans weren’t in the fight, but they heard—the world heard—about Dunkirk. But few knew that two British divisions returned to France to reconstitute the BEF, along with French troops who had been evacuated. Then the Brits’ high command bowed to the reality on the ground and withdrew the force by June 14, the same day the Germans entered Paris. The Germans took 35,000 French soldiers prisoner.

Ten days earlier, on June 4, Prime Minister Winston Churchill set the tone for England’s warfighting heart with his immortal “we shall fight on the beaches” speech to Parliament. The Royal Air Force then engaged the German Luftwaffe in an all-air battle that lasted from July to November, followed by the Blitz on England’s cities that killed more than 40,000 civilians through May 1941. Churchill had given the approaching fight for survival its name in his June 18 speech: “The Battle of France is over. I expect the Battle of Britain is about to begin.” He ended with “… if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘this was their finest hour.’”

The U.S. fought with its Western allies for the survival of democracy, of freedom, against forces of pure evil. For the war the West lined up with one outlier, the USSR, which months earlier had been in bed with the Nazis and when combat ended in August 1945 assumed Germany’s role in threatening the existence of the free world.

What’s different today? Nearly everything, starting with the world’s political alignments and the technology of war. More than that: the flawed judgment of U.S. political and military leaders over these last 20 years—the 9/11 anniversary is two weeks away—are the menu for nonstop agonizing. The menu is, more or less: the U.S. can’t impose democracy where it’s not wanted; we didn’t learn from the British or Soviet failures in Afghanistan; we should have killed bin Laden and got out; we should have known the Afghan army wouldn’t fight.

Instead, we now know it was an ugly, bloody, tragic failure from the start. The most experienced four-star Army and Marine Corps generals and their diplomatic colleagues kept sending those sunnyside-up briefings to the White House and Congress. In the end they were wrong, not just wrong, but monumentally wrong. Were they incompetent or just gullible, hearing from their subordinates what they wanted to hear? Who knows?

Who really understood the truth about Afghanistan? No one we knew, no one we trusted.

In France in spring 1940, the BEF and the French and Belgian armies were routed by the Germans. Like our generals in Afghanistan, the British commanders didn’t understand their enemy, who used tanks and bombers to outmaneuver them. The Brits could only throw their ships, trawlers, ferries, and small craft into rescuing every soldier they could squeeze aboard in two weeks, under constant air attack.

At home, the British cheered and supported their men as they came off the boats, not knowing what lay ahead. Those rescued soldiers weren’t safe for long, eventually they returned to combat, in North Africa, in Italy, again in France. Churchill knew, and he hammered home the truth: that the Germans were massing their bombers for a year-long assault on fortress England. The Brits stood up and supported their wartime leaders.

Right now the U.S.-led Kabul evacuation may get 150,000 out—a strong maybe—over three weeks, while facing suicide bombers and ragtag guerrilla-terror teams.  

Here in the U.S. we see some admirable folks welcoming the refugees, others turning their backs. The political recriminations will continue. The President will make a campaign promise, no more Afghanistan deployments. Maybe, maybe not. But Afghanistan will be remembered, in all its sadness.

Hot Week

August 23, 2021

I guess the air conditioning unit died weeks ago if not months ago. It died a lingering death. We knew it was not well. Eventually I called a contractor to look at it. He inspected the device in the backyard, called the condenser, and climbed into the attic over the bathroom to check whatever was up there. He climbed back down with an unhappy story.

Weeks ago we read about and watched the TV coverage of the nightmare “heat dome” over the Pacific Northwest, that moved to the Midwest. Innocent people lived through triple-digit temperatures, many if not most without air conditioning. Hundreds died.

As summer approached I heard the usual radio and TV ads by heating/air-conditioning companies of discounts on HVAC system inspections. Through many summers in Virginia we never had problems, usually Sandy kept the house too cold for me. So I ignored the commercials. In early June, when it got warm enough to need or want air-conditioning, we switched on the system and waited. A feeble flow of lukewarm air wafted from the vents. We set the thermostat at 73F, the temperature settled into the low 80s. The system cranked away, all day and all night. The temperature never broke 80. Well, I thought, we were new in this house. Maybe it was working out the kinks. We turned on the ceiling fans.

Sandy and I both grew up in homes without air conditioning. In southern Tennessee she and her family, and many if not most families in those parts endured the five-month-long Southern summer with fans and open windows. I recall lying awake sweating on summer nights in northern New Jersey. Over time more and more homeowners in our neighborhood put in window units and eventually central air. Yet millions of Americans have never had air conditioning. When did it become indispensable?

