Wild in the Streets — Washington DC 1968-1971

Washington DC

From 1968-1971, before I entered flying training, I was assigned to a staff position in a command post in Washington, D.C. This was a time of great upheaval in America.

In April 1968, two months after I arrived at Bolling Air Force Base, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed in Memphis, Tennessee. The city of Washington erupted: large sections of the city burned, businesses were looted, and for all practical purposes martial law was put in place. For the two months before Dr. King’s death I had taken public buses to go downtown or walked, the week of his murder I picked up my first car. As I drove on I-395, an elevated interstate near the U.S. Capitol building, I could see large plumes of smoke rising in the distance as the city burned. I was very glad I had a car as I no longer felt safe on a public bus.   For several weeks after it was not safe to go into many areas of Washington.  The city had become a war zone.

This was my introduction to a whole new world.

I had grown up in a very small town in upstate New York, about 600 people. The most exciting thing that happened was the annual snow fall season when we would get about 100 inches of snow and school would be closed. We had visited Washington in high school in 1962 on a senior class trip, but Washington in 1962 was a far different place than it was in 1968.

By 1968, unrest around the county had spread significantly as civil rights protests and anti-war sentiment grew. In the summer  of 1968, the chaos of the Democratic National convention was shown nightly on TV, which coupled with the daily reports of the war, put the nation’s capital on an alert status. I would spend a great deal of time in the command post during this period, basically as a duty officer in case any incidents occurred. It was in the command post that I watched the 1968 Olympics on TV and saw American athletes give the black-gloved salute to the world.

Forty five years ago, 500,000 protestors gathered on the National Mall. While, demonstrations and marches were common, the November 1969 march was the largest political protest in American history. The marchers gathered at the Washington Monument, and famous antiwar activists such as Peter, Paul, and Mary, Joan Baez, and others performed for the crowd. Jane Fonda, who later was not too popular with the armed forces, may have been there as well.

As usual I was in the command post waiting to refer problems to the appropriate base agencies should they arise. We had national guard units camped on the base in case they were needed to respond should the demonstrations get out of hand. From a perspective of 45 years later, it is hard to believe how bad things were.

For all those today who think the 1960s was all love, peace, Woodstock, and flower children, it was not. Viet Cong flags were carried by Americans, while many, many young Americans were dying in South East Asia.  Young men and women  in uniform were spit on. The American flag was burned. The country was nearly ripped apart. In the early 1970s things would go from bad to worse. All in all it was a sad, sad time.

And the war dragged on and on.

Family Ties

Plymouth

My great-grandmother Mary Dean Redfield Norvell came from an old New England family. Her family line could be traced back from the Redfields to the Grinnells to the Peabodys and then to John and Priscilla Mullins Alden. Having a foot in both the South and North has given me the opportunity to see how very different early relatives came to deal with the American experience. The southern folks who arrived at Jamestown found themselves in a far different setting and environment than the Alden and Mullins families at Plymouth in 1620.

Having Mayflower ancestors has often been a quandary to me, do I tell others about it or do I keep it a secret.  At least ten percent of living Americans have an ancestor that arrived on The Mayflower, that is about 32 million people in the U.S. today. Not an insignificant number. So I would suspect that many people know someone related to the Pilgrims, but don’t know their Pilgrim ancestry.  In recent years I have told folks about John and Priscilla Alden – we are who we are.

This was brought home to me when at looking at my wife’s family, another old New England line.   Through her mother’s family —  the Eno family–   we discovered that she is a descendant of William Brewster. Now there is something truly amazing to discover that our ancestors  (my 8th great grandparents and her 8th great grandfather) knew each other nearly 400 years ago. Additionally, since both of our families were from New England, we were also distant cousins. We are both related to the Judd family, another old New England family. That is another thing, if you are related to one old New England family you are probably related to several others.

Interest in the Pilgrims rises dramatically, particularly at the time of year. There are many, many misconceptions about them. For example they never called themselves Pilgrims, they referred to themselves as Saints.  They were separatists from the Church of England not Puritans. They first attempted to leave England on a ship called The Speedwell, but it was a leaky vessel and then they turned back and then booked The Mayflower for the voyage. And in the case of my own family line there was no romance between Miles Standish and Priscilla Mullins. In fact most people in the United States knew little about the Pilgrims, let alone Alden, Standish, and the fair Priscilla, until Longfellow wrote his famous poem.   "The Landing of the Pilgrims."(1877)...