I read that smart people built primitive air conditioners over the past couple of hundred years. In 1901 Willis Carrier built the first modern air-conditioning unit. Later he formed the Carrier Air Conditioning Company of America. Someone found that in 2019 about 90 percent of new U.S. homes were built with air conditioning (more in the South than elsewhere).  A generation ago air conditioning contributed to the economic growth of the so-called Sunbelt. Earlier, Southern states were mainly sleepy agricultural places, producing cotton, tobacco, indigo, home-raised vegetables. Over time, they recognized they needed air conditioning to attract Northern industry.

Our son Michael and daughter-in-law Caroline visited last month. He said they keep their AC at 71, cooler at night. They arrived on a hot day. We all gathered for dinner, it was stifling. Michael got on a chair and held his hand in front of a ceiling vent. “It’s blowing warm air,” he said. “You need to get someone out here.” Okay, I said. We changed the filter. The ceiling fans blew the warm air around. The guest room never cooled off, Michael and Caroline finally opened the windows. When we rode downtown with them the next day they had the car air-conditioning on full blast.

It seemed to cool off for a few days. The house seemed comfortable. In my home maintenance dreamworld, in which things really aren’t so bad, I postpone calling service people. In early August the mercury inched up again, then shot into the mid-90s. The sun beat down, the flowers wilted. The neighborhood pool water warmed to bathtub temperature. I had seen Five Star Heating and Air Conditioning on a nearby street. I looked them up and dialed.

Jason, the technician, was at the house the next day. When he finished his inspection we sat in the living room perspiring. “I can’t in good conscience try to fix the system,” he said. “Your condenser isn’t compatible with the evaporator coil on the inside unit. They use different coolants. The one in the condenser is obsolete. Someone did a bad job here.”

I showed him a 2017 invoice for a “2,000-pound AC unit” from a sole proprietor we had found in a kitchen drawer when we moved in. Jason looked at it. “I never heard of this guy,” he said. “This was a ripoff.”

We pieced together the story. The previous homeowner, an elderly widow, had moved to a nursing home about four years ago. The house sat unoccupied through those years. A nephew took care of the yardwork and presumably other maintenance. When the AC failed he, or someone, hired the sole proprietor to make a minimal, low-cost fix. He installed a condenser not compatible with the rest of the system and added the wrong coolant. The system never worked.

“You need a whole new system, condenser, evaporator coil, coolant. The furnace is part of it. We can do that for you. Our ‘comfort adviser’ can discuss it with you if you’re interested.”

An hour later Devin, the “comfort adviser,” rang the doorbell. He was a foot taller than Jason but crawled into the attic to look at the unit. He echoed Jason’s verdict. “The system can’t be fixed,” he said. “We can do all the work next Friday. Two options, one is $9,600, the other is $8,500.” Sandy jumped in. “We’ll get the cheaper one. Is there a senior discount?” she asked. “I can take off five percent,” Devin said. We said OK. I handed him my credit card.

The days grew hotter through the week we waited for the Five Star crew. The temperature inside rose to 90F. Some days I took three showers. Kyle and Ed arrived at 8:00 AM Friday. They disconnected the old system, dragged it out and threw it in their truck, and hauled in the shiny new coils box and furnace. The equally shiny new condenser went around the back.

Through the day they worked in the backyard and the attic, hammering, soldering, running wiring, while guzzling ice water. I cringed to think of the sauna-like heat of the attic. Around 6:00 PM, while we waited, hoping nothing went wrong, they switched on the new system. We felt a thrill of rushing, chilling air. They climbed down from the attic, drenched and dripping. Kyle showed us how to use the newfangled digital thermostat with the glow-in-the-dark symbology. We shook hands, they ran for their air-conditioned truck.

The next day I dug out our homebuyer’s inspection report. “The HVAC system is aged and will need to be replaced within five years,” the inspector had written. “It should be checked by a certified contractor.” We didn’t quite get five years. We didn’t get five months. Well, that’s over, I told myself. I took a deep, cool breath.  

Child Abuse

August 19, 2021

School buses are back on the roads of neighborhoods all over America. Aboard are many of America’s roughly 35 million elementary schoolchildren under 12, who are not vaccinated against covid-19. They crowd together in school corridors, classrooms, and cafeterias. In eleven states and the District of Columbia they’re wearing masks because those states either require masks in schools or allow local school boards to require them, complying with guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Legislatures in seven states have prohibited mandates. Florida and South Carolina have threatened to withhold state funding from school boards that try to require masks. Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson signed a law banning schools from requiring masks. As covid ran rampant through the state he said he regretted signing it and asked the legislators to rescind the no-mandate law. They refused.