Alden, Miles Standish, and Priscilla Mullins, thanks to Longfellow’s poem, “The Courtship of Miles Standish” share the most fame of the Pilgrim band. Longfellow based his poem on tales told to him by Peleg Wadsworth, another descendant of the Aldens, as was Longfellow, from Duxbury. This fictional tale of Standish’s wooing of Priscilla immediately became popular. Over 10,000 copies sold in London the first day alone.  Sort of the Brad, Jennifer, and Angelina tale of the 19th century.  Most people know the trio, but very little about the other Pilgrims.   Be that as it may, Alden married Priscilla Mullins about 1621.  And from my own standpoint I am glad he did.

Finally, don’t even get me started about Plymouth Rock!

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Famous John  Alden descendants

Pres. John Adams,  Pres. John Quincy Adams,  Actress Marilyn Monroe, Poet William Cullen Bryant, Dancer Martha Graham,  US Secretary of State  Robert Lansing,  Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow , Historian  Samuel Eliot Morison, Vice Pres.  James Danforth Quayle, Bishop Samuel Seabury, Jr.,  Senator Adlai Ewing Stevenson III,  Opera Star Frederica von Stade, and  Actor Orson Welles

 

Death of a Hero

World War II Memorial

My Uncle died at 91 recently, he was a veteran of  World War II and survived the Battle of the Bulge, that alone would make him a hero to me.  But  it was what followed  this battle that  showed the courage of these men and all they witnessed.

These are his words:

April 1945

Our 11th Armored Division was moving faster each day as we pushed through Austria. Enemy action was reduced to small pockets of resistance and sniper fire. We were moving through the beauty of the Austrian Alps. The roads were narrow and the countryside was covered by a thick forest which we knew was excellent cover for an attack on our forward units. Our 41st Cavalry which was the point of our advance was notified that there were two German Concentration Camps near them. It turned out that the German Army Guards wished to surrender themselves and th camps to the Americans. They wanted to avoid any contact with the Russians. The regular SS guards escaped into the country side as we got close. The two concentration camps turned out to be KZ Gusen and KZ Mauthausen. The two camps contained about 2500 prisoners held by the Nazi’s.

My unit bypassed Gusen and arrived at Mauthausen the day after it was turned over to the Third Army. The camp was located on a hill above a long beautiful valley. All around the camp was a high electric fence. In the camp and on the road were many people, men, women and some children waiting to be picked up and sent to hospitals for treatment. All were in very poor health and looked starved but so happy to be rescued. Inside we could see a headquarters building which was used to house the SS Guards and row upon row of one story wooden barracks which housed the inmates, Down below we saw a brick building with two high smoke stacks. Out side this building were piles of dead bodies, some still in their black stripped uniforms and some without any clothes at all. It was a sight of horror. Inside this building was the cremation furnaces and death room where prisoners were gassed.

Mauthausen was a death camp. The inmates were in waiting to die. Many from poor treatment and starvation and others to murdered by the guards or sent to the gas chamber and held for cremation. The ovens had been working 24 hours a day but could not keep up. There were piles of bodies piled along the road out side. This mess was cleaned up by rounding up civilians in the countryside and forcing them to dig a mass grave to bury the bodies as it was becoming a health problem. Action had to be immediately taken to restore order in the camps and to provide medical assistance to the starving inmates. Conditions were beyond belief and the people able to walk were walking skeletons in their striped uniforms. Every thing possible was done to bring medical relief to these poor people. 

When I attended his funeral,  they played Taps, folded the flag and presented it to his widow on behalf of  “a grateful nation.”

Truer words were never spoken.

 

 

 

Saluting our Veterans

Refueling over SEA

 

There is an old saying about combat: “If you’ve been there you understand, if you haven’t I can never tell you about it.”

One can look at the history of a battle, but never really know what the combatants felt. One can attempt to bring logic to something that is of itself not logical; to bring order to a construct of chaos ; to bring light to what is rightly called, “the Fog of War.” This is usually done after the fact. To the men in combat the events are not clear and what is happening defines them for the rest of their lives.

In combat there is only the moment to focus on– the past, the future have no sway. The World War I British poet Sigfried Sassoon has described it this way: “Soldiers are citizens of death’s gray land, Drawing no dividend from time’s to-morrows.”

My interest in combat goes back to a much earlier time when I learned that two of my uncles had fought in the Battle of the Bulge, one of the grimmest episodes of the Second World War. They never talked about it– men who have been in combat seldom do. Like the men of the Civil War, the veterans of WWII and Vietnam experienced events that they could never share with outsiders. It was often impossible for them to explain these events and sometimes to deal with them once they returned home.

Many of the veterans whom we honor came home but couldn’t readily escape their experiences. The past, not their tomorrows, held them in its sway. They could not look to the future for solace. We now call this post traumatic stress disorder (PSTD), in earlier times was referred to as shell shock.

While it would be easy to think that this applies to only those who picked up a gun or flew a combat mission, any person who joins the military places himself in harm’s way. If you are a truck driver, every time you take to the road in Iraq, you enter a combat zone where there may be improvised explosive devices. Rockets that are routinely launched at bases, put everyone from a cook in the mess hall to the chaplain in danger. Terrorists kidnap service members, and the results are the same as if they were on the front line. To wear an American uniform in many parts of the world, is akin to putting a bull’s eye on one’s back.

So it is more than appropriate that we honor our veterans this month. They are the few who have been there and served, so that the many would not have to.

Scary Movies

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery

 

It’s our custom at Halloween to watch old scary movies. Not the gory ones that masquerade as scary but the ones that play with your mind– the classics: Pyscho, Poltergeist, The Silence of the Lambs. Ones that have a bit of gore, but are not bloodbaths. Well you get the picture.

Going to a scary movie is truly a rite of passage. The first one I can really remember seeing is Snow White,  at the old State Theatre in Fulton, New York, when I was about 8. Today Disney has come to mean “wholesomeness, sweetness and light,” but there is a really dark side to those first Disney movies. Ask anyone who has had to answer the question of a small child: “What happened to Bambi’s mother?”

In Snow White the darkness is not hidden but out in plain sight:  the Wicked Queen asks for Snow White’s heart to be cut out and brought back in a be-jeweled box to prove the Huntsman has killed the young princess. All this of course went over my 8-year-old head. It was the transformation of the Wicked Queen into the Witch that really scared the crap out of me. Now that Witch is truly a frightening figure.  My mother found that out later that night when I had nightmares about the scary, old hag.  I think I was in high school before I could even look at a drawing of the Witch, and she still creeps me out.

My “cool” cousin Patty took me to my first adult scary movie.

It was The Creature from the Black Lagoon, shown in black and white and in the wonder of 3D. I was 10 and it was probably the first time I went to the movies without my parents. Patty was 15 and filled the role of an older sister in my life (I was the oldest in our family of three siblings) so I looked up to her and basically believed anything she told me. Small children do that, they invest a lot in those kid relatives who older and believe what they say. How Patty got my mother to agree to this is a mystery to me some 60 years later. In addition we went to an evening movie, usually my mother took me to the matinée. I suspect that Patty was with her friends also, but the details of the evening are basically gone. We sat in the State Theatre’s balcony, a real teenager hangout– I suspect that the most exciting activities in the balcony escaped me at the time.  We put on our 3D glasses and something truly magical happened: the images jumped off the screen. There above my head were fish swimming in a tropical lagoon and then there was the large gilled, and of course misunderstood, monster, who only wanted to be left alone.

As an adult I have seen many scary movies and tend as I said to avoid those with lots of gore, think Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  Thus, it may be surprising when I say that my favorite scary movie is Halloween, a John Carpenter film from the 1970s. It has a modicum of blood, a dash of violence, and a great atmosphere. It builds and adds to the suspense found in Pyscho by replacing Norman Bates’ mother with a truly frightening “bogeyman.” And like the truly real terrors of life, just when we think he is dead or gone, he pops up again and again. Leaving the unanswered question of whether he is really gone for good or biding his time.

Hmm I wonder where that Wicked Queen is hiding?

In Search of the Haunted Tombstone

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery

 

50 years ago this October several of my friends and I went in search of a haunted tombstone.

It was October 1964 and we were juniors at Hobart College in Geneva, N.Y. The idea to look for the stone came to us after a couple of hours at the Twin Oaks, a local college watering hole. At this point it is not clear how we knew about the stone. But one of our group knew it and this is the legend of the stone as he told it:

“A woman was dying, it was not clear from what, but as she lay on her death bed, she told her husband that if he remarried she would return to haunt him. Her face then appeared on her grave stone. The stone was replaced but each time the outline of the face returned.”

Googling this story now shows that it is a well-known legend in upstate New York. According to some accounts the face is warm to the touch. Others say that people will die if they throw a stone at the monument or have a year’s bad luck if they spit on it. All versions of the story make the point that the maker was large and black or dark stone with the white outline of a woman’s head on one side.

Then one of our small group of friends  suggested that we drive down to Penn Yan, the town of the cemetery about an hour away, to see the stone.  Five of us piled into a small WV bug and set off to find the “haunted” stone. The fact that we had no idea of the name of the buried individual or the location of stone didn’t seem to sink in. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Well as I said, we been “socializing” for a couple of hours and all things seemed like a good idea at that point.