On August 3, Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, discussing the dangers of the covid delta variant, said, “It’s clear that this variant is capable of causing serious illness in children. Anyone that says you don’t have to worry about it if you are a young, healthy person, there are many counter examples.

“You do need to think about it and that’s the reason why the recommendations are, for kids under 12, that they avoid being in places where they might get infected, which means recommendations of mask-wearing in schools and at home.” He later clarified his comments, saying that it’s not necessary to wear masks at home.

Collins, M.D., Ph.D., has served as NIH director since 2009, the only Presidentially appointed director to serve in more than one administration. From 1993 to 2008 he was director of NIH’s National Genome Research Institute.

In South Carolina, Dr. Hunter Moore of the Children’s Medical Center of Greenville obtained signatures of more than 1,000 physicians on a petition urging Governor Henry McMaster to rescind the state ban on mask mandates in schools. Moore said that “the most recent data for South Carolina shows the rate of daily cases is over 2,000 over the past week. These are the highest numbers we have seen since February 2021, and it is not reaching a plateau but is increasing at an alarming rate.

“With school starting in South Carolina this week and next and the rate of spread of the delta variant among the unvaccinated population, we have every reason to expect the case rate to explode in the coming weeks.”

On August 17 the Florida State Board of Education announced that the Broward and Alachua school districts could face financial penalties for violating a state law that bans schools from mandating masks. The Board said it would investigate and the districts would be “possibly punished,” according to The Washington Post, for failing to comply with the law.

At an emergency board hearing, Nikki Fried, state Agriculture Commissioner and Democratic candidate for governor said, “shame on all of you. How embarrassing that you may be more afraid of the governor than you are [concerned about] the lives of our children and teachers who already are getting sick and dying in record numbers.”

Meanwhile, the Post reported that Hillsborough County Public Schools, which includes Tampa, said that 8,400 students and 307 staff members are in isolation because of a positive test or in quarantine.

I stopped at the YMCA in Taylors, S.C., and watched a crowd of young kids file out of their daycare. None wore masks. I asked the college girl in charge about masks. “No, they don’t wear them,” she said. “We follow Greenville County policy. But they’re an option.”

South Carolina’s McMaster, rejecting the physicians’ petition, offered that “parents should be the ones who decide whether their children should wear masks. Parents know their children. They know what’s good for them. Common sense is the best way to fight the virus, not shutdowns or mandates. National covid experts, he said, are “exaggerating and engaging in hyperbole and unnecessarily alarming people.”

He reiterated his position that “mandating masks is not the answer. Personal responsibility is the answer, common sense is the answer, and we have an abundance of both in South Carolina.”

McMasters’ idea is that “personal responsibility” is a higher priority than schoolchildren’s safety. The state’s covid statistics cited by Dr. Moore show the dark consequences of the no-mask posturing.

A few days ago Collins said, “I do believe that [vaccine] mandates make a difference. … How did we get here? We’re incredibly polarized about politics, we really don’t need to be polarized about a virus that’s killing people. We ought to be doing everything we can to save lives. And that means get the vaccine. And that means wear a mask when you’re indoors in a crowded space. And if you’re unvaccinated, wear it all the time. … This is not a political statement or an invasion of your liberties. … We know that kids under 12 are likely to get infected, and if we don’t have masks in schools, this virus will spread more widely.”

Coastline

August 16, 2021

Coastal North Carolina is a good hike from Greenville S.C., no matter how you plot it. Typically that’s I-26 to I-20 in South Carolina, then I-95, the east coast’s north-south thoroughfare, to “future” I-74, now U.S. 74 when you cross the state line, all the way to Wilmington. We have friends there we had not seen in five years.

The interstates, hard to tell apart anywhere, are especially monotonous along this stretch. The piedmont countryside levels off in a blur of lush green scrub growth on both sides through small towns until Florence. Squarely on the state line is South of the Border, the massive Mexican-themed amusement park/fast-food stop/fireworks market that, depending on your taste, may be only a massive eyesore. Why, you wonder, does it exist right here?