We got to the cemetery about 10:30 p.m., parked the car along the road, and set off on our quest to find the stone. The cemetery was very dark, I am not sure if we had a flashlight – the details of these events, for obvious reasons, are a bit fuzzy. Now if you have ever visited a strange cemetery in search of a grave, you know that it is difficult to find a stone even under the best conditions as the inscription is often obscured or worn with age, covered with moss or lichen, or broken and sometimes simply not visible.  Old cemeteries are a maze of stones, large and small, upright and broken off, and often on their sides and leaning.  Not an easy place to find a haunted stone even in the daytime.

Why we thought we would just waltz into the cemetery and find it remains one of the great mysteries of my time at Hobart 50 years ago. So after about trudging up and down the cemetery for about one hour with no “haunted” stone in sight, someone decided to go to the caretaker’s house and ask where the stone was located.

We were college students who routinely stayed up to about 1 a.m. every night, and it never dawned on us that someone would be in bed at midnight. The caretaker surprisingly was very helpful and gave us exact directions as to where to find the stone. Perhaps he was used to people coming to look for it, at the least it was a very different time than now and much more innocent in many ways.

Lo and behold the stone was exactly where the man said it was.

It was a large dark granite block with no visible markings except the supposed outline of the woman’s face on it. We all crowded around to look at it and touch the outline, which was supposed to be warmer than the rest of the stone. It was warmer, or so it seemed. Well, yes it was warmer after five people put their hands on it, but it didn’t look much like the head of a woman, only a white blob –so much for the haunted stone. Chalk one up to socializing….

Still I am told even today there are folks who venture into the cemetery in search of the stone with the outline of dead woman’s head on its surface.

Some things never change.
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A more detailed version of the legend of the stone can be found in “The Lady in Granite,” by Herbert A. Wisbey, Jr.

http://www.crookedlakereview.com/articles/67_100/79oct1994/79wisbey.html

The stone is also on Findagrave. Com
at http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=12653723

Hauntings

View of the Battlefield from Little Round Top

View of the Battlefield from Little Round Top

 

My focus on Gettysburg this fall has brought to mind, especially at this time of year, the many stories that say the battlefield is haunted.

Almost from the days after the battle, there have been reports of  the supernatural.  From phantom cries of wounded soldiers to ghost-like apparitions, the place has had an unearthly reputation.

For the men who fought there, the nights of the three-day battle must have been  like something out of hell,  with the cries of the dying and wounded echoing in their ears.  Nearly 5,000 horses and more than 50,000 men lay dead, dying, or wounded.

The Union dead soldiers were later removed to proper burial sites, some in their home states and many to the new national cemetery. But what of the Confederates? Many soldiers never received a proper burial. Their remains, buried in shallow graves, continued to appear for many years when heavy rains washed away the shallow soil over them.  Even now, in broad daylight, there is an eerie quality about the place.  One cannot help but see in the mind’s eye the warriors here  forever locked in combat on this hallowed ground.

This is not the first place that I have felt an unexplained presence.

While on R&R during the Vietnam War, my wife and I visited the Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor. Like Gettysburg there is something about the place that is hard to pin down. Whether it is the sense of the history of the place, or the knowledge that in the case of the Arizona Memorial, it contains the remains of those who gave their lives for freedom, the moment I stepped foot on it, I felt something.  It was and is something hard to put into words.

The December 7, 1941attack, explosion, and fire killed 1,177 sailors and marines instantly.  Only 334  of the 1500 man crew survived.  While some bodies were recovered, many located in the rear of the ship were left there due to their condition.  From the memorial’s deck  one can see, down into the water, the ghostly outline of the ship, still leaking oil after all these years.   Something tragic had happened there and  it still animates the place.

One other place with something akin to this  feeling is Lincoln’s tomb in Springfield, Illinois.

Lincoln, our first martyred president, is buried in an imposing tomb in Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield. That his presence would be strongly felt there so many years after his death is not surprising.  Lincoln is considered our greatest president and while living in Washington DC, I have seen visitors to his memorial brought to tears, so strong is his emotional link to the American people.

Before his death, he told many in his cabinet that he had a premonition of his death. When he was first buried, an attempt was made to steal the body.  It was subsequently hidden. When the tombwas rebuilt in 1901, due to water and other damage, the caskets of Mr. Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln were finally put to rest under concrete to prevent any future attempts.

Still there is something about the tomb, much like the feelings at Gettysburg, and the Arizona, that pervades it.

Some say that it is the great grief  for the tragic events that reverberates across the years.

And that perhaps is the best explanation of all.