Wilmington was an important Confederate port, a point of export for Southern cotton and tobacco to Europe and import of weapons and soft and durable goods that supported the rebel armies in the field. The ship route up the Cape Fear River was guarded by Fort Fisher, the largest of a series of fortifications. After multiple attempts Union troops captured the fort in January 1865.

The Wilmington to Southport peninsula, created by the fast-flowing Cape Fear, has become a retirement destination for thousands of Yankees looking for a milder but not-quite tropical climate. The flat terrain and thousands of acres of pine forests and wetlands is a northern marker of the swampy Southeast coast down to Florida. The major artery, U.S. 17, once a lonely rural road, still cuts through swamps but now passes new gated golf communities, stripmalls, Walmarts, and shooting ranges.

The visit was a kind of mission, as they tend to be lately. We reunited with four friends, two couples who had relocated from Virginia fifteen or twenty years ago. The initial connection then was our children, the community swim club, daycare, and elementary and high school. The kids grew up and scattered to college, jobs, other states. We met over the years for weddings. They were near Wilmington, we were still stuck in Virginia, we traveled, gladly. Now the conversations are poignant updates: the new community, the kids, and that perennial favorite, the health and medical situation—the aches and pains report. I started the weekend Friday with another CT scan, my twelfth. But we all have something to contribute.

We dodged monsoon-like rain to visit Wrightsville Beach and looked out at the boiling gray surf. The beach area resembles shore areas everywhere: a boardwalk separating the sand from the casual restaurants and bars, the tattoo joints, the souvenir shops. We said hello to a staff person from the local chapter of Life Rolls On, a nationwide charity that uses surfing to inspire persons with disabilities. When the rain let up dozens of volunteers in colorful shirts carried their clients to the water on surfboards and helped them catch the fast-moving waves.

Southport, maybe 30 miles south of Wilmington, is an old port town at the mouth of the Cape Fear where the river meets the Intracoastal Waterway. Bay Street is lined by stately antebellum homes with a majestic view of the river and Battery and Bald Head Islands, which I guessed offer some protection from hurricanes. We walked along the rocky shore and looked out at the wide river. Powerboats and ferries plowed by through the calm waters. A giant oil tanker appeared at the mouth of the river and turned sharply north toward the Port of Wilmington. We checked the lively restaurant scene at the end of Brunswick Street. Afterward we walked on the beach. Volunteers had marked sea-turtle nests, doing what they can to protect turtle eggs and miniature turtles as they hatch. We watched the gentle surf roll in. The air was warm and soothing as the bright, fiery red sun set through a hazy sky.

Not far from downtown is St. James, once part of Southport, now incorporated, and like the rest of the peninsula home to a large contingent of Northerners who decided to pack up and move to a place near the water without tramping a thousand or more miles to Florida or the tourist-heavy beach towns of Myrtle Beach or Hilton Head, S.C. We admired the beautiful homes and careful planning. Settling in St. James, like anywhere on the Atlantic Coast means a commitment to seashore life. The beach and marina are there, along with the golf and tennis, which is everywhere in these places, for those who like those things.

Our friends who used to run on mountain trails in northern Virginia tells us you can’t find that. At St. James you can stroll, you can jog, you can go to the fitness centers and take yoga. You look around—you see houses, grass, trees, and dark ponds where alligators live.

We drove home, through what seemed like the daily hurricane-like cloudbursts. The rain came down sideways as we crawled back along U.S. 74, heading for the Upstate, with its gentle view of the southern fringe of the Blue Ridge. We talked, Sandy and I, for the hundredth time about why we landed there instead of on the seacoast. We like the crash of the surf, the warm breath of sea air, the thrill of the sunrise on the Eastern shore. But we’re nestled at the pointed end of pie-shaped South Carolina, near the mountains, the crashing waterfalls, the rocky trails, the quiet forests. We can drive to the beach.

Shadyside

August 9, 2021

My first couple of trips to Pittsburgh were in-and-outs. Twenty years ago I went with our son Michael on a college visit to Carnegie Mellon University during his senior year. It was January, mild at home in Virginia, we didn’t bring warm coats. In Pittsburgh we found a snowstorm and single-digit temperatures. He dropped CMU from his list.

Ten years later, in the dregs of December, I dropped off my daughter Laura, who moved there for a new job. We unloaded her gear in her rented place. I then scrambled back onto I-376 to the Pennsylvania Turnpike to escape an oncoming blizzard. The snow was piling up as I got out.

Eleven months later, in icy January, we went back for a weekend to see her, she showed us around. We visited the Strip District and waited in a long line at a famous deli to buy cheese. Crowds of local people lumbered around in their parkas. The scene recalled for me the flaring streets of James Joyce’s Dublin. We climbed Duquesne Heights for the spectacular, panoramic view of downtown, set off by the fast-flowing, slate-gray Ohio, Allegheny, and Monongahela rivers. That was when she told us she was taking a job in California. When we left for home the next morning the thermometer was at -10F.

Laura moved back to Pittsburgh a while ago. She’s helping to implement a program called MovePGH, run by the Pittsburgh Mobility Collective, a public-private collaboration, the first in the country to offer public transportation with a few keystrokes on a cellphone.

Last weekend we drove up. Coming from the south (see August 2 post), you follow I-79 to I-376 through old industrial districts. Suddenly the highway runs onto the Fort Pitt Bridge, one of the city’s famous yellow bridges, and the downtown skyline bursts into view.

We stayed near downtown on Forbes Avenue, the wide thoroughfare past the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon, but spent our time in Shadyside. It’s a place be in Pittsburgh for folks, young and old, who like a lively pace, a big-city restaurant and retail scene. Shadyside is one of the city’s many livable neighborhoods. Oakland is intensely urban, anchored by hospitals and universities. Squirrel Hill is residential and cosmopolitan, home to a large Jewish community, and once the home of Fred Rogers—it’s the real Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood.

The Strip, in an old factory district just north of downtown, is packed with bistro-type restaurants and ethnic food shops nearly always crowded with locals and tourists.

Shadyside, like other Pittsburgh neighborhoods, helps tell a story of Pittsburgh. The city was built by the coal, coke, and steel industries. Generations ago the night sky above the mills glowed red, the air was gray with soot that sickened people and shortened lives. Around the 1950s the heavy industry economy went into a long decline. The wage-earning factory and mill employees endured hardship. The city lost population.

U.S. Steel, Westinghouse, Alcoa, and PPG Industries, among dozens of other big-metals companies, all still have work in the region, but the big mills shut down. Over time the skies cleared. In recent decades healthcare institutions and technology businesses came to the city, attracted by the high-tech base at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon. Educated young people moved into the renovated old urban neighborhoods. Today, on Walnut Street in Shadyside, restaurant patrons relax at sidewalk tables. Up and down the street are William Sonoma, Gap, Apple, J. Crew, Banana Republic, others.

We went for a little jog Saturday morning. We passed the many facilities of the U-Pitt Medical Center or UPMC, which dominates the area. We walked early Sunday morning to St. Paul’s Cathedral on Fifth. The streets were quiet except for a few cyclists and runners. Hospital staff people, just off shifts, waited for buses. We passed the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum, the soaring 42-story Cathedral of Learning, the huge Parthenon-knockoff Carnegie Institute.

Driving up Forbes and Fifth toward Shadyside, we got a look at the massive old homes of Pittsburgh’s elite. The city claims Andrew Carnegie, who funded the technical college that became Carnegie Mellon, named also after Pittsburgh native philanthropist Andrew Mellon. Another Pittsburgh original, H.J. Heinz, founder of Heinz Company, removed additives from ketchup and lobbied for food purity. Everyone knows about Andy Warhol and Gene Kelly. Dr. Jonas Salk founded the Virus Research Laboratory at UPMC. Henry Mancini and Rachel Carson grew up near the city.

We walked Shadyside’s narrow one-way streets, passing the impressive brick and stone houses set off by neat arrangements of roses, impatiens, and hydrangeas that spring from the green spaces. On Walnut Street shops were in the middle of a big sidewalk sale, offering an eclectic mix: books, odd pieces of landscape art, flowery shirts and dresses, costume jewelry. Passersby browsed and bought. It was a glorious, springlike day. Locals crowded into the bars and pubs where they could choose from 100 or more draft beers.

It won’t always be like this, I thought. The Pirates will shut down their season, the Flyers and Steelers (all in black and gold) will bring out the crowds. The snowbirds will head for Florida. Winter will bring the snow and the frigid temperatures. The town will button up, people will pile on layers. We’ve been to Pittsburgh in January. The air is frigid but crisp and clear, the snow crunches under your feet. The Shadyside folks probably will enjoy it.

Seasons fly by, life changes. Many of the younger people here, working, making friends, starting their lives, will get married, move to the suburbs, have families. We did see a few oldsters. I wondered about them. Maybe they spent their twenties and thirties here, then left to raise their kids. And now here they are, back in Shadyside.